Since the beginning of the Israeli war on Gaza on October 7, 2023, Egypt’s response has received more attention than that of other Arab states due to its regional weight and because it is the only Arab country with a common border with the Gaza Strip, directly linking it to unfolding events. With the Israeli escalation against Gaza and the widespread scenes of killing and destruction, the official Egyptian position has evolved, heightening its rhetoric and mobilizing the media and the street against Israeli aggression. It has been decades since such a stance has been taken in Egypt, with the exception of the brief tenure of elected President Mohammed Morsi. What is the nature of Egypt’s position? And how and why has it evolved?
This paper distinguishes the position of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from that of the presidency, seeking to clarify the extent of their alignment, the intersections between them, and the explanatory factors.
I. Gradual Change from Usual Positions
At the beginning of the Israeli aggression on Gaza, the Egyptian position drew on the conventional rhetorical lexicon. Egypt warned of the “dangers of escalation,” advocated “exercising the utmost restraint,” and called on “international actors…to intervene immediately to stop the ongoing escalation, and to urge Israel to stop the attacks…on the Palestinian people.”1 But as the magnitude of violence used by Israel to punish the Palestinian people became clear, the Egyptian position began to be expressed in sharper terms. Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry’s address to the extraordinary session of the Council of the League of Arab States at the ministerial level on Palestine, held in Cairo on October 11,2 stressed Egypt’s total rejection of “any attempt to settle the Palestinian issue by military means or forced displacement at the expense of the countries of the region.” Shoukry said that events in Gaza were “an inevitable result of the failure to deal seriously with the Palestinian issue, the ongoing unilateral violations in the occupied territories, the threat to the status quo on holy sites in Jerusalem, and the violence and incitement of settlers.” His speech further underscored the need to contain the deterioration of the situation and the spread of violence, condemned the killing and bombing of civilians, and called for the safe entry of humanitarian aid to Gaza.
As voices within Israel began to call for the displacement of Gaza’s population to the Sinai, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement on October 13 warning against the demand by the Israeli army that residents of the Gaza Strip, UN representatives, and international organizations move south, considering it “a grave violation” of the precepts of international humanitarian law.3
The tenor of Egyptian rhetoric grew increasingly strident as Israel escalated its violence in the Gaza Strip. The speech by Egypt’s representative at the United Nations Security Council, Osama Abdelkhalek, represented a notable shift.4 Abdelkhalek said that what was happening in Gaza was “a systematic plan to kill and displace the Palestinian people” and “liquidate their cause.” He strongly condemned the bombing of the Baptist hospital, describing it as “a heinous crime,” and demanded accountability for everyone who “caused, ordered, and participated in it.” He further condemned the policy of double standards and set forth four demands: “an immediate, unconditional ceasefire”; guarantees for the protection of civilians and the provision of aid; the release of all prisoners, hostages, and detainees; and an end to “hate speech, demonization, incitement, and the justification of crimes against the Palestinian people.”
II. The Discourse of the Foreign Ministry
The foreign minister’s speech to the UN Security Council on October 245 continued in the same vein. Shoukry reaffirmed the previously stated positions while using harsher terms, describing events in Gaza as “horrific” and “a humanitarian shock” and decrying the targeting of unarmed civilians, killing, starvation, and forced displacement. Saying that silence about such acts was a tacit endorsement of them, he condemned “double standards in the approach to international crises, including the humanitarian aspect of them,” as well as the consolidation of the illegal occupation, the theft of land from its owners, and the imposition of a new demographic fait accompli. He deplored “the Security Council’s inability to pass a resolution or even a call for a ceasefire to end this war.” Speaking in no uncertain terms, he called for an immediate, sustained, unconditional ceasefire in the Gaza Strip; an end to forced displacement; international protection for the Palestinian people; a guarantee for the safe, rapid, and sustainable entry of humanitarian assistance; and a binding formula to “enforce a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in accordance with Security Council resolutions and international legitimacy that requires an end to the occupation and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state along the lines of June 4, 1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital.” He added a new demand as well: “that the Council assume its responsibility to act to launch an independent investigation into flagrant violations of international law and international humanitarian law.” This was an important addition, but it was not mentioned in any subsequent statements and declarations, and Egypt took no international action in keeping with it.
