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Israel-Palestine war: Riled by Israel’s Gaza plans, Egypt pushes back

By Sean Matthews

Published in Middle East Eye on 6 November 2023

Egyptian army special forces soldiers deploy near the gate of the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip in the east of North Sinai province on 20 October 2023 (AFP)

Egypt is telling the US that Israel’s stated goal to remove Hamas from governing the Gaza Strip is an unrealistic war aim, according to sources familiar with the matter.

The warnings are being delivered regularly by Egyptian officials as Cairo rebuffs US overtures to take on a potential future security role in the besieged enclave and Israeli calls to accept a forced displacement of Palestinians.

The warnings underscore Egypt’s desire for a speedy end to the war raging across its border, but also how Cairo has staked out a more assertive stance to the conflict than some Israeli and western officials anticipated.

Experts say that Israel’s lobbying for a forced displacement of Palestinians from Gaza fuelled the pushback because it crystallised Egyptian fears that a long-running war there could destabilise the Sinai region with domestic spillover among a population broadly supportive of the Palestinian cause.

“The war, and Israel’s more aggressive actions and statements, have made Egypt … and most Arab countries rethink their policies toward Israel,” Ayman Zaineldine, a former senior Egyptian diplomat, told Middle East Eye.

“The push to expel Palestinians from Gaza showed that Israel can be a direct threat to Egypt’s national security.”

Egypt worked quickly to squash the plan.

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who maintains tight control over Egypt, threatened to unleash his citizens who he said would “go out and protest in their millions … if called upon to do so” against forced displacement.

Sisi said this month that his country “affirmed and reiterated its complete rejection of the forced displacement of Palestinians and their exodus to Egyptian lands in Sinai, as this is nothing but a final liquidation of the Palestinian cause”.

Outsourcing Gaza’s security 

Accepting an influx of refugees would be lucrative for Egypt’s cash-strapped government, experts say, with Israel reportedly floating a plan to write off Egypt’s international debts through the World Bank and the European Union holding out a potential refugee aid deal.

“You can bet that if Egypt had agreed to what Israel wanted, they wouldn’t be in the dire economic straits they are today,” Mirette Mabrouk, director of the Middle East Institute’s Egypt programme, told MEE.

“But Egypt pushed back quite hard. I don’t think the financial incentives are going to sway them,” she said.

Egypt has also rejected a plan MEE previously reported where US and Israeli officials discussed Egypt managing security of the Gaza Strip until the Palestinian Authority (PA) could take over – if and when Hamas is defeated.

“I have no doubt Egypt will not allow Israel to outsource security of the Gaza Strip … That would make Egypt complicit in Israel’s illegal occupation,” added Zaineldine, who reiterated the plan would pose a “direct threat” to Egypt’s national security.

‘Sinai is a red line’

Khaled Fahmy, an expert on Egypt at Tufts University, said Egypt’s rejection of further entanglements in the Gaza Strip exposed a misunderstanding in Israel and western capitals of how Cairo viewed its priorities in Gaza.

Egypt has a web of interests in the Mediterranean enclave which it occupied in two stages between 1948 and 1967. In the past, tensions in Gaza have preceded an eruption of violence between Egypt and Israel, including the 1956 Suez Crisis.

Today, Egypt fears that an influx of Palestinians could destabilise Sinai, where the government has spent years fighting a festering insurgency including against local affiliates of the Islamic State group.

Cairo is also loath to allow an influx of refugees that could see Palestinian fighters establish bases to attack Israel as they have in Lebanon, which could lead to direct Israeli military action in the desert peninsula.

“The pushback Sisi faces to forced displacement is first and foremost coming from within the military,” Fahmy told MEE. “For Egypt’s military, Sinai is a red line.”

Egypt’s protests have resonated in Washington.

Cairo elicited a public pledge from President Joe Biden that Palestinians in Gaza will not be displaced. But the presidential nod to Egypt’s concerns was also an acknowledgment of Cairo’s role in the war that has now entered its fifth week, experts say.

Egyptian military police keep back demonstrators at a protest by the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip on the Egyptian side in the east of North Sinai province on 20 October 2023 (AFP)

Egypt controls the Rafah crossing, the only entrance to Gaza not directly controlled by Israel. It is the main corridor for getting international aid into Gaza and bringing out trapped foreign nationals. Egypt has tied its cooperation on extracting foreigners to the delivery of aid.

“The highest priority for Egypt right now is to achieve a ceasefire and boost humanitarian assistance into Gaza to stave off the potential of forced displacement,” Karim Haggag, a professor at the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at The American University in Cairo told MEE.

The Gaza file

Egypt’s military intelligence runs the “Gaza file”, and maintains ties to Hamas, which the US and EU consider a terrorist organisation. Egypt has a delicate relationship with the group, whose roots lie in Egypt’s banned Muslim Brotherhood.

“Egypt has been able to compartmentalise its relationship with Hamas,” Haggag told MEE. “There is a de facto acceptance of Hamas as the governing entity in Gaza.”

Sisi, who managed the Gaza file as a former head of military intelligence, is probably as well versed on the group as any of Egypt’s former leaders, experts say. He came to power in a military-backed coup in 2013 that ousted Egypt’s first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi.

One of Sisi’s first acts was to clamp down on the opening to the blockaded border that had been permitted under former president Morsi.

His government evicted tens of thousands of people on its side of the divided Rafah city to expand its buffer zone with Gaza. Since 2015, Egypt has destroyed more than 3,000 tunnels leading to the enclave. And it built a 20-foot reinforced concrete wall to block the construction of more.

