As the Israeli-Hamas crisis continues, a great deal of focus is shifting to Egypt. Egypt shares a border with both Israel and Gaza – the narrow strip of Palestinian territory which is currently under blockade following the violent attack against Israel by Hamas, a radical Islamist organisation that has controlled Gaza since 2007.
Moina Spooner, from The Conversation Africa, asked Ofir Winter, who studies Egyptian politics and the Arab-Israeli conflict, to provide insights into what the new war means for Egypt and the role it plays.
What’s been the relationship between Egypt and Israel and Palestine in the past?
Egypt performs a balancing act in managing relations between Israel and Palestine.
Egypt openly expresses its commitment to the Palestinian cause. This is because Palestine’s quest for self-determination is a central Arab and Islamic cause. Also, due to geographical proximity, any escalation in Gaza will have a direct impact on Egypt’s national interests.
This position is reflected in its reaction to the outbreak of violence between Israel and Hamas. Following the deadly killings and kidnappings of innocent Israeli civilians by Hamas earlier this month, Egyptian members of parliament and state-owned media, have portrayed Israel as the aggressor and Hamas as the victim.
In accordance with past actions, Egypt can be expected to take several steps to demonstrate its solidarity with the Palestinians. These include; the provision of humanitarian assistance to Gaza, evacuation of some wounded to Egyptian hospitals, and increased role in mediation efforts for a ceasefire. These steps make Egypt a key actor in the conflict and would help strengthen its regional and international standing.
However, Egypt also doesn’t want to alienate Israel. Ultimately, they have a mutual interest: they do not want to see the resurgence of political Islam in the region. This is linked to Egypt’s own experience of Islamist organisations.
The current regime in Egypt ousted the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 and outlawed them. The Brotherhood is a transnational Islamist organisation, founded in Egypt in 1928. It’s aims are to promote social and political change in Muslim-majority countries. After the Arab Spring in 2011, the Brotherhood held power in Egypt for one year before being ousted.
Hamas is an offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is why Egypt perceives it as a threat.
But despite Egypt’s suspicious approach to Hamas, since 2017 there’s been an understanding between the two: Hamas’ cooperation in fighting terrorism in Sinai would be met with an easing of the Egyptian blockade on Gaza.
Though the relations between Egypt and Israel are cooperative, they’re not warm. Egypt signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1979. And, over the past decade, Israel has positioned itself as a key political, security and economic partner to Egypt.
In recent years, Egypt has been a mediator between Israel and Hamas and in the reconstruction efforts of Gaza. This is because of its proximity to Gaza and the fact that it controls the Rafah crossing – the only border with the Gaza strip that’s not under Israeli control.
But Egypt’s involvement with Gaza has certain lines that won’t be crossed.
There will be no Egyptian military involvement against Israel for the benefit of the Palestinians – a policy which primarily derives from Egypt’s commitment to the 1979 peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.
There will also be no sanctioned mass entry of Gazans into Egypt, according to declarations by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and other Egyptian officials.
How does the current crisis affect Egypt?
Egypt has so far rejected the idea of displaced Palestinians moving into Sinai. But there is the possibility that a large number of Gazans will seek entry. This is separate to the Gaza residents with foreign citizenship who are already waiting at the border to cross.
Egypt is against allowing Gazans crossing the border in large numbers because it opposes any encroachment on its sovereignty in the Sinai Peninsula. Its major concern is that displaced Palestinians may establish a permanent residence in its territory, potentially undermining the already delicate security and economic situation.
The situation also poses a large security risk to Egypt.
First, border breaches by refugees from Gaza, some of whom may be armed individuals affiliated with Hamas or other radical groups, could export instability to Sinai. For Egypt, there is a danger that there could be more terrorist attacks and instability as there were in Sinai before the 2017 understanding with Hamas. Some of those attacks were carried out by well-armed and trained Gaza-based militant cells.
Second, a massive blow to Hamas may lead to a lack of governance, chaos, and instability in Gaza. This will cause instability and could give rise to the smuggling of weapons and fighters along Egypt’s border with the Gaza Strip.
The other security threat is that terrorist acts could be launched from Sinai into Israel by Palestinian militant groups putting the delicate relationship between Israel and Egypt at risk.
How has Egypt reacted and what should it do next?
Since the outbreak of the war, Egypt has been working to de-escalate the situation in Gaza and has been conducting talks with Israel, Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, the US, Iran, and other regional and international players.
The Arab League has already convened in Cairo, and an international conference in Egypt is expected to take place this weekend. Egypt is also seeking to establish a humanitarian corridor for the delivery of food and medicine to the Gaza Strip.
At this stage, Egypt has more control than most other regional international players over the outcomes of the conflict, as well as plenty of interests.
The outcome of the conflict could deliver some benefits. For example, Egypt desires the return of the Palestinian Authority, who is more willing to engage in diplomacy and negotiations, as the governing authority in Gaza. A scenario where Hamas is significantly weakened could pave the way for new developments, possibly including the gradual return of the Palestinian Authority. In this case, Egypt and Israel could find a more pragmatic neighbour across their borders.
If Hamas loses power at the end of the war, Egypt will most probably be involved in the government transition phase. As in the past few years, Egypt is expected to be the conduit through which aid and funds from Arab countries and the international community will be transferred into Gaza, participate in its reconstruction process, and be a dominant influencing factor on shaping its future.