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Sinai’s liberation put on hold

Dr. Fahmy Howeidy

Published: Updated:

I don’t see a better way to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the Nakba, which was marked on May 15, 1948, than by calling for the liberation of Egypt’s Sinai.

This statement requires explanation, so I call on you not to jump to conclusions or understand it anyway you like before I clarify what I mean. Some may be surprised if they know that this statement was inspired by Egyptian defense minister Abdel Fattah al-Sissi's speech to military men and journalists who witnessed last week the end of what was called "inspection procedures" for one of the armored formations in the central area. He said that developing units and formations and increasing their fighting competencies' rates is being carried out at unprecedented rates in a manner that guarantees them the ability to confront challenges and be loyal to the tasks assigned to them on the level of protecting the country.

Many noticed that Sissi delivered two messages in his speech. One of them emphasized the efforts made to raise the fighting competencies of the armed forces after they were rearmed according to the most modern fighting systems. In the second message, he made sure to confirm that the army will not intervene in any political affair and that politicians must reach an agreement formula amongst one another because calls to summon the army to intervene is tantamount to playing with fire and because such calls may stop the country's progress for a period that may range between 30 to 40 years.

Army’s rebuilding

I was one of those who in published writings called for ending the irresponsible insistence to call on the army to intervene and stage a coup against legitimacy. One of the things I've said is that Egypt's army is currently undergoing a comprehensive rebuilding that aims to restore its well-being and renew its youth so it becomes a professional patriotic army that suits a great country like Egypt. The provocation and incitement practiced by some may obstruct this noble effort. This may deprive Egypt of a historical opportunity that strengthens its fighting and defense capabilities after concern was directed towards the police and security forces to protect the regime. The latter move was carried out at the expense of being concerned about the army which is the country's shield and security guard.

Concern over the Egyptian army's well-being does not only begin out of an awareness of the Egyptian national interest. But any observing of the Arab scene strongly supports that vision especially after the destruction of the Iraqi army and the exhaustion and deterioration of the Syrian army. These two examples make increasing the Egyptian army's fighting competencies a necessary, urgent Arab demand in order to maintain the least amount of strategic balance with Israeli military capabilities.

Madar's strategic report which was issued this year by the Palestinian Center for Israeli Studies in Ramallah said that Israel is still very concerned of the change of the situation in Egypt and that Israel fears that this change may harm the Camp David Accords which Israel considers a strategic treasure that cannot be compensated. It also said that Israel considers that the fact that the year 2012 passed peacefully without any incidents that disturbed relations with Egypt was an important achievement. Amidst the success that Israel achieved on this level, it invested in the Arab Spring's atmosphere to make the 2012 "the Spring of Settlements." During that year, Israel increased its settlements' projects by four times the number of projects in 2011.

Sinai is Egypt’s weakness

The strategic portrayal speaks of the Israeli security capabilities that agree that Egypt after the January 25, 2011 revolution will inevitably be different than before that date. This imposes on the Jewish state to be prepared to deal with all possibilities. In principle, it considers that withdrawing from the Camp David Accords is a red line that no Israeli government can allow to be trespassed. And Israel has all the suitable plans to confront this worst of scenarios. The dependency of the peninsula of Sinai for Israel's interest is considered one of the cards it holds tight and waves now and then to pressure Egypt and blackmail it. What is frequent amongst political circles is that Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to play the Sinai card during a phone call between him and the American president when Doctor Nabil al-Arabi, who was a foreign affairs minister following the revolution, announced the idea of opening the Rafah crossing border.

The Egyptian public opinion was distorted during the recent decades as former presidents Sadat and Mubarak succeeded in deforming the image of Sinai as they convinced many people that the Palestinians, and not the Israelis, are the ones who represent a threat to Sinai.

Dr. Fahmy Howeidy

Amidst all this, there is no escape from admitting that the situation in Sinai is a major weakness point in the Egyptian stance following the revolution. This weakness had placed Egypt in an embarrassing situation that tied its hands in a manner that harms its sovereignty and threatens its national security. This harms the country's dignity after its people revolted and scarified with their lives to protect it and defend it.

I am aware that a peace treaty has an international formula and that its link to power balances in the region is strong and therefore we are forced to be patient when it comes to that. But the part which minimizes Egyptian sovereignty over Sinai (which article four of the agreement states) has become a burden on Egyptian national security to the point where it has become difficult to remain silent regarding it. This is not only because the state authority's hands are tied when it comes to a part of its land but because the absence of authority there has resulted in abnormal circumstances that allowed the establishment of terrorist and criminal zones that threaten Egypt's security and safety. It is no longer acceptable that Sinai be torn apart into three areas in which the weak Egyptian military presence varies. It is also shameful that around 80,000 soldiers and 1000 tanks cross the canal during the 1974 War and then have President Sadat agree after the "victory" to withdraw them all, except for 7000 soldiers and 30 tanks, towards the west of the canal as per the disengagement agreement.

