(Originally published Feb. 6, 2009)
In my last post, ”Gaza Revisited,” I examined Israel’s dilemmas regarding Hamas in Gaza. To further understand the problems related to Gaza, it helps to explore Egypt’s position.
Mubarak’s Egypt faces a complicated situation in dealing with Hamas on its border. On the one hand, Egypt faces significant pressure from the Arab world and from its own citizens to not appear to support Israel. Palestinian suffering from Israel’s closure of the borders of Gaza gets widespread play in the Arab media. Also, Palestinian civilians killed or maimed in the recent Israeli incursion play into the Arab’s media’s efforts to portray Israel as an aggressor.
Egypt has also had to deal with the opinions of many Arabs that Egypt is something of a traitor to the Arab cause in maintaining its peace treaty with Israel. There have been organized protests in Egypt against its continuing recognition of Israel. Given the nature of Egypt’s secret police state, it is hard to imagine that these protests have taken place without the tacit support of the government.
Balancing Act in Dealing with Hamas
Further, there is the whole business of the underground tunnels from Egypt to Gaza whereby Hamas smuggled in its weaponry mostly, coming from Iran in circuitous routes. The Egyptian government’s disingenuous public stance has been that there was no such smuggling underground and that it surely was taking place by sea. That can not possibly be true given Israel’s efficient navy. Could it be possible that these tunnels have been dug without the knowledge of Egypt’s government? That would suggest massive incompetence on the part of Egypt’s security forces.
So, what is the game here? Speculation is rife. Is Egypt trying to bleed Israel? If so, Egypt runs the risk of losing its aid from the U.S. which would be a serious problem for Egypt’s struggling economy. Is Egypt giving in to some blackmail from Hamas that if Egypt doesn’t permit this then Hamas will work harder to undermine Egypt’s government in cooperation with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt? Egypt’s motivation must be an interesting problem for American and Israeli intelligence to figure out. Whatever the case, Israel clearly made a serious error in giving up its control of Gaza’s border with Egypt when it withdrew from Gaza in 2005.
On the other hand, Egypt is no fan of Hamas and of what it stands for. Egypt’s government has been forthright in blaming Hamas for the recent Israeli attack and breaking of the Egyptian brokered cease fire. Hamas is a close ally of Iran and Iran’s regime despises Egypt’s alleged moderate regime. Mubarak has a difficult balancing act to carry out. He surely doesn’t want to support Hamas so much that it could present a danger to Egypt’s government.
Further, Egypt’s maintenance of its cold peace with Israel is a precondition for American support of Egypt. As I already mentioned, Egypt needs American financial aid. Egypt’s economy is something of a mess having never really recovered from the state socialism of Nasser’s era. Egypt has enormous infrastructure needs with few resources with which to meet those needs.
Finally, Mubarak is in the process of establishing a family dynasty. It appears that he does not want to do anything that might endanger passing on the torch to his son. Here, I’d advance an old saw that Egypt’s dependence on the Nile historically has meant a relative reliance on authoritarian regimes to harness that river. In addition, creating a functional democracy is just not in the cards anytime soon. Free elections would almost certainly work to the benefit of the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt has eliminated its democratic opposition leaving the field to a well disciplined Islamic opposition. If the U.S. wants to foster democracy in Egypt, the prospects look dim in the near future.
Some have suggested that Israel should turn Gaza back to Egypt since Egypt controlled it from 1948-1967. Egypt is highly unlikely to want to deal with such a headache.
So, what is Egypt going to do now that Israel withdrew from Gaza? Israel no doubt will put, along with the U.S., strong pressure to prevent any more smuggling from Egypt to Gaza. Let’s see if Egypt will keep the border firmly closed. I hope so for then it might force Hamas to actually pay attention to the needs of Gaza’s citizens and not spend its efforts primarily in an attempt to undermine Israel.