Egypt is Gaza’s most fickle friend The President hates Hamas, but his people despise Israel

A few years ago, while reporting in Gaza, I paid a visit to the Rafah border crossing with Egypt. Mohammed, my fixer, wasn’t keen. The guards there, he explained, were unfriendly. Sometimes they’d fire in the air if people approached; other times they’d shoot to kill. Beatings or at least the odd slap were common.

We drove up, parked a way off, and had a look. The uniformed men had the surly arrogance of most border officials but overlaid with an air of proximate violence. I could understand Mohammed’s reservations.

Rafah is a metaphor cast in concrete and steel for Egypt’s fraught role in the decades-long conflict between Israel and Palestine. Egypt, the only other state apart from Israel that borders Gaza, has had an uneasy peace with Jerusalem since 1979. And as the most populous Arab state in the world (Sudan is second with less than half its numbers), its leaders know well that most of their citizens loathe Israel. Whoever rules Cairo is always juggling several flaming torches at once.

Officially, Egypt is, like all Arab states, a proud and steadfast supporter of the Palestinian cause. Just over a week after the October 7 massacre, president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi declared that “the Palestinian cause is the mother of all causes and has a significant impact on stability and security”.

But in terms of its Gaza policy, Cairo is aligned with the United States. It wants Fatah, which governs the West Bank, to take over the strip as a precursor to Palestinian-Israeli negotiations and an end to the violence. At the end of last year, Arab media was filled with reports that Egypt and the US wanted former Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to run Gaza. Cairo was seeking a “government of technocrats” and Fayyad, with his extensive connections in Washington and close relationship with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, was seen as the perfect candidate.

Egypt’s plan was fleshed out on Christmas Day: following a ceasefire, officials explained, Cairo would lead talks to bring together Hamas and the PA, after the latter was driven out of Gaza following its 2007 elections. The two groups would then create a joint “government of experts” to run the West Bank and Gaza ahead of future elections. “We are ready for this [Palestinian] state to be demilitarised, and there can also be a guarantee of forces,” Sisi outlined a month earlier.

Yet beneath the rhetoric is a more complex reality. First, there are the practical considerations. Gaza was in Cairo’s hands from the 1948 Israeli War of Independence until Israel’s conquest of the strip in the Six Day War of 1967. During those two decades, it made no attempt to found a Palestinian state, nor did it want Gaza to become a part of Egypt, let alone allow many Gazans into the country. Gaza is a problem that Egypt simply doesn’t want.

And since October 7, that has not changed. Soon after Israel began its offensive, Sisi warned that any “displacement [of Gazans] to Sinai means transferring the attacks against Israel to Egyptian territories, which threatens the peace between Israel and a country of 105 million people”. Egyptian officials worry that if refugees flow in and camps spring up, they would become recruiting grounds for extremist groups, particularly the various malign Islamic State offshoots marauding around Sinai. This is largely why, in November last year, the Egyptians met with CIA Director William Burns and flat-out refused to manage Gaza even temporarily. Nor did Egypt get involved with counterinsurgency operations, or take any responsibility for post-war security in Gaza — something it obviously has a vested interest in.

Second, of course, is the inescapable matter of ideology. If the Egyptians dislike Israel, then its leaders detest the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian pan-Islamic Islamist group whose professed aim is to set up a Caliphate ruled by Sharia law. Indeed, Sisi got his job via what they call a “military-led takeover” in 2013 against the former president and Muslim Brother, Mohammad Morsi. In other words, he really despises the Brotherhood — and Hamas, after all, emerged from Mujama’ al-Islami (“Islamic Centre”), an Islamic charity founded by one of the Brotherhood’s leaders in Gaza.

Egypt targets the Brothers with unyielding ferocity. In 2015, Morsi was sentenced to death for conspiring with foreign organisations including Hamas (he died four years later of a reported heart attack after collapsing in court). The following year, Egypt’s interior minister accused Hamas of assassinating a public prosecutor, leading one prominent talk show host to call for an Arab military offensive against Hamas. “I ask to strike the terrorist camps inside Gaza because terrorism always comes from within it, and the Arab countries must take action to reject the Hamas movement,” he said. But this isn’t a mere war of words. Cairo has also taken action on the ground, with the Egyptian military destroying 1,370 Hamas tunnels under Rafah in 2014; the following year, it used sea water to flood yet more tunnels.
“Hatred and fear of Hamas runs deep in Egypt’s rulers”

Even so, there has been some cooperation between Cairo and Hamas when interests converge, notably in early 2020 when Hamas arrested an Islamic State member after Egyptian intelligence handed it audio recordings. The two sides also collaborated on the construction of a border wall in Sinai as part of their wider anti-Islamic State efforts, which also saw Rawhi Mushtaha, a member of Hamas’s political bureau, travel to Cairo to discuss security co-operation.

But like shrubs in the Sinai, these instances go against the norm. Hatred and fear of Hamas runs deep in Egypt’s rulers — which makes growing public support for the former’s war against Israel an increasing cause for concern. Recent polling conducted by the Washington Institute, for instance, found that 97% of people agreed that Arab states must “immediately sever all diplomatic, political, economic, and any other contacts with Israel in protest against its military action in Gaza”. Moreover, 96% agreed that Egypt should provide more humanitarian aid to Palestinians.

These are troubling figures. And not least because neither Sisi nor any of those around him will ever forget that Morsi was legitimately elected by a majority of Egyptians (though he then proceeded to blow that legitimacy by trying to change the constitution to effectively make him a modern-day pharaoh). The Brothers took power once, and they can do so again. But all Sisi can do is sit in his palace and watch on as the nation his people most despise tries to do the thing he most desires: destroy Hamas.

As each day goes by, Hamas in Gaza grows weaker, but the Brothers in Egypt grow stronger. It does not help that the country is also in the grip of a financial crisis of almost existential proportions. When people talk about the wider consequences of the Gaza war, it is normally about the possibility of the Middle East exploding. But lost amid this is the prospect of something just as bad: the very real possibility that the world’s most populous Arab state might implode first.

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