Egypt’s actions in Gaza have been a source of confusion for some time. Far from bureaucracy or misinformation this is part of a purposeful campaign of a two-faced regime.
Four factors uphold the Egypt authorities’ central role in the Gaza Strip.
First, the Egyptian regime aims to present Hamas as an example of the ineptitude of the Muslim Brotherhood to govern. Second, the regime’s acquiescence to American policies in the region entails a central emphasis on Israel’s “security.” Third, the importance of portraying Egypt as a principle mediator in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and thus a significant political player in the region. And finally, an attempt to maintain Egypt’s image of supporting the Palestinian cause.
Two days following the one-year anniversary of the beginning of Operation Cast Lead- the Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Cairo for a closed meeting with Egyptian president Husni Mubarak. The visit acted as a confirmation of Egypt’s role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and especially in the siege of the Gaza Strip.
Egypt’s 80 million strong population is a force to be reckoned with and the Mubarak regime has no interest in having the masses up in arms about turmoil in the neighboring Gaza Strip. The timing of the Israeli premier’s visit means the regime is confident in where it stands vis-à-vis the Egyptian public. Revealing the methods of Egypt’s actions in the Palestinian enclave and its ensuing propaganda machine will help shed some light on its position in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
In January 2006, the Egyptian regime was one of many governments not to recognize Hamas’s parliamentary election victory. While the supplanted Fateh government did accede to Hamas forming a new cabinet, president Mahmoud Abbas and his ring of confidants held on to their control over all PA security forces. Due to this condition of undefined authority, widespread violence prevailed in the following months between Palestinian factions and clans. In the Gaza Strip lawlessness started spiraling out of control.
During this period of internal struggle the Mubarak regime opened Egypt’s borders to weapon shipments from the USA intended for Muhammed Dahlan, the Palestinian president’s National Security Advisor. The controversial Fateh strongman was the mastermind behind much of the unrest on Gaza’s streets, funding and supplying with weapons dissidents willing to oppose the new Hamas authorities.
When the Gaza-based cabinet sensed an impending Dahlan-lead coup it reacted with force, taking control of PA police stations, intelligence and security forces headquarters. Though all these security apparatuses by Palestinian law fall under the jurisdiction of the PA Ministry of Interior, up until that moment Fateh had denied its rival authority over them. On the final day of Hamas’s four-day sweep of the Gaza Strip, the Egyptian military sent a ship off the coast of Gaza City for select Fateh escapees. The Egyptian authorities sheltered the Fateh members in Egypt while providing others safe passage to the West Bank.
Since that time the Egyptian regime has treated the Gaza Strip as a hostile entity. Following Hamas’s “takeover,” Israel intensified an already existent siege on the Palestinian enclave. What is often obscured is the fact that Egypt has full legal sovereignty over Gaza’s southern border and thus plays a part in the Israeli-lead blockade. All exports are prohibited via both Israeli and Egyptian controlled border crossings. Moreover, Israel has slowed the inflow of goods into Gaza to- Israeli- determined essentials- largely entailing limited international aid and select Israeli goods dumped onto Gaza’s captive market. The Mubarak regime, for its part, has opened its border to Gaza for international aid only under extreme external- never internal- pressure. During Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, with aid convoys amassing on its border, goods entered at a trickle.
Eventually, Egyptian authorities re-routed aid through the Karem Abu Salim crossing, where Israeli “inspection” implied the Israeli military determined every item that would and would not enter. Counter to Egyptian government claims, the regime has complete sovereignty over its border crossing with the Gaza Strip, yet coordinates closely with Israeli authorities.
Thus, the Mubarak regime allowed for the opening of the Rafah border crossing when it sent arms shipments to Fateh- with Israeli approval. Furthermore, the Egyptian authorities opened the border under particular international pressure created by the likes of the Viva Palestina convoys, which provided the Egyptian government with fodder to claim their professed pro-Palestinian stance. During Operation Cast Lead, the Egyptian regime likewise opened its border crossing with the primary purpose of portraying itself in line with a claimed historic tradition of standing by the Palestinians in times of crisis.
The recent construction of a steel wall 30 meters under the ground along the Egypt-Gaza border is a further stage of the Egyptian authorities conceding to collective punishment on Gaza’s population. Initially Egyptian government sources responded to reports of the wall’s existence as “baseless,” claiming that the regime “is dealing with smuggling seriously and is capable of stopping it without this wall.” Eventually the Egyptian president conceded to the barrier’s construction as a prevention of "threats to national security." The wall, built by the Egyptian firm Arab Contractors with foreign funding, includes pipes that delve deep into the earth with the assumed purpose of flooding existent tunnels.
The steel wall is likely to have devastating environmental effects on agricultural land on either side of the barrier. If successful at preventing tunnels, the wall could cut Gaza’s final economic lifeline. The tunnels are used primarily to import everything from clothes, household items like tea glasses, coffee and spices to car spare parts, gas and medicine.
If the Egyptian government succeeds in preventing such vital inflows, the wall will be a case in point of the Egyptian regime’s political efforts. By joining the Israeli authorities in collectively punishing the Gaza Strip’s entire population the Egyptian authorities reveal themselves to be a key component of an Israeli undertaking to choke Hamas’s opposition to Israeli colonial expansion. The Egyptian regime is complying with its American ally’s demands, as well as trying to position itself as a political heavyweight in a region. With growing opposition- not from Israel- but from the likes of Syria, Iran and Qatar, Egypt’s regime wants to hold on to its historic regional hegemony.
Cynically, Egypt’s Foreign Minister reported that in Netanyahu and Mubarak’s meeting on January 29th, the Egyptians had requested Israel, to “take many internal steps to lift the pressure off of Palestinians.”
The Egyptians for their part have no interest in doing so.