Egypt Unraveling

by Joshua Spurlock
September 30, 2013

Quickly, name the current leader of Egypt. If you can't, it might be because this crisis-wracked country has had at least four since the end of 2009. This summer, millions protested for the removal of the country's first Islamist president, Mohammad Morsi, just one year after he was elected. Then other crowds protested calling for his return, leading to a violent confrontation with the army. The legendary Egyptians have gone from a dictator, to an interim military government, to an elected president, and back to the military again. That's four decades of history in most countries, all in four years. But the ongoing Egyptian political crisis isn't just a tragic news story or random political fact. It's a reality that is directly hurting Israel's security and your wallet. And it's doing even more damage than that.

You might recall that just six months ago the April Dispatch from Jerusalem featured Egypt on our cover page. We wrote in depth about the nasty Morsi regime and the growing power of the Muslim Brotherhood. But, just a few months later, Morsi and his brothers went from a position of ascending power to enemy of the state in mere days as the military took advantage of the political protests to crack down on the Brotherhood. Of course, that didn't sit well with the Brotherhood, and led to the counter-protests and violence you may have seen on the news in recent months. Hundreds have been killed. And in the meantime, when tensions first rose, so did oil prices.


The Vital Suez


The Egyptians control one of the most important waterways in the Middle East: the Suez Canal. Think of it like a drawbridge linking the seas undergirding the Middle East with the West. The only short, direct route from the coasts of Saudi Arabia or Kuwait-noteworthy oil producers-to Europe and North America is via the Suez. In other words, if Iran's ability to close the Straits of Hormuz is considered a major threat to seaborne oil trade, Egypt's control of the Suez Canal is very similar. While not as critical as the Straits of Hormuz, the Suez was still referred to as a "strategic" route for oil by the US Government's Energy Information Agency (EIA).

The EIA was quoted in 2012, a record year for the Suez when almost 3 million barrels per day of oil products, accounting for roughly 7% of worldwide oil trade, went through the waterway. Egypt also has a major oil pipeline as well. If both that and the Suez were to be closed-say by riots or terrorism-then the journey for oil from Saudi Arabia to North America would take eight to ten days longer, according to the US Department of Transportation (DOT). The EIA website reported that the "closure of the Suez Canal and the SUMED Pipeline would necessitate diverting oil tankers around the southern tip of Africa, the Cape of Good Hope, adding approximately 2,700 miles [4,345 km] to transit from Saudi Arabia to the United States, increasing both costs and shipping time." In other words, losing the Suez is a real headache and concern for oil producers-and that anxiety is being passed on to you in the form of higher prices.

As if on cue, the crisis in Egypt hit a feverish pace around the beginning of July, and oil prices hit their highest levels at the time since May of 2012. Sure enough, that rise in oil prices reached consumers at the pump, as gasoline prices jumped up. The concerns at the time proved unfounded, as oil kept moving. Riots didn't lead to sabotage of the Suez, nor did civil war break out right away. But it still brought real fears that the Middle East oil trade might be harmed, and, as of the writing of this article, those fears are still out there.

Of course, any story has multiple angles, and there were other contributing factors to the oil rise in July. And the oil price did eventually come back down a little, even as the Egyptian concerns continued. One columnist for the Wall Street Journal even dismissed the idea that the Egyptian political scene was the main force behind the price rise, claiming the Suez isn't as critical as many think. Still, the timing of the Egyptian troubles and the oil price surge surely wasn't mere coincidence. Those who covered the news, linking the two, certainly didn't think so. In short, if your gas budget has been hurting in recent months, chances are that Egypt is part of the reason why. And Egypt's crisis has had an even bigger impact on Israel.


The Violent Sinai


Remember the old movies about the Wild West, where law was whatever the best shooter wanted; where violence and chaos supposedly ruled? The Sinai has proven to be much worse. A haven for Al-Qaeda-inspired terrorists, the Sinai has seen sabotage attacks on the gas pipeline from Egypt to Israel and Jordan. It has been used as the launching point for a vicious armed attack on Israeli civilians travelling in Israel's south. And it has been the literal launching point for rocket attacks at Israel. In fact, in August, Ynetnews reported that Israel even closed the Eilat airport amid fears that terrorists could attack from the Sinai. Analyst Ron Ben-Yishai, in a Ynetnews article, wrote that Sinai terrorists may have even acquired shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles that could strike at incoming civilian jets. Imagine that nightmare.

