Gaza has turned in the past few years into a major preoccupation of the Egyptian leadership and a potential threat to Egypt’s national security.
Apparently, the push and pull of a myriad of domestic and international pressures are inhibiting Cairo from dealing successfully with this strategic file.
Though peacemaking has remained vital to Egypt’s regional strategy since the late 1980s, the repercussions of the protracted Israeli-Palestinian armed conflict have not directly touched Egyptian territories for most of that period.
Egypt’s involvement was devoid of the type of urgency that colored its dealing with pressing domestic issues, such as the mounting economic crisis and the bloody confrontation with Islamic militants. In contrast to these “hot issues, the Palestinian issue seemed mostly “cold, since it did not directly jeopardize Egypt’s “national interest, loosely defined as “the maintenance of a country’s territorial integrity.
This unperturbed attitude towards the Palestinian problem changed, however, in the period from October 2004 to July 2005 when three mega explosions hit the Sinai resorts of Taba, Dahab and Sharm El-Sheikh and left around 150 dead. Investigations conducted by Egyptian authorities found that Taba’s attack was the result of close collaboration between Egyptian and Palestinian militants. And numerous reports have purported that explosives used were smuggled from the arms-packed Palestinian territories. A resurrection of the Islamic insurgency that harvested thousands of Egyptian lives in the late 80s and early 90s loomed high, this time backed up by a zealous external group based in Gaza.
Unsurprisingly, the Egyptian leadership grew apprehensive about the prospect of Palestinian violence (nurtured by Israeli aggression and Fatah-Hamas frictions) spilling over to Egypt. Egyptian concerns were compounded in the aftermath of the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in August 2005.
In January 2006, the Egyptian leadership was shaken by the unanticipated results of Palestinian legislative elections. The Islamic movement Hamas won 56 percent of the seats of the Palestinian Legislative Council, in contrast to 34 percent won by members of Fatah, Egypt’s longstanding ally. Founded in 1987, Hamas is widely considered the Palestinian branch of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian regime’s formidable opponent who had, just two months earlier, controlled 20 percent of the seats of the People’s Assembly. To many in Egypt’s ruling elite, Egypt became sandwiched between the Muslim Brothers within and their international allies at the Eastern borders. The takeover of Gaza in 2007 fueled the hysteria.
One serious dilemma facing Egypt is that any rapprochement with Hamas would strain its relationship with both Israel and the United States. On the other hand, taking part in the punitive measures against Hamas would spark widespread anger among its population. Egypt is stuck between the hammer and the anvil. As long as Egypt’s foreign policy is not welcomed by its population, a delicate balancing act is needed to maintain domestic stability without gambling with Egypt’s external relations, yet that is not always feasible.
Last January, for instance, Egypt grudgingly allowed thousands of Palestinian Pilgrims to return to Gaza via the Rafah Crossing thus bypassing Israeli border checks. The pilgrims had been stuck along the border for weeks. Egypt’s decision was meant to discredit claims that it was part of “the plot to punish Palestinian people for electing Hamas, and, in the meantime, control popular reactions before they gained momentum.
Doubtless, Washington and Tel Aviv showed their discontent.
Accordingly, Cairo’s alleged shirking in dealing with tunnels used in smuggling weapons into Israel was brought again to the surface. Israeli active lobbying in Washington resulted in the Congress freezing $200 million of US aid; surely nothing could drive Cairo madder. The administration vetoed the decree, but Cairo was reminded of the clout of Israel in the US and its ability to harm Egypt’s strategic ties with the US whenever its attitude is deemed unsatisfactory.
The most crucial Gaza-related crisis came with the influx of hundreds of thousands of despaired Gazans into Egyptian territory after blowing up the border wall at Rafah. The tight Israeli blockade propelled the impoverished population to shop for food, medicine and fuel from Egyptian merchants in Rafah and Arish. Caught by surprise and fearful of a bloodbath of Arab brethren, Egyptian guards were instructed to stop fire and allowed entrance. The shopping spree came to an end and the borders were resealed, but the incident was an electric-shock reminder of the costs of an unsolved Palestinian problem and a lingering human tragedy in Gaza. To many ideologically-hypnotized politicians in Cairo, it revealed that cursing the neighbor next-door does not change geopolitical realities; the fact stands that Gaza is – and will remain – Egypt’s neighbor, something that merits engagement not withdrawal.
Nael M. Shama, PhD, is a political researcher and freelance writer based in Cairo.