The Israeli devastation of Gaza places Egypt in its greatest fear | International

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Israel's brutal military offensive on Gaza is putting Egypt in an increasingly delicate position. Since October 7, when Hamas launched the attack against Israel, Cairo has had to manage the sending of humanitarian aid to the Strip, the evacuation of foreigners and mediation with Qatar for the release of hostages. At the same time, it must deal with internal protests and popular anger spread throughout its territory in the midst of an economic crisis.

From the beginning, Cairo has expressed that any resolution to the crisis that aims to ensure long-term peace and stability in the region must be built on the basis of the two-state solution and the end of Israel's unilateral acts. But in the short term, the position of the Egyptian authorities in the face of the dizzying deterioration of the situation in their backyard is being shaped by their national security considerations, their desire to remain an influential actor in the area, especially in the eyes of United States, and their fears that internal solidarity with Palestine will turn against them.

One of the scenarios that generates the most alarm in Cairo is the forced displacement of Palestinians from Gaza to the Sinai Peninsula by Israel, whose authorities have raised the option publicly and through diplomatic channels since the beginning of the military offensive. on the fringe. Fears about this proposal were initially heightened because senior United States officials claimed to be negotiating the opening of a safe passage for civilians to leave Gaza, although in recent days they have cooled the possibility.

The Egyptian authorities have categorically rejected the idea because they do not want to be complicit in a forced displacement of the Gaza population that would bury the Palestinian aspiration to create a State that includes the Strip. Cairo maintains that it is Israel, as the occupying power, that is responsible for the enclave, and that the focus must be on the protection of civilians.

“Egypt opens its borders to the wounded in Gaza, to those seeking education and to all nationalities in the Strip. But forced displacement, in submission to the will of an occupying State that wants to liquidate the issue in collusion with Western and international governments, is a matter that Egypt rejects, and will work to thwart these plans," says diplomat Mohamed Hegazy, former advisor. of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry.

Equally or more important than their political calculations, the Egyptian authorities consider that the forced relocation of Palestinians to the Sinai would pose a threat to their national security. On the one hand, armed Palestinian factions could attack Israel from Egyptian soil, which would give Israel reasons to attack Egyptian territory. At the same time, these factions could revitalize extremist groups in northern Sinai just as Egypt is being able to reassert its control in the area after a decade of brutal war against the local branch of the Islamic State, which included many members from Gaza.

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“The militant factions [palestinas] "They would rebuild their capabilities in a much greater way within Egypt, because they would have a much larger border, a much larger area, and they would be in the Sinai, which is where the weapons come from," warns Mohannad Sabry, a peninsula security expert. . “At that moment you could say goodbye to the peace agreements [entre Egipto e Israel]” he slides.

Debt forgiveness

The main counterpart that is being proposed to tempt the Egyptian authorities to accept a forced displacement of Palestinians is a substantial cancellation of their high debt at a time when the country is going through a serious economic crisis. But Cairo strongly denies this option, and on October 31, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly announced a new five-year plan to develop North Sinai.

Rumors about a forced relocation of Gazans also raise concerns because, contrary to what Israeli authorities seem to suggest, northeast Sinai is not an empty desert. In the last decade, as part of its anti-terrorism campaign, Egypt established a buffer zone around the border with Gaza in which it demolished thousands of homes and expelled tens of thousands of people. The possibility of forced displacement in that area has prompted protests in recent weeks by hundreds of residents demanding their own right of return, according to local human rights groups.

A Palestinian family with a foreign passport waits to cross the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt on November 5. IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA (REUTERS)

“North Sinai was never empty, it always had its population,” explains Sabry. "The army [egipcio] "He had promised the displaced people of Sinai that they would return to their lands on October 10, which is the week the war began," he adds, so now "Egypt has a bubbling internal problem with this displaced population."

Omar Shaban, the director of the Pal-Think for Strategic Studies research center in Gaza, says that the proposal for forced displacement “is also totally rejected by the Palestinians,” who “express [activamente] this rejection.” In this sense, Shaban notes that there are hundreds of Palestinians in Egypt waiting to return to Gaza, and that a large part of the population in the north of the Strip has rejected the Israeli order to leave for the south.

At the diplomatic level, the security and political relations that Egypt maintains with Israel and Hamas have given Cairo the opportunity to consolidate itself in recent years as the reference mediator in times of crisis in Gaza, and thus claim its relevance in the region, especially before Washington. In 2021, for example, Egypt was able to forge a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas after 11 days of bombings on the Strip.

Limits of Egyptian influence

The magnitude of the current crisis, however, is exposing the limits of this influence and, despite its sustained efforts, Cairo has been unable to stop the spiral of violence in Gaza. Furthermore, his image as an effective mediator on sensitive issues, such as the release of hostages kidnapped in the Strip, is being overshadowed by the intervention of Qatar, which maintains close relations with the political arm of Hamas and the United States.

Still, Egypt's relative success in leading humanitarian aid to Gaza, coordinating the evacuation of foreigners, and organizing an international summit to address the situation—even if it ended without an agreement or joint communiqué—has allowed Cairo capitalize on its strategic location and maintain some control over the agenda.

On the internal flank, the Israeli offensive on Gaza and the crimes that are being recorded represent a significant political challenge for the Egyptian authorities, which are being forced to maintain an increasingly difficult balance between their relations with Israel and the West and a solid social support for the Palestinian cause, a great catalyst for protests.

The authorities have so far tried to channel the widespread popular anger through controlled demonstrations, but they have also intensified the security deployment in the face of the danger that this collective anger and frustration will turn against them just when the country is suffering a serious economic crisis that has impacted broad sectors of society.

In recent weeks, there have been significant protests at the Al Azhar Mosque, one of the most prestigious religious institutions in the Islamic world, and unions, professional associations and student organizations have mobilized, all of which have been severely repressed in the last decade. Protests have also occurred in Cairo's iconic Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the 2011 revolution.

“The Palestinian cause is a very complex cause within Egypt itself,” says Maged Mandour, an Egyptian political analyst. “[El presidente egipcio, Abdelfatá al Sisi] "He is in a very complicated situation, because he cannot really make the request that the Israelis and Americans are making," he points out. The president is striking “a very difficult balance,” she adds, and “to that can be added a layer of economic crisis that adds to everything.”

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during a visit to Egyptian military units in Suez on October 25.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during a visit to Egyptian military units in Suez on October 25. EGYPTIAN PRESIDENCY (via REUTERS)

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