From mid-week, Israel has been feeding intelligence to Egypt's Vice President Gen. Omar Suleiman, who officiated until last Friday Jan. 28, as Intelligence Minister, and was a close ally of the government in Jerusalem.
This service has been coordinated with the Obama administration, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources report. Telephone wires have been buzzing between Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak and US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and between Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen.
The situation is so fluid that it is hard to say where Egypt is heading next. But meanwhile, Washington has given Israel the nod to meet Suleiman's requests – although it is far from clear whether this assistance props up the Mubarak regime or promotes the vice president's prospects of succeeding him – with Washington's backing.
This would suggest that the Obama administration is wavering between two courses. On the one hand, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are publicly demanding the orderly transition of power in Cairo at once and reforms to meet the people's demands. On the other, Washington has approved military intelligence aid from Israel to Cairo, which could help President Hosni Mubarak and the army focus on putting down the popular upheaval convulsing Egypt.
Israel also looks to own security interests
The extent to which Israeli aid is helping Mubarak stay in power, and letting the army chiefs hold the balance between him and the masses, is hard to gauge in this constantly twisting and turning crisis. (See the lead article in this issue on the moving power struggles in Cairo.) According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources, the fact that Israel has not intervened directly in the conflict may have indirectly given both Mubarak and the military chiefs a leg up – even though their interests and objectives are widely divergent.
Up until now, ten days into the standoff between the street and the regime, Israeli security-intelligence assistance has been advanced in three stages, some of which additionally address the Jewish state's own security concerns:
1. Jan 25-26: On the first two days of the uprising, Israel responded to Gen. Suleiman's urgent request to lay on aerial intelligence from the main hubs of unrest in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, Ismailia and other Delta locales such as Damanhour, Tanta, Mansoura and Kafr el-Sheikh. He also asked for coverage of the protesters' movements to and from Cairo and between the various cities.
During those 48 hours, Egyptian liaison officers took up position at the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv, which suddenly become the most heavily guarded building in Israel, after they were flown in by special plane. They were fed a constant stream of updates from Israeli surveillance aircraft hovering over the riot-ridden areas of Egypt. Those aircraft had landed secretly at Egyptian air bases with their identifying marks blanked out.
As a quid pro quo, Israel asked for the Egyptian vice president's permission for surveillance flights over Sinai to monitor the spread of Egyptian unrest into the peninsula and up to its borders with Israel and the Gaza Strip. After consulting Mubarak, he agreed.
Securing Suez Canal passage at both ends
2. Jan. 26-27: On the third and fourth days, the protest gained momentum and street battles spread to the cities on the Suez Canal banks – especially Suez and Ismailia, where rioters not only took over a number of neighborhoods but in the case of Suez, the entire city.
The fall of this main canal port of 750,000 inhabitants to the protesters alarmed Washington and Jerusalem.
They feared the army, its hands full with sending reinforcements to deal with the disturbances in Cairo and still greater violence in Alexandria and the Delta cities, would be short of the strength needed to recover control of Suez.
Leaving this key port under the control of the rioters would send shipping and maritime insurance costs sky high and play havoc with the world economy.
Israel's navy stepped into the breach by deploying missile ships and special raider forces the length of the Suez Canal to safeguard passing ships – a step synchronized with the US Navy and Air Force. The Sixth Fleet deployed the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise and its Strike Force at the Mediterranean exit of the Suez Canal.
The Israeli Navy was also entrusted with halting the passage of weapons and fighters from Egypt to Sinai and vice-versa. Our military sources report Israel diverted one of its military spy satellites from other parts of the Middle East to the Suez Canal area.
Bottling Hamas up in Gaza away from aiding Muslim Brotherhood
3. Feb. 1: On the fifth day of the crisis, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak headed a special meeting of the Israeli security-political cabinet, with the participation of IDF and intelligence chiefs.
They met in the war room of the Southern Command, whose province includes the Gaza and Sinai fronts, after Israel had allowed Egyptian troops to enter Sinai for the first time since it was demilitarized under the 1979 peace treaty. Two battalions of Egyptian Special Forces numbering about 1,000 troops had taken up position in the divided town of Rafah on the Egyptian-Gaza border and further south, at Sharm El-Sheik, not far from the point where the Gulf of Aqaba, the Red Sea and the Suez Canal converge.
At the same time, Israel strengthened the units guarding the Israel-Egyptian border from the Mediterranean in the North to Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba in the south with tank and armored infantry brigades.
Egyptian-Israeli military and intelligence cooperation since the upheavals began in the Country of the Nile has two objectives: To draw a defensive line against Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda elements infiltrating Suez Canal cities while they are beleaguered by militant Egyptian protesters who occasionally seize control of city neighborhoods.
The other goal is to keep the armed men of the Hamas military wing, the Ezzedin al Qassam Brigades, from breaching the border from Gaza to Sinai, cutting west across the peninsula and, with the help of friendly smugglers, reaching the western bank of the Suez Canal and the Delta, to fight alongside the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.