Egypt Muddles Through the Crisis in Gaza

Egypt has considered the Gaza Strip to be a soft underbelly since it ruled it prior to 1967, but also after it regained control of the Sinai Peninsula from Israel in 1982, and especially since Hamas began to govern the enclave in 2007. Egypt has also seen developments inside Gaza or resulting from Israel’s relations with the Strip through the prism of Egypt-Israel relations that began in 1979. In fact, since 2007, it has been careful not to appear too accommodating to Hamas or too discordant with Israeli policy toward the organization or the territory. On many occasions, the Israeli hammer of blockading Gaza and attacking its people and installations has been complemented by an Egyptian anvil of repeated closures of the Rafah border crossing, destruction of tunnels used for smuggling materiel, construction of fortifications on the border, and actual flooding of border areas.

Today, Egypt is called upon to be an indispensable actor in what is happening now with Israel’s war on Gaza and in what may be in store for the enclave. Playing such a role, however, runs squarely into Cairo’s record of relations with Hamas since 2007 as well as its history of relations with the Zionist state. Straddling the dividing line will continue to be a tricky mission given two seemingly irreconcilable goals: preserving cordial ties with Israel while rejecting the latter’s apparent policy of playing a zero-sum game with the Palestinians. In the end, Egypt is likely to muddle through with the ongoing crisis in Gaza, but without acquiescing to Israeli demands to accept an influx of Palestinians or to US requests for an Egyptian security role in the post-war Strip.

Managing Public Discontent

Like most countries in the Arab world, Egypt has seen its share of public anger over the Israeli war on Gaza, but popular opposition is expressed mostly through social media platforms. Egypt’s draconian Assembly Law, enacted in 2013 following the military coup against Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, severely limits Egyptians’ ability to gather peaceably, especially in Tahrir Square, the symbol of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Yet citizens dared to organize a rare public protest, and in Tahrir Square no less, almost two weeks after the start of the war. With Gaza experiencing the brunt of a full Israeli assault, Egyptian authorities found it hard to suppress this expression of public solidarity with the Palestinians.

The regime organized its own demonstrations that were more devoted to propping up Sisi’s than to make an unambiguous statement in opposition to Israel’s conduct.

Still, the regime organized its own demonstrations that were devoted more to propping up President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s political fortunes—as if he really needs that—ahead of the December 10-12 presidential election than to make an unambiguous statement in opposition to Israel’s conduct of the Gaza war. Set to easily win the contest through repression and electoral manipulation—and likely to remain in office until 2030 thanks to 2019 constitutional amendments—el-Sisi is anxious to keep relations with Israel crisis-free, albeit cool. Public expressions of solidarity with Gaza thus suffered from a regime crackdown, with scores of activists arrested and disappeared in many of the country’s cities. On October 29, Egyptian authorities blocked the independent website Mada Masr for six months, purportedly for “publishing false news without checking its sources.” The website had published reports that Egypt was preparing to receive refugees expelled from Gaza by Israel. At the beginning of December, Egyptian authorities even arrested four foreign activists in Cairo for staging a protest of support for Gaza in front of the Foreign Ministry.

The Issue of Refugees

Geography is Egypt’s bane in the present crisis in Gaza. As the only Arab country that borders the Gaza Strip, Egypt is the main candidate to receive and resettle refugees escaping war or being expelled from there by Israel’s punishing and vengeful genocidal campaign against innocent civilians. Israel’s intention of depopulating the Strip in an ethnic cleansing effort has been clear since the beginning of the present conflagration. On October 13, Israel’s military ordered 1.1 million Palestinians in northern Gaza to move to the south of Gaza City, purportedly for their safety from military operations and to separate themselves from Hamas operatives. While the order was simply unrealistic and impossible to execute—the United Nations called it “calamitous” and demanded that Israel rescind it—it could not be understood except as part of a possible attempt to push at least some of the fleeing Gazans to Sinai where Egypt was expected to accept and house them.

