Every week leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the international challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Sally Khalifa Isaacassistant professor of political science, Cairo University
The European Union has never been a guarantor of peace between Egypt and Israel, nor has it been an interlocutor to either party in maintaining this peace during the past three decades. Therefore, the point to start with is that the EU does not have enough leverage with either party in this matter.
What makes it even harder for the EU to assume a role in the protection of the Sinai now are domestic complications in Egypt. The ongoing confrontations between the Egyptian army and militant Jihadists demonstrate that Egypt is struggling to maintain control over the Sinai, which seems to be well-infiltrated by these Jihadist elements, who master its tough topography. This may lead the Muslim Brotherhood’s president, Mohammed Morsi, to negotiate an amendment of the treaty with Israel to allow for increased Egyptian military presence in the peninsula. In such a case the EU has little, if no, chance to sponsor negotiations. Only the United States has this ability.
As for the provision of military assistance, it is neither expected, nor feasible for Morsi, who is still striving to enhance his domestic legitimacy and to distance himself from the West and Israel, to welcome military aid from any foreign actors—let alone Western ones—to help him fight militant Islamists. It is essential here not to forget that the more conservative Islamist currents in Egypt are still challenging the Muslim Brotherhood’s policies, which seems to push the Brotherhood to stress their "authentic" adherence to Islam in their policies.
In any case, the EU does not even seem ready to provide such military assistance, or have the appetite to practically and militarily engage in the security of the region. In a similar case in Yemen last May, it was the United States, not the EU, who sent military aid to help the government fight al-Qaeda in the south of the country.
Almut Möllerhead of the Alfred von Oppenheim Center for European Policy Studies at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP)
Now that the new Egyptian leadership is starting to explore its foreign and security policy in the region’s hot spots, the EU should certainly widen its lens from the Egyptian domestic transition to the country’s renewed leadership aspirations. In this process, understanding the new Egypt will be a major challenge.
How the new Egyptian leadership will shape its relations with Israel—and, Israel with the new Egypt, for that matter—has already been widely discussed, or speculated about. In this context, the security situation on the Sinai Peninsula is an old, yet crucial question.
Who really knows what is going on in the lawlessness of the Sinai Peninsula, which was described as “at best, a semi-detached region” in an International Crisis Group special report in 2007. Who really understands this mix of Bedouin tribes, Egyptian Palestinians with strong identity ties to the occupied territories, criminals, and terrorists? Clearly, criminal and militant individuals and groups exploited Cairo’s state of confusion in the course of the post-January 2011 power transition. The Sinai was already a challenge in the Mubarak era. He used to come down hard, not always successfully, on any activity emanating from the Sinai threatening to challenge Cairo’s monopoly on the use of force.
So far Cairo is continuing with the Mubarak approach of coming down hard, as the death penalties imposed by an Egyptian court on 14 individuals this week for a deadly attack on a police station in North Sinai demonstrated. Clearly, both Egypt and Israel do not have an interest in any further escalation, and for both, the Sinai is a question of national security, and of peace. But will Egypt manage to keep things under control (the Sinai being yet another example of the importance of the military to the Islamist leadership)? And to what extent will, and, in his new domestic setting, can President Morsi cooperate with Israel and other external players on the Sinai issue?
The EU and its member states surely will be wary of the situation suddenly deteriorating. But what can they contribute in such a situation? In terms of hard security, its options will be limited for a number of reasons. At a macro level, helping to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians is the obvious answer, but far from reality at the moment. This lack of progress on the political front has also been the reason why European Union Border Assistance Mission at the Rafah crossing point has been suspended since 2007, despite having been accepted by all parties prior to that date. This does not mean the EU should give up on stepping up its efforts again for a negotiated solution. But more importantly, and more realistically, it should now engage with Cairo and Tel Aviv at the micro level of the Sinai question.
In one of their last editions before it was closed down because of donor fatigue and the political stalemate between Israel and the Palestinians, the online magazine Bitterlemons International addressed the Sinai question in March 2012. The issue is worth reading—and so are many of the contributions remaining accessible in Bitterlemons’ online archive—as it points to the Sinai question being a complex social, economic, and identity conundrum, and not merely one of security. Here is a field for more EU engagement with the new Egyptian leadership.
Gianni Riotta member of the Council on Foreign Relations
Hard call. European powers are not seen as credible in the Israel-Palestine conflict, as they have been ineffective on the diplomatic front and largely relegated to contributing to the Palestinians' welfare. European forces were effective in preventing a new war on the Litani River, after the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel War and European action was crucial in Libya's ousting of Colonel Gaddafi. Yet patrolling the Sinai is a military and diplomatic effort and the European Union is poorly equipped for this kind of mission. The Sinai is roamed by partly criminal, partly militant Bedouin gangs. Smugglers from Gaza, African refugees bound for Israel, al-Qaeda infiltrators, and enslavers looking for stranded immigrants. It is a wasteland where Egypt fails to promote security and Israel worries only about borders. A stable Egypt, a halt to Israeli settlement, a new dialogue between Hamas and Fatah are the key issues. Yet in order to engage Israel, the EU should be more serious and credible on the Iranian nuclear question. At the moment it isn’t.