BICOM Analysis: Egypt faces Gaza dilemma

On Sunday the 3rd of February 2008, Egyptian forces moved to seal the remaining holes in the breached frontier separating Sinai from the Gaza Strip. The move followed a series of meetings between Hamas leaders in Cairo and Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s powerful intelligence minister. According to eyewitness reports, Egyptian security forces were permitting residents of Gaza to return to their homes, but no new movement of Gazans into Sinai was being permitted.[i] The closing of the border without the use of force represents an achievement for the Egyptians, who have been mediating between the Hamas rulers of Gaza and the Fatah rulers of the West Bank Palestinian Authority since the current crisis began. Today’s suicide bombing in Dimona, made possible by the breaching of the border, according to the spokesman of the group that carried out the bombing, underlines just how important it is that the border be either sealed or properly administered. The attack indicates that Palestinian terrorists who left Gaza when the border was open remain at large and operating in the area.[ii]

Despite Egypt’s sealing of the border, it was not clear if any firm agreement had been reached regarding future arrangements. The lack of clarity is indicative of the dilemma which the Egyptian authorities have faced since the breaching of the Gaza border wall by Hamas on 26 January 2008. This article will explore the details of this dilemma.

Egypt and Gaza

Egypt’s re-involvement with the Gaza border began with Israel’s disengagement from the Strip in September 2005. Egypt administered Gaza in the period 1948-67, and in the period 1967-2005 had no overt involvement with the Strip and access to it. Following the Israel-Egypt peace accord of 1979, Egypt withdrew entirely from engagement with the Strip.   

In November 2005, as a result of US mediation, an arrangement was reached whereby 750 Egyptian Border Police would be deployed along the border in order to administer entry and exit at the Rafah Crossing between the Gaza Strip and Sinai, in cooperation with Palestinian Authority forces and an EU monitoring force. Additionally, an Israeli video facility would observe events. 

This arrangement came to an end with the Hamas seizure of power in Gaza in June 2007. At this point, the Egyptians, who maintain close relations with the Palestinian Authority, sealed the southern exit from Gaza. The closure of the border was then broken at the end of January 2008, when Hamas operatives blew several holes in the border wall, following which up to 750,000 Palestinian civilians crossed into Sinai to buy provisions. They were accompanied by hundreds of armed militiamen from Hamas and other factions.[iii]

The destruction of the wall presented a problem for Egypt. Cairo firmly condemned the Hamas coup of June 2007 and maintains close relations with the West Bank Palestinian Authority. Egypt is a strategic ally of the US, and maintains peaceful relations with Israel – both of whom regard Hamas as a client organisation of Iran and Syria, and a barrier to any hope of a diplomatic process between Israelis and Palestinians. The Egyptian regime’s main domestic foe is the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which is a sister organisation to Hamas. The opening of connections between Sinai and the Islamist enclave in Gaza – with all that this might mean in terms of the potential use of Gaza as a refuge and base by wanted Egyptian Islamists – would represent a very severe setback for the Egyptian government. Indeed, Egyptian Brotherhood leaders hurried to travel to Gaza to show solidarity with Hamas in the days following the breaching of the border.[iv] All these elements might have inclined Cairo toward a hard-line and swift show of force to re-seal the border.

But support for the Palestinians is very high among the Egyptian public. This support transcends the circles of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood organised around 70 demonstrations in support of Gaza in the days following the destruction of the border wall.[v] The Egyptian government, for its part, tabled a resolution to a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo which held Israel responsible for the Gaza situation and called for the restoration of the November 2005 agreement on the border.[vi] But this call had little meaning given the de facto Hamas control of the border. Thus the only way that the Egyptians could actually have imposed their will on the border would have been through the use of force. 

This would have meant scenes of Egyptian security forces engaging with Hamas gunmen, and would undoubtedly have resulted in bloodshed. Such a scenario would have led to Egypt being seen both by large sections of its own public and across the Arab world as siding with Israel and the US against the Palestinians. Cairo does not wish to be seen in this light. At the moment, the Egyptian regime is in a process of transition. It is clear that President Hosni Mubarak will leave office in the not too distant future. Whether he will be succeeded by his son Gamal or not, the issue of the popular legitimacy of the regime is of importance at the present time. Cairo was thus determined to avoid any scenario involving violence between Egyptian forces and Palestinians.

