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Friend or foe: Is Egypt an accomplice in the Gaza crisis?

Friend or foe: Is Egypt an accomplice in the Gaza crisis?
8 min read

Emad Moussa

19 April, 2024
Egypt's inaction over Israeli crimes in Gaza has fuelled accusations of complicity, writes Emad Moussa. But how has Egypt's stance changed through time?
The Gaza war has revealed that the Egyptian position is largely driven by the desire to maintain ties with the United States and Israel, writes Emad Moussa [Getty Images]

While thousands of aid trucks remain stuck on the Egyptian side of the border, hundreds of thousands of Gazans are on the verge of famine in the Strip.

Say what you want about logistics, gridlock at Rafah adds to the growing suspicion amongst Gazans that the Egyptian administration may be involved in the Gaza crisis, either through a lack of will or ability to live up to its historic responsibility toward Palestine. 

Egyptian inaction aligns with the belief that Egypt under al-Sisi has helped sustain Israel's Gaza blockade. The casual mistreatment of and profiteering from Palestinians at the Rafah Crossing by Egyptian officials and the restrictions on their movement in and out of Gaza, coupled with Cairo's security ties with Israel, only serves to consolidate this narrative.

This suspicion may run counter to what is generally perceived as Egypt’s traditional pro-Palestine posture. However, the Egyptian stance on Gaza — and Palestine in general — has never been straightforward.  Historical shifts, realpolitik, and changes in priorities are largely to blame.

Gaza and the evolution of Egypt

Egypt ruled the Gaza Strip between the 1948 Nakba and 1967, save for the 1956 Suez Crisis when Israel invaded and briefly occupied the Strip and the Sinai Peninsula.

During this period, Nasser supported Palestinian fedayeen but limited their activities in Gaza against the Israeli army in fear of Israeli reprisal against Egypt.

Nonetheless, Palestinians in Egypt were still treated similarly to nationals with the right to work and receive education. 

The official attitude toward Palestinians remained stable after Egypt’s defeat in 1967 and continued till Nasser’s death in 1970. Albeit, the defeat triggered internal Palestinian discussions to lessen reliance on Arab states in their fight against Israel.  

In 1978, Sadat passed administrative regulations 47 and 48, revoking the treatment of Palestinians as nationals. That same year, he signed the Camp David Peace Accords with Israel.

Once the gatekeeper of Arab nationalism, Camp David neutralised Egypt from the Arab-Israeli conflict and, subsequently, tied its foreign interests with the United States and, by extension, Israel.

The Palestine cause, therefore, was reduced to the 1967 occupation and Palestinians’ ambitions to the establishment of a state on 22% of historic Palestine. 


Under Sadat, Egypt’s physical solidarity with Palestine dwindled, though the sloganeering continued. Cairo's focus turned largely inward, weakening Egypt’s role as the leader of the Arab World. The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and Egypt’s weak involvement was a clear indication of Egypt’s pan-Arab decline.

Between verbal support and practical apathy, Mubarak carried along Sadat’s legacy with Egypt metamorphosing into a mediator between Israel and the PLO, instead of its traditional pro-Palestine role. This partially facilitated the signing of the Olso Accords in 1993 between the PLO and Israel.

Afterwards, while keeping strong ties with Israel, Egyptian logistical and diplomatic support of the Palestinian Authority ebbed and flowed in extent, but remained somewhat consistent.

After Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007 and led to the Palestinian internal disunity, Egypt’s role was extended to also mediating reconciliation between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank. 

To manage the Palestinian affairs in such a way that does not contradict Cairo’s notion of national security or upset its ties with Israel, also while maintaining a semblance of Egyptian influence regarding Palestine, Mubarak used two methods of pressure on Palestinians, especially Hamas: the Rafah Crossing and tunnels.

The crossing would open and shut to reward or punish Hamas for respectively accepting or defying Cairo’s worldview.

Mubarak turned a blind eye to the smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza. He wanted to leave a breather for the besieged Gazans and avoid a humanitarian situation that would explode in Egypt’s face, jeopardising its national security, especially in the vulnerable Sinai.

The Egyptians also occasionally overlooked weapons smuggled through the tunnels into Gaza to have an extra pressure card on Hamas: fall in line or be deprived of the means to resist Israel’s occupation, and if you resist, do so without disturbing Egypt-Israel ties or Egypt’s national security.

