By Barry Rubin
A 35-man seemingly bedouin terrorist team invaded an Egyptian army base in eastern Sinai, stole a truck and armored personnel carrier, and tried to crash the Israel border gate. They killed about 16 Egyptian soldiers but those who tried to cross the border — at least five — were quickly wiped out by Israeli forces.
You will be reading a lot of accounts of this event mostly saying the same things. But what’s really important?
- The incompetence of the Egyptian military. That a whole platoon size unit of terrorists — one of the largest such forces every assembled for such an attack — could plan, organize, and come together without warning for the Egyptian army speaks poorly for its intelligence capability. That they could break into a base doesn’t bode well for the Egyptian military’s competence. Presumably one reason why they wanted Egyptian vehicles — as happened with uniforms on a previous occasion — is to make Israeli soldiers hesitate to shoot or to end up getting Israelis to mistakenly kill Egyptians and set off a wider conflict.
- The attack was probably carried out by an al-Qaida type group allied with counterparts in the Gaza Strip. These organizations don’t care about the well-being of Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood. By hitting Israel they seek to promote their image to carry out their goals. Yet the more they make enemies of the Muslim Brotherhood branches the more incentive those forces have to suppress them.
- To what extent, however, do these groups have backing from Egyptian Salafist forces or the Palestinian equivalent, Islamic Jihad? Such an alliance could greatly raise the level of violence and internal conflict, especially within Egypt. Is there a chance for the Brotherhood and Salafists to work together or will they clash?
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- The Brotherhood immediately blamed Israel for engineering the attack. This means something quite different when the Brotherhood was just an opposition group in Egypt. It is now the government. Consider what this means: the organization governing Egypt has accused Israel of launching an attack on Egyptian soil and killing a lot of Egyptian soldiers. Isn’t that a just cause for war? That’s not going to happen but situations like this will arise repeatedly in future and one day can lead to war.
- The Brotherhood will not even condemn al-Qaida. For example, the new government could have taken a different approach: These extremists are enemies of the Egyptian people because they endanger the state’s stability and economic success. It won’t even do that. So no matter how many cross-border attacks are staged from Egypt and Israel, Egypt will just deny responsibility and blame Israel. What likelihood is there that they will try to vigorously block them?
- Israel has now gotten to the point where it can protect itself from cross-border attacks. We are dealing here with open country where it is hard to sneak up on the border and well-distributed Israeli defense forces that can get to any point on the frontier very quickly.
So in strategic terms, such attacks are not a huge threat but on geopolitical terms the danger is rising steadily.
The U.S. government response is to offer to help train and assist Egypt’s army and government. But the government is not part of the solution but rather part of the problem.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in
International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East
Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press.
Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition),
The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle
East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.