On October 27, Egypt’s representative to the UN General Assembly used several forceful phrases that have been virtually absent from the Egyptian diplomatic lexicon for many years, referring to “medieval practices,” “brutal Israeli aggression,” “no to terrorism,” “no to bombing hospitals and medical centres,” and “no to killing children.” “Enough is enough, what is happening to the people of Palestine is too much to bear,” he said, adding “The right to life…which has been forgotten by all those who speak so loudly of human rights, who, given the justifications we have heard for the continuation of this war, have become directly complicit in the excesses we are witnessing.”6
The statement issued by the foreign ministers of nine Arab countries, including Egypt, in the wake of the Cairo Peace Summit on October 21 included general phrases that could also be construed to condemn the Hamas military operation, such as “the condemnation and rejection of the targeting of civilians, all acts of violence and terrorism against them, and all violations and infringements of international law, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law, by any party, including targeting civilian infrastructure and facilities.” The statement also stressed the importance of “immediately releasing hostages and civilian detainees and ensuring their safe, dignified, and humane treatment in line with international law.” In addition, passages in the statement condemned the Israeli aggression, including individual or collective forced displacement and the policy of collective punishment, and rejected “the resolution of the Palestinian cause at the expense of the Palestinian people and the peoples of the countries of the region, or the forcible displacement of the Palestinian people outside their land in any form.” The statement stressed “that the right of self-defence guaranteed by the UN Charter does not justify flagrant violations of international law and international humanitarian law, or the deliberate disregard of the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, including the right to self-determination and the end of the decades-long occupation.” It called on the Security Council “to compel the parties into an immediate, sustainable ceasefire” and stressed that “the failure to characterise flagrant violations of international humanitarian law is tantamount to giving the green light for the continuation of these practices and complicity in the commission of them.”
Despite the growing crisis in the delivery of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip and appeals to Egypt to open the Rafah crossing and challenge the Israeli blockade, Egypt adhered to Israeli conditions, blaming the Israeli side for prohibiting the opening of the crossing and bombing the Palestinian side. On October 28, the Foreign Ministry warned of “the grave dangers and unprecedented humanitarian and security repercussions of a large-scale ground invasion of the Gaza Strip” and again demanded that Israel “facilitate the procedures for the safe, full, and sustainable access of humanitarian and relief assistance to the Gaza Strip.” Egypt accused Israel of obstructing the entry of international aid to Gaza by requiring the inspection of trucks at the Israeli Nitzana crossing (opposite the Egyptian Ouja crossing), adding 100 km to the journey before the trucks could enter the Gaza Strip through the Rafah crossing. It further said that Israel was denying entry to much aid for political and security reasons and decried the slow pace of inspection procedures and Israel’s repeated military escalation on the Palestinian side of the crossing.7 Following international pressure, a breakthrough came on November 1st, as the flow of aid convoys began to gradually increase and a number of wounded people were admitted to Egyptian hospitals.
In sum, the discourse of the Foreign Ministry was consistent and emphasised principled positions in clear terms, some of which have not been heard for decades. The discourse became more critical of Israeli aggression as its violence intensified and popular anger mounted.
III. The Discourse of the President and His Attitudes toward the Israeli Aggression
In many situations, President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi reiterated statements issued by the Foreign Ministry, but added phrases that did not appear in them, suggesting a different understanding of the situation in Gaza. This discrepancy between the two discourses is of the utmost importance given the nature of the political system in Egypt and the president’s dominant position in it.
In his first comment on the situation in Gaza, which he read during a graduation ceremony for news graduates of military colleges on October 12,8 Sisi used terms consistent with the traditional official position: “peace is a strategic choice”; references to “the capabilities of the brotherly Palestinian people and securing their legitimate rights”; “providing maximum protection for civilians on both sides immediately, working to prevent the deterioration of humanitarian conditions, and avoiding policies of collective punishment, siege, starvation, and displacement”; and the need to “facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people.” On other occasions, he repeated other familiar expressions, condemning collective punishment and the liquidation of the Palestinian cause and referring to “the accumulation of anger and hatred due to the absence of any prospect of hope for the Palestinians.” His concern in most cases was that “other parties to the conflict not intervene” and the issue of displacement. The Israelis’ goal, according to him, was not only “directing military action against Hamas, but also trying to push the civilian population to seek refuge and asylum in Egypt.” Egypt, he said, would not accept this.
On the other hand, Sisi’s off-the-cuff statements and a few of his prepared speeches included several phrases that were inconsistent with both his previous remarks and the increasingly strident position of the Foreign Ministry. For example:
- Sisi described events in Gaza as “fighting,” “a crisis,” and “military confrontations between the Israeli and Palestinian sides…that has killed thousands of civilians on both sides,” calling for the “containment of potentially uncontrollable developments.”9 Unlike the Foreign Ministry, he never used the terms aggression, crime, or genocide in his remarks.
- Sisi stated that the peace sought for the Palestinian cause is based on “justice, the Oslo principles, the Arab Peace Initiative, and resolutions of international legitimacy.”10 This was the first mention of the Oslo principles in reference to the hoped-for Palestinian state, which the Israeli side has used to buy time to change the facts on the ground to make a two-state solution impossible. Moreover, there is no text or document with this name.
