Egypt’s military leader responds to Lieberman with threat of violence

Cairo seeks clarification after foreign minister reportedly branded Egypt more dangerous than Iran

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

In remarks apparently directed at Israel, Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) and the country’s de facto leader, threatened on Monday to thwart any foreign aggression against Egypt. He was speaking in the wake of reports, widely covered in the Egyptian media, that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has warned of an imminent military threat emanating from Egypt.

“Our borders are constantly burning, but we do not attack any neighboring country but only protect our borders,” Tantawi told Egyptian press during a live ammunition maneuver in the Sinai Peninsula titled “Nasr 7.” “If anyone comes close to Egypt’s border, we will break their leg. Therefore, our forces must be in a perpetual state of alert.”

A second senior military figure, Major General Muhammad Higazi, commander of Egypt’s Second Field Army, also issued a tacit threat, warning that potential aggressors should “reconsider before thinking of attacking any part of Egypt’s territory.”

In Jerusalem, the Foreign Ministry sought to calm the dispute. “The foreign minister was interviewed today on two Israeli radio stations,” a spokesman said on Monday evening, “and he made it very clear that both sides have a clear interest in keeping the peace agreement.”

On Sunday, the Hebrew daily Maariv reported that Lieberman recently sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, warning him about a potential threat from Egypt and requesting that Israel’s southern command be reinforced by three military divisions. “The Egyptian issue is much more disturbing than the Iranian problem,” Lieberman was reported to have said during closed discussions on the topic.

Lieberman’s comments were prominently covered in Egyptian media on Monday, sparking condemnation from commentators and politicians.

Egypt’s Foreign Ministry asked the Israeli government on Monday to clarify the statements attributed to Lieberman.

Foreign Minister Muhammad Amr asked his ambassador in Tel Aviv to inquire about statements comparing the Egyptian threat to that of Iran, establishment daily Al-Ahram reported Monday.

“[The Egyptian ambassador] will convey Egypt’s bewilderment at the publication of such words, attributed to a senior official in the Israeli government,” read a statement issued by Egypt’s Foreign Ministry.

According to Maariv, Lieberman also criticized the fighting capabilities of the seven battalions Egypt sent to the Sinai recently to combat al-Qaeda operatives in the peninsula. The minister could not rule out the possibility that Egypt will divert more substantial military forces to the Sinai following the election of a new president in June, in violation of the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, Maariv reported.

Tensions remain high between Israel and Egypt following news Sunday that Egypt has annulled its natural gas agreement with Israel. In addition to Tantawi, another senior Egyptian officer retorted with a tacit threat of his own toward Israel.

“The Egyptian fighter will secure the eastern borders of the country,” said Major General Muhammad Higazi, commander of Egypt’s Second Field Army, during the Sinai maneuver. “The ongoing training is a clear message for all to reconsider before thinking of attacking any part of Egypt’s territory,” he told Al-Ahram.

The daily quoted Higazi as saying that Egypt’s armed forces sent troops to the northern Sinai city of Al-Arish, near the border with the Gaza Strip, “without asking permission from anyone.”

“We act based on what influences us, not according to what the other side [Israel] imposes on us,” Higazi added.


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