Will Egypt finally draw its red line at Israel's invasion of Rafah?

Will Egypt finally draw its red line at Israel's invasion of Rafah?
As public discontent and the threats to Egypt's national security grow, Emad Moussa asks: how long will Cairo stick by its soft stance on Israel's war on Gaza?
7 min read
20 Feb, 2024
As Israel's ground invasion pushes close to the Egypt-Gaza border, many Egyptians feel that more must be done to stand with Palestinians. [Getty]

I have visited Cairo once or twice every year for the past five years. On the streets of this buzzing city, I’ve learnt to read, through casual chats and rants, the Egyptian people’s general mode, aspirations and, quite often, the ever-growing discontent regarding the country’s economic and political status.

But this year, in addition to the increased economic discomfort, there is also Gaza to add to the pile of public discontent with the regime.

Almost everywhere you go across Cairo, you get a glimpse of Palestine flags and posters in shop windows, expressions of support for the resistance, and even state-owned TV channels dedicated lots of air time to Gaza.

You may think this is nothing out of the ordinary, given Egypt's historical stance on Palestine. But this is perhaps the first explicit, sometimes aggressive, pro-Palestine posture on state-owned media outlets since President Sisi took office in 2013.

In fact, in recent years, there were several arrests against those exhibiting public solidarity with Palestine.

"Most of the Egyptians I talked to felt the government needed to do a lot more for Gaza, especially as Netanyahu is now threatening to attack Rafah"

The current ‘expanded scope’ of explicit support for Palestine, however, does not seem to eliminate the public distrust in the regime’s direction. The ambivalence and uncertainty about the government’s intentions, which have so far characterised its economic policies, seem to have now extended to the issue of Palestine.

Now, as an Israeli offensive is looming toward Rafah on the Egypt-Gaza border, there is growing Egyptian anxiety about Israeli intentions of forcing Palestinians into the Sinai Desert.

“They [the regime] know we’re simmering with anger over the deteriorating economy, and now because of Gaza. They’re allowing explicit expressions of support for Palestine because they want to divert our attention away from the miserable living conditions,” a Cairo Uber driver said to me.

“It’s the typical government’s sponge. When things get bad, they throw in this sponge - Gaza this time - to ‘absorb’ some of the anger,” he added.

In late October, after over a decade of ban on gatherings, the Egyptian government allowed for a ‘controlled crowd’ to take to the streets after the Friday prayer in the streets adjacent to Tahrir Square to express their support for Gaza.

The general impression was that the regime may have resorted to its ‘sponge’ to absorb the public’s anger about Gaza, fearing it would spill over into other areas like the economy and political suppression, then morph into anti-regime demos, as happened in January 2011 against Mubarak.

Not only did some of this ‘controlled crowd’ break past the heavy security presence and flood into Tahrir Square, but the ‘free Palestine’ slogans became also about the ‘daily bread,’ somewhat reminiscent of the January revolution.

The dentist I visited - who refused to charge me for treatment in solidarity with Palestine - thinks al-Sisi’s regime “…has swallowed Egypt and won’t hesitate to sell out Palestine to stay in power.”

“This disgraceful peace treaty with the [Zionist entity] must be binned. What is the point of a powerful army if we cannot stop the genocide?”, she whispered.

“If only they open the Rafah border and let us fight with our brothers [Palestinians],” is a statement I heard repeatedly by some Egyptians, expressed angrily every time.

Sentimentalism and sincere allegiances, however, do not necessarily set the trajectory for what the regime sees as national interests. Most of the Egyptians I talked to felt the government needed to do a lot more for Gaza, especially as Netanyahu is now threatening to attack Rafah.

But has the Egyptian government truly set any red lines for Israel? Would the forced expulsion of Gazans into Sinai be one of them? More critical yet, what are Egypt’s options if that happens?

Last week, Egyptian officials reportedly warned that Egypt would void the long-standing Camp David peace treaty with Israel if Israeli troops invaded the densely-populated Rafah, where 1.4 million Palestinians have sought shelter from Israel’s indiscriminate bombardment.

Egypt, like the majority of the international community, fears that an Israeli assault on Rafah, would be unimaginably catastrophic.

For Egypt specifically, it is also, if not more, about the fear of a mass influx of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians running for their lives into Egypt’s Sinai, knowing reasonably well, based on historical precedents, that Israel would never allow them to return to their homes.

"Egypt, like the majority of the international community, fears that an Israeli assault on Rafah, would be unimaginably catastrophic"

Since October, Egypt has reinforced its border with Gaza and increased its military presence in the area. All against the backdrop of reports of extensive pressures on Cairo, mainly via economic incentives, to allow Palestinian refugees into Sinai.

If an influx were to happen - effectively a second Nakba - not only would it tarnish Egypt’s image as a historical patron of the Palestine cause and cast doubts on its military and political leverage, but it would also jeopardise the country’s national security in the volatile Sinai Desert and beyond.

Arguably, a Palestinian pocket in the Sinai will grow to become an extension, with a larger scope of geographical manoeuvrability, for Palestinian resistance to attack the Israeli army, risking a direct confrontation with Israel.

But this is only one side of the story. Others, immersed in an atmosphere of distrust in the regime, feel the latter will not sacrifice its ties with Israel and the United States by extension for Gaza.

Egypt-Israel ties have survived multiple crises, including Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon; the Palestinian Intifadas; the 2002 blockade on Yassir Arafat in Ramallah; four bloody wars on Gaza; and some fatal Israeli-Egyptian border skirmishes.

Since Sisi took office eleven years ago, Egyptian-Israeli coordination increased economically and strategically. The Egyptian army destroyed hundreds of tunnels used by Palestinians to smuggle goods and weapons into the blockaded Strip. Cairo has also demolished thousands of homes to create a buffer zone in Sinai between Egypt and Gaza.

Meanwhile, Egyptian army officers and businessmen close to the regime have been capitalising on the suffering of Palestinians in the Strip. The Rafah Crossing between Egypt and Gaza is now officially sealed for ‘normal travelling’, declaredly to prevent a Palestinian influx into Egypt.

But the closure has grown into a business opportunity for people within and close to the regime to charge hefty amounts of cash to facilitate exit from Gaza into Egypt for desperate Palestinians.

Palestinians call them Sisi’s ‘merchants of war.’ They asked for $10,000 but promised no guarantees. The waiting list is so long now that the 'new applications' were put temporarily on hold.


“Everyone [officials] must have a part of the cake, exactly like they do with us [Egyptians],” my Egyptian friend commented angrily.

This contradictory image makes it difficult to predict how Egypt will react in case of a Rafah invasion.

Will the government prioritise national security over economic considerations and confront Israel militarily, hence tearing down the decades-long peace treaty?

Or, would Cairo continue its soft diplomacy toward Palestine?

Egyptians I talked to swing between the first and second scenarios, but no one seems to have the full, certain answer.

Only time can tell if the grey area of uncertainty will turn black or white.

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.