- Sisi said that the future Palestinian state should be demilitarised.11 This was an Israeli demand in the Oslo process and other negotiations, and has never been mentioned in resolutions of international legitimacy or the Arab Peace Initiative.
- Sisi did not take a principled position on the possible expulsion of Palestinians to Sinai. In his speech at the Cairo summit, he said, “The resolution of the Palestinian cause absent a just solution will not happen, and in any case, it will not happen at the expense of Egypt.”12 He proposed transferring the Palestinians to the Negev Desert until Israel finished liquidating the resistance,13 suggesting that he has no issue with the unjust resolution of the Palestinian cause as long as it is far from Sinai. This is truly a historic shift in Egypt’s stance on the Palestinian cause.
- Sisi went so far as to describe the resistance as terrorism, saying that the displacement of Palestinians to Sinai would mean turning the peninsula into a base for terrorist attacks against Israel.14 This is in clear alignment with the vision of the occupation state and many western countries.
- The goal of an “immediate” halt to “the current escalation” and an “immediate, permanent ceasefire in Gaza” appeared occasionally in Sisi’s statements and talks with Arab and foreign guests, but were entirely absent from his impromptu remarks. Instead, he uttered phrases like “containing the escalation,” “calming matters,” and easing “the fighting.”15 In his speech at the Cairo Peace Summit, he said, “I invited you here today to discuss together and work to reach a concrete consensus on a roadmap aimed at ending the current humanitarian tragedy and reviving the peace process along several axes, starting with ensuring the full, safe, rapid, and sustainable flow of humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza, moving immediately to negotiate a truce and ceasefire, and then urgently starting negotiations to revive the peace process to achieve the two-state solution.”16
- Sisi was keen to play a “positive role in alleviating the crisis by securing the release of prisoners and hostages in the strip.”17 Here, he not only ignored the captives held in occupation prisons, but also adopted a goal identical to that of the occupation state.
- Sisi has complied with Israeli conditions for the entry of aid, turning a deaf ear to calls to challenge these conditions and open the Rafah crossing to deliver assistance and receive the wounded.
- Sisi engaged in intensive media mobilization to support Gaza and called on the people to demonstrate and authorise him to take measures he deemed necessary to protect Egyptian national security. This tactic was not chosen for the purpose of exerting diplomatic pressure abroad in favour of the Palestinian cause, but merely to allow Egyptians to vent and to restore the president’s tattered domestic popularity. When the demonstrations exceeded the prescribed limit, he ordered an immediate end to them.
- The Cairo Peace Summit saw no attempt by Egypt to respond to the many fallacies voiced by western delegations. Egypt, and indeed the rest of the Arab states, merely stated their positions that differed from those of the West, but did not use the event to proactively engage and compel the other parties to hear arguments that would refute their biased narrative.
IV. Contradictory Policies
Various inconsistencies were evident in President Sisi’s approach to the situation in Gaza, particularly in regard to two issues.
First, Sisi consistently focused on his rejection of the displacement of Palestinians to the Sinai, although since coming to power, he has evacuated the border area between the Gaza Strip and the Sinai and displaced its residents in multiple stages.18 In addition, US President Joe Biden’s budget request to Congress on October 20 to approve funds for both Ukraine and Israel indicated that part of these allocations would go “to address potential needs of Gazans fleeing to neighbouring countries.”19 Egypt was mentioned when Biden noted that the crisis in Gaza may lead to “displacement across borders and higher regional humanitarian needs, and funding may be used to meet evolving programming requirements outside of Gaza, including Israel, West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Egypt.”20
Second, despite the government ban on popular demonstrations against the aggression on the Gaza Strip during the first week of the war, a few demonstrations erupted in some Egyptian universities.21 On October 13, the first Friday after the war began, spontaneous, relatively large demonstrations were seen in the vicinity of al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo,22 al-Qaid Ibrahim Mosque in Alexandria,23 and several other cities. Sisi then decided to use the occasion to win a popular mandate. Pro-regime partisan and parliamentary forces were mobilized to call for a “mandate” that would authorise the president to deal with “displacement,” and demonstrations that “announced their location” in advance were called. Demonstrations were already permitted in several cities before Friday, October 20, and on the scheduled Friday, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians were given the opportunity to demonstrate – a rare occurrence since 2013.24 As soon as the demonstrations exceeded the preordained limits and the chants began to criticise the notion of a mandate, however, the security forces put a stop to them, arresting many demonstrators and preventing further protests.25
A clear discrepancy emerged between the position of the Foreign Ministry and that of the Egyptian president on the Israeli aggression on Gaza. This discrepancy can be understood in two different ways. First, different rhetorical stances were aimed at different audiences. It is worth remembering that popular anger had been rising significantly since the first week of the Israeli aggression on Gaza absent any commensurate response at the political level. We could thus read official statements issued by the Foreign Ministry as articulating the official position. The president’s remarks, on the other hand, are simply a way to address the Western pressure on Egypt to accept the displacement of Palestinians given its economic need. Here, the media and popular mobilization campaign, as well as the position of al-Azhar, served as assets for the Egyptian government, to which it pointed in support of its resolute refusal to receive Palestinians forcibly dislaced by the war and to risk the stability of Egypt in the face of continued external pressure.
