Abdel-Moneim Said
Al-Ahram (Opinion)
January 8, 2010 - 1:00am

No Egyptian should disagree with defending Egypt against all threats, whether from home or abroad. This is why every official charged with safeguarding the country's welfare, from the president and government ministers to representatives in the People's Assembly and the Shura Council take an oath of office in which they pledge not only to promote the interests of the people and uphold the constitution but also to defend the nation and "safeguard the integrity of its territory". Such an oath can only mean that the defence of Egypt is an issue that can brook no dissension, which has not been the attitude of certain newspapers and radio and television stations in recent days regarding security at the Egyptian-Gaza border.

Fundamentalist Islamists -- in their varying shades of radicalism -- have a major problem with the concept of the state and national boundaries. To their way of thinking, as long as Islam transcends borders, then politics, international relations and foreign policy should do the same. When Hamas felt that a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza would be too large and unwieldy for it to control because it would cover too broad and diverse a political spectrum, it decided to seize power in Gaza and found an Islamic emirate in which no other voice would be heard but its own. So now we have a situation in which Israel refuses to negotiate directly with Hamas, and Hamas, equally adamantly, refuses to negotiate directly with Israel and -- simultaneously -- to reach a reconciliation agreement with the Palestinian Authority. The upshot is that Hamas has few remaining outlets, and one of its favourites is to abuse the Egyptian border. It has done this peacefully through protest demonstrations and violently, leading to Egyptian civil and military casualties. It has done this above ground through propaganda and slander, and below ground by means of tunnels and smuggling.

Hamas operates on the assumption that it has the right to penetrate the Egyptian border whenever it wishes, no matter what the consequences and regardless of the opinion of the Egyptian government or people. Evidently Islamists no longer hold a monopoly on this type of thinking. Groups from other political shades have begun to parrot the Islamist line, exposing Egyptian interests and national security to grave risks, not least of which is the danger of being dragged into wars Egypt may not have wanted or had the chance to plan for. Stripped of all other considerations, what we have is a case of the smuggling of arms, explosives and other instruments of violence without the knowledge and approval of Egyptian authorities. These smuggling operations, moreover, are undertaken by various armed groups consisting of -- or supported by -- terrorists, resistance fighters, organised crime rings, vested interests and corrupt officials on both sides of the border. No self-respecting state in the world can accept or turn a blind eye to this.

How can certain Egyptian cultural, political and media circles stoop to such intellectual folly as countenancing the very thought of surrendering Egypt's borders to parties that could expose our country to extreme danger? For those who are unaware or do not care to remember, Egypt will not let anyone lead it by the nose again. Also, so that we in Egypt do not forget, Egypt has certain international commitments connected with its peace treaty with Israel. Article III of this treaty states: "Each Party undertakes to ensure that acts or threats of belligerency, hostility, or violence do not originate from and are not committed from within its territory, or by any forces subject to its control or by any other forces stationed on its territory, against the population, citizens or property of the other Party. Each Party also undertakes to refrain from organising, instigating, inciting, assisting or participating in acts or threats of belligerency, hostility, subversion or violence against the other Party, anywhere, and undertakes to ensure that perpetrators of such acts are brought to justice."

Such provisions are founded on the concept of a state's responsibility for its own territory. This responsibility covers not only protecting the territory from foreign aggression or violations but also safeguarding it against being used by any third party. The concept of national sovereignty is one of the pillars of national authority and government. Without sovereignty, a state does not possess the full powers needed to perform its essential functions, such as asserting its umbrella over all members of society and asking them to respect and abide by the law, along with retaining control over certain means and resources. Nor can it maintain authority over its land, air and maritime space, or interact freely with other states.

The concept of recognised borders is relatively new to human society. Four main needs led to its evolution: first, the need for the state to defend its land and resources and to ensure the safety of its citizens; second, the need to protect domestic economic production by levying customs duties on incoming goods; third, the need to regulate trade and the movement of people between countries; fourth, the need to accommodate to the growing number of state entities and the gradual diversification in their modes of interaction. Borders are thus essential to sovereignty. If Egypt's right to defend its borders -- even if shared with a "sister" state or political entity that shares a common religion or language -- is diminished it loses a major element of its capacity as a state and its leaders lose an element of their legitimacy. More dangerously, it gives other parties the opportunity and pretext to engage Egypt militarily. Perhaps this is what Hamas and its supporters in Egypt hope the abuses of the Egyptian border will lead to: a situation that propels Egypt back to war with Israel. This may be why Islamists and political trends that have fallen in with them on this issue are constantly citing Israel as a reason to violate Egyptian borders.

Egypt knows very well how to distinguish between the threats posed to its national security by the Gaza tunnels and the threat posed by Israel, and it is handling each in an appropriate manner. Nor is Egypt blind to the fact that Israel still occupies Arab land and that this occupation by arms and settlers not only violates the historical rights of the peoples whose land is occupied but also jeopardises the stability of the entire region, Egypt included. Egypt is equally aware that Israel is a nuclear power that refuses to abide by the rules of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and that, therefore, stimulates the spread of weapons of mass destruction in the region, which is also a threat to Egypt. Nor has it escaped Egypt that Israel, which has some very influential racist and extremist trends, has always opposed the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty and has constantly sought to undermine it; that it continues to regard Egypt as its foremost enemy in the Middle East precisely because of the powers and resources Egypt has as a real state.

Egypt's strategic calculations take all the foregoing factors into account. In addition, these calculations do not rely solely on international law, international guarantees and even the peace treaty, for history has seen hundreds of peace treaties thrown to the winds. Nor do they rely solely on the presence of international forces to guarantee the faithful implementation of the provisions of agreements. Egypt also relies on its own autonomous power to defend its territory. Some have wondered why Egypt does not build a wall against Israel like the wall it is building along the Egyptian-Gaza border. Walls cannot stand up against tanks, planes and missiles. But Egypt does have another type of wall. It exists in the form of powerful military forces that can move rapidly to support Egyptian forces that are, in fact, stationed in the Sinai, and the capacity to shift the battle to the Israeli interior by means of missiles capable of reaching every corner of that country. Israel is acutely cognizant of the destructive power of Egypt's weapons and of the fact that Egypt has not signed any of the conventions pertaining to chemical weapons. Moreover, Egypt established the credibility of its deterrent power in the 1973 October War that informed Israel that the Egyptians were resolved not to let any of their land remain under occupation and to make occupiers pay a heavy price.

This is too vital a matter to toy with; the issues at stake must be kept firmly and clearly in mind. There is no cause to give a country that has spent decades fighting Israel and negotiating with it, and that knows Israel inside and out, lessons in how to manage international relations and questions of national security. Nor should we confuse the question of violating the Egyptian border with tunnels and the smuggling of arms with the Israeli question, which should not be used to justify the former. It is patently evident that Egypt's security has been placed a risk. It has also been amply demonstrated that the smuggled weapons were pointed at Palestinians first, and that when the weapons were put to the service of strategy it was not a Palestinian strategy, which can not exist under the current rift, or an Arab strategy, especially now that Hamas has thwarted Egypt's reconciliation drive.

Once again, Egypt will not allow itself to be dragged into battles against its will; it will not be inveigled by others that exploit the banners of Arabism or Islam, or the fight against Israel, to advance the agendas of other countries.


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