Egypt caught in the middle

Daily News Egypt
8 Min Read

Egypt has come under a barrage of criticism due to its reluctance to keep open its border with Gaza despite humanitarian appeals. Critics also wonder how the largest and one of the most influential Arab nations can cooperate with the incoming right wing Israeli government led by Binyamin Netanyahu, who is open in his non support of a two-state solution preferring an alternative he dubs “economic peace .

In other words, he is prepared to throw some scraps to Palestinian residents of the West Bank in the hope of buying their silence over the expansion of illegal Jewish colonies while leaving Gaza to rot under siege.

Yet, according to the Israeli daily Haaretz Netanyahu is to be invited on an official visit to Egypt almost as soon as he takes office possibly along with the man slated to be his foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman. Egypt has vehemently denied this report.

Lieberman is a fascist who has advocated the drowning of Palestinian prisoners and the execution of Israeli-Arab Knesset members who have met with Palestinian militants. Moreover, he has publicly insulted the Egyptian leadership, saying “Go to hell!

The man tapped to be Israel’s new Minister of Defense Moshe ‘Boogie’ Ya’alon is even more unpalatable. He is the general who fled from Britain some years ago after receiving a tip off he was about to be arrested for war crimes and is thought to have been in charge of assassination squads targeting Hamas leaders among others.

There is little doubt that the Camp David peace agreement is becoming somewhat of an embarrassment to the Egyptians due to Israel’s aggressive war against Lebanon that robbed the lives of 1,200 civilians, its 22-day-long bombardment of Gaza leaving 1,400 dead and an almost two-year-long Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip that has impoverished its 1.5 million ‘captives’. Certainly, a widely circulated photograph of the Egyptian president shaking hands with the Israeli foreign minister immediately prior to Israel’s Gaza onslaught didn’t go down very well with Arab publics.

The Egyptian government recently showed its frustration with Israel which reneged on the terms of a ceasefire agreement with Hamas; one that Egypt had struggled to persuade Hamas to endorse. No deal without the release of Gilad Shalit was the last minute Israeli precondition, which even enraged Israel’s own negotiator Amos Gilad.

So, why doesn’t Egypt tell Israel to ‘go to hell’, shred the peace agreement, open its Rafah crossing with Gaza and reassert its traditional role as Umm Al Arabiya or mother of the Arab world? After all, peace between Egypt and Israel has to be the iciest in history. Ordinary Egyptians still view Israelis as their enemies and, quite honestly, I’ve yet to come across one who would consider vacationing in Tel Aviv.

I must admit I’ve advocated this step myself in previous columns. But upon reflection this is a lot easier said than done. Let’s attempt to spotlight the dilemma from an Egyptian lens. Egypt simply has too much to lose.

First of all, Egyptian-Israeli wars waged on behalf of the Palestinians took a terrible toll on Egypt. In 1967, over 9,800 Egyptian soldiers were killed, missing in action or wounded, and during the 1973 war, some 8,000 Egyptians were killed.

Moreover, these conflicts shattered Egypt’s economy prompting the former Egyptian president the late Anwar Sadat’s decision to put the future of his own people first by signing up to the 1979 peace treaty brokered by President Jimmy Carter. To be fair, he invited all Arab countries and the Palestinian leadership to join him at the peace table.

Their answer was to expel Egypt from the Arab League. The tragedy is, had the Arab world embraced Camp David at the time, the Jewish state would today be limited to its 1967 borders. Instead, Palestinians are now being asked to accept just 22 percent of their historic homeland sliced into non-contiguous chunks.

There is no doubt that there is little appetite in Egypt for renewed enmity with its militarily powerful neighbor. Its population of 80 million with an official per capita income of just $5,500 (the majority survives on far less) has a natural affinity with its Palestinian brothers but is largely focused on their own daily challenges. Finding enough money for their children’s education or scrimping to buy a home for a soon-to-be-wed son usually looms large on the itinerary of most Egyptian families.

Breaking Camp David would definitely have severe economic repercussions for Egypt. The bedrock of its economy tourism would be hugely affected as would exports. Furthermore, it is likely Washington would cease providing Egypt with almost US$ 3 billion military and economic aid annually. Egypt has received more than US$ 50 billion from the US since Camp David.

Let’s suppose that the Arab world or some other big power such as Russia would be willing to make-up the cash shortfall, Egypt’s place within the international community (read pro-US nations) would be endangered. In the worst scenario, it, too, would be labeled a pariah state in the same way that Iran and Syria is today and could be subjected to international sanctions. Inevitably it would lose its international clout and could become fertile soil for Islamist extremists were the government to be weakened.

In any event, such a step wouldn’t do the Egyptians any favors and neither would it further the Palestinian cause. Without Egypt’s influence, it’s probable that Israel would have a free hand to clamp down on Palestinians even more that it is doing now and would certainly refuse any idea of a Palestinian state aligned with a hostile Egypt.

If the entire Arab world, together with Iran and Turkey, were united the story might be different (don’t hold your breath), but in the meantime, let’s cut Egypt some slack. Sadly, it’s caught between a rock and a very hard place. A resurgent Arab nationalist Egypt may sound romantic to some ears but, in reality, the costs are just too great.

Linda S. Heardis a syndicated political columnist specializing on Middle Eastern affairs. She can be reached on [email protected]

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