Over the past few years, Egypt has experienced dramatic shifts as the country has been rocked by multiple rebellions and transitions of power. Its violent upheavals have not only led to domestic destabilization, but have also considerably impacted the dynamic of the region. In particular, Egypt’s key relationships with Palestinians and Israelis have transformed, as Sisi’s government embarks on the development of a dramatically different Egyptian foreign policy.
Three years ago, President Hosni Mubarak was deposed by protesters during the Arab Spring, and Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, was elected president in 2012. During his tenure, Morsi expanded executive power, imprisoned his detractors, and supported an Islamist-backed constitution. One year later, in the midst of widespread protests, the Egyptian Armed Forces again seized control, and Minister of Defense and Chief of the Armed Forces Abdel Fattah el-Sisi became First Deputy Prime Minister. When the new regime held elections, he was chosen as Egypt’s next president.
Sisi and his government set out to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood, considering it a terrorist organization. All Muslim Brotherhood activities are now illegal in Egypt, many leaders have been arrested, and the Muslim Brotherhood continues to be portrayed throughout the country as a promoter of worldwide terror. This mindset has directly impacted Egypt’s relationship with its neighbors to the east, namely Gaza and Israel.
Cairo currently views Gaza’s ruling party, Hamas, as a militarist extension of the Muslim Brotherhood and an illegitimate governing body. Former President Morsi is accused of conspiring with Hamas, Hezbollah, and other terrorist organizations to instigate violence in the Sinai Peninsula and destabilize the country. Sisi’s government has also declared that Hamas played a central role in the Muslim Brotherhood’s plot to break Morsi free from prison during Mubarak’s rule. Hamas is not acknowledged as the governing body of Gaza in any statement by the Egyptian government and is only mentioned on the official government information website in terms of its connection with Muslim Brotherhood terror. The censure of Hamas has further spread beyond the government. Egyptian television presenters denounce Hamas as a terrorist organization, and media tycoons tweet their condemnation of the organization, while others still applaud Israel for attacking Hamas.
Historically, Egypt has played a major role in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Following its participation in the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, Egypt maintained control over Gaza, which it held until its defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Since then, it has pushed for increased Palestinian independence and control, and has been seen by Palestinians as an important friend and supporter in the region.
Sisi’s dismissal of the current Hamas government has greatly altered the relationship between Egypt and Gaza. The Egyptian government closed the Rafah border crossing, stopping the flow of goods and individuals that traveled between Egypt and Gaza during Morsi’s rule. Sisi also targeted the tunnels connecting Egypt and Gaza, which previously enabled widespread smuggling. Cairo has further ignored other Arab nations’ requests to open the border and aid Gaza: it refused Tunisia’s demand to allow a plane transporting wounded Gazans into Egypt, prohibited Palestinian medical delegations and aid from crossing into Gaza, and was accused by Iran of generally hindering the flow of humanitarian aid. This lack of support has left Hamas in dire need, as Hamas depleted much of its stockpiled energy, construction equipment, and weaponry during its fight with Israel this past summer and requires billions of dollars to reconstruct Gaza after Israel’s attacks. Moreover, Palestine as a nation seems to have lost legitimacy and support from Egypt; on the fairly comprehensive list of Egyptian Arab policies on the State Information Service website, 18 of the Arab League countries are listed, with no mention of Palestine, which is a member of the Arab League, an omission that is notable given that the introduction to the section explicitly mentions the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Egypt’s relationship with Israel, in contrast, has become stronger under President Sisi. Egypt is considering an agreement by which Israel would supply up to 6.25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas to Egypt, a deal that would be far larger than Israel’s previous contract with Jordan. Additionally, Israel and Egypt are rumored to have a military agreement in the Sinai Peninsula, by which Israel attacks terrorist groups in the area via drones and the Egyptian government takes responsibility so as to avoid the accusation that Israel is violating Egyptian airspace. The Egyptian government’s rhetoric regarding Israel has become less strident as well. On Egypt’s State Information Service website, Egypt’s introductory statement on “Israeli Aggression on Gaza” discusses the conflict in very mild terms, stressing peace negotiations and equating both sides. Nowhere on the website is Israel declared illegitimate; instead, the website stresses the need for the establishment of a Palestinian state, an implied acceptance of a two-state solution.
This change in mindset has shifted Egypt’s role in the region. Once a relatively reliable arbiter of Gaza-Israel conflicts, and then a supporter of Hamas, Egypt is now defining a new role for itself. It faces the difficulty of having to balance its dislike of Hamas and its refusal to recognize the organization’s legitimacy with its wishes to remain a key player in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Egypt is also motivated by its desire for Israel to deliver a crippling blow to Hamas prior to the establishment of any permanent ceasefire between the two sides. These goals are evident in the various ceasefires that Cairo proposed during the summer 2014 conflict between Israel and Gaza. While the short-term demands that both sides stop fighting appear straightforward and similar to those put forth by Egypt in the past, the longer-term plans bear some critical differences. Egypt’s proposal defers all authority on Palestinian matters to the Palestinian Authority (PA), and declares that Israel shall coordinate all security concerns with the PA rather than with Hamas. In essence, Egypt has eliminated Hamas from the equation, sending the message that they will assist in the creation of a Palestinian state only under the jurisdiction of the PA, and that other countries should operate according to this principle as well.
As the international community moves forward in its attempts to establish a two-state solution, it must take into account and utilize Egypt’s new position. In dealing with the Hamas-Fatah unity government, members of the international community should compare the Fatah-controlled PA’s successes in the West Bank with those of Hamas in Gaza. They should consider expanding the jurisdiction of the PA over areas such as security and reconstruction oversight in Gaza, which they were hesitant to afford to Hamas, recognizing that Hamas would prioritize terror over rebuilding Gaza. While it is important to acknowledge that the Palestinians in Gaza should retain the right to elect their representatives, it is simultaneously critical that any international support be funneled into infrastructure and economic opportunities and not into militarism and smuggling operations. If such a path hinges, as Egypt suggests, on the Palestinian Authority’s adopting a greater role and responsibility, then the international community might do well to support Cairo in its new view for the region.