Egypt chooses re-engagement

There was a clear and pressing need to re-impose authority in the border area, which was already being used by terror organisations to prepare attacks against Israelis. Egyptian security forces began a phased plan to return the Palestinians to Gaza. They first sealed the crossings of the Suez Canal, then closed the towns of el Arish and Sheikh Zuwaid to Palestinians, and finally locked the visitors into a small area in Egyptian Rafah.[vii]

But regarding future arrangements on the border, in the absence of a decision to clear out Hamas by force, the only available option to the Egyptians was to re-impose order in cooperation with Hamas. At the time of writing, it appears that this is the path that Cairo has chosen to adopt.

This choice carries a price. Hamas is currently cooperating with the Egyptian re-sealing of the border.  But this cooperation appears to have come at the cost of an Egyptian commitment to re-opening the Rafah Crossing in the near future. Such a move – if it takes place – will represent a de facto recognition of the Hamas regime in Gaza. Since it is likely that the crossings between Gaza and Israel will remain closed, it will also mean a re-orientation of Gaza’s politics – whereby in future, Gazan demands and requests are likely to be directed toward Egypt, while Gaza’s only relation with Israel will be one of conflict. Hamas officials in their meeting with Omar Suleiman reportedly attempted to begin discussions on the possibility of a rapid increase in Egypt’s relations with Gaza – which would include the purchase of fuel, food, construction materials and a far larger amount of electricity than the 17 megawatts Egypt currently supplies. Egypt, however, has so far rejected these requests.

If such a relationship were to develop between Egypt and Gaza, the de facto result may well be Egypt’s re-engagement with the Strip. On the other hand, if Egypt were to attempt to re-seal the border with Gaza, the ensuing scenario may well be the one Egypt is currently most eager to avoid: confrontation with Hamas. Either way, it appears that Egyptian re-engagement with Gaza is the most significant strategic change to have yet emerged from Hamas’s destruction of the Gaza-Sinai border wall last month.

Who benefits?

Who gains from the current situation? Egypt has clearly been placed in an embarrassing and unwanted position, and stands between two undesirable outcomes – the acceptance of engagement with what Israeli researcher Hillel Fradkin has called a ‘Muslim Brotherhood province’ in Gaza, or confronting this entity, and provoking popular fury and condemnation across the Arab world.[viii] For the moment, Egypt appears to have opted for the former. Cairo would have preferred a return to the status quo. But this appears to be no longer a possibility.

The Palestinian Authority also loses out.  If the PA – with US and Egyptian support – cannot bring about a re-imposition of its own desired outcome on the border (a return to the November 2005 arrangements, and no Hamas involvement in the administering of the border) – then this represents a serious blow to its prestige.

Hamas, of course, clearly gains. Any scenario following the breaching of the border which does not represent a return to the status quo ante may be presented as a victory for the movement. If the end result is an increased supply of goods and services from Egypt, this is entirely in line with the movement’s long-standing demands. And if Hamas ends up having a role in the administering of the Rafah Crossing, this will represent a major achievement.

Israel, following today’s terror attack, will be pressing for rapid action by the Egyptian security forces to clear all remaining Palestinians out of Sinai, and will undoubtedly be beefing up security arrangements along the southern border.

Ultimately, the lesson of the recent events may well be that an Islamist statelet has arisen in Gaza whose existence and preferred mode of behaviour represents a common challenge to Israelis, Egyptians and westerners alike.

[i] Avi Issacharoff, ‘Egypt seals final gap in its breached Gaza frontier,’ Haaretz, 3 February 2008. http://www.haaretz.co.il/

[ii] Ali Waked and AP, “Fatah: Bombers infiltrated Israel through Egypt,” Ynetnews, 4 February 2008. http://www.ynetnews.com/

[iii] Ehud Ya’ari, ‘Egypt working to Contain Gaza,’ Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policywatch # 1337. 1 February 2008.

[iv] Ehud Ya’ari, ‘Egypt working to Contain Gaza,’ Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policywatch # 1337. 1 February 2008.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] ‘Analysis: Egypt faces hard choices after Gaza debacle’ Jerusalem Post, 3 February 2008. http://www.jpost.co.il/

[vii] Ya’ari.

[viii] Ruthie Blum ‘One on one: out of Egypt,’ Jerusalem Post, 30 January 2008. http://www.jpost.co.il/