Israel recently agreed to the introduction of more Egyptian troops to the Sinai Peninsula, beyond the limitations spelled out in the 1979 peace treaty between the two countries. According to media reports, the Israeli gesture means Egypt’s military presence in Sinai could potentially reach the same level as on the eve of the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel’s consent to this thus reflects the high level of trust it has in Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and in his persistent and critical contribution to stability in the Middle East.
Egypt has followed this path for decades, despite vitriolic criticism by irresponsible regional actors and a lack of proper appreciation from Washington. In the 1950s and ’60s, then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arab radicalism inflamed and excited the Arab world “from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf.” His leadership inspired the rise of combative regimes that imposed their adventurous tendencies even on the responsible moderate leaders in the region.
Egypt, as the most important, largest and most stable Arab country, led a contrarian posture toward the United States and advocated perpetual conflict with Israel. Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, realized this policy was leading the country and the region toward disaster, and with a brilliant series of strategic moves in the 1970s, extracted Egypt from the futile friction with the United States and from the violent conflict with Israel.
Sadat’s dramatic decisions, their dedicated maintenance by his successor, Hosni Mubarak and El-Sisi’s determination to deepen and bolster these policies have contributed over the past decade more than anything else to prevent the spiraling of the region into disaster. The region is in a difficult state, with violent and poverty-afflicted hotspots, but without Egypt’s restraint and responsibility would have devolved into total chaos.
This Egyptian policy has been under constant attack over the past 40 years by radical elements in the Arab world. The regimes that have inflicted calamities on their nations due to their reckless behavior—those of Moammar Gaddafi, the Assad dynasty, Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat—have tried to cast Egypt’s responsible behavior as surrender to the United States and Israel.
While Sadat and his successors have guaranteed regional stability and spared generations of Egyptians damaging confrontations with the United States and pointless wars with Israel, the radical regimes were caught up in delusions of grandeur, hollow slogans and violent oppression that only led to destruction in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen. Likewise, in the Palestinian case, it led only to civil wars, anarchy and humiliating defeats.
In educated circles in the Arab World—even in Egypt itself—many were tempted by radical slogans and denied their destructive results. Much of this distortion can be attributed to the most dangerous movement for the Arabs and their future: the Muslim Brotherhood. The danger posed by this movement combines on the one hand a dark ideology that has prevented a successful response to the challenges of the 21st century, and on the other hand, a knack for faking moderation and convincing naive Americans, Europeans and Israelis to help it consolidate power.
Egypt’s responsible behavior is not just under attack from the radicals, it is also under pressure because of American shortsightedness. The United States has turned a cold shoulder toward el-Sisi, claiming that his military regime has not upheld human rights. These critics, in their purist shallowness, have refused to accept that the only alternative is the Muslim Brotherhood.
If the movement takes power in Cairo it will take Egypt down a path of hopeless backwardness and oppression, creating a chain reaction in other countries in the region—mainly Jordan. When Condoleezza Rice pressured Israel to let the Palestinian offshoot of the movement, Hamas, take part in the Palestinian elections in 2006, it ended up taking over the Gaza Strip. Today, only the Israel Defense Forces stands in the way of Hamas taking over the West Bank.
President Barack Obama left Mubarak to his own devices and let the Brotherhood “democratically” take over in Cairo. Obama’s rose-colored view of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as a “moderate” helped him establish himself as an autocratic president in Turkey. In all these cases, U.S. involvement exacerbated the crackdown on human rights. El-Sisi saved not only Egypt, Jordan and Israel in 2013, but has also saved the United States from major flare-ups in the Middle East.
Egypt, which is often referred to in Arabic as Um el Dunya (“the Mother of the World”) because of its historical and cultural significance, is the only anchor of relative stability in this fragmented and combustible region. El-Sisi deserves help—or at the very least that we not stand in his way.
Dan Schueftan is the director of the International Graduate Program in National Security Studies at the University of Haifa’s National Security Studies Center.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.