Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El Sisi wanted to host Biden and others at a summit in Cairo on the future of the Palestinian cause. Then he was scheduled to meet Biden in Jordan today instead, along with other Arab leaders.
Neither meeting has happened.
So what? Egypt could play a central role in defusing the humanitarian and security crises in Gaza. It controls access to Gaza’s southern border and is under pressure to allow Gazans out to relative safety in Egypt’s desert province of North Sinai. Instead
- the border remains closed by Israel;
- convoys of aid are waiting on the Egyptian side; and
- Egypt is refusing to allow foreign nationals to exit before the crossing is opened to humanitarian aid.
But this doesn’t mean Sisi is sitting on the fence. Far from it.
Hard line. For the first time, the Sisi administration is showing strong support for Palestinians in Gaza. In past years when conflict has flared between Israel and Hamas, including 2014 and 2021, Egypt looked the other way or expressed weak political support for the Palestinians in light of its tense relations with Hamas – founded as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose leader, Mohamed Morsi, Sisi overthrew as president of Egypt in 2013.
This time Sisi has been unequivocal:
- Last week he told the US Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, Israel’s retaliatory airstrikes on Gaza had gone “beyond the right to self-defence, turning into collective punishment for 2.3 million people in Gaza”.
- Egypt’s state media have been mobilised in defence of the Palestinian cause.
- The aid piling up south of Rafah, though so far unused, is intended as another show of support, and Egypt is pressing Israel for access to Gaza to deliver it.
Red line. At the same time the Sisi administration has decisively rejected Israeli calls to resettle Palestinians from Gaza in North Sinai. Sisi’s position is that welcoming Palestinian refugees would be an unacceptable security risk for Egypt and that they should stay steadfast and “remain on their land”.
To prevent a mass exodus from Gaza into Egypt’s Sinai, the Egyptian army has taken preventive steps such as establishing new positions along the border, conducting patrols to monitor the area and erecting a concrete wall at the Rafah crossing.
Cairo believes the consequences of receiving Palestinian refugees in North Sinai would be disastrous for the military regime that has ruled Egypt since 1952.
- Security and Israel. Egypt’s fear is that the resettlement of Palestinians in North Sinai would create a resistance enclave similar to the situation in southern Lebanon, which Hezbollah controls. This would put Egypt in confrontation with Israel and could end the relative calm maintained since the signing of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty in 1979.
- Egypt and militant Islam. The presence of Islamic armed factions such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in North Sinai would lead to further instability for Egypt, which is already fighting the Islamic State-affiliated Wilayat Sinai group.
- Elections. Sisi is preparing for presidential elections in December, when he hopes to renew his rule for another six years despite growing popular discontent due to inflation at unprecedented levels and wages that cannot keep up. Sisi and the army, which controls the economy, are being blamed for burdening the country with unsustainable debts to fund megaprojects such as an expansion of the Suez Canal and construction of a new capital in the desert outside Cairo.
Sisi already faces criticism that his army is powerless to get aid into Gaza while its people are starving. To approve the resettlement of Palestinians in Egypt now would only heighten popular discontent. If that extended to the army, it could fatally weaken his grip on power.
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