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Why are Egyptians still celebrating the man who killed 3 Israeli soldiers?

June 12, 2023 at 2:00 pm

Israeli forces in Nablus, West Bank on March 01, 2023. [Nedal Eshtayah – Anadolu Agency]

The celebrations persist in Egypt for the executor of the attack on the Israeli army, Mohamed Salah Ibrahim, despite official media silence on the matter and security restrictions on his family, which left them unable to hold a public funeral for him.

The glorification of the soldier who killed three Israeli soldiers and injured two others was bolstered by unofficial reports suggesting the death toll from the attack he carried out last week had risen to five.

Despite official statements from Egyptian authorities linking the incident to the pursuit of drug smugglers, the public was quick to believe the Israeli narrative. They even considered the attacker a hero.

A people’s icon

A glance at social media, particularly Salah’s personal Facebook page, and it is plain to see the public’s perception and views on the normalisation of relations with Israel.

Egyptians are referring to Salah, a conscript serving his mandatory service, as a martyr — a title usually reserved for those who die in battle with the enemy, according to Muslim belief. This suggests they see him as having been fighting a continued battle with the Israeli enemy, in spite of the peace treaty signed between Egypt and Israel in 1979.

Perhaps what made Ibrahim’s actions more praiseworthy was that they took place days after the Israeli cabinet held a meeting in the tunnels beneath Al-Aqsa Mosque, after right-wing ministers stormed the mosque’s grounds. The besieged Gaza Strip had also been attacked and resistance leaders were assassinated.

Salah had previously shown sympathy for the Gaza Strip in light of Israeli attacks targeting Palestinians in 2021. He had written on social media: “God stands with Palestine.”

Intriguingly, the person who carried out the operation bore the same name as Egyptian football Mohamed Salah. The former was hailed as the “real pride of the Arab world”, surpassing the achievements of the Premier League’s top scorer for three seasons.

This conscript reminded the public of soldier Suleiman Khater, who carried out a similar operation on the border in 1985, killing five Israeli soldiers, and of Ayman Hassan who killed 21 Israelis in 1990.

READ: The latest border attack puts Egypt on the list of risks to Israel

Conscripts in the Egyptian army, who don’t hold academic qualifications, serve in this sector for three years as mandatory service. They are often viewed as inferior due to their lesser education and distance from politics. Yet, this time, a striking blow came from them — an action with profound implications.

Salah’s age – he was 22 – shocked many Israelis. Born in 2001, he belongs to the third generation that was raised under a culture of normalisation and has no connection with the generations that experienced the wars and tension between Egypt and Israel.

According to an Egyptian political analyst, who spoke anonymously to the Middle East Monitor, the operation might prompt a reassessment of the normalisation process in the region. He stated that this was the first operation by an Egyptian soldier on the borders in 33 years, signifying that the Egyptian public remains aware of and alert to their real enemy.

Security siege

It appears that the Egyptian regime, which was taken aback by the operation, was disconcerted by the significant public sympathy for Salah. It resorted to arresting several members of his family and friends, conducting extensive investigations into his political and religious affiliations, and forbidding the holding of a memorial service for him. Stringent measures were imposed during his burial ceremony, attended by only a few of his family members, in the family graveyard in Al-Ammar village.

Despite the official media blackout on the incident, Egyptians were quick to believe the Israeli narrative, which seemed solid and coherent compared to the weak and disjointed official Egyptian description of pursuing drug traffickers without revealing the traffickers’ fate.

Political analyst Abu Anas Al-Masry attributes this blackout to fundamental problems in the Egyptian regime: a lack of transparency, rampant bureaucracy, deliberate obscuring of the truth from the public and the control sovereign bodies have over key media sectors. This has resulted in Egyptians seeking news and developments from other sources, in this case Israel.

Speaking to Middle East Monitor, he said the unprofessional media handling of the incident undermined the credibility of the Egyptian side, which entangled itself in formulating an illogical narrative, providing grounds for accusations of lying and deception. There was a widespread public feeling that something was being hidden.

Egyptians continue to reject the normalising of ties with the Israeli occupation - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Egyptians continue to reject the normalising of ties with the Israeli occupation – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Costly aftermath

Undoubtedly, the incident will lead to enhanced cooperation between the two countries in border surveillance, joint patrols, and reviewing the records of conscripts working in the border area to prevent such attacks in the future.

The incident may exacerbate Israeli pressures on Egypt concerning its ability to secure the borders and fine-tune its security apparatus in a manner that considers future Israeli security considerations. This opens the door for increased coordination between the two sides and perhaps making concessions that would allow the Israeli side to supervise the securing of the borders from both sides and gain sensitive information about Egyptian patrols and surveillance personnel.

According to an Israeli statement, Tel Aviv and Cairo agreed to form a joint investigation team following the incident, emphasising the necessity of continuing coordination and security cooperation to maintain calm at the border.

READ: It took just one Egyptian border guard to boost the nation amid normalisation with Israel

Salah’s actions have had a more significant impact on Israel. He successfully revealed the weaknesses in Israeli security readiness and underscored the state of hostility, anger and rejection of normalisation with the occupation state. Indeed, he stirred the Egyptian public into an unprecedented celebratory state which almost nullifies any progress made by the ‘peace deal’ signed 44 years ago.

There is fear in Tel Aviv that Salah’s actions may encourage others to replicate his actions and cause a previously dormant front to flare up for the first time in decades.

Tel Aviv will now reassess its stance on the risks along its southern border with Egypt and evaluate the security situation there. It’s likely to allocate a larger budget to increase the readiness of its monitoring points while bracing for a potential flare-up in a region that may have been previously ignored.

The Israeli military is conducting comprehensive military manoeuvres simulating a multi-front war. This includes Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and the West Bank, as part of a multifaceted conflict. Egypt was effectively excluded from its scenarios, but Salah’s operation may change this. This is a worrying prospect for both Egypt and Israel.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.