The Middle East Channel

Egypt confronts its role in the Gaza blockade

The silver lining in the tragedy of Israel’s brutal raid on the Free Gaza flotilla is a new urgency about lifting the blockade on Gaza and addressing the territory’s humanitarian crisis. Calls for the blockade to be lifted have been made in the Arab world, in Europe and even, albeit more timidly, by the Obama ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

The silver lining in the tragedy of Israel’s brutal raid on the Free Gaza flotilla is a new urgency about lifting the blockade on Gaza and addressing the territory’s humanitarian crisis. Calls for the blockade to be lifted have been made in the Arab world, in Europe and even, albeit more timidly, by the Obama administration. But Israel’s siege is not the only thing that has been highlighted: the role of Egypt, Tel Aviv’s silent partner in the blockade, has also been brought to the fore. This is an uncomfortable development for Egypt, which denies playing any role in the blockade even as it closed its border with Gaza at Rafah since the June, 2007 Hamas takeover. Even now, after quietly opening the Rafah border crossing to avoid popular outrage, the Egyptians are preventing an aid convoy led by the Alexandria Pharmacists Association from reaching the crossing. The renewed uproar over Rafah has the potential to destabilize Egypt, exponentially raising the cost of its participation in the Israeli-led, Quartet-endorsed blockade — an outcome that the Egyptians will seek to avoid but is also a concern for their Arab allies, Israel and the Obama administration.

The Egyptians have for the past three years offered an elaborate explanation to deflect blame for their enforcing of the blockade — despite the fact that the border, with a few exceptions for a few medical cases and hajj pilgrims, has remained closed since June 9, 2007.  Whatever the legal merits of Egypt’s position, domestically and regionally it lost the moral and political argument: there has been widespread outrage at what is essentially seen as Egyptian collaboration with Israel to punish Gazans for Hamas’s actions. Its intentions have also been made clear by acts that can be best described as petty and vindictive, such as the treatment of last December’s Viva Palestina convoy, which arrived at the southern Sinai port of Nuweiba only to be told to it could not disembark: it was forced to go to the northern Sinai port of al-Arish by heading back to Jordan, driving up to Syria, and then chartering a boat to al-Arish. Its reported intention of building an imposing wall across the border has been the subject of intense debate.

Why has Egypt taken such an unpopular hard line towards the Rafah crossing into Gaza?  What will it do now?

Firstly, the Egyptian regime has been concerned about the precedent that Hamas’ political electoral success in Palestinian elections in January 2006 set for the region, particularly after Egypt’s own Muslim Brotherhood secured an unprecedented 20 percent of parliament. It wants Hamas to fail. Mustafa al-Fiqi, the chairman of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, noted at the time, "Egypt will not accept the establishment of an Islamic emirate along the eastern border." Yet, despite its overt and covert support for Fatah and, until June 2006, a substantial intelligence presence in Gaza, it has failed to contain Hamas. This has been a personal failure of Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s intelligence chief, who has now spent five years assuring visiting dignitaries he has a plan to reverse Hamas’s rise without anything to show for it. 

Secondly, Egypt’s ties with Israel and the United States have been prioritized over the Palestinian cause, even if this comes at a domestic cost. Between 2006 and 2009, the U.S. Congress aggressively pressured Egypt to do more to constrain weapons smuggling to Gaza, with military aid threatened for the first time. In 2009, U.S. and Israeli lobbying resulted in the construction of a metal wall at the border and the intensification of operations against tunnel smugglers. There has been a concurrent increase in support for the Mubarak regime in Washington, notably once the Obama administration came into office: not only have pressures on human rights and democratization vanished, but backlogged military purchases such as a multi-year $3.2 billion F-16 deal have been approved by Congress. While this is in part because of the new administration’s wish to distance itself from Bush administration policies, it is also due to its perception that Cairo is a crucial ally in its handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Of course, Egypt also has legitimate security concerns about Hamas’ control of Gaza. It is concerned about radicalization of the territory and  believes that Gazan groups more radical than Hamas may have provided training for the terrorists who carried out three major attacks in Sinai between 2004 and 2006. (It is generally believed Hamas has imposed order in Gaza and checked smaller radical groups and criminal gangs.) The issue of weapons smuggling not only affects Israel’s security, but also Egypt’s, as stockpiles of explosives discovered in Sinai over the past year suggests. The dismantling of a network of Hizbullah network last year, recognized by Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah to be involved in smuggling to Gaza, has also raised concerns that Egypt could be drawn into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even worse, officials fear a plan to "dump" the problem of Gaza on Egypt’s lap, something Israeli strategists have contemplated for decades. Already facing tense relations with the Bedouin population of Eastern Sinai, the regime has no desire to become responsible for Gaza, one of the most radicalized places on the planet. 

