Escalating violence on the Gaza strip has renewed pressure on Cairo, which maintains a blockade on the territory. Thought the Egyptian public largely opposes the blockade, the government continues to restrict movement of people and goods to and from Gaza.
Egypt, while condemning the current Israeli assault on Gaza, has also come under fire from some Arabs and Muslims for its links with Israel, including efforts to broker a new truce. The previous ceasefire — one that Egypt helped bring about — expired on Dec. 19.
Read more of our ongoing coverage of the escalating violence in Gaza.
Steven A. Cook is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations at writes at the “Middle East Strategy at Harvard” blog about the effect of the violence in Gaza on Egypt.
War in Gaza: No upside for Egypt
The events in Gaza over this weekend present a number of internal and external challenges for the Egyptian government, again raising questions about Cairo’s capacity to deal effectively with regional crises. Needless to say, the Israeli Air Force’s offensive against Hamas coming soon after Israel’s Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni rebuffed Egyptian President Husni Mubarak’s pleas for restraint in Gaza, reminds Egyptians of their manifest weakness. It also plays right into the hands of the Egyptian opposition, whether it is the Muslim Brotherhood, neo-Nasserists, or the nationalist left, who all believe that Cairo’s alliance with Washington has brought Egypt to its knees, unable to oppose effectively Israeli policies in the region no matter how predatory. Israel’s attacks in Gaza will inevitably radicalize Egypt’s political discourse in much the same way they did after the July 2006 war in Lebanon, which placed Mubarak on the defensive.
In an effort to insulate itself from the domestic criticism sure to come and the inevitable calls to take some sort of punitive action against Israel, the Egyptians almost immediately summoned Shalom Cohen, Jerusalem’s ambassador in Cairo, for a dressing down with Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit. In addition, in order to avoid the public relations disaster they experienced when Hamas breached Egypt’s border with Gaza last January, the Egyptians swung open the Rafah crossing to facilitate evacuation of the wounded. Still, these actions are unlikely to mollify Mubarak’s many domestic critics, especially since Aboul Gheit—at the same time he was seething about Israeli murder in Gaza—was implicitly laying a good deal of the blame for the outbreak of hostilities on Hamas, who resisted Egyptian entreaties to resume a dialogue with Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah.
Beyond the domestic difficulties that are likely to result from Israel’s airstrikes, a weakened Hamas is likely going to be more difficult for Egypt’s General Intelligence chief, General Omar Suleiman, to corral. The June 18 ceasefire was predicated in part on Hamas’ ability to prevent other militant factions like Islamic Jihad and the Fatah-affiliated Al Aqsa Martyrs brigade from launching rockets on Israel. When the dust settles in Gaza, however, Suleiman and his emissaries are likely to find a significantly altered political environment in which Hamas is unable to impose its will on others or is even amenable to any efforts to reestablish the ceasefire. In other words, the Egyptians are going to be confronted with turmoil, lawlessness, and the increased possibility of factional violence Gaza.
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