At the end of October, Israel’s Intelligence Ministry acknowledged the existence of a new plan—also stated in a document dated October 13—to transfer 2.3 million Palestinians from the Gaza Strip to refugee camps in northern Sinai that could later become cities in their own right. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office denied that the plan was intended policy, calling the document a “concept paper,” it appears that proposals to displace Gazans to Sinai under the guise of a “temporary” wartime measure have widespread support among the Israeli establishment. Media reports even revealed that Israel has privately raised with several foreign governments the idea of transferring Gazans to Egypt “during the duration of the war.” Egyptian and Palestinian officials obviously denounced such a proposal as not only audacious and unacceptable but also as a continuation of Israel’s historic policy of dispossessing Palestinians at the expense of its neighbors. To be sure, developments since then—and the displacement of some 1.8 million Gazans within the Strip since October 7—cannot be separated from Israel’s possible plans of expulsion to northern Sinai.

Opposition to Israel’s apparent displacement plans, and worries that the United States and other western governments had acquiesced to them, prompted el-Sisi—during an October 18 press conference with visiting German Chancellor Olaf Scholz—to denounce any talk of resettling refugees in Egypt. Speaking off-script in ill-advised and ahistorical terms, el-Sisi warned that the prospect could increase terrorism against Israel and proposed transferring refugees to Israel’s Naqab (Negev) desert. By allowing himself to accuse Palestinians of potential terrorism against Israel, the Egyptian president spouted typical Israeli rhetoric just as the Israeli army was committing atrocities against innocent civilians. He also appeared to accept the prospect of another Palestinian dispossession, this time from Gaza, and to forget a fundamental truth about the expulsion of Palestinians: that just as Israel has refused to allow 1948 refugees back into historic Palestine, the Zionist state will block the return of any new refugees.

Egypt has no interest in shouldering the responsibility for housing millions of Palestinians or providing for their wellbeing.

Several concerns animate the Egyptian opposition to admitting Palestinian refugees from Gaza. First, it is hard for the Egyptian regime to ignore the widespread sentiment among Egyptians who reject another dispossession of the Palestinians. Indeed, the few demonstrations allowed in Egypt since October 7 voiced specifically that concern. In 1948, when Israel was established, and in 1967, during and after the Six-Day War, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled from Palestine, including to the Gaza Strip, never to return. (Many Gazans are indeed refugees from 1948.) A third displacement of perhaps over two million Gazans would constitute another catastrophe for Palestinians’ national life and existence that neither they, nor the Egyptian people, nor the wider Arab world are prepared to contemplate. To be sure, even the premise that Israel assumes it is justified in creating a refugee influx from its military operations is outright preposterous to Egyptians and others in the region.

Second, admitting large numbers of Palestinian refugees would constitute a serious national security threat for the Egyptian state. Housing the refugees in camps in northern Sinai would present a law-and-order conundrum for Egyptian authorities as they fight a decade-long jihadist insurgency in Sinai. Doing so would also cause an enormous logistical and financial nightmare for Egypt, considering refugees’ extensive humanitarian needs. The Egyptian economy is already experiencing a major economic crisis, marked by record inflation (reaching almost 40 percent in August), devaluation of currency (the Egyptian pound has lost 50 percent of its value over the last 18 months), massive public debt (93 percent of GDP, with external debt at $163 billion), and poverty (as many as 60 percent of Egyptians are estimated to live at or below the poverty line), among other ailments. While international assistance can help with the resettlement of refugees, there will always be hidden costs that Egypt will be unable to cover.

Third, housing Palestinian refugees is bound to return Egypt squarely to a direct role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which presidents since Anwar Sadat have diligently tried to avoid following the return of the Sinai in 1982. Egypt may have been, and continues to be, involved in discussions, negotiations, and arrangements regarding the overall Palestine question, especially concerning Gaza, but since the peace treaty with Israel Cairo has truly become detached from fully adopting core Palestinian demands. Establishing camps for resettling Palestinians in Sinai would most assuredly bring Egypt back into the circle of interest from which it withdrew decades ago. In other words, while Egypt may act as an interlocutor between the Palestinians and Israel and prefer to speak on the Palestinians’ behalf, it has no interest in shouldering the responsibility for housing millions of them or providing for their wellbeing.