But perhaps most importantly, it is the Mubarak regime’s own security that is threatened. During the Gaza war, Nasrallah made an unprecedented call for the Egyptian military, as well as citizens, to force the regime to open the border. Many officials I spoke to during the war felt that the "resistance front" of Iran, Syria, Qatar, Hizbullah and Hamas — as well as pro-Palestinian activists around the world and media outlets such al-Jazeera or al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper — was waging war on Egypt as much as Israel. It was a flashback to the 1980s, when Egypt had been kicked out of the Arab League for signing a separate peace deal. 

The regime has been suppressing activism on Gaza, despite growing tolerance for activism on other issues in the last decade. Campaigns against the blockade have been thoroughly suppressed, with even the new independent press treading carefully on the issue. Pro-Gaza activists have been arrested and foreign activists deported. The Muslim Brotherhood, which has organized one of the biggest aid drives for Gaza, has nonetheless refrained from any major demonstration condemning the regime on its Gaza policy since the war. Battered by a wave of arrests in the last three years, the Brotherhood has been unwilling to risk more clashes with the regime. There are few issues as sensitive as Gaza policy in Egypt today. Meanwhile, senior officials such as Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son, have articulated an "Egypt First" policy that is widely echoed in the official press, often relying on anti-Palestinian stereotypes and chauvinism.  

Parts of the opposition have suggested alternatives to the current policy, though. After the flotilla incident, Mohamed ElBaradei — the former IAEA chief who is campaigning for democratic change in Egypt — called for the opening of Rafah and slammed the regime, tweeting that "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." Short of opening full trade relations, providing humanitarian assistance is a more likely scenario. Essam al-Erian, a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood and Gaza aid organizer, is one of many who argues that opening the border to Gazans is not incompatible with national security, since safeguards can be put in place. This is a reasonable position, albeit one the government has chosen to ignore. 

It is not clear how "Egypt First" will fare in the wake of the outcry over the flotilla incident. The very first statement issued by the Egyptian presidency after the incident was that "the blockade can only be lifted when Palestinian reconciliation takes place" — the standing policy — only to be overturned hours later by a presidential directive to open the border "for an indefinite time." With thousands protesting in Cairo and around the country over several days — and participants chanting anti-Mubarak slogans and making the link between the regime and Israel explicit — closing Rafah was no longer tenable. More likely, though, is a policy of deliberate ambiguity: while Palestinians have crossed through the Rafah terminal in the last few days, much of the aid is still getting held back or being made to go through Karam Abu Salem. There is no clear commitment to keep Rafah open, and Cairo has lobbied hard at the Arab League to keep diplomacy focused on action at the U.N. Security Council and away from Egyptian policy. 

Egypt’s next concern will be the future of the blockade. In the short term, international focus will be on providing humanitarian relief and construction materials. Ultimately, though, Gazans and their supporters worldwide want to restore the economic integrity of the Palestinian Occupied Territories — their ability to trade among themselves and with rest of the world. For this, international support for Palestinian reconciliation would be necessary. Egypt’s position will be that that it is up to Israel to do that, with international support, on its side of the border. The Obama administration is reportedly pushing Israel to relax the enforcement of the blockade.

But what if Israel refuses to budge? If there is no breakthrough, the pressure returns on opening Rafah — and the last thing Egypt wants is to be seen as responsible for Gaza. Its priority is thus to ensure it does not come out a loser from the fallout of the flotilla incident. The Mubarak regime is being confronted by its complicity in the Gaza blockade just as its legitimacy has plummeted amidst uncertainty over Mubarak’s health (he was hospitalized for three weeks in March and is rumored to have cancer) and Egypt’s future leadership. That too will play a role in the calculations of not only the Egyptians, but also the Obama administration. 

Issandr Amrani is a Cairo-based independent journalist who blogs at The Arabist.

Issandr El Amrani is the North Africa project director for the International Crisis Group.

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