Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 January 2009
Issue No. 930
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Abdel-Moneim Said

The Egyptian paradox in Gaza

Egypt is under fire, and Gaza has become a nightmare, but such problems and more have been faced before successfully, writes Abdel-Moneim Said*

The nightmare of politics is when political leaders have to deal with deeply contradictory goals. And when these contradictory goals characterise an environment of armed conflict, "war" for short, the nightmare is at its worst. Nothing represents this nightmare better for Egypt than the Israeli war in Gaza, where contradictory objectives describe both external and internal policy.

Even after excluding ancient historic, geographic and demographic ties, Gaza is strategically linked to Egypt's national security. For better or for worse, Gaza was under Egyptian administration between 1948 and 1967. Never was it contemplated in Cairo to annex the Strip. When the Egyptian-Israeli peace was signed, Gaza remained part of the Palestinian occupied territories, with Rafah as the crossing point between Egypt and Gaza.

Between 1982 and 1994, when the Oslo Accords were signed, not only was the Rafah crossing in use, but also underneath it tunnels were dug, and through them were smuggled drugs, people and arms associated with organised crime and revolutionary sentiment. Israel looked the other way until the second Intifada, when about 30 tunnels became very active in the smuggling of arms. The destruction of some 1,600 houses along the Egyptian-Gazan border did not solve the problem for Israel. In fact, the problem was compounded after Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, the election of Hamas in 2006 and its takeover of Gaza in June 2007.

Egypt has historic ties with Gaza that it cannot ignore. For better or for worse, if Egypt is historically involved in the Arab-Israel conflict by supporting the Palestinian cause, this is particularly so for Gaza. The geographic link generates risks and challenges for Egyptian security, the safety of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty, the economic prosperity of Sinai and, of no less importance, the relationship between Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Three additional security risks from Gaza were added in the last few years. The first involved smuggling of arms into Sinai and contributing to the training of terrorists who carried out deadly operations in Taba, Sharm El-Sheikh and Dahab on the Gulf of Aqaba coast. The second was the demographic invasion of Sinai by three quarters of a million Palestinians in January 2008. This alerted Egyptians to the possibility of a Palestinian takeover of Sinai, whether under pressure from Israel or by Hamas planning to create strategic depth for its very small territory. The third, a much more strategic security risk, involves Hamas becoming part of a much larger coalition of radicals that are targeting Egypt for having changed its posture to one of peace and moderation.

This last risk is one of the main features of the present crisis in Gaza. Egypt has been the target of political attacks that even preceded the Hamas decision to end the truce with Israel. These have taken the form of media campaigns by Iranian, Lebanese, Syrian and pro-Hamas Palestinian sources. Ironically, Qatar's famed Al-Jazeera TV channels have led the way in discrediting the Egyptian position regarding management of the Rafah crossing. The media attacks were followed by demonstrations at Egyptian embassies in Tehran and a variety of Arab capitals.

All this took on an even more critical aspect for Egypt when Israel moved militarily into the Gaza Strip. The visit of Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to Cairo hours before the attack gave the political offensive additional ammunition, as Egypt appeared to be coordinating its position with Israel.

For Cairo this has become a nightmare. On the one hand, Egypt's historic and geostrategic position creates linkages that Egypt and the Egyptians cannot forget or ignore. Domestic support for these linkages is also not easy to ignore, particularly in view of Egypt's past conflicts with Israel and the latter's apparent military superiority. The human suffering in Gaza, amplified on our TV screens, has frayed nerves in Cairo.

On the other hand, the problems that Egypt faces are Hamas-made, with the purpose of either re-entangling Egypt once more in the Palestinian conflict, or -- reflecting thinking in radical centres in Tehran, Beirut and Gaza -- to change the Egyptian regime. In reality, neither objective is attainable.

Fortunately for Egypt, the situation in Gaza -- where radicalism, religious or nationalist, is mixed with the Palestinian question -- is not entirely new. Cairo was in the same situation when Iraq invaded Kuwait, the US invaded Iraq and Hizbullah went to war with Israel. Each time it was the weight of the Egyptian state that carried the day: to work for a ceasefire, create a new balance that gives all parties breathing space, and finally to delineate a comprehensive solution for the Arab-Israel conflict that dissociates it from diverse forms of radicalism.

The scenario will be no different for Egypt this time. Cairo has the political capacity domestically and externally to sustain an effort to go to the root of the problem. It remains to be seen whether other parties in the region, particularly the Israelis and Palestinians, have the same capacity.

* The writer is director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. This piece was previously published on www.bitterlemons- .

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