June 16, 2023 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1698

In Wake Of Terrorist Attack On Israeli Border, Egyptian State Press Tries To Defend Peace Agreement With Israel While Also Accommodating Public Opinion That Regards Israel As Enemy

June 16, 2023 | By B. Chernitsky*
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1698

The terrorist attack perpetrated on June 3, 2023 by Egyptian border guard Muhammad Salah Ibrahim, who crossed the border fence and murdered three Israeli soldiers, placed the Egyptian regime in a very uncomfortable position. The regime found itself in a bind, caught between its need to maintain the peace agreement with Israel and its political and security interests on the one hand, and its desire to avoid angering the Egyptian public, most of which regards Israel as an enemy, on the other hand. The regime's request that the shooter's family keep the funeral and the condolence calls low-key and discrete was apparently a reflection of this embarrassment.[1] 

Similarly, in the first few days after the incident, the Egyptian state media kept its coverage of it to a minimum, publishing only two brief reports. The regime's official account of the incident did not present it as a terrorist attack at all, but as an accidental shooting in the course of a chase after drug smugglers. A few days later, the state daily Al-Ahram started publishing articles that tried to walk a fine line between the regime's position on the incident and the view of the Egyptian public. These articles called the incident unfortunate and stressed that the cooperation with Israel is important for Egypt, but at the same time described the shooter as an Egyptian hero who was killed while defending the Egyptian border. Also notable was an article by journalist Muhammad Hussein Abu Al-Hassan, which did not explicitly mention the shooting but was apparently intended to undermine any attempt to present it as religiously justifiable. The article presented the doctrine of moderate cleric 'Abdullah Bin Bayyah, who argues that not every act of war constitutes jihad, and that military jihad should only be waged in self-defense or in defense of the religion and the homeland, and only on the orders of the ruler. 

This report reviews the official position and statements of the Egyptian establishment on the shooting.

The Official Egyptian Account Of The Incident Does Not Regard It As A Deliberate Attack On The Israeli Soldiers

As stated, the coverage of the incident in the Egyptian state press was very limited, and consisted of two brief reports: a statement by the military spokesman of the Egyptian Armed Forces, Colonel Gharib 'Abd Al-Hafez,  and a report on a phone call between Egyptian Defense Minister Muhammad Zaki and his Israeli counterpart Yoav Gallant. The official Egyptian position, as articulated by the army spokesman and the defense minister, reflected an attempt to walk a fine line. The two referred to the incident without mentioning the border guard's name or describing it as a heroic attack on the enemy, while also justifying the security coordination with Israel, which is required by the terms of the peace agreement with it. At the same time, they refrained from blaming the border guard for the shooting and from referring to it as a murder or an act of terror.

The spokesman of the Egyptian Armed Forces said: "One of the Egyptian security officers tasked with securing the international border was pursuing drug smugglers. He crossed the security barrier [i.e., the border fence] and started an exchange of fire in which three [Israeli] soldiers who were securing the border were killed, and others were wounded, and the [Egyptian] security officer was killed [as well]…" The spokesman concluded his statement by expressing his "sincere condolences" to the bereaved families and wishing a speedy recovery to the wounded.[2]  The report about the conversation between the Egyptian and Israeli defense ministers, published in the state daily Al-Gomhouriyya, disclosed that the Egyptian minister had phoned his Israeli counterpart to coordinate the measures to be taken in order to prevent the recurrence of such an incident in the future. It added that the Egyptian minister had expressed sorrow over "the victims of the incident on both sides."[3] 

Although the position of the Egyptian authorities does not present the incident as a terrorist attack but as an accident, it is still at odds with the prevailing popular attitude towards it in Egypt, which sees the shooter's action as deliberate and commendable. Popular opinion describes him as a "hero" and a "martyr," and praises him for following the example of other Egyptian terrorists who killed Israelis, such as the policeman Suleiman Khater, who murdered seven Israeli tourists in Sinai in 1985, and another policeman, Ayman Hassan, who murdered five Israelis near Eilat in 1990. Praise for Muhamad Salah was conspicuous on social media.[4] Users stressed that Salah's action, like those of his predecessors, had reflected the real position of the Egyptian people towards Israel, which is the opposite of the position of the Egyptian government. Some articles and cartoons in the non-state Egyptian press expressed similar sentiments.[5]

