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Better the Devil You Once Knew than the One You Now Do? Egyptian and Israeli Security Post-Arab Spring – Eben Coetzee

June 14, 2013


Better the Devil You Once Knew than the One You Now Do? Egyptian and Israeli Security Post-Arab Spring

By Eben Coetzee

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 1 (2013), Number 12 (June 2013)

i. Introduction  

In an obvious sense, efforts at democratisation in places previously thought immune to democracy have bolstered the optimism of liberal conceptions of international politics and, more generally, liberal thought. The Arab Spring, subsequently, was by and large greeted with a keen sense of optimism from western officials, with the unfolding events ostensibly providing confirmation of the allure of liberal democracy and, more optimistically, of the peace-inducing effects to follow in the wake of the democratisation of the Arab world.[1] Such analyses, if seen from an international-political perspective, thus establishes the expectation that changes in the political, social and economic systems of states will yield qualitatively different outcomes and that as democracy spreads and deepens we should expect more peace. Accordingly, in May 2011, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailed the democratic uprisings as an unique opportunity that will afford the United States of America (USA) the space to pursue ‘security, stability, peace and democracy’, while the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential platform stated that the uprisings ‘have unleashed democratic movements leading to the overthrow of dictators who have been menaces to global security for decades’ (emphasis added).[2] Not only do both statements attest to the prevalence of second-image analyses of international politics, but both seem to ignore a great deal of the history of modern Egypt-Israeli relations, in particular how strategic US and Israeli relationships with non-democratic states have underpinned regional security.

ii. The Arab Spring and Egypt: reflections on internal challenges

What can we say of the Arab Spring other than the results have been disappointing? On internal and external grounds, we can expect an increase in instability, insecurity and, yes, war to accrue from the rubble of the Arab Spring. From studies on democratisation and war we know that states in democratic transition are more war-prone than mature democracies or stable autocracies.[3] With this in mind, we cannot otherwise but note that the internal challenges engulfing states caught in the wave of the Arab Spring are numerous. Contra western expectations, the real victor emerging from the democratic uprisings across the Arab world have not been liberal democracy, but religious (i.e. Islamic) ideology.[4] Events in Egypt bear witness to this. In particular, intimations of a democratic uprising in Egypt did indeed excite popular sentiment, but this excitement mostly resulted from visions of an Egyptian regime firmly rooted in Islamic religious values.[5] This has led to the parliamentary victory of the Muslim Brotherhood and the victory of their presidential candidate, Mohammed Morsi, events that are more troubling than meets the eye. Although some western voices paint the Muslim Brotherhood in positive terms, the harsh reality is that both the Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi view the US and Israel as bitter enemies.[6] On several occasions, leading Muslim Brotherhood figures have forthrightly declared that any acceptance of the US and Israel by Arab and Muslim states is a betrayal of their people.[7] Both the Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi cannot be considered as moderate forces in Egyptian political life – and any notion that radical forces, when they do capture power, will inevitably succumb to moderation is undermined when considering the history of Middle East politics.[8] Thus torture, abductions and the absence of social justice persist – this whilst the country is caught in the grips of a devastating economic crisis. In the absence of foreign aid, Egypt will face serious economic hardship.[9] Moreover, what we have witnessed in the streets of Egypt and in the corridors of Egyptian political office merely forms part of a larger trend in the Arab world in the wake of the Arab Spring. Across the Arab world, the popular sentiment is ‘largely anti-Western and of course anti-Israel’.[10] Support for Islamist parties, and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, seems to be increasing across the Arab world.[11] The cruel irony is that we can expect that the further democratisation of the Arab world – if premised on the idea that government should reflect the will of the people – will engender governments that are more overtly anti-Western and, in particular, anti-Israel.[12]

iii. Towards regional peace?

Although these factors tell us some things, we should also consider how the events surrounding the Arab Spring have impacted, and will continue to impact, on international security, most particularly Middle Eastern security. Egypt is inevitably part of such considerations. It is wholly important to note in this regard that owing to the democratisation processes accruing from the Arab Spring the security architecture of the Middle East has fundamentally been undermined – and not for the better. The shift in Egyptian politics, and the more general rise of political Islam across the Eastern Mediterranean, has had the effect of undermining two vitally important sources of regional security: the strategic partnerships between, on the one hand, the US, Israel and Egypt and, on the other, the US, Israel and Turkey. Both relationships served the function of bringing stability and security to the region, with the foundations of both now crumbling. In respect of the latter relationship, the rise and entrenchment of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey has culminated in a Turkish-Israeli relationship marked by ‘accusations, threats, and animosity’.[13] Military cooperation between Turkey and Israel has broken down and at the diplomatic (and almost every other level) Turkey has sought to undermine Israel. This has taken the form of Turkish support for the Palestinian cause, receiving Hamas leaders, attempting to break down the Israeli embargo of Gaza and active support against United Nations Security Council Resolutions against Iran in 2010.[14] Israel is, furthermore, increasingly seen as an obstacle to Turkish ambitions in the Middle East.[15]