Furthermore, Ynetnews also reported that, in July, Israel moved anti-missile Iron Dome batteries to the Eilat area. Rocket attacks from the Sinai are sporadic, but still pose a threat; for example, in 2010, one hit Jordan and killed a taxi driver there. The threat to Israel was intense enough that there were even claims by a Sinai terror group in August that an Israeli drone struck terrorists in Egyptian territory, according to Voice of America. That would represent a very serious step by Israel, since the peace accord with Egypt is extremely vital to their general security. While it's likely that such an attack was coordinated with Egyptian authorities, if it happened at all, there is still the risk that public opinion in Egypt could turn even stronger against Israel. In other words, if the reports are true, Israel saw the Sinai terrorists as an immediate threat that was worth taking real risks to eliminate.

The Al-Qaeda situation in the Sinai is only getting worse. While an expert told The Mideast Update that the Sinai branch hadn't yet received full Al-Qaeda approval in 2011, two years later in August of this year The Daily Beast reported that Sinai terrorists were at least in on a global Al-Qaeda conference call. The Daily Beast quoted a US intelligence official who expressed concern that even the US Embassy in Tel Aviv could be targeted by the Sinai terrorists, considering they have already hit the southern Israeli city of Eilat with rockets. "It's not out of the range of possibilities that they could hit us in Tel Aviv," the official was quoted as saying. In other words, the Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists in the Sinai are more than the sporadic, generic threat they used to be. It's worse than just some desert gangs armed with machine guns and small-scale explosives. It's a group that's now catching the eye of global Al-Qaeda, and it's threatening Israel and the US.

Egypt is also under attack. The New York Times reported in August that jihadist terrorists were routinely attacking military and government targets. And Egypt's military is fighting back. Voice of America reported that, in one attack, at least 12 militants were killed in an army helicopter strike-which was part of a major military campaign to clear out the Sinai terrorists. Another concern is that the militants may have deeper ties than just jihadist terrorism. The Egypt Independent quoted a military spokesman who claimed at least one group, the Jihadi Shura Council, had backing from Hamas in Gaza. Hamas itself is related to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the primary opponent to the Egyptian authorities. So, basically, the Sinai terror threat is considered by the military to be something of an insurgency against the Egyptian government. That's not a terror threat-that's the makings of a civil war. As of the writing of this article, that civil war threat looms large. With hundreds of protestors killed by the security forces, and yet reports of violence from those same protestors, Egypt appears to be spinning out of control. Even civilians who aren't part of the clashes have been caught in the violence. Christians have been particularly endangered.


The Vicious Persecution


The New York Times also hit on a recurring theme in conflict-ridden Egypt-that Christians are being targeted just for their faith. Attacks were so bad on faith groups under former President Morsi that the Amnesty International human rights group accused the government of systematically ignoring the violence. "Coptic Christians across Egypt face discrimination in law and practice and have been victims of regular sectarian attacks while authorities systematically look the other way," Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director at Amnesty International, said in the report on Amnesty's website.

It doesn't appear things have gotten any better with Morsi gone. In fact, they may be worse. In August, the BBC reported that the Coptic Pope Tawadros II canceled public meetings over fears of the dangerous situation. BBC further reported that 16 Egyptian human rights organizations slammed the lack of government protection for the Coptic Christians in the country. Shortly after the overthrow of Morsi's government by the military, a horrific assault on Coptic Christians underscored the depth of the concerns there. Amnesty International noted in a press release that after a dead Muslim man was found near Christian homes, a mob went on a rampage. One hundred Christian homes were attacked and some were torched. Four Coptic men were murdered.

Where were the police or army in the midst of this attack? Not doing nearly enough. The violence lasted 18 hours, according to Amnesty. "It is outrageous that this attack was left to escalate unhindered in this way. Amnesty International has documented a series of cases in the past where Egypt's security forces used unnecessary force or live fire during demonstrations, yet in this case they held back even though people's lives were threatened," said Amnesty's Sahraoui on the Amnesty website. "A thorough, impartial, and independent investigation must be conducted into the events in Luxor and the grossly inadequate response of the security forces to the attack."


A Virulent Future?


The situation in Egypt, as of the writing of this article, was looking to grow worse. As though a scenario could get worse when:

violent clashes are rocking the country;
heavily-armed terrorists are waging a campaign against the government and allied nations such as Israel;
and a sizable minority is suffering ongoing attacks.

Is this the tragic future that Isaiah predicts in Chapter 19, when Egyptians fight each other in what culminates in national disaster? The good news is that the future finally ends with the repentance and restoration of Egypt, but it's still a shocking ride to that point. For now, it's just a guessing game. How bad will it get? The situation is ripe for a potential civil war that could drag Israel into the fighting. And it's resulting in many dead civilians, including Coptic Christians. So if you live in the US or Europe, now might be a good time to contact your congressman or parliament representative about Western funding for the Egyptian army. It may be time to start tying those funds to accountability for a changed situation on the ground. Because while you may not have known who the leader of Egypt was when you started this article, you know now that Egypt's collapse is a risk for you and Israel too.

http://www.bridgesforpeace.com/dispatch/article/egypt-unraveling/