This sweeping popular support for the murder perpetrated by the Egyptian border guard, despite the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, elicited comment in Egypt itself. Egyptian liberal Sameh 'Asker tweeted that the reason Israel is perceived as an enemy in Egypt is that, in every Egyptian family, there is at least one martyr who was killed in one of the four wars that have taken place between the two countries. Moreover, he wrote, the Egyptian people oppose the Israeli occupation and Israel's attacks on the Palestinians.[6]

As stated, this popular position forced the Egyptian establishment to walk a fine line between, on the one hand, the need to maintain the peace agreement with Israel and secure Egypt's interests and, on the other hand, its desire to appease the public. In the background are economic and political issues that concern Egypt and Israel, such as cooperation in the matter of Israel's gas exports to Europe and the attempt to reach understandings on drilling for gas off the Gaza coast, as well as Egypt's ongoing mediation between Israel and Gazan resistance factions in an attempt to achieve calm.

Articles In Egypt's State Press: The Shooting Was "Unfortunate"; Cooperation With Israel Is An Egyptian Interest

As mentioned above, Egypt's state press started explicitly discussing the shooting only four days after it occurred, taking a more moderate attitude than the prevailing view among the Egyptian public.  In his column in the state daily Al-Ahram, Senior journalist 'Osama Saraya, who for years served as the daily's chief editor, expressed the regime's official position, which seeks to maintain the good relations and the security cooperation with Israel. He called the shooting "unfortunate," and noted that Egypt plays an important role in achieving calm between Israel and the Gazan factions and that this boosts Egypt's international status. He wrote: "In the last few years the relations between Egypt and Israel have stabilized and become established, [and today] Egypt plays a central role in stopping any military action or tension on the border between Israel and the Gazan factions. [In fact], it has become an international authority in this important domain… Egypt's official responses to this unfortunate incident were firm and clear, [and involved] a mutual exchange of condolences between high-ranking [Egyptian and] Israeli officials. Our media [also] acted responsibly, for our relations [with Israel] are good and our security relations with it are stable." At the same time, Saraya criticized Israel's policy and urged it to realize that "securing its borders does not involve only military exercises" but also "good relations and cooperation with all sides. This will open up new horizons in the Middle East, as the peoples [of the region] want, especially in terms of [granting] the Palestinians' rights in their homeland, ending the conflict over Jerusalem, granting rights to the members of all religions [there] and restoring East Jerusalem to the Palestinians."[7]              

In another article published that day in Al-Ahram, journalist and former politician Osama Al-Ghazali Harb combined the official Egyptian account of the incident, according to which Salah was chasing after drug smugglers, with the public view that regards him as a "martyr" and "hero" who delivered a blow to the Israeli enemy. He wrote: "The border guard was performing his duty on the Egypt-Israel border and pursuing drug smugglers, and his chase resulted in the killing of three Israeli soldiers and the wounding of two others. Then he was shot by the Israelis and was martyred… What caught my attention is that this young man [Salah] was an ordinary Egyptian… from the 'Ain Shams area. His father worked in public transportation. He left school after junior high to work as a carpenter and work in aluminum, and he liked to draw. These are all occupations typical of a young man with general interests. When he was drafted he happened to be posted on the Egypt-Israel border. Then the incident happened and he became a hero and a martyr, and we are all allowed to be proud of him."[8] 

Al-Ahram Article: Jihad Is A Means Of Achieving Peace, Not A Means Of Violent Action Against Non-Muslims

Just two days after the shooting, the state daily Al-Ahram published a prominent article that did not explicitly refer to the incident but can nevertheless be seen as a response to it and, specifically, as an attempt to prevent it from being seen by the Egyptian public as an act of religiously-sanctioned jihad.  Penned by journalist Muhammad Hussein Abu Al-Hassan, the article dealt with jihad in Islam, and claimed that this concept has been distorted over the years by extremists and extremist organizations. The article presented the views of moderate cleric 'Abdullah Bin Bayyah, head of the UAE's Fatwa Council and secretary-general of the Abu Dhabi Peace Forum, who argues that jihad is a means of achieving peace and growing closer to Allah and that military jihad must not be aimed at imposing Islam on non-Muslims.[9]        

The article stated: "The Islamic concept of jihad has become a political-cultural concept,  interpretated in ways that border on ideological fabrication. The distorted understanding of the commandment of jihad has led to a horrible confusion between jihad and violence. That is why a group of religious scholars and intellectuals are trying to present the accurate meaning [of this term], so as to undermine the efforts of those who spread takfir,[10] violence and terror. One of the prominent figures who have undertaken this task is the great scholar Sheikh 'Abdullah Bin Bayyah…

