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Resentment against US grows in Egypt's defence establishment as Rafah heats up

The Biden administration’s near unconditional support for Israel’s war on Gaza is stoking resentment towards the US among Egypt’s powerful defence establishment, complicating the administration’s bid to revive ties between Cairo and Israel to reach a Gaza ceasefire.

Egypt’s Supreme Military Council, the General Intelligence Service and other defence officials are angry that the US has sided with Israel over its invasion of Rafah and seizure of the Philadelphi Corridor, a former Egyptian official briefed by members of Egypt’s intelligence community, told Middle East Eye.

“Within the defence and intelligence establishment Camp David is dead,” the former official said, referring to the 1978 accords that laid the foundation for a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt a year later, underwritten by the US.

Riccardo Fabiani, at the International Crisis Group, described US-Egypt ties at the moment as “triangular”.

“The tensions between Egypt and Israel on the Gaza border are effectively fuelling tensions between the US and Egypt.” 

But with war raging at the border of Sinai, the Biden administration needs Egypt’s intelligence and defence officials who have decades of experience dealing with Hamas. The US wants to revive stalled talks on a hostage deal, reopen the Rafah border crossing and find and kill Hamas's Gaza chief, Yahya Sinwar, analysts and former US officials tell MEE.

The US announced on Friday that Israel has proposed a "comprehensive" ceasefire proposal, but the US will need both Qatar and, significantly, Egypt, to finalise it and bring Hamas on board.

The belief among influential camps in Egypt’s military establishment is that the US is no longer an honest broker. 

'Full-fledged cold peace'

The US wants to reopen the Rafah border crossing, which has been closed since Israel invaded the southern Gaza border town. A US National Security Council team is set to hold a trilateral meeting with Israeli and Egyptian officials in Cairo next week on the matter, Axios has reported.

“The tensions are high, but Egypt can definitely turn this into a full-fledged, even colder peace than it is now,” David Witty, a former US Army special forces colonel who served in Egypt, told MEE. “Israel needs Egypt’s cooperation”.

One Israeli accusation that particularly rattled Egypt’s defence establishment is that it has allowed Hamas to smuggle weapons and supplies through its Gaza border. This week Israel said it seized “tactical control” of the Philadelphi Corridor, a strategic strip of land between Gaza and Egypt, blaming Israel for not holding up its end of the job.

In a bid to smooth over tensions between the two, the US deployed technical teams to Egypt’s side of the border earlier this year to address the Israeli allegations, the former Egyptian official told MEE. Israel still seized the crossing and the US has effectively backed Israel’s decision.

White House spokesman John Kirby said in a press call this week that Israel’s movement into the corridor “did not come as a surprise to us, and was in keeping with what we understood their plan to be - to go after Hamas in a targeted, limited way”.

Since their 1979 peace treaty, Egypt and Israel have cooperated on defence and intelligence with US support, even as people-to-people ties remain cold. But Gaza puts those ties under strain and Cairo has publicly signalled its frustration.

Egypt said it intends to join South Africa’s genocide case against Israel at the International Criminal Court. Meanwhile, earlier this month, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi made a rare move to wade directly into the dispute when he called Israel's war aims “delusional”.

Some of Egypt’s key advocates in Washington are pro-Israel officials and lawmakers. They have helped ensure the flow of $1.3 bn in annual military aid to Egypt, despite tensions over Cairo’s human rights record. With Egypt publicly taking sideswipes against Israel, some of that support is eroding.

Senator James Risch, the top Republican official on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who has generally backed arms transfers to Egypt, told MEE that Cairo had to acknowledge its “historic shortcomings” in Gaza and “do more to stem the flow of weapons, particularly underground, into Rafah.”

“Egypt should carefully reconsider efforts to blunt Israel’s war against Hamas,” Risch said.

Relations between the US and Egypt have whipsawed for years.

Civilian F-16's

Since Egyptian army officer Gamal Abel Nasser’s coup against Egypt’s royal family, Egypt has been run in one way or another by the country’s opaque military establishment. The brief exception to the rule was after Hosni Mubarak, a former military officer, resigned during the Arab Spring. The Muslim Brotherhood-backed Mohammad Morsi was democratically elected president in 2012, until he was ousted in a military-backed coup.

