In recent months, America’s attention in the Middle East has been focused on the continuing civil war in Syria and progress toward a rapprochement with Iran. Egypt and its evolving revolution have largely fallen by the wayside.
What has been neglected is the aspect of Egypt’s revolutionary dilemma that most directly affects the United States: the issue of maritime security. The Suez Canal’s significance to the global economy cannot be overlooked. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2012 the canal transited 7 percent of all oil moved by water and 13 percent of the world’s exported liquefied natural gas (LNG). Today newer models of container ships are too large to pass through the Panama Canal, making global commerce more reliant on Suez.
The power vacuum that has ensued in the wake of Egypt’s recent coup has caused the proliferation of extremism to the banks of the Suez and nearby cities. Anger and discontent with the lack of governance, poor economy, and high unemployment has metastasized into violence against the state and the canal. In July and August, extremists with Al Furqan Brigade fired upon vessels transiting the waterway with rocket-propelled grenades. Organized and unorganized terror has plagued the city of Ismailia and the periphery of the center section of the canal – including ambushes on security personnel, bombings of government buildings, and attacks on vehicles.
The most likely risk is not necessarily a vessel being sunk, but the erosion of confidence in Egypt’s ability to protect the canal. Sustained attacks on vessels and canal infrastructure could put upward pressure on insurance and transportation costs, as well as commodity prices for energy – which are largely based on speculation.
This raises question as to how the United States should react. In response to last summer’s coup, Washington stopped a joint exercise with the Egyptian military that could have bolstered maritime security capabilities, while allowing an engine modification for the Egypt’s F-16s. Washington undoubtedly has an obligation to coerce the Egyptian government in the wake of the coup. However, cutting joint training that could build a capability to protect U.S. interests in the canal, while sustaining an F-16 fleet of minimal strategic benefit to the United States, is not the way forward.
Washington should fine-tune its security assistance with Egypt, cutting assistance that serves as an unwarranted reward and which does not directly benefit the United States. However, Washington should engage security forces on key strategic matters such as maritime security to develop integrated reconnaissance and response forces that can protect the canal. The 125-year old Constantinople Convention, which sets protocol for canal use, must be revisited with a fresh strategy to tackle the canal’s new threats. Developing a sensor system – such as forward-looking infrared (FLIR) systems – on the desolate banks of the most vulnerable stretches of the canal could be beneficial.
While rocket propelled grenades may not be enough to sink a vessel, the introduction of more advanced weaponry like anti-tank or anti-aircraft missiles – or even crude sea mines – could breach hulls, causing fatal damage. Caution must be exercised in ensuring that missiles do not proliferate from Syria or Libya to groups like Al Furqan in Egypt, the way weapons from Libya armed insurgents in Mali. The United States has an obligation to prevent the transfer of such weapons to non-state actors.
Lastly, the United States must push the Egyptian government to develop rules of engagement for dealing with extremists and a counterterrorism policy that zeroes in on violent groups, while not turning a marginalized population against the state. Cairo’s preoccupation with the Muslim Brotherhood has already cost the regime the support of many Sunni Muslims, and has diverted attention from targeting dangerous terrorist groups like Al Furqan and Ansar Beit al Maqdis, which target the canal region. Without the stability of cities like Ismailia, Egypt will struggle to attract the foreign investment needed to develop the Canal Zone.
Wishfully thinking that a few poorly organized extremists could not possibly stop traffic in one of the world’s most important waterways is not enough to maintain the confidence in the canal that the global economy requires. Washington should work with Cairo to bolster this confidence before it is quickly lost.
Shelala is a researcher with the Arleigh Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.