As if one destabilized country bordering Israel — Syria — wasn’t enough, another even more significant neighbor — Egypt — threatens to spiral into civil war.
That’s not hyperbole; it could happen.
Some of us may have felt relief, satisfaction even, when the Egyptian army deposed President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood last week. Morsi was no friend of Israel. He and his Brotherhood cohorts were guilty of fanning the flames of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment in their country.
But Monday’s mass shootings at a demonstration outside Republican Guard headquarters was a sobering experience. More than 50 people were killed, mostly Morsi’s supporters, and 435 were injured, according to some news reports.
That incident, which showed just how volatile the situation is, will only inflame the Brotherhood, which, until, last week, finally had the taste of the power it has sought for years. It will fight back.
Unlike the opposition in Syria at the outbreak of that country’s civil war, the Brotherhood is organized and well connected in the Middle East. It also is motivated by a religious philosophy, which can be deadly in that part of the world.
If civil war does break out in Egypt, it won’t be long before Israel feels the impact. The Sinai Peninsula, already a largely lawless region, could explode. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdes, an Islamic militant group, which operates in Sinai, claimed to have launched two rockets into Eilat on Thursday, July 4 — one day after the army ousted Morsi. Could more attacks be in the offing?
Then there’s the fear that the underground arms flow into Gaza could accelerate. If that happens, Israel, may feel compelled to deploy along the Strip’s border with Egypt. That could touch off a new round of fighting with Hamas.
We’re not saying these things will definitely happen — for now, the army is in control in Egypt — but if the situation deteriorates, then they’re possible. The Syrian civil war has already spilled over into Israel.
And that’s why a destabilized Egypt should be unacceptable to Israel — and to the United States.
The question is, what can be done?
From Israel’s standpoint, not much, which is probably why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, as of Monday, still had not made an official statement. While the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel remains in force, it’s a cold peace.
The United States is a different story. We don’t have many cards to play in an increasingly radicalized Egypt, but as far as we are able to influence events, we should.
But we can only do that if we remain engaged.
Federal law prevents the administration from giving support to leaders of a military coup, which would require it to cut off $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt. But that would also remove one of the few carrots the administration has to influence events.
We say that law is flawed and that the decision to cut foreign aid should be made on a case-by-case basis by the commander-in-chief.
Egyptian military leaders value that aid, which is probably one reason — there are many others — why the interim head of state has announced that new parliamentary elections will be held in six months.
Ironically, though, the Obama administration, which has carefully avoided using the word “coup,” could be compelled to punish the Egyptian military for removing a president who was openly hostile to Israel.
Is that really in our best interests?
Instability in Egypt serves no one — not the Egyptians, the Israelis or the Americans. No one. This chaotic situation needs to be controlled, and that means staying engaged.