After US Secretary of State John Kerry was filmed vacationing on his yacht at the peak of the Egyptian crisis, President Barack Obama released this statement early Sunday, July 7: “The US is not aligned with and is not supporting any particular Egyptian political party or group and condemns “ongoing violence across Egypt.” Obama made these points in a telephone conference with the National Security Council from Camp David.
To further rebut US media criticism, the administration reported that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had spoken three times with Egypt’s Defense Minister Abdel Fattah El-Sisi about the military coup which deposed Mohamed Morsi on July 3, to demand the expeditious reinstatement of civilian rule.
Nothing was said about the general’s response. The military has along denied staging a coup, insisting it only stepped in to avert civil bloodshed and a provisional government would prepare the country for early elections.
Both parties to this exchange were putting on an act. For President Obama, the Muslim Brothers’ ouster was and remains unacceptable. By denying support for any particular party or group, he was also saying he wants no truck with the generals who made it happen.
It was also evident that Gen. El-Sisi rejected Hagel’s demand.
Indeed, the army chief is determined not to let Washington interfere with his next moves, realizing that the Muslim Brotherhood’s president dismissal was but the first step in a process which must be followed up if it is not to implode in chaos.
At least another six months are needed for the rewriting of the constitution, installing a working interim administration and setting up elections for the presidency and parliament. In that time, Egypt will be on a knife’s edge. debkafile’s Middle East sources report the army chief plans two steps for cutting through the tension, in the knowledge that the first, at least, will be strongly censured by Washington:
1. The Muslim Brotherhood’s top leadership was more or less decapitated when the army seized power Wednesday, July 3. Next, the generals plan to send security forces to fan out across the country for mass arrests of thousands of local activists. They will be confined in detention centers already in preparation.
By this action, Gen. El-Sisi will be treading in the footsteps of Gemal Abdul Nasser in the fifties and Anwar Sadat in the seventies. Those rulers kept thousands of Muslim Brotherhood national and field operatives in prison and under tight control for years before gradually letting them out on condition they did not run for office.
The army chief, while bracing for Washington’s condemnation, is also assured of approval by the Gulf rulers led by the Saudi royal house.
Likewise, if the US cuts off or reduces military aid to Egypt, currently running at $1.3 billion a year, the Egyptian strongman has Gulf guarantees to make up the difference.
Cairo’s post-coup military rulers are therefore squaring up for a major collision with Washington, which would also encompass their backers, the conservative pro-West Arab governments of the Persian Gulf.
At the same time, say our Middle East sources, Gen. El-Sisis is looking to the long term. He believes that his alignment with the Gulf will eventually lead to back to an understanding with the United States, although he will have to ride out the initial rift with the Obama administration.
2. The second step he plans is a crackdown on the estimated 10,000 armed Salafists, some of them working for al Qaeda, who have made Sinai their stamping ground.
debkafile’s military sources recall that as a past military intelligence chief, later commander of Egyptian forces in Sinai, Gen. El-Sisi is thoroughly acquainted with the terrain and conditions of the peninsula.
Our intelligence sources disclose that the generals in Cairo now believe the Muslim Brotherhood regime deliberately turned a blind eye in the past year to the massive flow of weapons smuggled in from Libya into Sinai and onto the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. The Brotherhood, it appears, had been quietly accumulating an arsenal for the contingency of its downfall by setting up a clandestine armed "Center of Revolt" for resistance operations against any takeover of rule in Cairo.
This Center of Revolt has set up a coalition with the armed Islamist gangs terrorizing Sinai. This was confirmed in the last 24 hours by Salafist statements, such as: “Sinai is the center of revolt against the military coup which deposed Mohamed Morsi as president.”
The generals realize the urgency of cutting down this Islamist terrorist-backed revolt before it spreads out of control to Cairo and the Suez cities of Port Said, Suez and Ismailia – not to mention the threat of sabotage to the international cargo and oil shipping traffic passing through the Suez Canal.
Since Friday, the first attacks have been ongoing on Egyptian military targets in Sinai, leaving five officers and a Coptic priest dead. Early Sunday, Salafist Bedouin blew up the Sinai gas pipeline to Jordan. Sabotage of the pipeline stopped after Egypt discontinued supplies to Israel.
On this second step by the Egyptian military, the Obama administration faces a serious dilemma: On the one hand, the United States can hardly object to a major Egyptian military crackdown on Salafist terrorist groups which work hand in glove with al Qaeda and the Palestinian Hamas.
On the other, in order to succeed, the Egyptian army must destroy the weapons caches the Muslim Brotherhood hoarded in Sinai. This would further weaken the movement after its loss of rule in Cairo.
Another problem for the US president is that in Sinai, Egyptian and Israeli security interests undeniably converge.
Full-scale Egyptian military operations in Sinai are dependent on Israel’s consent under the demilitarization clauses of their 1979 peace treaty. They would also be welcomed by Jerusalem which kept anti-terrorist forces parked on the Egyptian border from the time that the Muslim Brotherhood came to power a year ago.
The crackdown on Islamist terrorists in Sinai will bring the collaboration between Egypt's military rulers and Israel out in the open and further complicate the Obama administration’s stance in relation to the new regime in Cairo.