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Analysis: Egypt's Strategic Balance Sheet

Egypt's caretaker junta juggling virulent anti-Israel sentiment in Cairo and US billions tied to peace with the Jewish state.
By Gabe Kahn.
First Publish: 8/31/2011, 6:04 PM

Following the February outster of President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's caretaker junta has been trying to tone down a surge of populist anti-Israel opinion in order to preserve the billions in US aid that are predicated on its adherence to the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.

Egyptians, taught to continue to hate Israel by government-run media, were long unable to display their hostility to Egypt's perceived complacent ties with Israel under Mubarak, and now want to vent their frustration in public.

But Egypt's now-ruling generals know pursuing a more assertive policy towards Israel in line with public opinion, if it undermines the peace accords, will cost billions of dollars in US aid and seriously diminish the very stature and power the people are demanding they exert.

"The Egyptian policy towards Israel has not been very popular in the last 15 years and the public wants a more assertive policy towards Israel," Ezzedine Choukri-Fishere of the American University in Cairo said.

"The deep-seated feeling among a majority of Egyptians - including those that support peace -- is that policies towards Israel are too soft and sometimes complacent. This policy has to change and this is what these events point to," he said.

Fishere's comments come on the heels of a four-day demonstration outside the Israeli embassy where Egyptian protesters, enraged over the deaths of five Egyptian security personnel on the Israeli border, demanded the treaty be annulled, and one man even climbing 21 stories to rip the Israeli flag from its perch.

While the noise outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo abated, and the blue-and-white flag flies once again, but from a window instead of the rooftop, on the embassy building, the issue remains contentious amongst many Egyptians.

But despite tensions and anti-Israel rhetoric in Cairo, Egypt's generals have at the same time shown an interest in helping to maintain stability and security along the border with Israel in Sinai.

Any amendment to the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty requires consensus by the governments in Cairo and Jerusalem. According to Egyptian military official Ismail Otman, the peace treaty is not being altered in any way at the present time, despite attempts by “extremist elements who want to drive a wedge between the people of Sinai and the [Egyptian] military on the one hand, and also cause unrest with Israel.”

On Tuesday, while reports circulated in Israel that a 10-man terror cell was planning to attack Israelis, Egypt continued its military operation to hunt down jihadi groups in the northern Sinai Peninsula, adding some 1,500 soldiers and police officers - supported by tanks and armored vehicles - in the area. Egyptian forces began combing the cities of El-Arish, Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafah, near the Gaza border.

Egyptian pride and hatred of Israel aside, peace with the Jewish state is the source of the US billions underwriting the very military might the Cairo mob wants to threaten Jerusalem with. The generals seem understand their strategic balance sheet - and why they are in the black.

Another way of looking at the situation is that of the skeptics in Israel who claim that America aid is being used to fund the weapons that will soon be aimed at Israel.

However, while Israel's rhetoric remains focused on counter-terrorist operations, the IDF is also increasing deployments along its border with Egypt - leading some observers to conclude Jerusalem is circumspect about Cairo's ability to judge its own long-term self interest. This is, after all,  the Middle East.