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How the Israel-Hamas war will test Egypt's balancing act

How the Israel-Hamas war will test Egypt's balancing act
6 min read
11 October, 2023
Analysis: Cairo is seeking to play a mediator role for both ceasefire and hostage negotiations, but there is a looming humanitarian crisis unfolding at its border with Gaza.

Since Hamas’s unprecedented attack on Israel on Saturday, neighbouring Egypt has been fast to assert its position as a non-violent peacemaker.

Cairo has urged both sides to de-escalate, with President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi voicing the need for a fair two-state solution and prioritising domestic security by keeping the Sinai-Gaza border closed.

“Egypt’s position is already very clear. It seeks de-escalation and is willing to act as the mediator to resolve the situation,” Yassin Ashour, an Egyptian political consultant on Middle East and Arab affairs, told The New Arab.

President Sisi’s regime is looking to handle the situation delicately ahead of Egypt’s December presidential elections. The leader has also demonstrated his willingness to act as a peace broker, as seen in the 2021 truce talks between Israel and Hamas.

“When it comes to the escalation between Palestinians-Israel, Egypt is always to be the mediator,” added Ashour. “Since the Mubarak-era, western countries like the US have looked to Egypt to negotiate peace between Israel, Hamas and the PLO.”

According to Matthew Sparks, an anthropologist and historian of Sinai and the Naqab: “The current government has everything to gain from trying to maintain a balance of power with Hamas and the Israelis. So I don't think that they're going to do anything that will counteract that”.

Aside from the opportunity to elevate its geopolitical standing, Egypt also stands to lose out if it’s drawn into conflict at a time when the state is weakened by a crippling economic crisis. If fighting escalates, there is a risk of a humanitarian crisis toppling across the border and threatening hard-fought-for peace in Sinai.

“Sisi will try to maintain a balanced position between the necessity to create a new paradigm between Egypt and Hamas, but at the same time remain uninvolved in the conflict, because Egypt is very fragile at this moment,” Giuseppe Dentice, head of MENA desk at the Centre for International Studies, told TNA.

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Egypt voices support for Palestinian Cause

Despite assuring Israel it will help negotiate the release of hostages, Cairo has simultaneously blamed the fighting on the unfair treatment of the Palestinian people and the absence of a two-state solution.

President Sisi told German Chancellor Olaf Schotz on Sunday there is a need to tackle “the root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by backing the path of calm and advancing efforts of settling the Palestinian cause”.

On a political level, Sisi’s regime is vociferously calling for an abrupt end to the conflict. As a wider society, Egyptians largely support the Palestinian cause, and on social media many Egyptians have described the events as a direct continuation of the October 6th Yom Kippur War in 1973.

As Ashour pointed out, Cairo has always supported Palestinian decolonisation and is not expected to change this position.

At least 1,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza by Israeli airstrikes since Saturday, following Hamas' attack. [Getty]

“Egypt did not go as far as countries that signed the Abraham Accords, such as Bahrain, UAE or Sudan, in terms of not calling to go back to the 4 June 1967 borders,” he said. “Egypt supports the Palestinian rights for decolonisation, which is backed by international law in 40 UN conventions,” Ashour added.

“As a society, Egypt is extremely connected to the Palestinian cause because of its Muslim and Arab identity,” Dentice commented. “This will be an important factor in Egypt’s role in future negotiations.”

Yet despite its emotional ties with Palestine, Egypt has consistently demonstrated its mutually beneficial relationship with Israel and has maintained peaceful relations since the Camp David Accords in September 1978.

This led to the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, as well as Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin sharing the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize.

“The Egyptian government has shown for some time that it can distinguish between its military relationship with Israel and its social relationship with Israel,” said Sparks. “Egypt has always had a cold peace with Israel and Egyptians are generally very supportive of the Palestine cause.”

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Gaza-Sinai border opening

One heavy point of contention has been the question of whether Egypt will open the Rafah crossing, especially after an Israeli army spokesperson told Gazans to flee to Sinai.

Gaza is experiencing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, and children make up almost half of its two million population. The Palestinian Ministry of Health claims 140 children have been killed by Israeli airstrikes since the weekend.

Egypt closed the border following the Israeli army’s announcement on Tuesday, which preceded a subsequent bombing of the Rafah crossing. Although the Israeli military later retracted the statement, the crossing is expected to remain closed to maintain Egypt’s own security, with the exception of humanitarian aid. Israel later threatened to attack aid trucks from Egypt.

“Under Sisi’s regime, Egypt’s position has always been Egypt first,” Ashour said. “The government is proud of how it’s defended itself against terrorism since 2014 and the regime will continue to prioritise security. I don’t think they will risk this position by opening the Gaza border – perhaps they will open the crossing for humanitarian help.” 

Egypt has closed the Rafah crossing with Gaza, the only gateway for Palestinians to leave the besieged enclave. [Getty]

Others have pointed out that it is advantageous for Egypt to keep the border closed and Hamas contained in a controlled space outside of Egypt’s direct control.

“During the current Sisi regime, the relationship with Hamas has been strained due to Hamas’s historic ties with the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Sparks. “For President Sisi - and any leader following the post-Nasser military ruler model - it makes sense to contain Hamas in Gaza.”

Sparks added: “It also allows Sisi to call upon Israel for additional military aid to secure the border area, as we saw in 2018.”

There are also questions over whether Gazans would wish to flee to Sinai. Ever since Palestinians suffered mass displacement and dispossession during the ‘Nakba’, or catastrophe, of the Arab-Israeli war in 1948, there has been widespread resolve not to leave their land for fear they could never return.

“Historically, in 1948 the Gazans fled to Sinai, then returned in 1967,” said Sparks. “I don’t think we’re going to see Gazans allowed to flee this time as Sinai is unable to support a large population and Egypt is facing its own problems internally. Egypt will show solidarity through humanitarian aid but an open border seems unlikely.”

Alexandria shooting

The shooting of two Israeli tourists in Alexandria by an Egyptian policeman, two days after Hamas attacked Israel, sent shockwaves among Egyptian security forces and prompted calls for a swift domestic de-escalation.

“Maybe this terrorist incident is an isolated situation, but at the same time it is important for Egyptian military forces to prevent any possible situation of escalation as direct involvement in a new regional conflict could deeply weaken the country,” Dentice said.

Following the attack, Israeli tourists fled Sinai en masse and the US embassy in Egypt told citizens in Egypt to “exercise increased security awareness and precautions”.

Egypt’s tourism sector, which has recorded record numbers this year, will be deeply wounded and could further compound the effects of the economic crisis for many. Pre-covid, as many as 1.4 million Israelis would holiday in Sinai each year - and this year an estimated 200,000 visited during the Passover holiday alone.

“Following the incident in Alexandria, Egypt is going to say goodbye to Israeli tourism for some time,” Sparks said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there is an active boycott.” 

Lara Gibson is a Cairo-based journalist closely following Egypt's economic and political developments. 

Follow her on Twitter: @lar_gibson