Sisi, the New Pharaoh: Where Is He Headed?


This month marks 35 years since the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. The agreement has held, despite the fears that have accompanied it throughout the years of its existence. Indeed, it has experienced numerous crises, but has remained intact. Not only has it not brought about a breakthrough in the relations with the general Arab world, as had been hoped, but the Arab nations, aside from Sudan and Somalia, boycotted Egypt and it was even expelled from the Arab League, and its offices were moved from Cairo to Tunis. Even within the Egyptian official institutions, there were many who had reservations about the peace agreement. But most serious of all is that the peace never led to warm ties between the two nations. It remained limited to the ties between the governments. President Hosni Mubarak never tried to overcome the psychological, cultural and religious obstacles that prevented the establishment of significant ties between the two nations. A broader cooperation in economic and science matters could have brought about the creation of a stable, prosperous region that would have attracted investments and technology from the west, to the benefit of both countries. Its success would have perhaps led to changes among the rest of the Arab nations. According to recently published documents about the talks between the leaders of Israel and Egypt during the negotiations in 1977-1979,  it seems that that was Anwar Sadat’s vision. The Egyptian president wanted close ties with Israel in economics and science and said that “we have to find a way to prove that we are more than good friends. The two nations and religions have a lot in common.”

“But it didn’t happen,” says Tzvi Mazel, who was Israel’s ambassador to Egypt and is currently a senior researcher and the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and who is considered the biggest expert on Yerushalayim-Cairo ties. Mubarak, he stresses, had a different vision, and that was to leave the cold peace as it was and restore Egypt’s membership in the Arab League. Mubarak, who succeeded Sadat under tragic circumstances, sufficed with maintaining the status quo, in other words “managing the peace,” which for him meant advancing the relations with the United States on the one hand and limiting ties with Israel on the other — a situation that was defined at the time as a cold peace, and which has continued to this day.

Mubarak evaded commercial and industrial cooperation on significant scales, but allowed the execution of two large programs: building the refinery in Alexandria and supplying Israel with gas. These undoubtedly were important programs, the result of cooperation between Israeli and Egyptian companies, but they were disconnected from the day to day life of the Egyptian nation and didn’t contribute to normalization between the two countries. That’s also the reason that the two programs no longer exist. The Israeli-Egyptian oil refinery was sold to Kuwait, and the gas supply to Israel was discontinued after 14 attacks on the pipeline in Sinai and the helplessness of the higher military council that managed Egypt after Mubarak’s fall to resolve the issue.

Mubarak’s primary goal, Mazel says, was to return Egypt to the Arab League instead of realizing a vision that would have caused the Arab League to ask Egypt to come back. Indeed, in 1989, after Mubarak proved to the Arabs that peace with Israel was kept to the minimum necessary, the Arab League restored Egypt as a member and reopened its offices in Cairo. Although Mubarak could claim that Egypt “reclaimed its position in the Arab world” this status did not contribute anything towards its social or economic development, and that’s the primary reason why Mubarak was ousted after 30 years of stable, yet unproductive, reign.

In one area — agriculture — there was significant cooperation between the two countries, and the credit for that goes to one man with a vision: Yousef Wali. He was the Egyptian agriculture minister, a devout Muslim who believed in the closeness between the two religions. During the ‘80s and ‘90s, Israel provided Egypt with its advanced technology in irrigation, drip irrigation and growing fruits and vegetables in the desert. Toward that end, agricultural consultants were sent to Egypt, where they established a model farm, and thousands of Egyptians were dispatch to Kibbutz Bror Chayil to learn advanced agricultural technology. It was a resounding success that brought Egyptian to almost complete agricultural independence.

This important avenue of cooperation was carried out discreetly, against the backdrop of the cold peace and the objection of the opposition movements such as the Wafd party, the left wing party, the Islamic Establishment and the Muslim Brotherhood. They blamed Israel for “poisoning the ground of Egypt through drip irrigation,” and selling poisoned fertilizer to Egyptian farmers. After the revolution, Yousef Wali was accused of corruption and was sentenced to prison. As far as anyone knows now, he is still his punishment.”

The peace, Mazel emphasizes, also passed difficult external tests, such as Israel’s war in Lebanon, two intifadas and the conflicts with Hamas in Gaza. Egypt recalled its ambassador to Cairo three times as a display of protest, and the ties between the two countries ranged between cold and colder. Therefore, the fact that the peace has survived nevertheless — and this is the important thing — is an expression of the deep interest of Egypt to distance itself from the Palestinian conflict, which drew it into five wars with Israel.

All eyes are turned towards Al Abd Al Fatah Al Sisi, who recently resigned from his jobs as the Chief of Staff and the Defense Minister and declared his candidacy for president. His is very popular, after he heeded public sentiment and helped banish the Muslim Brotherhood from power after a year of continuous failures. Presidential elections will take place next month and it is widely assumed he will win.

At this point, Mazel says, the relations between Israel are not really on the agenda. There is no change in the cold peace — it remains as it was. With that, it is known that the two countries cooperate on the security front against Islamic terror in Sinai and the Hamas insidiousness in Gaza. They both coordinate intelligence information and Israel allowed Egypt to transfer military forces and equipment into Sinai to fight the terror war, despite the military appendix to the peace treaty that prohibits this.

With the assumption that Sisi will be elected president and Egypt will overcome the terror, as Mubarak did in the 1990s, the two countries will be faced with a number of dilemmas, such as under which terms, if at all, the military forces will remain in Sinai, in contravention to the peace agreement. Likewise, Egypt’s new president will have to decide what the framework of relations with Israel will be.

Will the cold peace continue, or will cooperation between the two countries increase, for the benefit of them both? Only time will tell, Mazel concludes.