In respect of Israeli-Egyptian relations, one would do well to remember that, prior to the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, the two states had fought five wars.[16] The peace treaty produced two concomitant benefits: one, it led to preventing the Egyptians from waging a two-front war against Israel, thus allowing the Israelis to curb its defence spending; and two, it led to the demilitarisation of the Sinai Peninsula, thus removing the possibility of surprise attacks for both states.[17] Both of these benefits have now been removed. Notwithstanding the fact that the peace treaty continues to hold, the Muslim Brotherhood ‘refuses to maintain political relations with Israel’ and has on various occasions made clear their intention ‘to unilaterally amend, if not end, the 1979 peace treaty’.[18] The fact of the matter is that the radical (and anti-Israel) views held by the Egyptian regime, bolstered by their ideological affinity with Iran and Turkey, has created all sorts of insecurity within Israel. One must add to this predicament the notion – widely shared in the Middle East – that US influence in the region has significantly declined, thus further adding to Israeli perceptions of growing regional isolation.[19] Israeli perceptions of insecurity are justified. Within the highly destabilised Sinai Peninsula, we have already seen an increase in cross-border attacks emanating from Egyptian territory as well as, to some extent at least, the remilitarisation of the peninsula. In August 2012, President Morsi and his new Defence Minister, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, were preparing for a military operation within the highly destabilised Sinai region.[20] The failure of Egypt to establish its sovereignty over the peninsula, bordering as it does Israel and the Gaza strip, has had the further effect of enhancing the military capability and freedom of action of jihadi terrorist organisations.[21] The Sinai Peninsula has become a safe haven for terrorist organisations, from which two attacks (one targeting Israel and the other Egyptian soldiers) have been launched and 15 more targeting the gas pipeline to Israel and Jordan.[22]

The insecurity experienced by Israel thus emanates from at least three sources: one, the extremist political rhetoric of the Egyptian regime (in particular, Muslim Brotherhood calls for a jihad to recover Jerusalem and that, within 10 years, Israel will be destroyed) and its ideological affinity with Iran and Turkey[23]; two, the increasing recognition that a new regional balance of power in which weakened Arab states are increasingly drawn towards Iran and Turkey is being forged; and three, recognition of the declining US influence in the region and, perhaps more tellingly, that the current US administration is an unreliable ally[24]. A security vacuum has thus been created – or, more properly, been restored. From structural realist theory we know that the insecurity experienced by states generally leads to their arming themselves and as states do so, war becomes more likely. States who feel insecure would like to do something to lessen their insecurity. In this regard, we are already seeing calls for an increase in Israeli defence outlays, the deployment by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) of more seasoned troops to its borders with Egypt and Syria and the creation of a new regional brigade to deal with problems alongside the Egypt-Israel border.[25] The insecurity, it seems, is forcing Israel to think in terms of and plan for a worst-case scenario. For Israel, such a scenario constitutes a multiple-front and all-out regional war. The Israeli Head of the Home Front Command, Major-General Eyal Eisenberg, has voiced such concerns by warning that the Arab Spring has rendered the probability of an all-out regional war much higher.[26]

iv. Conclusion

The internal and external factors examined here, although in a cursory manner, lead us to believe that in terms of Middle Eastern security, and Egyptian-Israeli security in particular, the events surrounding the Arab Spring have increased the probability of an all-out conventional war. Though such a war has become far more likely, for now it remains a low probability. Societal divisions and rampant economic crises at home will lead states caught in the wave of the Arab Spring to remain inwardly focused.[27] This rings true for Egypt as well. The probability of all-out conventional war will accordingly be moderated through the crippling effect of domestic forces. We can expect however that as these states attend to their economic and political woes at home, and as they foster a greater sense of national purpose, the probability of all-out war will edge ever closer.  This process will be hastened if states such as Egypt more actively align itself with Iran and Turkey. Although the probability of all-out conventional war is still relatively low, the probability of increased terrorist activity and low-intensity conflicts are not. Especially in Egypt, the instability of the Sinai Peninsula will continue to provide fertile grounds for terrorist operations. It is for these reasons, I believe, that the pre-Arab Spring milieu might soon be missed.


[1] Jones, Seth (2013), ‘The Mirage of the Arab Spring’, Foreign Affairs, 92 (2), pp. 55-63, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 26 February 2013.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Mansfield, Edward D. and Snyder, Jack (1996), ‘Democratization and the Danger of War’, in: Michael Brown, Sean Lynn-Jones and Steven Miller (eds), Debating the Democratic Peace (Cambridge: The MIT Press).

[4] Friedman, George (2012a), ‘The Arab Uprising, One Year Later’, Stratfor. 26 January. Available at: (accessed: 25 April 2012).

[5] Friedman, George (2012b), ‘The Egyptian Election and the Arab Spring’, Stratfor. 29 May. Available at: (accessed: 30 May 2012).

[6] Inbar, Efraim (2012), ‘The 2011 Arab Uprisings and Israel’s National Security’, Mideast Security and Policy Studies No. 95. Available at: (accessed: 14 February 2013).

[7] Rubin, Barry (2011), ‘Reflections on the Revolution in Egypt’, GLORIA Center. 27 October. Available at: (accessed: 25 February 2013).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] See notes 2 and 7.

[11] See note 2.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Alterman, Jon B. and Malka, Haima (2012), ‘Shifting Eastern Mediterranean Geometry’, The Washington Quarterly, 35(3), pp. 111-125.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Trager, Eric (2013), ‘Obama’s Big Egypt Test: Sinai’, The Atlantic. 7 January. Available at: (accessed: 15 March 2013).

[19] See note 7.

[20] Elyan, Tamim (2012), ‘Egypt to send aircraft and tanks into Sinai: sources’, Reuters. 20 August. Available at: (accessed: 21 August 2012).

[21] See note 7.

[22] See note 19.

[23] Ibid.

[24] See note 7.

[25] Ibid.

[26] See notes 7 and 14.

[27] See note 7

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