"[Bin Bayyah] stresses that jihad is not a synonym for fighting. Not all jihad is fighting and not all fighting is jihad. Jihad, in its essence, is a means of [achieving] peace, for it is a collective  term for all the good deeds that bring one closer to Allah: honoring one's parents, building mosques, working the land, helping the needy, defending the homeland, etc. That is the greater jihad… Bin Bayyah clarified that waging military jihad is allowed only in self-defense or in defense of the religion or the homeland, and not with the aim of forcing people to embrace [Islam]… and that launching military jihad is the prerogative of rulers and of the authorities. Otherwise, chaos and destruction will prevail in society…

"Amending [people's] understanding [of major Islamic] concepts has become a cornerstone of imam Bin Bayyah's philosophy, so as to clarify the truth about Islam, namely, that it is a religion of compassion and justice that preaches good deeds, and does not preach [religious] coercion, war and killing…" Abu Al-Hassan concluded his article by proclaiming: "How badly the Muslims and the world need the perception of this reformist cleric, Bin Bayyah!!"[11]       

As stated, the publication of this article in the state daily Al-Ahram two days after the shooting was apparently meant to convey to the public that the Egyptian border guard's action must not be seen or presented as religiously justified. It is also noteworthy that the author of the article chose to cite the doctrine of the moderate cleric Bin Bayyah, and not that of the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Egyptian cleric Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, who heads the most important religious seminary and religious source of authority in the Sunni Muslim world, but opposes normalization with Israel. This choice is interesting but not surprising, since Al-Tayyeb is known to be less pragmatic. In fact, his positions are the reason for the tension that has prevailed for years between Egyptian President 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi, who seeks to reform the religious discourse, and Al-Tayyeb, who has reservations about this campaign. Whereas Al-Sisi wants to characterize Muslim terrorists as heretics and thereby undermine any religious justification for terrorism, Al-Azhar has refrained from doing so. [12]

Al-Ahram Article Praises Salah Without Mentioning His Name

By contrast, a week after the shooting, Al-Ahram started publishing articles applauding the shooter. Journalist Muhammad Salmawi, known for his antisemitic views,[13] penned an article  titled "The Twin Brothers" which praised Salah by comparing him to Egyptian international football star Mo Salah, whose has the same name, but without mentioning this name.  Salmawi wrote that there are "two twin brothers born of Egypt's womb, which brings forth only righteous heroes who allow it to raise its head [in pride] among the peoples and nations… The first [i.e., footballer Mo Salah] has scored over 300 goals that excited 300 million people, and the second [i.e., the border guard Muhammad Salah] scored only three goals [a reference to the three murdered Israeli soldiers], but each was worth 100 million…"[14]

*B. Chernitsky is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1], June 6, 2023; Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), June 5, 2023.

[2], June 3, 2023.

[3] Al-Gomhouriyya (Egypt), June 3, 2023.

[4] Approval of the attack and the shooter was also expressed by the Muslim Brotherhood and organizations affiliated with it, such as Hamas and the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), as well as  by the Palestinian Authority, Fatah, Hizbullah and Qatari figures. See MEMRI reports: Special Dispatch No. 10656 - Qatar-Affiliated Journalists, Clerics: The Egyptian Border Guard Who Murdered Three Israeli Soldiers Is 'A Real Hero,' 'A Martyr' And 'The Pride Of The Arabs' – June 8, 2023; Special Dispatch No. 10663, Palestinian Authority, Fatah Glorify Egyptian Border Guard Muhammad Salah Who Killed Three Israeli Soldiers, June 13, 2023.

[5] See e.g., Al-Shurouq (Egypt), June 4, 2023;, June 3, 2023, June 5, 2023. It should also be noted that Mortada Mansour, the board chairman of the popular Egyptian football club Zamalek, announced an initiative to name one of the club facilities after "the martyr Muhammad Salah," and this was indeed done several days later (, June 7, 2023,, June 10, 2023).

[6], June 5, 2023.

[7] Al-Ahram (Egypt), June 7, 2023.

[8] Al-Ahram (Egypt), June 7, 2023.

[9] For more on Bin Bayyah, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1230, The Marrakesh Declaration And A Critique Of It, February 23, 2016.

[10] Takfir is the act of accusing fellow Muslims of heresy, typical of extremist Islamic figures and organizations.

[11] Al-Ahram (Egypt), June 5, 2023.

[14] Al-Ahram (Egypt), June 10, 2023.

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