But Fahmy said the outbreak of war came at a time when Sisi’s government had tilted towards managing ties with Hamas.

“Now that the Muslim Brotherhood is basically gone, the rhetoric the Egyptian government uses against Hamas is more nuanced,” he said. “The Egyptian military knows Hamas has a presence in Gaza that transcends combatants.”

As the fighting in Gaza morphs into a protracted urban warfare campaign, Israel will need Egyptian cooperation to choke Hamas.

Despite Egypt’s tunnel crackdown, Hamas has continued to use the Egyptian route to smuggle long-range rockets, according to its leaders. In the past, the group relied on missiles believed to be smuggled from Yemen, Sudan and Egypt.

While those shipments have dried up, Israel’s military says the tunnels were active in the lead-up to the 7 October attack and that Hamas may try to launch new assaults on Israel by sneaking into the country from Egypt’s side of the border.

Egypt’s cloak-and-dagger security role has not generated the same attention as aid convoys, but experts say it is a key reason why the Biden administration gave pause to Israel’s lobbying for forced displacement.

“I think people started to realise it is foolish to push Egypt,” Mabrouk, of the Middle East Institute, told MEE. “All Egypt has to do is just not be as friendly to Israel on security cooperation and life will become extremely difficult for the Israelis.”

‘Prepared to sacrifice millions’

For now, Egypt has been able to leverage ties with both Hamas and Israel to win plaudits on both sides.

Last month, Israel thanked Egypt for playing a “key role” in the release of two Israeli hostages held by Hamas. The group is believed to hold 242 hostages, but says more than 60 are missing because of Israeli air strikes.

Meanwhile, Hamas’s political leader, Ismail Haniyeh, “commended” Egypt for rejecting the forced displacement of Palestinians.

For its part, Egypt still needs Hamas to help maintain security at the border.

In 2008, Hamas blew holes in its fence with Egypt and allowed thousands of Palestinians to pour into Sinai in a show of defiance at Israel’s siege of the enclave.

Egypt’s then military-backed president Hosni Mubarak said he gave the order to “let them come in to eat and buy food, then they go back, as long as they are not carrying weapons”.

Last week Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly told tribal and military leaders in Sinai that the government is “prepared to sacrifice millions of lives to ensure that no one encroaches upon our territory”.

Cairo’s focus on bringing aid into Gaza is directly motivated by concerns to avoid a repeat of 2008, experts say, which could put Sisi’s army in the uncomfortable position of facing down Palestinians starving from the Israeli siege.

So far it has allowed only some wounded Palestinians over the border. On Saturday the crossing was closed after an ambulance in the Gaza Strip was hit by an Israeli strike.

‘Sleepless nights in Cairo’

Like other Arab leaders, Sisi has tried to align himself with his people’s position on Israel. He made a rare decision to allow protests. In a sign of the risks, some demonstrators made their way to Cairo’s Tahir Square chanting the slogan of the 2011 Arab Spring protests: “Bread, freedom and social justice”.

“Regardless of what level of Egyptian you talk to – including the president – there is a genuine sympathy for the Palestinians,” Mabrouk said.

“But protests are an unknown commodity. What starts out as something in support of Palestine could very much change. I’m sure someone is having a lot of sleepless nights managing this.”

Haggag, of the AUC, said Cairo was coming under “conflicting pressures” from Israel, the US, Hamas and the public. “It’s a delicate dance for Egypt, but so far the government has managed to strike the right balance.”

The war poses risks to Sisi, but also potential rewards as the Egyptian leader approaches an election next month amid a blistering economic crisis and diplomatic embarrassments abroad.

Egypt eyes financial gains

Before the conflict Egypt was implicated in a corruption investigation that alleged the former chairman of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Robert Menendez, took bribes in exchange for influencing military aid to Cairo.

Amid an uproar over the case and Egypt’s human rights record, his successor Ben Cardin blocked $235m in security assistance.

But last week, critics of Egypt in Congress, including Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, took steps to shore up relations between Cairo and Washington, pushing through what one former US official said was an “exceptionally fast” confirmation of Washington’s new ambassador to Egypt.

“The US-Egypt relationship has had its ups and downs, but whenever tensions erupt in Gaza, the US looks to Egypt,” Jonathan Cohen, the US’s former ambassador to Egypt, told MEE.

“The war, and Washington’s aim to contain the conflict, have underscored the centrality of Egypt to US policy in the region.”

Riccardo Fabiani, of the International Crisis Group, said Egypt appeared well placed to extract economic deals from the West, despite having rejected accepting Palestinian refugees.

He believes the US and Europe could pressure the IMF to relax its requirements on economic reform in Egypt as Cairo looks to increase its loan from the lender from $3bn to $5bn.

Egypt has previously squeezed out economic gains amid wars in the Middle East. In 1991, it was able to secure forgiveness on half its $20.2bn debt owed to the US and its allies in return for joining the coalition against Iraq in the second Gulf War.

Fabiani said this time much of Egypt’s debt is privately held, so Cairo would look for advantages in enhancing its credit and hammering home a refugee aid deal with the EU. Gulf states could also roll over their deposits in Egypt’s central bank.

“Egypt drew its red lines and saw them respected,” Fabiani said. “And now everyone is freaking out about Egypt being destabilised.

“In a twisted, strange way, Egypt has benefitted from the war,” he said.

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