An Evolving US Position

An October 20 White House budget document’s reference to US foreign aid for “potential needs of Gazans fleeing to neighboring countries” and “cross-border displacement” provoked fears that the Biden administration had quietly accepted Israel’s idea of pushing Palestinians into Sinai. Perhaps the administration was convinced that the idea would spare human life, without the necessary afterthought that those who leave Gaza may never be allowed to return. However, developments in the conduct of the brutal war and public pressure domestically and around the world—manifested in large protests and demonstrations—led the Biden administration to clarify its opposition to any such development. Later, following further outrage about Israel’s order to Gazans to flee south, American officials fully abandoned any hint of supporting the transfer of civilians, although they continue to advocate for opening safe corridors and instituting humanitarian pauses in Gaza.

Thus, as Israel’s war on Gaza has continued, the Biden administration has articulated a position against any forced displacement of Palestinians as well as against Israeli re-occupation of the Strip. Responding to declarations from Netanyahu about a potential indefinite Israeli role in Gaza, on November 8 Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned against another Israeli occupation of the territory, saying that only Palestinians will decide their own governance. Speaking at the G7 Foreign Ministers meeting in Tokyo, Blinken rejected any relocation of Palestinians, blockade of Gaza, or reduction of Gaza’s borders. On December 2, at the COP28 meeting in Dubai, Vice President Kamala Harris reiterated what has become a guide of US policy toward Gaza, stressing that in the postwar period, there will be “no forcible displacement, no reoccupation, no siege or blockade, no reduction in territory, and no use of Gaza as a platform for terrorism.”

These assertions by the American government—despite the continuing US backing of Israel’s war—are probably the best guarantees for which Egypt has been waiting to once and for all dispense with the idea of hosting millions of Palestinian refugees in northern Sinai. But what remains to be seen from the Biden administration is a clear call for a ceasefire in Gaza, as the US refusal to do so undoubtedly gives Israel a green light to continue its mass killing in the enclave.

Muddling Through

Considering its relatively weak position vis-à-vis Israel, reliant on US support as it is, as well as facing domestic and regional pressures to present a compassionate stance toward the Palestinians and toward Gaza in particular, Egypt has set out a less-than-ambitious position for itself in the current crisis. Egypt’s rejection of accepting refugees onto its territory was accompanied by a reluctance to limit freedom of movement through the Rafah crossing, a decision that has been largely in agreement with Cairo’s longstanding policy regarding the blockade of Gaza. Following weeks of negotiations about providing humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza, hundreds of trucks have been allowed through Rafah, although this number is nowhere close to covering the declared needs. Egypt also allowed the exit of a number of dual-nationals and foreigners from Gaza and the transfer of a small number of people requiring medical help. Additionally, Egypt played a significant role in reaching the seven-day pause in the fighting in Gaza that saw the release of some 200 Israeli and Palestinian prisoners.

Egypt has declared that Israel’s intention of eradicating the Hamas movement from Gaza is simply unrealistic and that it will not play a post-war role in managing security in the Strip.

But in more strategic matters, Egypt has been reluctant to engage in a manner acceptable to Israel, and by extension to the United States. Egypt has declared that Israel’s intention of eradicating the Hamas movement from Gaza is simply unrealistic and that it will not play a post-war role in managing security in the Strip. In a November 9 meeting with CIA Director William Burns, President el-Sisi reportedly said that Egypt would not be involved in eliminating Hamas in Gaza as it needs the group to provide security there. Egypt, along with other Arab states, also opposes an Israeli plan to establish a buffer security zone inside the Gaza Strip along its border with the enclave.

To be sure, it does not appear that Egypt is in any mood to accept a security role in Gaza, one that would satisfy Israel’s demands to subdue the Strip. Playing any such role would return Egypt to the center of deliberations, negotiations, and arrangements regarding the future of the Palestine question. As has been obvious for decades now, Cairo has wanted to disengage from the intricacies of the Palestinian dilemma because of the associated security, political, and economic burdens. Instead, what it can do is follow a path of ad hoc functions—such as negotiating short-term truces and managing the Rafah crossing—without promising major initiatives. Indeed, for now and the foreseeable future, Egypt will continue to muddle through in a manner that protects the interests of its military regime as well as those of its principals.

Featured image credit: Flickr/Gigi Ibrahim