Policy shift or diplomatic leverage: Is Egypt changing its stance towards Palestinians?

A member of the Palestinian security forces stands in front of an Egyptian aid truck arriving at the Rafah border crossing, which connects the Gaza Strip to Egypt, on May 23, 2021.[AFP via Getty]
5 min read
24 May, 2021

Following a deadly 11-day war between Israel and Hamas, Egypt has boosted its credentials as a key mediator between the two parties.

On 21 May, Egypt successfully brokered a ceasefire to end the devastating conflict, which left 274 Palestinians, including 66 children, and 12 Israelis dead, and saw over 1,000 homes in Gaza destroyed and up to 50,000 Palestinians displaced by Israeli bombardments.

Observers believe that Cairo is attempting to leverage its diplomatic power to restore its regional clout after feeling that normalisation agreements with Israel and other key actors, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have threatened its influence in the Middle East.

Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi may also be using Egypt’s proximity and influence to gain new leverage with the Biden administration, which has frequently criticised Egypt’s human rights record after Cairo enjoyed close relations under former US president Donald Trump.

"Observers believe that Cairo is attempting to leverage its diplomatic power to restore its regional clout after feeling that normalisation agreements with Israel have threatened its influence in the Middle East"

Hours before the ceasefire was officially announced last Thursday, Biden held his first phone call with Sisi since coming to office.

In his White House address that day, Biden also expressed his “sincere gratitude to President Al Sisi and the senior Egyptian officials who played a critical role in this diplomacy.”

A change of heart?

Since 2007, Egypt and Israel have imposed a strict blockade on the Gaza Strip after Hamas assumed power following clashes with the rival Fatah faction that rules the occupied West Bank.

After the military coup led by Sisi that overthrew Egypt’s first democratically elected president, the late Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian regime and media outlets loyal to it waged a war against Hamas and Palestinians in Gaza, accusing them of being behind militancy in North Sinai and allowing the infiltration of jihadists into Egypt.

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In a campaign that escalated in 2013, Egypt also destroyed hundreds of cross-border tunnels with the besieged enclave.

It was not until 2017 when Hamas dropped its affiliation to the Muslim Brotherhood, legally outlawed in Egypt since 2014, that the Egyptian regime softened its tone towards Hamas.

In recent years, Cairo has also been instrumental in mediation efforts between Palestinian factions for political reconciliation, including the slated elections postponed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

But Egypt’s most recent role has also extended beyond negotiations. Shortly after Israel began bombing Gaza, Egypt briefly opened the Rafah border crossing, Gaza’s only gateway to the outside world, and sent ambulances to pick up seriously injured Palestinians for treatment at nearby Egyptian hospitals.

"Sisi may also be using Egypt's proximity and influence to gain new leverage with the Biden administration, which has frequently criticised Egypt's human rights record"

A reported 2,500-ton emergency aid package carried by 130 trucks was also sent to the strip by the Egyptian government.

In a further surprise, Sisi pledged $500 million to help reconstruction efforts in Gaza, with Egyptian companies set to take charge of rebuilding.

The offer immediately sparked heated discussion on social media and has divided Egyptian public opinion, with Sisi’s pledge hailed by some Egyptians and slammed by others.

Political sociologist Said Sadek is of the opinion that for the Egyptian regime it is all about “raison d'état”.

“Sisi wanted Biden to speak to him after four months of ignoring him. He also sought to do a favour for [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and save him from a futile war,” he told The New Arab.

Palestinians demonstrate in Haifa on 18 May, 2021
Read more: How Israeli policies to fragment Palestinians led to a collective uprising

“Sisi worked on restoring Egypt’s regional role with some fanfare actions, and he succeeded in doing that,” he added.

Amid the mixed responses, including speculation that Egyptian military companies reconstructing Gaza could be used to gather intelligence on Hamas, the question remains whether Egypt is really working for the interests of Palestinians or to prove itself useful to Israel and the US.

Back in 2014, a year after the military coup, Sisi fostered warmer ties with Tel Aviv, advocating the two-state solution and co-existence between Palestinians and Israelis.

During his speech at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2017, Sisi said: “I tell the Palestinian people it’s extremely important ... to overcome the differences and not to lose opportunities and to be ready to accept co-existence with the other, with Israelis in safety and security.”

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Addressing Israelis, he added: “We have an excellent experience in Egypt in peace with you for longer than 40 years.”

Before Sisi, Egypt’s strategic role in the region had always been maintained by two staunch allies to Israel and the US: the late ousted president Hosni Mubarak, and his late predecessor Anwar Sadat, who signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1979.

Contradictory stances

The Egyptian government’s stance towards the crisis in Gaza has been inconsistent. The official rhetoric was surprisingly critical of Israel - from strongly-worded statements released by the foreign ministry to sermons given by pro-regime clerics and TV talk show hosts for pro-regime channels who strongly condemned Israel.

On the other hand, citizens have been banned from organising rallies or publicly showing any support for the Palestinian cause. Even during the Mubarak era, Egyptians, including Muslim Brotherhood members, were often allowed to protest for Palestine.

In one incident, journalist Nour El-Hoda Zak recounted her experience on Facebook after attempting to raise the Palestinian flag in Cairo’s iconic Tahrir square last week in support of Palestinians.

"The Egyptian government's stance towards the crisis in Gaza has been inconsistent. The official rhetoric was surprisingly critical of Israel, but rallies and protests for Palestine have been banned"

Policemen, according to Zaki, detained her and a friend for hours, humiliating and harassing them verbally, before forcing the two women to drop the flag and leave the square.

Egyptians have also joined social media campaigns in support of Palestine, while an Egyptian actress appeared on TV with a T-shirt reading “Palestinian” in Arabic.

For most, however, the cost of holding large public protests is too high, with the state also engineering apathy for popular mobilisation.

In 2013, Egypt passed a notorious law restricting public assemblies of more than five people without the prior consent of the authorities, legislation condemned by local and international rights groups.

“Protests did not achieve anything in 2011 and 2013 with regards to domestic issues; and a protest for a foreign issue in 2021 wouldn’t either,” Sadek said. “People, anyway, have abandoned big demonstrations to voice their views since 2013”.

Horriya Marzouk is a pseudonym. The author resides in a jurisdiction where the publication of their identity may create a security or freedom of movement issue