The second understanding is contrary to the above: the positions of the Foreign Ministry are merely rhetorical stances addressed to Egyptian and Arab public opinion in order to contain popular anger. The president is the one who articulates Egypt’s actual policy, which is in keeping with the western view that the resistance is terrorism that must be confronted.
1 “Egypt warns of dangers of escalation between the Palestinians and Israelis,” (Arabic) State Information Service, November 7, 2023, https://n9.cl/hthzlc.
2 “Speech of Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry at the Irregular Meeting of the Arab League Concerning Palestine,” (Arabic) Misr News, October 11, 2023, https://n9.cl/ne2otb.
3 “Egypt warns against Israeli call for Gaza residents to move south,” Reuters, October 13, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/egypt-warns-against-israeli-call-gaza-residents-move-south-2023-10-13/#:~:text=CAIRO%2C%20Oct%2013%20(Reuters),humanitarian%20conditions%20in%20the%20enclave.
4 “Video: Egypt’s representative at the United Nations: There should be accountability for those responsible for what happened at the Baptist Hospital, and we will work to achieve that,” (Arabic) Youm7, October 18, 2023, https://n9.cl/jfy3e.
5 “Speech by Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry before the Security Council regarding developments in Gaza,” (Arabic) Al-Arabiya, October 24, 2023, https://n9.cl/p4xhq5.
6 “Video: Egypt representative at the United Nations General Assembly concerning the situation in Gaza,” (Arabic) Extra News, October 27, 2023, https://n9.cl/arz7m.
7 “Egyptian Foreign Ministry: Israeli procedures impede aid to Gaza,” (Arabic) Qatar News Agency, October 28, 2023, https://n9.cl/xnix4.
8 “Sisi speaks at the Military Academy graduation ceremony,” (Arabic) Egyptian Presidency, October 12, 2023, https://n9.cl/hwg40.
9 “Video: Sisi speaks at the Annual International Industry Meeting,” (Arabic) CBC Egypt, November 5, 2023, https://n9.cl/jkp0b.
10 “Sisi speaks at the Military Academy graduation ceremony,” op. cit.
11 “Joint news conference of Sisi and German Chancellor,” (Arabic) Egyptian Presidency, October 18, 2023, https://n9.cl/1ohfuw.
12 “Sisi’s speech at the Cairo Peace Summit,” (Arabic) Egyptian Presidency, October 21, 2023, https://n9.cl/olrm6.
13 “Joint news conference,” op cit.
15 “Sisi speaks at the Annual International Industry Meeting,” op. cit.
16 “Sisi’s speech at the Cairo Peace Summit,” op. cit.
17 “Sisi speaks at the Annual International Industry Meeting,” op. cit.
18 For example, see: “Egypt: Massive Sinai Demolitions Likely War Crimes,” Human Rights Watch, March 17, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/03/17/egypt-massive-sinai-demolitions-likely-war-crimes; “Forced displacement in Sinai: A war on terror or possible war crimes?” (Arabic) Daraj, April 15, 2021, https://n9.cl/t9rz4.
19 “Letter Regarding Critical National Security Funding Needs for FY 2024,” White House, October 20, 2023, p. 40, https://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/briefing-room/2023/10/20/letter-regarding-critical-national-security-funding-needs-for-fy-2024/.
20 Ibid., p. 49.
21 See, for example, “American University in Cairo students demonstrate in support of Palestine,” (Arabic) al-Araby al-Jadid, October 9, 2023, https://bit.ly/3tROqPb.
22 “Al-Azhar demonstrations today to support Palestine,” Cairo 24, October 30, 2023, https://bit.ly/3SBEUdt.
23 “Demonstration in front of al-Qaid Ibrahim in al-Askariyya in support of Palestine,” (Arabic) Al Jazeera, October 30, 2023, https://bit.ly/3FDL6cW.
24 “Demonstrations in Egypt’s governorates in support of Palestine and to reject displacing the Gaza population,” (Arabic) Al-Qahera News, October 20, 2023, https://bit.ly/471qlnk..
25 “51 imprisoned in demonstration to support Gaza,” October 30, 2023, https://bit.ly/3FDXMR4.