Sinai crisis heightens tension between Egypt president, army chief: Sources

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 21 May 2013

Last week's kidnapping of seven soldiers in Sinai – and Egypt's response to ongoing crisis – has aggravated tensions between President Morsi and Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, say military/intelligence sources

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi stands next to Field Marshal Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in the company of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces after a meeting on Thursday, 11 April 2013.

It used to be said with a great deal of caution, but is now being vocally pronounced by military sources: the president is trying to remove the defence minister who he appointed less than one year ago with the aim of ending resistance on several fronts, especially the management of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula – in terms of both security and investment.

Military and intelligence sources are openly suggesting that the president had tried to remove Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi a few weeks ago, but refrained from doing so due to fears of the military's reaction.

"He was really on the verge of doing it, but he received signals that if he was to do so, he would be faced with pronounced rejection by the army," said one anonymous military source.

Last summer, following the killing of 16 border guards in Sinai, the newly elected president removed Mubarak-era defence minister Hussein Tantawi, who had been all but a partner in power. This week, with the mysterious kidnapping of seven soldiers, the same source says, the military has become alert to a potential move against El-Sisi.

In the analysis of military and intelligence sources, who are still getting used to being under the command of a civilian president from the Muslim Brotherhood, El-Sisi has been a stumbling block against the schemes that Morsi "and his group" have been wanting to pursue in Sinai and the Suez Canal zone "without any regard to national security interests that could be undermined by an intense foreign presence in this zone."

They note the growing popularity of El-Sisi and the growing number of citizens who have expressed a wish for El-Sisi to take over running the state. Some have openly called for an outright coup d’etat against Morsi – Egypt's first-ever freely-elected president – while others have offered symbolic legal authorisation for the army to take over from the president amid a foundering economy and questionable security conditions.

Morsi has been very sensitive to public perceptions of the army as a political player. Last November, he declined mediation by the army aimed at containing an intense political confrontation over a presidential decree that provisionally granted Morsi extra-judiciary prerogatives.

El-Sisi had been confusing on the issue; he would publicly insist that the army had no political role to play, but would privately express the army's readiness to spare the country from chaos should political co-existence between the ruling Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt's political opposition develop into a crisis that might upset national stability.

"Inevitably, Morsi thought he would do to El-Sisi what he did to Tantawi, but it cannot be done twice," according to the unnamed military source. He added that, while Tantawi was not very popular among the ranks of the army, El-Sisi "is well-liked and much more in touch with the base than Tantawi was."

The sentiment is shared in intelligence quarters, where last week's kidnapping is believed to have been "allowed, if not encouraged" to discredit El-Sisi. "It was too obvious, to the point that there was a sense of alert in all the sovereign quarters of the state; I think Morsi will have to give up on this matter, at least for now," the anonymous source added.

When the kidnapped soldiers are released – most likely after a limited military campaign within the next day or two – Morsi will still be president and El-Sisi will still be defence minister. Both, however, will be equally weakened.

In the eyes of the army, Morsi – commander-in-chief of the military – will be perceived as having been defeated in the political battle to remove the defence minister due to the support of the military top brass and rank and file. But this also means that El-Sisi will owe much to his aides.

Both Morsi and El-Sisi will be perceived by the public – which has expressed its preference for a tough military campaign to secure the kidnapped soldiers' release – as hesitant leaders who took too long to act to free the captive security personnel and only began to consider military intervention, surgical or otherwise, after negotiations failed.

In the eyes of Israel, according to one diplomat, both Morsi and El-Sisi are already perceived as a president and defence minister in a bras de fer that may reduce their capacity – or, rather, Egypt's capacity – to maintain security in Sinai.

Israeli, US reactions

According to several Egyptian diplomats, this argument is already being made by Israeli diplomats in several world capitals and in the corridors of the UN.

"The Israelis express satisfaction over Egypt's commitment to observe Israeli security interests and pursue traditional security and intelligence coordination, but add that the instability within the Egyptian state could lead to unexpected chaos," said one unnamed diplomat. "They are already suggesting that there might be a need to consider expanding the MFO."

The MFO, or Multinational Force of Observers, has been stationed in Sinai to monitor the commitment of both Egypt and Israel to the 1979 peace treaty between the two countries. Members of concerned international bodies say that some MFO members have been voicing concern over the post-revolution security situation in Sinai.

The situation in Sinai is a must-discuss item in talks between senior Egyptian officials and their US counterparts. In recent meetings, both Morsi and El-Sisi independently told visiting US officials that they were committed to keeping things calm on the borders with Israel.

According to Western diplomats, Washington is not questioning this commitment, but is rather worried about the impact of the ongoing tug-of-war between the president and defence minister over their management of Sinai – and Egypt in general.

"It is no secret that there is tension between Morsi and El-Sisi, and obviously this will have an impact," said one Cairo-based Western diplomat. "The only question is what kind of impact."

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