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Saudi and Israeli strategic interests in post-Morsi Egypt

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Brian M Downing

Over the last few years, Saudi Arabia and Israel have been aligned on critical matters. The two powers are engaged in attacking Iran and its nuclear capacity, ousting the Assad government from Syria, and unseating Hizbullah in Lebanon.

So determined are the two countries to stop the Iranian nuclear program that Saudi Arabia would likely allow Israeli F-15s to use its airspace to attack the facilities at Natanz, Fordo, and Parchin.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia speaks to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in July 2012 in Jeddah.  /Reuters

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia speaks to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in July 2012 in Jeddah. /Reuters

There have been no public displays of cordiality, of course, and no one has seen anything but a temporary alignment before a return to confrontation, chiefly over the Palestinian question. Each power has sharply different interests in Egypt, which have become more obvious following the recent military coup.

Saudi Arabia is horrified by the rise of democracy in the region. Representative government is, in the Saudi view, an affront to religious stricture and a threat to the family-run state. Saudi Arabia is especially hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood, which though deeply religious, is adamantly opposed to monarchal authority – a message it has at times tried to spread inside the Kingdom.

Saudi influence figured in the recent ouster of the Brotherhood’s President Morsi. Riyadh withheld aid and oil supplies, aggravating the economic woes that weakened Morsi.

Significantly, only days after the coup ousted Morsi, and while the U.S. pondered a curtailment of aid, Saudi Arabia stepped in with lavish economic aid and sorely needed fuel deliveries – a transparent effort to reward the military and woo the public.

Saudi ambitions go beyond stifling democracy. Riyadh wants to expand its power in the region by building alliances with key Sunni states, especially ones with powerful or once-powerful armies. After all, the Saudi Army is well-equipped but only indifferently trained, built as it is on Saudi lads whose dedication to soldierly life is questionable and whose fighting experience is limited to quiet sectors in the First Gulf War long ago and to the suppression of unarmed Bahraini demonstrators in 2011.

Better to have the support of the Egyptian Army, a solid force built upon youth raised in hardscrabble working-class and small-holding settings. All the better to bolster them one day with Sunni soldiers from a post-Assad Syria and with the remnants of Saddam’s Army in West Iraq.

Saudi wealth and the militaries of Egypt, Syria, and West Iraq would be a formidable political-military bloc. It could protect the Kingdom from enemies foreign and domestic, raise Saudi power prestige in the world, and position Riyadh to stand up to Israel on the Palestinian issue and whatever else might occur.

In Israel, President Hosni Mubarak had not been considered trustworthy but he was deemed reasonably predictable. He depended on American subsidies and he remained quiet amid Israeli attacks on Lebanon and Gaza, despite widespread disquiet in the Egyptian public and Army.

Mubarak’s ouster in 2011 raised two security concerns to Israel. First, the army became almost predominant in politics and quite vocal in criticizing Israel and Mubarak’s passivity. Second, elections showed the dramatic strength of Islamist parties – the longstanding Muslim Brotherhood and newer Salafi parties such as al Nour, which are even more denunciatory toward Israel.

A third security concern has, predictably, come in recent days. Though U.S. subsidies to Egypt continue, they have been greatly surpassed by those of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni monarchies, weakening U.S. influence.

But Israeli security bureaus see opportunities amid the tumult to the West. First, there is considerable antagonism within Islamist groups as the Brotherhood and Salafi groups demonstrate that religious commonality can nonetheless cause great hostility.

Second, there is antagonism between the army and most Islamist groups – especially the Muslim Brotherhood. The army has been engaged in suppressing the Brotherhood for many decades, especially after Nasser’s coup in 1952 and Sadat’s assassination in 1981. The recent shooting of over fifty Brotherhood demonstrators has embedded those hostilities in a new generation of Egyptians.

Hostilities between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army, and those between the Brotherhood and its Salafi rivals, are strong and will likely remain so for several years. Egypt will be sharply divided and inward-looking for many years. There is little need for Israel to seek to exacerbate the hostilities, though it might seek to ensure they do not disappear.

If the experience of the 1950s isn’t considered arcane and irrelevant, it might be noted that Israeli intelligence engaged in a bombing campaign inside Egypt, which, significantly, Israel hastened to blame on the Muslim Brotherhood. The campaign was intended to strengthen international perceptions of Egypt’s instability and of the desirability of continued Anglo-French control of the Suez Canal.

But the campaign came a cropper and what became known as the Lavon Affair damaged Israel’s prestige in the world – a reminder of the counterproductive nature of many clandestine programs. However, it is unlikely that Israel will remain entirely passive. Security institutions do not like to be bystanders.

Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst, coauthor of the forthcoming novel The Samson Heuristic, and author of The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at brianmdowning@gmail.com.

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