The war in Gaza threatens Egypt too
Cairo’s efforts to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza, according to conventional wisdom, have largely been dictated by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s animosity toward Hamas. After all, Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Sisi’s government has declared a terrorist organization and regards as a serious threat.
That is why, this argument goes, the Egyptian ceasefire proposal ignored Hamas’ conditions and why the Israelis so quickly supported it. The proposal called for an immediate ceasefire. Only then would the terms be negotiated, including Hamas’ demands for an end to Israeli attacks, an end to the blockade of Gaza and the release of rearrested Palestinians who were freed in a prisoner 2011 exchange.
The story is far more complicated, however, for both Sisi and Egypt. Because the longer the war goes on, the more Gaza becomes a domestic problem for the Egyptian president. One he does not want.
Indeed, the fighting provides an opening for Sisi’s opponents. At a minimum, it creates a distraction the Egyptian president does not need now — he has said his priorities are the economy and internal security. So Sisi has a strong interest in ending the war, particularly since Hamas and its allies are exhibiting far more military muscle than anyone expected.
But Sisi is facing a number of major complications triggered by the war.
First, though many Egyptians view Hamas as an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood, most sympathize with the Palestinians and are angry at Israel. When they see the scale of casualties — for example, the death and destruction in the Shuja’iah neighborhood in Gaza — they overwhelmingly blame Israel. This is true even as their leaders express anger over Hamas’ refusal to accept the Egyptian ceasefire proposal.
We are already seeing Egyptian commentators, outside of the Brotherhood and its supporters, admonishing Sisi to “rise to the occasion” and separate his anger at Hamas from support for the Palestinian people.
Second, the Egyptian media have given the fighting in Gaza only limited attention. This is only partly because of Egypt’s own tragedy, the recent militant attacks that killed 21 soldiers at a border checkpoint. The limited coverage is also likely because of the establishment’s fear of heightened sympathy for Hamas.
This may be backfiring, though. Many Egyptians looking for more news coverage of the fighting are turning to other media outlets, particularly Al Jazeera TV. Yet Cairo views this network as a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and is trying to delegitimize it. Now, the war may revive Al Jazeera’s stock.
We have seen this in past. Al Jazeera managed to overtake Egyptian TV on international news during previous Arab-Israeli conflicts. It focused on two conflicts — the Israeli war with Hezbollah in 2006 and Israel’s 2008 Gaza war — that captured the Egyptian public’s imagination but were not equally covered by Egyptian media. So the longer the current fighting goes on, the greater the number of Egyptians watching media outlets less friendly to Sisi.
Third, whatever the Egyptian government may want, it is not the one doing the fighting. Hamas and its Palestinian allies seem prepared to fight on, regardless of what Egypt says or does. Yet Israel, despite its talk about being prepared to fight on, understands it can inflict devastation on the Palestinians without defeating Hamas. Its own casualties, mounting international pressure as Palestinian civilian casualties climb and the absence of a clear exit strategy suggest that the Netanyahu government will be looking for a politically palatable way to end the war sooner rather than later. What Cairo does will depend on the battle conditions.
Fourth, Egypt has major interests in Gaza tied to both the Palestinians and Israel. The Egyptian military fears Hamas’ possible support for the Muslim Brotherhood, and this drives Cairo’s policy. And Egypt has a peace treaty with Israel to protect, which is inevitably affected by what happens in Gaza.
Fifth, there is another interest deeply ingrained in Egypt’s body politic that goes beyond the military establishment. Egypt, which controlled Gaza from 1948 until Israel occupied it in 1967, always fears that the Israelis are trying to “unload” Gaza on them — and make the region Cairo’s responsibility.
In fact, while some opposition to opening border crossings between Egypt and Gaza is motivated by animosity toward Hamas, much of the opposition existed before — even when the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohamed Morsi held sway in Cairo. Egyptians feel strongly that, until Gaza becomes part of an independent Palestinian state, its humanitarian needs should remain the responsibility of Israel, an occupying power.
Sixth, though Morsi’s relationship with Hamas was profoundly different from that of Sisi’s, some attitudes have remained consistent through both presidencies. Beginning with Hosni Mubarak’s regime and down through Morsi’s and now Sisi’s, Gaza and Israel have been the mandate of Cairo’s intelligence-security establishment.
Intelligence was the point of operational contact with Hamas and Hamas-Fatah negotiations. The military controlled everything to do with border security involving Gaza and Israel. That continued even under Morsi. Israeli officials were then saying privately that the military cooperation between Israel and Egypt had never been better. It remains true today, and we will likely see these institutions provide input into any emerging ceasefire agreement.
Seventh, while it looked like the Egyptian proposal was largely Cairo’s, with input from Israel, the Palestinian role in that proposal has been underestimated. Unlike in 2012, the current Gaza conflict is unfolding after the Palestinians formed a national unity government of President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah faction and Hamas, which was endorsed by Egypt’s foreign ministry. It certainly gave the Egyptians a good excuse to talk ceasefire with Abbas as a representative of the Palestinians, which they were happy to do to rob Hamas of a political victory.
It was Abbas who was suggesting an “unconditional” ceasefire days before the announcement of the Egyptian proposal. Why he had not cleared this with Hamas first is another issue. But the Egyptians could claim they had support of the Palestinian president in the context of a national unity government.
This picture is now changing. With Palestinian public opinion in the West Bank—and everywhere else — highly sympathetic to Gaza, Abbas now has something to lose. He moved quickly to close ranks with Hamas’ chief, Khaled Mashaal, on a unified set of demands that the Egyptians now cannot ignore.
Eighth, Hamas and its allies have surprised most analysts and governments in their fighting ability. This has put pressure not only on Israel, but also on those who may have bet that Hamas would be the first to seek an end to combat. In fact, though Palestinian losses have been large and disproportionate, Hamas has negotiating leverage only as long as the fighting continues. Once the conflict stops, Israel, a wealthy and powerful country, can quickly return to normal. For Hamas, normal is a seven-year blockade that would now be even more devastating, given the destruction and the humanitarian crisis in the strip they govern.
That is why Hamas is prepared to pay a heavy price to get some permanent relief — even if real peace remains remote. In this, the group has public opinion — Palestinian, and Arab broadly, including Egyptian — firmly on its side. Hamas knows Cairo will be under pressure to respond, but it also realizes that it risks being blamed for the growing devastation of Palestinians with every day of war if it continues to oppose an immediate ceasefire.
Despite Hamas’ dislike of Sisi, it needs to work with Egypt. It has no choice. So the Israelis want Sisi to succeed. They view the Egyptian military establishment, his power base, as an anchor of their peace with Egypt.
Egypt still has a key role to play. But Cairo’s challenges and risks will only increase the longer this conflict continues.
PHOTO (TOP): A Palestinian woman wearing clothes stained with the blood of other relatives, who medics said were wounded in Israeli shelling, cries at a hospital in Gaza City July 20, 2014. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
PHOTO (INSERT 1): Secretary of State John Kerry (L) speaks with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo, July 22, 2014. REUTERS/Charles Dharapak/Pool
PHOTO (INSERT 2): An Israeli mobile artillery unit fires towards the Gaza Strip, July 21, 2014. REUTERS/Nir Elias
PHOTO (INSERT 3): A Palestinian woman walks past the rubble of a residential building, which police said was destroyed in an Israeli air strike, in Gaza City July 22, 2014. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
PHOTO (INSERT 4): Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on as he takes the stand before delivering joint statements with Italy’s Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini (not pictured) during their meeting in Jerusalem July 16, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Hollander/Pool