The Middle East Channel

Tahrir’s journey to Palestine

The moment that Hosni Mubarak stood down from the Egyptian presidency and it was apparent that his hastily appointed vice-president, the long-time intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, would not be succeeding him, it was clear that much would be changing in Middle Eastern politics — including for Palestinians. Easily the most populous Arab state, and one ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

The moment that Hosni Mubarak stood down from the Egyptian presidency and it was apparent that his hastily appointed vice-president, the long-time intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, would not be succeeding him, it was clear that much would be changing in Middle Eastern politics — including for Palestinians.

Easily the most populous Arab state, and one with a central location abutting Israel/Palestine, Egypt has always had the potential to play a huge role on the Palestinian issue. That role was lessened after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat split with the PLO leaders after the 1978 Camp David accords. But in recent years, Mubarak had become a linchpin in U.S. and Israeli efforts to steer Palestinian politics in a direction amenable to them.

Mubarak and Suleiman had two major ways to exert direct influence over Palestinian politics. First, Egypt has the only land border with the Gaza Strip other than the Strip’s much longer border with Israel. The sole legal crossing point on that border, at Rafah, years ago became the only way that most Gaza Palestinians could ever hope to travel between the Strip and the outside world. (Goods, by contrast, are not allowed through Rafah. Under the 1994 Paris Agreement between Israel and the PLO, all goods going into or out of Gaza must go through crossings that go to Israel.) Cairo’s control over Rafah has given it a huge ability to put pressure on Gaza’s 1.6 million people and the elected Hamas mini-government that administers the Strip. 

In addition, in recent years, Egypt got the full backing of the United States and Israel to play the role of primary interlocutor in all efforts to heal the rift between Hamas and its main rivals in Mahmoud Abbas’s Fateh. But as Suleiman and Mubarak had long been firmly in Abbas’s camp, it surprised no one to see the reconciliation efforts that Suleiman periodically launched come to nothing  — and Fateh and Hamas remained deeply divided.

So the departure of Mubarak and Suleiman from power in Cairo was huge for the Palestinians — especially those trapped for many years inside Gaza, which has been described by many as an open-air prison.

Egypt’s first post-Mubarak foreign minister was veteran diplomat Nabil el-Araby. He promised to take Egypt’s diplomacy into several new directions, especially on the Palestine issue. On May 3, with ranking leaders of Fateh and Hamas standing at his side, he announced that the two movements had agreed to the terms of a new reconciliation agreement. It laid out the terms for the reunification of the two Palestinian Authority (PA) mini-governments that had been functioning in parallel in Gaza and the West Bank, for the integration of Hamas for the first time ever into the structures of the broader Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and for the holding of elections "within one year" for leadership positions within both bodies.

El-Araby announced that the Rafah crossing would be opened. He also declared his intention of restoring diplomatic ties between Cairo and Tehran — an announcement that reportedly ruffled some feathers among members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the shadowy military body that is exercising presidential functions in Egypt pending the election of a new president early next year.

Around June 20, El-Araby was moved — apparently at the behest of SCAF head Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi — to become the new secretary-general of the Arab League. He was replaced as Foreign Minister by Mohamed El-Orabi, described by some Egyptian observers as more easygoing and less "confrontational" than El-Araby.

But even before the new man took over as foreign minister, it was clear that much of what El-Araby had promised regarding the opening of the Rafah crossing had not happened.

When El-Araby announced the May 3 agreement, he promised that Egypt would speedily open up the Rafah crossing to all passengers except men of military age. But this was not the state of affairs I discovered during a mid-June visit to Cairo and Gaza. On June 16, the day I crossed back into Egypt after three days in Gaza, just 140 Gazans made it through Rafah. As this article in the Financial Times noted, that was "far fewer than in the months before the reconciliation pact was signed." The FT reporter also noted that "At least 12,000 Gazans have registered to use the crossing so far, and seats on the shuttle bus between the terminals on either side of the border are fully booked until August."

The claims that government officials in Israel and Washington have made, that the Rafah crossing has now been fully re-opened — and therefore, that the efforts of the international flotilla now headed to Gaza are quite superfluous — are erroneous. The parallel claims that some in the mainstream media have been making (including here), to the effect that agriculture and everything else is booming in Gaza are equally misleading. All the Gazans I talked with say that their key demand is not to get "better" treatment as a charity case, but to be allowed to live normal lives, conduct normal economic relations with the world market — exports, as well as imports — and to have the freedom of travel they so desperately crave, given the wide scattering to which every Gazan family has been subject. As for the claims by the New York Times and elsewhere that "thousands of new cars" are now plying Gaza’s roads, those looked seriously overstated. The Strip still has just as many creaky donkey carts as it does automobiles — a legacy of the systematic de-development it has suffered under 44 years of Israeli occupation and many years of siege.

Regarding the situation at Rafah — and Egypt’s role in that — a number of obstacles still seem to stand between the good intentions of people in Egypt’s nominally civilian, post-Tahrir government and the reality of the situation at Rafah. It is not Egypt’s civilian government, as such, that determines what happens on the ground in Rafah, but rather Egypt’s still-powerful military and intelligence services. The new government in Cairo and the still-fluid political elite that brought it to power have many other large challenges they need to address — in domestic governance, economic affairs, and foreign policy — before they can easily turn their attentions to the Palestine question. Ultimately, Gaza and Rafah are simply very distant from Cairo.

Nevertheless, as I discovered during numerous conversations in Cairo, a large number of Egyptians still care very deeply about the Palestine issue. There have been calls from several important voices in Egypt’s people-power movement for Egypt to reconsider its adherence to its 32-year-old peace treaty with Israel. Abrogation of the treaty is not likely to happen any time soon, but there are many steps short of abrogating the treaty that the emerging government in Cairo seems intent on taking to bolster the position of the Palestinians in their lengthy conflict with Israel. Certainly, in the event of any big Palestine-related crisis like the one ignited by Israel’s Cast Lead operation against Gaza in late 2008, Israel and Washington can no longer count on Cairo’s power structure to give them 100% backing in the way Mubarak did.

For now, however, the members of Egypt’s newly dynamic political elite are focusing nearly all their energies on the urgent constitutional challenges they face at home. (They still have not agreed on the rules for their next parliamentary election, though this is scheduled for September).

The biggest longer-term challenge Egyptians face over the next few years is to redefine the role that their country’s large and always powerful military will play in its politics. How that gets resolved will help to determine Cairo’s policies on Palestine going forward. The leading generals are thought to be considerably less pro-Israeli in their sentiments than Mubarak– but they also have large institutional interests that for decades now have tied them to Washington’s purse-strings. In the civilian realm, meanwhile, all the main forces that were active in Tahrir Square, from the leftists to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists, are united in saying that supporting the Palestinian cause is a key matter of national dignity for Egyptians.

The Arab Spring has affected Palestinian politics in many ways. But many of the biggest effects — including those related to Egypt’s always-crucial role — may only become evident after Egyptian politics settles down at home.

Helena Cobban is a long-time analyst of Middle East affairs who is the owner of a new publishing company, Just World Books. A longer version of her reporting from her recent trip to Gaza can be found at this post on her blog, Just World News.

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