Why Egypt has been missing in action during Israel's war on Gaza

Sisi Egypt
6 min read
24 April, 2024

As Israel’s war on Gaza enters its seventh month, regional tensions that could lead to an explosion of violence are mounting.

On 15 April, for the first time in history, Iran conducted a direct retaliatory strike against Israel after the latter destroyed its consulate in Damascus.

This rise in regional tensions comes as the war in Gaza reaches the grim milestone of over 34,000 Palestinians killed, including some 14,000 children, after more than 200 days of war.

Such mass deaths are bound to increase as Israel’s invasion of Rafah – after weeks of negotiations with US officials and regional distractions – looks inevitable, possibly pushing many of the 1.5 million Palestinians stranded in south Gaza across the border into Egypt.

"Inflows of foreign funding critical to staving off a complete economic collapse have made Egypt more reliant on the will of international Western powers and curtailed its ability to act regarding Israel's war"

As this conflagration of violence erupts in Gaza, Egypt, the largest Arab country, seems to be missing in action.

Its president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has been unable to rein in one of its closest allies, Israel, or mobilise the United States to halt Israel's war, which is a clear threat to the Egyptian regime's stability.

Moreover, Cairo has not opened its border with Gaza to alleviate a famine that is having a devastating impact on civilians and has made clear its unwillingness to accept Palestinian refugees.

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Aside from the rhetoric of not allowing Israel’s mass transfer of Palestinians into Egyptian territory, and a request for additional border security support from the United States, Cairo has not taken an active stance against Israel’s brutal war over the past six months.

This - noticeably weakened - role stems from a regime that has mired the country in a deep economic crisis, a military elite that is primarily concerned with short-term survival, and a crony modus operandi which sees the war in Gaza as a means for financial gain.

Around 1.5 million Palestinians have been forcibly displaced to Rafah, southern Gaza. [Getty]

Egypt's economic crisis

Egypt has been pushed into a dramatic debt crisis with devastating economic consequences for the poor and the middle class. This has not only caused the collapse of the national currency, increased poverty rates, and consumed national resources, but has also placed Egypt in a severely weakened position in terms of taking positions on Gaza that are not aligned with the US or European Union (EU).

Since the Gaza war began Egypt has sold land to Gulf states to bolster the economy, namely, a reported $35 billion deal with the UAE to develop the north coast resort of Ras al-Hekma, while Cairo also reached an expanded $8 billion loan deal with IMF and received a €7.4 billion aid package from the EU in return for curbing migration.

These inflows of foreign funding were critical to staving off a complete economic collapse; however, they have also made it more reliant on the will of international Western powers and curtailed Egypt’s ability to act regarding Israel’s war or to openly defy the blockade of Gaza, both of which enjoy Western support.

"Israel is an indispensable ally which has proven invaluable in keeping the regime in power, and based on this calculation, Egypt will tread very lightly if it suspects that its policies would disrupt the alliance"

Ties with Israel

Another factor is the close alliance between Egypt and Israel, which spans from security cooperation to economic integration, and even overt political support from Tel Aviv.

When Egypt was facing a growing insurgency in Sinai, for example, the Israeli army was directly involved in counter-insurgency efforts, with over 100 airstrikes conducted in support of the Egyptian security forces.

Israeli companies, meanwhile, have sold sophisticated spyware to Egypt which it has used to spy on critics, most notably Ahmed El Tantawi, an opposition figure who was seen as the only credible threat to Sisi in the presidential election of 2023.

These ties also cross into the economic arena, more specifically in the energy sector. Egypt has now moved to being a natural gas importer despite earlier ambitions of being a regional energy hub, ambitions that involved a mega $15 billion deal to buy Israeli gas for re-export to Europe.

The end of these ambitions could now see Egypt more dependent on the import of Israeli gas to meet its growing domestic demand, weakening its position even further.

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There is also the overt political support that Egypt receives from Israel and its allies in Washington, with AIPAC openly lobbying on behalf of the regime in 2013 in the aftermath of the bloody coup that brought the military to power. The aim was to keep American military aid, standing at $1.3 billion, flowing to the fledgling military autocracy.  

In this light, Israel is an indispensable ally which has proven invaluable in keeping the regime in power, and based on this calculation, Egypt will tread very lightly if it suspects that its policies would disrupt the alliance.

This translates to sacrificing long-term stability on its borders and risking a mass influx of Palestinian refugees – which would damage the domestic position of the regime - in order to keep its alliance with Israel intact.

It also includes aiding the blockade of Gaza, which indirectly heightens regional tensions and directly contributes to the unfolding famine in the Palestinian territory.

Israel's war has killed over 34,000 Palestinians, including 14,000 children. [Getty]

Cronyism in Egypt

Finally, there is the crony nature of regime elites, who are using the war in Gaza to enrich themselves at the expense of desperate Palestinians. More specifically, there is the case of Ibrahim al-Organi a Sinai tribal leader and the head of a regime-sanctioned militia which took part in counter-insurgency operations in Sinai. 

Al-Organi is the owner of Hala, a company that charges Palestinians thousands of dollars to arrange for their exit from the strip and enjoys close ties to Egyptian security forces. This practice is not only inhuman, but it is also damaging to the domestic credibility of the regime.

It is, however, indicative of the strength of the crony network of security agencies and their associates that Sisi has built to cement his grip on power, a set of elites that have arguably grown too powerful for Sisi to control. This allows these elites to damage the long-term stability of the regime for the prospect of quick riches.

"Sisi has built a crony network of security agencies and their associates to cement his grip on power"

In the end, this policy can only be understood through the lens of an obsession to remain in power at any cost. The logic is simple, resist the transfer of Palestinians into the Sinai by closing the border and blockade Gaza without any concrete policy actions that might alleviate the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe.

Maintaining the alliance with Israel and Egypt’s Western backers trumps any concerns for longer-term regional stability.

In essence, Egypt’s regime views its prospects for survival as greatly enhanced by Western and Israeli support, sacrificing what many would think to be the imperative of national security.

This logic has vastly increased the prospect of a regional escalation, even an all-out war, which would have been greatly diminished if Egypt had taken a stronger stance and unilaterally attempted to alleviate the famine in Gaza.       

Maged Mandour is a political analyst who is a regular contributor to the Arab Digest, Middle East Eye, Sada, and Open Democracy. He is the author of 'Egypt Under El-Sisi: A Nation on the Edge'.

Follow him on Twitter: @MagedMandour