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Egypt Is One of the Most Crucial Players in the Israel-Hamas War and in Gaza

Egypt has abetted the blockade of Gaza but has also played peacemaker and facilitated its reconstruction.

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As the Israel-Hamas war entered its third week, Egypt concluded a peace summit in Cairo on 21 October, with Arab and European leaders and diplomats. It yielded nothing concrete but brought into focus the role of Egypt in this conflict.

Egypt plays a major role in the region as the Arab world's cultural and military powerhouse. And its relations with Palestinians have been complex.

The Gaza Strip crosses into the Sinai Desert in the south, and after the 1948 war that the Arab states initiated against Israel, Egypt occupied Gaza.

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Egypt's Role in the Past

Over time, successive Egyptian governments have offered both moral and material support to the Palestinians, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization was formed in Cairo.

Egypt has often found itself acting as a mediator between the PLO and other states, like with Jordan in 1970 when the PLO fell out of favour with King Hussein, or between the PLO and Israel, or even between different Palestinian factions, including Hamas.

While Egypt, together with Syria, had launched the 1973 Yom Kippur War on Israel, it was also the first Arab state to normalise relations with the Jewish state and establish full diplomatic relations with it in 1979, paving the way for other Arab states to do so.

It began receiving $1.3 billion in military aid from the US for peace with Israel, which has been useful in keeping successive military regimes in power.

This in a way sealed Egypt's place both in history as well as this brutal conflict.

Egypt’s Complicated Relations with Hamas

From then on, Egypt has also hosted the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks from time to time, for instance, the Gaza-Jericho Agreement or the Sharm El Sheikh Accords. Along with economic and other forms of support, thousands of Palestinians live, study, and work in Egypt. The injured in Gaza often seek treatment in Egypt and so on.

After every periodic conflict with Israel during which the Gaza Strip sees rockets flying into Israel and then a disproportionate Israeli reprisal, resulting in sufficient damage and destruction to the Strip, aid and reconstruction material is transported through Egypt into Gaza.

Egypt’s relations with Hamas are more complex.

Hamas is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood which was born in Egypt and espouses establishing an Islamic state across the Muslim world through armed struggle. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder and spiritual head of Hamas, studied in Egyptian institutions.

The country is home to the hallowed Al-Azhar University, where Muslims from all over the globe study to perfect their knowledge of the juridical aspects of Islam. Since the time of Gamel Abdel Nasser, save for a brief period under the late President Anwar Sadat, successive Egyptian governments have tried to suppress the Brotherhood while keeping Egypt secular. But Sadat himself fell prey to the Islamists, and on assuming power, then President Hosni Mubarak continued this policy.

The tensions between the secular, military-dominated governments and the Islamists have been an integral part of Egyptian society, especially since political censorship preempted the emergence of any viable political opposition.

This came to a head after the Arab Spring brought Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood to power.

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Egypt's Government and the Arab Street

The Palestinian issue has always been a headache for individual Arab governments.

The wars of 1948 and then in 1967 generated waves of refugees in neighbouring countries. Together with the emergence of the PLO, which used Arab countries to launch its attacks on Israel and Israeli interests, they were often viewed as destabilising factors.

Some of the worst atrocities against the Palestinians have occurred, for instance, in Arab countries like Lebanon. The PLO itself was ousted a number of times from Arab countries.

Even in this current conflagration, Arab states like Jordan and Egypt have warned that they would not accept any refugees from Gaza or the West Bank. Yet, the Arab street is often in solidarity with the Palestinians and sees in them both a failure of the Arab world, as well as a spirit worth emulating.

This author was in Cairo in 2005 when the first popular and nonviolent uprising against the then-Hosni Mubarak government began. The impetus for the anti-government movement had then actually been the second Palestinian intifada.

Egyptians watched how disillusioned Palestinians rose up against the Israeli occupation, as well as against their own corrupt Palestinian Authority. Many Arab governments have used the Palestinian issue to deflect the grievances or angst of their populations from failure of governance, Egypt included.

The successive Gulf wars and the Arab Spring changed that.

When the government of Mohammed Morsi came to power in 2012, it was too much for countries like Saudi Arabia to have an Islamist government in the neighbouring country. King Salman bin Abdul Aziz himself flew down to Egypt for a few hours to meet General Fateh Al Sisi. Along with the overthrow of the Morsi government, which is alleged to have been supported by Hamas, Egypt began further tightening control over the Gaza Strip.

Egypt destroyed almost 1,370 Hamas-built underground tunnels under Rafah which transported arms, resources, fuel, and food from Egypt into Gaza. It tightened the border-crossing at Rafah between Gaza and Egypt, created a buffer zone in between and began building a wall there.

At the same time, Egypt has had to fulfill its role as a mediator, often between Hamas and Fatah or between Hamas and Israel. Part of it was necessitated to not let go of Egyptian control and have those like Turkey and Iran fill the void.

The rise of the Islamic State and insurgency in the Sinai further necessitated an Egyptian outreach to Hamas, which was also battling the Islamic State to retain control over Gaza.

This resulted in Egyptian-Hamas military and counter-insurgency cooperation and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh visited Cairo in January 2017. Thereafter Hamas, at least in a letter, announced that it had ended its association with the Muslim Brotherhood.

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What Next for Egypt and the Middle East? 

Egypt has thus played a pivotal and dual role, not only in the Israel-Palestinian conflict but also in Gaza. Even as it has abetted the blockade of Gaza on one hand, it has played peace-maker and facilitator of its reconstruction, aid, and humanitarian supplies on the other.

The recent peace conference it convened is part of this pattern. While it yielded nothing substantial in terms of a ceasefire, it has opened up the much-awaited humanitarian corridor to Gaza.

Egypt, Jordan, and Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and UAE, however, may be expected to give Israel cover to crush Hamas or inflict substantial damage to it before a ceasefire is announced, no matter what the exigencies of cooperating with Hamas.

Note the recent comments by former Saudi intelligence head Prince Turki bin Faisal al Saud, where he castigated Israel not only for its treatment of Palestinians but also for emboldening and empowering Hamas.

The Cairo meeting, however, did call for renewed efforts to resuscitate the two-State solution and for the emergence of an independent Palestinian State standing side by side with Israel. For Arab governments, affordable to the rest of the world, this is the only desirable option for a sustained peace and for the total elimination of groups like Hamas.

As long as the war continues, however, it makes for bad optics and a potential threat to regional destabilisation.

(Aditi Bhaduri is a journalist and political analyst. She tweets @aditijan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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