Nervana

Will Egypt inherit Gaza?

Egypt sent building equipments to Gaza – Via yahoo

History repeats itself is a valid cliché in the Middle East. Following the defeat of the Arab states by Israel in 1948, the Israel-Egypt Armistice Agreement was signed in Rhodes on February 24, 1949. The border between Egypt and the new state of Israel was drawn along the 1906 internationally agreed border between Ottoman Palestine and British-ruled Egypt____ except near the Mediterranean Sea, where Egypt controlled a strip of land along the coast, which became known as the Gaza Strip. 

Seventy-two years later, another war has dragged Egypt into the Gaza strip, albeit more subtly. This time, Egyptian engineers and workers with their bulldozers, cranes and trucks have crossed into the Gaza strip to start reconstruction work, repairing what the latest Israel-Hamas confrontation destroyed. Egypt’s swift involvement following this conflict poses some valid questions, one of which, posted by journalist Khaled Abu Toameh in the Jerusalem Post, asked: Is Egypt planning to retake control of the Gaza Strip? 

The answer is not a simple yes or no. 

Abu Toameh cited an unnamed veteran Palestinian journalist, who claimed that rumours abound that the Egyptians are planning to return to the Gaza Strip. “Many people here are convinced the Egyptian-sponsored reconstruction work is part of a plan to pave the way for a permanent Egyptian security presence in the Gaza Strip,” he added. Another unnamed analyst cited by Abu Toameh dismissed the idea of returning to a full Egyptian administration of the Gaza Strip, but added that current Egyptian president El-Sisi’s decision to contribute to the reconstruction effort shows he wants to be heavily involved with everything concerning the Gaza Strip.

Indeed, unlike his predecessors, Sadat and Mubarak, El-Sisi is not shying away from involvement in Gaza. He does not see the impoverished strip as a burden, but as an opportunity to validate Egypt’s strategic regional rule. During Mubarak’s reign, Egypt was trying to ignore Gaza, throwing its responsibility totally on Israel. The result was the proliferation of thousands of tunnels under the Gaza-Sinai border, flourishing smuggling routes, and radical terrorists inhabiting North Sinai. It is an undeniable fact that Egypt has paid a hefty price for ignoring Gaza, and the current leadership is not willing to repeat the fatal strategic mistakes of the past. 

Involvement in Gaza is crucial for Egypt on several fronts. 

On the security front, Gaza represents a strategic landmark for Sinai’s security. Until few years ago, Egyptian media asserted that terrorists in Sinai got logistical support and share the ideological outlook of some Gaza-based groups, despite strong denials from Hamas. lately, however, an alleged Sinai-based radical claimed on a Club House application that using non-Egyptian simcards for mobile phones would avoid Egyptian security tracking. 

On the domestic front, the scenes of Egyptians helping Gaza has had positive impacts on the hearts and minds of the Egyptian public, and has garnered majority support for what Egyptians believe is a balanced approach that is helping Gazans without compromising Egypt’s national security. Moreover, inside Gaza, reconstruction is not just bricks and mortar, but a chance to build bridges with locals who, for years, have known nothing about Egypt except border closures and “hostile Egyptian regime”.

On the strategic front, Egypt’s involvement in Gaza has not just raised Egypt’s strategic assets in the eyes of the US Biden administration and other Western governments; Egypt is fully aware of the Turkish ambitions in Gaza and how Erdogan’s Turkey regards Gaza as a potential foothold in the East Mediterranean, and as a means of replicating the “Libyan model”. Already the Turkish media has openly advocated that Turkey should sign a maritime deal with “Palestine”, a deal neither Israel nor Egypt will allow, as analyst Michael Koplow told me in a recent podcast

Nonetheless, Gaza is a political, social and military minefield. The serene strip Egypt inherited decades ago has changed dramatically. It is true Hamas does not want to get into trouble with Egypt, but it is naïve to assume the group will not shy away from igniting another round of confrontation with Israel, just because Egyptians are working hard to rebuild Gaza. The latest threat by the group of a new escalation if settlers hold a rally in East Jerusalem is a glaring example. Israel, wisely cancelled the march, but the incident highlighted the challenges facing Egypt in Gaza. 

Furthermore, Hamas also threatens to renew fighting if Qatari funds don’t enter Gaza; the group also admits it received money from Iran.  Will Israel tolerate the continuous stream of funds to a group openly proud of its upgraded military capabilities? And for how long? The new government in Israel may adopt a softer approach than Netanyahu, but showing flexibility on funding Hamas will be, at best, a short-term policy. 

Egypt is keen to secure a foothold in Gaza, but Cairo is neither interested in inheriting the strip, nor standing alone against Hamas. To expect Egypt to do more is frankly unrealistic. Egypt merely wants to maintain its role as the sole mediator between Hamas and Israel, keep the uneasy peace in the impoverished strip, and prevent regional rivals from using Gaza to threaten Egypt’s security and strategic interests. To fulfill those goals, the Egyptian leadership will adopt a flexible tactical approach within a pragmatic framework that will evolve in accordance with the fluid developments on the ground. A repeat scenario of rockets versus airstrikes is always possible, and could torpedo many of Egypt’s strategic goals in Gaza.