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Why Israel's war on Hamas spells trouble for Egypt's Sisi

Why Israel's war on Hamas spells trouble for Egypt's Sisi
6 min read
30 October, 2023
Analysis: Egypt has a complex and fraught relationship with Hamas, but Israel's intentions to destroy the group and displace Palestinians from Gaza into Sinai have triggered security concerns for the Sisi regime.

One of the most enduring features of the Middle East over the past decade has been the close relationship between the Egyptian regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Israel.

Since the signing of the 1978 Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, relations between the two countries have deepened from a peace agreement into a mutually beneficial relationship.

Indeed, ever since Sisi came to power in 2013, Israel has evolved to be a close ally of the regime, with increased security cooperation and closer economic ties, with active Israeli involvement in supporting the stability of the regime.

There are multiple examples of this that span almost a decade of Sisi’s tenure. For example, in 2013 the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) lobbied in Washington to ensure that American aid to the regime continued to flow after it came to power in a bloody military coup.

In 2018, reports emerged that the regime had turned to Israel for support in repressing a burgeoning insurgency in Sinai, and Israel responded by conducting airstrikes in Sinai against the insurgents.

Weeks ago, another report revealed that Israel sold the Sisi regime sophisticated spy software that can be used to spy on political dissidents. This software was used to spy on the potential presidential candidate, Ahmed El-Tantawi, in September 2023, as he was attempting to collect the necessary signatures to challenge Sisi in the upcoming presidential elections.

As Israel continues its onslaught on Gaza, and the civilian death toll continues to mount, the close alliance between Cairo and Tel Aviv is coming under increased pressure.

Historically, Egypt has played a key role in mediating and de-escalating violence between Israel and Hamas. But as Israel continues to reject calls for a ceasefire, clear tensions are beginning to emerge between the two allies for the first time in a decade.

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Israel has declared that it intends to wipe Hamas “off the face of the earth” and will not stop until it does so. Israel has also expressed intent to mass expel Palestinians in Gaza to Sinai.

Both of these scenarios are extremely dangerous from Cairo’s vantage point, which prefers a policy of co-opting and containing Hamas rather than destroying it.

The relationship between Sisi and Hamas, which emerged out of the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, is complex and has oscillated between outright hostility to accommodation and co-option.

During its first few years in power, the regime embarked on a propaganda blitz against the group, accusing it of being a terror organisation complicit in acts of violence in Egypt.

In 2016, the Egyptian minister of the Interior, Magdy Abdel Gaffar, accused Hamas of assassinating the Attorney General in a car bomb. This prompted the pro-regime talk show host Ahmed Moussa to call for a coordinated Arab military campaign against the group.

Israel has continued to reject all calls for a ceasefire from Egypt as well as regional and international powers, straining ties between Cairo and Tel Aviv. [Getty]

This stemmed from domestic considerations, as the regime attempted to emphasise a link between the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas, which allowed it to paint the Brotherhood as a terror group and build popular support for its participation in the siege of the Gaza Strip.

Indeed, the regime used this popular support to tighten its blockade of Gaza, destroying 1,370 smuggling tunnels in 2014, and using seawater to destroy the tunnel network in 2015.

This policy of confrontation, however, soon gave way to a policy of accommodation, with Hamas working with the regime to combat Islamic State group (IS) militants in Sinai and to repress IS' presence in Gaza. This even included increased border security cooperation, with the erection of a border wall between Gaza and Egypt in 2020.

For these reasons, Israel’s explicit intent to destroy Hamas presents a deep conundrum for the Egyptian regime. If Hamas is eradicated in Gaza, then this will leave a power vacuum that could be filled with other more militant groups, with possible spillover effects from Gaza into Sinai.

This is a scenario that Cairo is keen to avoid at all costs, after years of struggling to contain an Islamic insurgency in Sinai, which has reportedly claimed the lives of 3,277 members of the security forces.

Besides viewing Hamas as a party that Sisi can contain and co-opt, the regime is also worried about the possibility of a mass displacement of the Palestinians into Sinai, for multiple intertwined reasons.

Firstly, accepting an influx of permanent refugees in Sinai might act as a destabilising force and a long-term security threat, pushing Palestinian resistance into Egyptian territory. There is deep popular opposition within the regime's base against the notion of resettlement.

This also stems from the regime's own propaganda, which accused the Brotherhood of plotting to “sell” Sinai to the Palestinians, an accusation that was widely believed by the regime’s base. Any attempts at resettlement would lead to a popular backlash, not only from the opposition but from the regime’s own base.

In the midst of a deep economic crisis and looming presidential elections, Sisi knows that it is not an opportune moment for such a risky endeavour, which he publicly opposed in a press conference with the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

The policy alternatives that the regime has, however, are extremely limited, reflecting Cairo’s weakening regional role. For example, the Cairo Peace Summit, which the regime organised on the 21st of October, was not only snubbed by the Israelis and the US only sending the charge d'affaires, but it failed to achieve a breakthrough.

As diplomatic efforts to pressure Israel into a ceasefire continue to fail, the regime has had to rely on posturing.

Sisi has called for rare protests in an attempt to co-opt growing popular sentiment against the Israeli offensive and portray himself as the protector of Egyptian national security against the plot to relocate Palestinians from Gaza to Sinai.

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From a practical perspective, besides organising a failed peace conference, the regime has done very little to halt the war, not due to lack of will, but rather the absence of ability.

The regime is now facing a humanitarian catastrophe on its border and a mounting security challenge that it is powerless to stop. This is the result of years of dwindling regional influence, and the regime’s active participation in freezing Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

Together with other regional powers, Egypt has participated in cultivating the Israeli delusion that its national interests can be achieved without negotiating with the Palestinians by ‘managing’ the occupation and continuing to colonise Palestinian lands.

The regime’s only hope now is that Israeli leadership will realise the futility of the task of destroying Hamas, and that American concerns over the lack of achievable war objectives and Biden’s warning not to reoccupy Gaza will deter a military action that would prove disastrous for the regime.

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 an upcoming book entitled 'Egypt Under Sisi', coming out in January 2024.

Follow him on Twitter: @MagedMandour