Egypt’s defence and military establishment believed the US abandoned them to the whims of protestors. Criticism of Egypt’s human rights record among mainly democratic US lawmakers since Sisi came to power has also ruffled ties. Days before the Hamas-led 7 October attacks, Congress blocked $235mn in aid to Egypt over human rights concerns.

But there is another side to the ties. Witty, who is the author of The US-Egypt Military Relationship, told MEE that for decades Egyptian military officers have resented being treated as second-tier allies of the US, compared to Israel.

The US ensures Israel has a “Qualitative military edge” over its Arab neighbours, which has prevented Egypt from obtaining more sophisticated US weaponry. In 2015, the US also stopped providing Egypt with “cash flow financing”, which allowed Cairo to acquire future weapons systems on credit.

“The weapons the US sells to Egypt are always a downgraded version of what Israel gets. For example, if you look at Egypt’s F-16s, they are basically a civilian aircraft,” Witty said.

The US’s move not to push back on Israel’s seizure of Gaza’s border area, which Egyptian officials view as a violation of the 1979 peace treaty, that limits the number of troops and armaments the countries can deploy in the area, further erodes ties, analysts say.

“There is a lack of trust between Egypt and the US right now,” Mirette Mabrouk, founding director of the Egypt programme at The Middle East Institute, told MEE.

A former senior US official familiar with Egypt told MEE that sifting through the views of Egypt’s defence establishment is a difficult task. But he doesn't believe there is serious frustration with the US among President Sisi, or his closest advisors, including his son Mahmoud al-Sisi, and Abbas Kamel the Director of the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate

Despite Egypt’s tough rhetoric, Sisi himself has been accommodating to the US.

'Bailed out with billions'

In a call with Biden last week, Sisi refused to reopen Rafah but agreed to allow aid stuck in Sinai to transit to Israel where it could cross into Gaza through the Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom crossing. The move, analysts say, helped the Biden administration avert a full-fledged famine in Gaza and saved it from the difficult task of establishing new aid logistics hubs. Most aid entering Gaza arrives at Egypt’s al-Arish port. 

“By agreeing to allow aid stuck in Gaza into Israel, Sisi effectively undermined Egypt’s strategy of pressuring Israel and the US by keeping Rafah closed,” Fabiani said.

The Egyptian source, who spoke to MEE on condition of anonymity, told MEE, “There are people who want Sisi to take a more forceful approach”. For example, Sisi has had differences with Defence Minister Mohamed Ahmed Zaki, the source said.

But analysts say that the US has effectively backed Cairo enough that the complaints of rank-and-file defence officials with Israel have been ignored.

Egypt’s already weak economy has taken a hit from the war, with Suez Canal revenue plunging as a result of Houthi Red Sea attacks. Israel’s seizure of the Rafah crossing could also dent lucrative smuggling routes controlled by regime insiders.

In March, Egypt was awarded an $8bn loan from the IMF. The EU also announced an $8.1 bn funding package for Egypt designed to help it stem the flow of migrants to Europe and shore up its crippled economy. Even the UAE has stepped up with a $35bn investment in Egypt’s Mediterranean coast.

“Sisi is not in a weak position,” Mohannad Sabry, an Egyptian expert at King’s College London’s defence studies department and author of the book Sinai: Egypt's Linchpin,Gaza's Lifeline, Israel's Nightmare, says.

“He has been bailed out with billions. The reality is that the regime is in its most powerful position with the West in years.”

The concern for the US, the Egyptian source told MEE, will be if events spiral out of control at Egypt’s border with Gaza.

On Monday, two Egyptian soldiers died as a result of an exchange of fire with Israeli troops near the Rafah crossing. A live stream of one soldier's funeral showed mourners condemning “Zionist traitors”.

Israel’s movement into Rafah crystallises the wider challenge the US has been unable to solve 45 years after brokering the historic peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.

“If you put Egyptian and Israeli soldiers in front of each other, they will shoot at each other,” Sabry said.

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