The most uncomfortable man in the Middle East

The most uncomfortable man in the Middle East right now is not Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or even his defense minister, Ehud Barak — who will undoubtedly face damning questions in light of the Miva Marmara affair — but Hosni Mubarak. Egypt’s president is in a tough spot. The Egyptian government has for years ...

By , a former managing editor of Foreign Policy.
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

The most uncomfortable man in the Middle East right now is not Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or even his defense minister, Ehud Barak -- who will undoubtedly face damning questions in light of the Miva Marmara affair -- but Hosni Mubarak.

The most uncomfortable man in the Middle East right now is not Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or even his defense minister, Ehud Barak — who will undoubtedly face damning questions in light of the Miva Marmara affair — but Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt’s president is in a tough spot. The Egyptian government has for years cooperated with Israel in enforcing the blockade in Gaza and containing Hamas. For Mubarak, it’s a policy that makes sense — he wants to preserve good relations with his northern neighbor, and he has no interest in seeing Hamas’s brand of  Islamist activism gain any further ground in Egypt. It’s not very popular on the streets of Cairo, but any time the pressure grows too strong, he can relax the blockade a bit and show his magnanimity. And by never fully cracking down on smuggling, he keeps the restive bedouin population of north Sinai relatively quiescent, while avoiding the difficult and expensive task of actually trying to develop the area.

Sure enough, Mubarak has just ordered the opening of the Rafah border crossing, citing humanitarian needs in Gaza. After a few days — once he gets back from his trip to the French Riviera — he’ll quietly close it again. But this time, there’s a new wrinkle: he’s got vocal, credible rivals who might be able to embarrass him and make some political hay out of the issue.

Amr Moussa, the head of the Arab League and a relatively popular figure in Egypt, used the incident to call for a lifting of the Gaza “siege” and summoned the Arab League to Cairo for an emergency meeting.

Former IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei twice tweeted about the flotilla, saying “The opening of the Rafah crossing is the demand of every Egyptian and Arab. In a democracy, foreign policy represents the will of its people” and that “The Israeli agression on the Freedom Flotilla exposes an inhumane regime, a blot on Arab conscience. Open the crossings immediately.” But he’s facing hard questions in Egypt about whether he’s really committed to politics, and I’m not aware that he’s taken to the press this line of attack.

Another problem for Mubarak is what happens if Egyptians, watching Gaza flotilla activists put Israel on the defensive, get ideas in their heads about domestic politics? With important elections coming up, it’s political season again in Egypt. So far, the protests have been small and focused on Gaza, but Egyptians could easily make a connection between what’s going on there and the government’s policies. That’s always dangerous territory for Mubarak.

Blake Hounshell is a former managing editor of Foreign Policy.

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