It is also no longer acceptable to prohibit Egypt from establishing any airports or military ports in the entire of Sinai. What is both sad and suspicious is that the nearest Israeli tank stands three kilometers away from the Egyptian border whilst he nearest Egyptian tank stands 150 kilometers away from the same point.

This is what the study prepared by engineer Mohamed Saif al-Dawla - an expert on the matter - warned of. He also warned of the presence of the foreign forces that the U.S. leads in Sinai and which Egypt is not allowed to request withdrawing unless there is a collective approval from the U.N. Security Council's permanent members. These forces are linked to the NATO, and the number of its soldiers is 2000. These forces originally observe Egypt whilst there are 50 civil personnel observing the Israeli side.

There are many details regarding this issue, and they all state that the situation in Sinai represents a stain that imposed a gap in the fort of Egypt's national security. One must not remain silent about this following the revolution and this cannot be dealt with before Egypt regains its political and military well-being.

One of the paradoxes is that the Egyptian public opinion was distorted during the recent decades as former presidents Sadat and Mubarak's mouthpieces succeeded in deforming the image in Sinai as they convinced many people that the Palestinians and not the Israelis are the ones who represent a threat to Sinai. There was a rumor that became famous in Egypt and that claims that the Palestinians aspire to expand towards Sinai and settle in it and eventually join it with Gaza. Those making these claims have forgotten three major issues.

The first one is that president Gamal Abdelnassar has made this suggestion in 1953 when he thought the Americans had good intents and that they will help him in naturalizing the Palestinians in North West of Sinai. There is a report on that published by Palestinian researcher Hassan Abu al-Naml. It was published in a book issued by the Liberation Organization's research center in 1978. The report was prepared by the permanent council for national production in Egypt in cooperation with UNRWA. It was printed on July 28, 1955. Veteran Palestinian researcher Abdelqader Yassine, who lived throughout that phase, brought this report to my attention. Yassine remembers that back then, Abdelnasser's idea was met by the Palestinians' extreme rejection and that a Palestinian delegation that includes representatives of the brotherhood, communists and independents visited him and convinced him to let go of the idea.

The second point is that the Israelis occupied Sinai twice. They first occupied it after the 1956 aggression and they occupied it again after the 1967 War. They stayed there around 15 years. During this time, borders between Gaza and Sinai were open. Thus it was very easy for the Palestinians to expand in Sinai and settle in it. However, they did not do so although there were no obstructions preventing them and they held on to staying in their country, their grandfathers' land.

The third point is that naturalizing Palestinians permanently in Sinai is an idea which source is Israel. It was never suggested in a Palestinian scheme or plan. Academic researchers know well that Israeli politicians have always wished that they resolve their problem with the Palestinians by transferring them to any place on earth. They have suggested some Latin American countries for that purpose, thus one must not be taken by surprise if Sinai is suggested as well since it is the closest geographic point in addition to the fact that its area can easily fit them.

Egypt's domino effect

Egypt's weakness is the problem. It is because of this weakness that Egypt was not able to demand amending the article regarding its minimized authority over Sinai although the moment was and is still suitable to make such a demand. The disturbed situation in Sinai is no longer a secret. The threats posed by these disturbances against Egypt's security and stability is no longer an issue of controversy or discussion. I do not think that anyone can argue that Egypt's weakness has weakened the entire Arab world and thus weakened the Palestinian cause. This is being bluntly exploited by pushing the Arabs to make free concessions to the Israelis. The last of these concessions was suggesting the idea of trading lands with Israel to solidify the latter's settlement expansion and resume the historical crime represented in altering maps to serve its own interests.

Egypt the revolution which situation has not stabilized yet has not changed anything in the rules that Mubarak's regime set regarding its relations with the Palestinians in general and Gaza in particular. Yes the situation has relatively changed but the rules have not. This is very clearly shown when looking at the Rafah crossing border which remains a border only for humanitarian reasons like Israel wants. It is not an international or commercial crossing border like the situation is across the world.

All of this can be dealt with in the aspired competency via two aspects. The first of them is a political and military well-being that Egypt should enjoy. Sissi's statements regarding this issue are very important. The second of them is a political will that decision makers in the country must possess. This alone bravely arms him and enables him to be biased towards his higher interests to eventually the case of restoring sovereignty over Sinai without hesitating to utter an honest stance that rejects alienating the Palestinian cause and thus holds on to defending the Palestinian people's legitimate rights.

This article was first published in Egypt-based al-Shorouk on May 15, 2013.

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Dr. Fahmy Howeidy has worked in journalism since 1958 for Egypt's Al-Ahram Foundation. Previously, Howeidy served as the Managing Editor of Kuwait's Al-Arabi magazine and of Arabia magazine, which is published in London, UK in English. Howeidy has had seventeen books published, including: The Quran and the Sultan, Awareness Forgery, In Order Not to be A Sedition, Islam in China, Iran from the Inside, Taliban, Establishing Due Rights, and The Crisis of Religious Awareness. Howeidy is a specialist in Arab and Islamic affairs.

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