Articles by MEF Staff and Fellows
In Matters of Counterterror, Israel and Egypt are Peas in a Pod
In his press conference with President George W. Bush this week, Egyptian President Husni Mubarak stressed the need to "bring about an end to the cycle of violence and the other hostile actions and to ensure the early resumption of peace negotiations" in the Middle East.
In the same breath, however, he made sure to note that "the Israel government should understand that the use of military power and unilateral measures against the Palestinian population, the closure of roads, the siege of towns and villages, the demolition of houses, the collective punishment that make progress more difficult should stop."
The Egyptian president, in fact, often blames the ongoing Middle East conflict on Israel. "What is taking place in the Palestinian territories is disgraceful," Mubarak told a Chinese reporter recently. "Killing, destruction and operations of subversion will under no circumstances lead to a solution."
In reality, Mubarak, who has faced repeated security crises in recent decades, knows that Israel is doing what it deems necessary to fight terror. He knows because he is caught in the same conundrum.
South of Cairo, stretching from the pharaonic pyramids to the Aswan Dam, are a handful of towns along the Nile River collectively known as Upper Egypt. Among them are Beni Suif, Minya, Mallawi, Asyut, Sohag, Qena and Luxor. These towns are infamous hotbeds for militant Islam, where al-Jihad and al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya have attacked tourists, policemen, politicians and Egypt's minority Christians. These groups seek to establish a Muslim government in Egypt.
In the early 1990s, Mubarak opted to crack down on the movement with brutal force. Although his security forces still face occasional demonstrations, gunfights and riots staged by radical Muslims, Mubarak's methods have been largely effective.
Ironically, however, Mubarak continues to deride the Israelis for their crackdown on strikingly similar insurgent Palestinian groups. Indeed, strong parallels exist between Israel's policies in the territories and Egypt's handling of Upper Egypt. You could call Upper Egypt "Mubarak's West Bank and Gaza." Here's why:
• The Challenge of Terrorist Groups. Upper Egypt's groups are al-Jihad, al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya and others. Palestinian groups include Hamas, Islamic Jihad, al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and others. These groups are responsible for dozens of civilian deaths.
• High Casualties. Over the last 20 years, more than 2,500 people were killed in clashes with Egypt's Islamic militants, mostly in Upper Egypt. Similarly, more than 2,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli troops in occupied territories since 1987.
• State of Emergency. Much like Israel, which has occupied the West Bank and Gaza since 1967 under a state of emergency, Upper Egypt has been under Egyptian emergency law for nearly 20 years. Both countries claim this state of emergency is necessary in order to contain a dangerous opposition living in their midst.
• Mass Arrests. In both Upper Egypt and the Palestinian territories, suspected militants are rounded up in mass arrests. They are often tried before military judges so that intelligence information is not compromised.
• Assassination Policy. Both the Egyptian and Israeli authorities have a policy of assassinating Islamic militants. Egypt has resorted to this practice after particularly grisly terror attacks. Arrested militants accused of plotting to murder civilians or public figures are often executed, as well.
• Military Patrol. In both areas, daily life is hindered by the heavy presence of military personnel, including checkpoints along major thoroughfares, cement crow's nests and bunkers for military sharpshooters, as well as the unmistakable presence of plainclothes security agents patrolling for intelligence.
• Persecuted Christians. In Egypt, Coptic Christians (comprising about one tenth of Egypt's population) have complained of attacks at the hands of Islamists in the towns of Upper Egypt. In fact, nine Copts in Minya were attacked as recently as February simply because their new church bell was too loud. Meanwhile Palestinian Christians throughout the West Bank have suffered as popular Islamist groups impose Muslim codes on public life.
Clearly, many parallels exist between the Egyptian and Israeli paradigms. The primary difference is that Mubarak has effectively neutralized his Islamist problem by sheer force. Israel, by contrast, continues to attempt to work within in the construct of international law, with repeated critique from the US, EU and the Arab world.
Oddly enough, since September 11, nothing has changed. On November 18, Egypt launched a decisive crackdown on alleged bin Laden supporters by trying nearly 120 suspects. The rights of the suspects were utterly ignored. Still, Egypt was commended for its crackdown of terror.
Two weeks later, Israel responded forcefully to a spate of suicide bombings. The world asked that it show restraint.