Cooperation between Israel and Egypt has increased to a high level in recent years, evidenced by recent reports on military coordination in Sinai, but this somewhat secret alliance has not been easy for some Egyptian generals to reconcile, given their predilection for conditioning the Egyptian public to believe that Israel is Enemy No. 1 in order to gain legitimacy and maintain control.
Their uneasiness stems from the inability to define the relationship with Israel since the two nations signed a peace treaty in 1979. The military brass found themselves struggling to view Israel as a non-enemy state and amend their military doctrine accordingly.
As a result, three schools of thoughts have emerged within the military establishment over the past four decades.
The first views Israel as an eternal enemy. According to this view, Egypt must be in a perpetual state of hostility toward the Jewish state. Those who hold this belief refuse to upgrade relations beyond the framework of the peace treaty. Hence, they refuse any level of normalization except the mandated security coordination in Sinai. This aggressive perception is dominant among military officers who embrace Nasserist views from the 1960s.
The second school of thought does not view Israel as an enemy, per se, but a chronic national security threat on Egypt’s eastern border. For these people, Israel is not an enemy state but is not a friend. This level of wariness with the Jewish state stems from its comparative advantage with technological and scientific advances. Israel’s technological superiority has cemented its military superiority over the Arabs. Typically realists, Egyptian army officers who ascribe to this line of thought likely feel threatened by this military gap.
Moreover, Egyptian military leaders are uneasy with the special relationship between Israel and the United States. When the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat initiated diplomacy toward the American government, including the Camp David Accords, there was high hope among the military brass of developing a close relationship with the United States. Over time, this hope has faded, particularly because of Egypt’s inability to pay the price of a special relationship with the United States. Unlike other countries in the region such as Jordan, Gulf nations and Israel, Egypt was never comfortable with the American-led regional security architecture. Instead, it resorted to accepting conspiracy theories about the Jewish lobby in Washington.
The third school of thought advocates for treating Israel as any familiar European state. These individuals believe in developing a transactional and pragmatic relationship with Israel based on mutual interests. They tend not to see Israel through sensationalized stereotypes. So, if Egypt needs to have Israeli jets in Sinai to bomb ISIS targets, they support that.
This is compounded by the belief that the main enemy of Egypt is political Islam manifested in the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar and Turkey. This unfavorable view of Islamism was heightened by the events of the Arab Spring and the rise of the Society of Muslim Brothers to power, and Hamas support for ISIS in Sinai. Arguably, this is the school of thought from which Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi hails as a former military officer who rose to power following mass anti-government protests in 2013.
These schools of thought may seem different, but there are common threads among them — and those beliefs are hindering Egyptian-Israeli relations.
History and religion get mixed. Historically, Egypt fought four wars against Israel over 25 years, conflicts that remain deeply ingrained in the country’s collective memory. Moreover, religious discourse has coalesced a large segment of the public around anti-semitic views of Israelis. These views have spilled over into the military. As a consequence, the military leadership expresses negative views about Jews and Israelis.
There is lack of understanding regarding Israel. The Egyptian officers view Israelis as European immigrants because of their inherent belief that most inhabitants of the Jewish state are Jews who immigrated over time.
There is also the general belief that non-Arab and non-Muslim minorities — such as the Copts, an estimated 10 percent of Egypt’s population — should not have the right of self-determination. Allowing a minority group self-determination is a dangerous idea in the Middle East; to the Egyptian military leaders, for example, the Kurds and like-minded groups seeking a national state are perpetuating civil war. The Egyptian military officers likely are more comfortable with the idea of oppressing a minority in the name of stability and enforcing the regional security order.
The problem of terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula is not likely to fade soon. This will keep the door open for increased security and military cooperation between the Egyptian and Israeli armies. However, keeping this relationship secret is the wrong approach; shedding light on the military cooperation in Sinai would help to challenge the flawed views about Israel. Otherwise, fundamental misconceptions about the Jewish state among Egypt’s military ranks are likely to linger.
Haisam Hassanein is a Glazer fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he focuses on economic relations between Israel and Arab states. Follow him on Twitter @HaisamHassanei1.