Egypt's position on Gaza shifts between strategic influence, national security, and popular appeal [photo credit: Getty Images]

With the 2011 January Revolution which removed Mubarak from power and brought in a Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammed Morsi, Gaza-Egypt relations improved fast, only to plummet faster a year later after General al-Sisi seized power in a military coup in 2013 and imprisoned Morsi.  

The new regime saw Hamas as an extension of the Brotherhood, its arch-enemy, and dealt with the movement accordingly. In 2014-2015, it orchestrated a media campaign against Hamas that also targeted Palestinians overall — so much so that the regime-affiliated TV presenter, Ahmed Moussa, called in 2015 on al-Sisi to strike ”terrorism camps in Gaza”.

Al-Sisi created a buffer zone on the Egyptian side of the border with Gaza and destroyed and flooded nearly 2000 tunnels, killing several Palestinians.

The Rafah Crossing in 2015 was shut for 344 days, triggering an even deeper humanitarian crisis in an already blockaded Strip. That coincided with increased Egyptian-Israeli coordination in Sinai as the Egyptian army battled Daesh there.

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Egypt: A 'patron' of the Palestinian cause?

From 2016 onwards, al-Sisi successfully ousted his opponents and stabilised his rule with an iron fist, eliminating the need to vilify Hamas. Hamas and Egypt set out on a trust-building route, starting with Hamas erecting 60 observing points on the Gaza-Egypt border to thwart infiltrations into Egypt.

Central to the shifting Egypt policy toward Hamas were national security considerations and Cairo’s need to salvage its regional influence by mediating between Israel and the Palestinians, and between Hamas and Fatah. Add to that the realisation by the regime that to win the Egyptian people — especially at a time of economic turmoil under a regime with questionable legitimacy — it was necessary to appear on Palestines side.  

The relative peace between al-Sisi and Hamas resulted in the regular opening of the Rafah Crossing in 2021, albeit with limited hours and logistical difficulties still despite repeated promises to facilitate Palestinians’ travels. Egypt also physically helped reconstruct Gaza after the Israeli onslaught in May 2021.

October 7 revealed that the ‘improvements’ in the Hamas-Egypt ties did not usher in an end to Egypts perceivably contradictory Gaza policies. It rather exposed the limitations of al-Sisi’s commitment, let alone his ability to use Egypt’s regional weight and influence, to curb the Israeli slaughter of Palestinians.

Cairo surrendered to the Israeli pressure to close the Rafah Crossing and prevent sufficient flow of aid into Gaza. It justified its position on the grounds of ‘legal agreements’ with Israel that regulate the border management, despite Egypt’s sovereignty over it. In doing so, al-Sisi also lost any meaningful leverage on Hamas.

Meanwhile, Egypt has been trying to walk a tightrope to thwart any Israeli attempts to displace Gazans into Sinai, simultaneously neutralising any potential confrontation between Egypt and Israel.

The Egyptian position against the displacement intersects with Palestinian interests and helps thwart Israel’s war objectives. It simultaneously serves Egypt’s national security and maintains Egypt’s image as a historical patron of the Palestine cause.

Sceptics are not thrilled, linking Egypt’s position purely to al-Sisi’s security concerns, economic burden, and the fear of public outrage should he allow the displacement of Palestinians into Sinai. It is not about Palestinians per se.

For Palestine or Egypt, the outcome remains the same, which makes it a win-win situation for Egyptians and Palestinians, and a loss for Israel.

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None of the above, however, changes the fact that Egypt’s overall stance on Gaza has been, especially since October 7, frustratingly lacking. 

The Gaza war has revealed that the Egyptian position is largely driven by the desire to maintain ties with the United States and Israel, especially as the al-Sisi regime is drowning in economic problems and political fragility, and sees Tel-Aviv as a gatekeeper to Washington’s assistance.

For Palestinians and many Arabs, as well as the majority of Egyptians who see Israel as their mortal enemy, much will be required by the Egyptian regime to rectify a position that has been repeatedly described as ‘shameful’ or dubbed as ‘complicity’ with the Israeli crimes in Gaza.  

Dr Emad Moussa is a Palestinian-British researcher and writer specialising in the political psychology of intergroup and conflict dynamics, focusing on MENA with a special interest in Israel/Palestine. He has a background in human rights and journalism, and is currently a frequent contributor to multiple academic and media outlets, in addition to being a consultant for a US-based think tank.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.