X Close

Egypt is Gaza’s most fickle friend The President hates Hamas, but his people despise Israel

A man drives his cart in Rafah (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP via Getty Images)

A man drives his cart in Rafah (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP via Getty Images)


February 14, 2024   4 mins

A few years ago, while reporting in Gaza, I paid a visit to the Rafah border crossing with Egypt. Mohammed, my fixer, wasn’t keen. The guards there, he explained, were unfriendly. Sometimes they’d fire in the air if people approached; other times they’d shoot to kill. Beatings or at least the odd slap were common.

We drove up, parked a way off, and had a look. The uniformed men had the surly arrogance of most border officials but overlaid with an air of proximate violence. I could understand Mohammed’s reservations.

Rafah is a metaphor cast in concrete and steel for Egypt’s fraught role in the decades-long conflict between Israel and Palestine. Egypt, the only other state apart from Israel that borders Gaza, has had an uneasy peace with Jerusalem since 1979. And as the most populous Arab state in the world (Sudan is second with less than half its numbers), its leaders know well that most of their citizens loathe Israel. Whoever rules Cairo is always juggling several flaming torches at once.

Officially, Egypt is, like all Arab states, a proud and steadfast supporter of the Palestinian cause. Just over a week after the October 7 massacre, president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi declared that “the Palestinian cause is the mother of all causes and has a significant impact on stability and security”.

But in terms of its Gaza policy, Cairo is aligned with the United States. It wants Fatah, which governs the West Bank, to take over the strip as a precursor to Palestinian-Israeli negotiations and an end to the violence. At the end of last year, Arab media was filled with reports that Egypt and the US wanted former Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to run Gaza. Cairo was seeking a “government of technocrats” and Fayyad, with his extensive connections in Washington and close relationship with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, was seen as the perfect candidate.

Egypt’s plan was fleshed out on Christmas Day: following a ceasefire, officials explained, Cairo would lead talks to bring together Hamas and the PA, after the latter was driven out of Gaza following its 2007 elections. The two groups would then create a joint “government of experts” to run the West Bank and Gaza ahead of future elections. “We are ready for this [Palestinian] state to be demilitarised, and there can also be a guarantee of forces,” Sisi outlined a month earlier.

Yet beneath the rhetoric is a more complex reality. First, there are the practical considerations. Gaza was in Cairo’s hands from the 1948 Israeli War of Independence until Israel’s conquest of the strip in the Six Day War of 1967. During those two decades, it made no attempt to found a Palestinian state, nor did it want Gaza to become a part of Egypt, let alone allow many Gazans into the country. Gaza is a problem that Egypt simply doesn’t want.

And since October 7, that has not changed. Soon after Israel began its offensive, Sisi warned that any “displacement [of Gazans] to Sinai means transferring the attacks against Israel to Egyptian territories, which threatens the peace between Israel and a country of 105 million people”. Egyptian officials worry that if refugees flow in and camps spring up, they would become recruiting grounds for extremist groups, particularly the various malign Islamic State offshoots marauding around Sinai. This is largely why, in November last year, the Egyptians met with CIA Director William Burns and flat-out refused to manage Gaza even temporarily. Nor did Egypt get involved with counterinsurgency operations, or take any responsibility for post-war security in Gaza — something it obviously has a vested interest in.

Second, of course, is the inescapable matter of ideology. If the Egyptians dislike Israel, then its leaders detest the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian pan-Islamic Islamist group whose professed aim is to set up a Caliphate ruled by Sharia law. Indeed, Sisi got his job via what they call a “military-led takeover” in 2013 against the former president and Muslim Brother, Mohammad Morsi. In other words, he really despises the Brotherhood — and Hamas, after all, emerged from Mujama’ al-Islami (“Islamic Centre”), an Islamic charity founded by one of the Brotherhood’s leaders in Gaza.

Egypt targets the Brothers with unyielding ferocity. In 2015, Morsi was sentenced to death for conspiring with foreign organisations including Hamas (he died four years later of a reported heart attack after collapsing in court). The following year, Egypt’s interior minister accused Hamas of assassinating a public prosecutor, leading one prominent talk show host to call for an Arab military offensive against Hamas. “I ask to strike the terrorist camps inside Gaza because terrorism always comes from within it, and the Arab countries must take action to reject the Hamas movement,” he said. But this isn’t a mere war of words. Cairo has also taken action on the ground, with the Egyptian military destroying 1,370 Hamas tunnels under Rafah in 2014; the following year, it used sea water to flood yet more tunnels.

“Hatred and fear of Hamas runs deep in Egypt’s rulers”

Even so, there has been some cooperation between Cairo and Hamas when interests converge, notably in early 2020 when Hamas arrested an Islamic State member after Egyptian intelligence handed it audio recordings. The two sides also collaborated on the construction of a border wall in Sinai as part of their wider anti-Islamic State efforts, which also saw Rawhi Mushtaha, a member of Hamas’s political bureau, travel to Cairo to discuss security co-operation.

But like shrubs in the Sinai, these instances go against the norm. Hatred and fear of Hamas runs deep in Egypt’s rulers — which makes growing public support for the former’s war against Israel an increasing cause for concern. Recent polling conducted by the Washington Institute, for instance, found that 97% of people agreed that Arab states must “immediately sever all diplomatic, political, economic, and any other contacts with Israel in protest against its military action in Gaza”. Moreover, 96% agreed that Egypt should provide more humanitarian aid to Palestinians.

These are troubling figures. And not least because neither Sisi nor any of those around him will ever forget that Morsi was legitimately elected by a majority of Egyptians (though he then proceeded to blow that legitimacy by trying to change the constitution to effectively make him a modern-day pharaoh). The Brothers took power once, and they can do so again. But all Sisi can do is sit in his palace and watch on as the nation his people most despise tries to do the thing he most desires: destroy Hamas.

As each day goes by, Hamas in Gaza grows weaker, but the Brothers in Egypt grow stronger. It does not help that the country is also in the grip of a financial crisis of almost existential proportions. When people talk about the wider consequences of the Gaza war, it is normally about the possibility of the Middle East exploding. But lost amid this is the prospect of something just as bad: the very real possibility that the world’s most populous Arab state might implode first.


David Patrikarakos is UnHerd‘s foreign correspondent. His latest book is War in 140 characters: how social media is reshaping conflict in the 21st century. (Hachette)

dpatrikarakos

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

34 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
3 months ago

Egypt wants nothing to do with Hamas or Palestine either. Its border with Gaza is blocked, but no one bats an eye.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
3 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Sadly true.. if by “Egypt” you mean the Sisi led Egyptian govt. But if you mean the Egyptian people you are totally wrong. The same goes for the filthy rich brown-nosed, self-interested leaders of all rhe other Arab states, except for Western Yemen run by the heroic Houthis.

Martin M
Martin M
3 months ago

Executive Summary: The Egyptian leadership knows what side its bread is buttered on.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
3 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

But they do have to allow for national sentiment as well. Egypt is not immune to coups remember! It could all change overnight in Egypt!

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 months ago

Egypt is the real “ticking bomb” that Israel should have nightmares about, not HAMAS.
With a population of over 110 million and showing no signs of slowing down, logic dictates it must ‘explode’!
Then it really will be a time of ‘Vae Victis’.*

(*Clue: Latin.)

Peter F. Lee
Peter F. Lee
3 months ago

Little pompous even for you CS.*
*English

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 months ago
Reply to  Peter F. Lee

Praise indeed sir, praise indeed.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
3 months ago

oops, Charlie speaks rare truth and so UnHerd’s usual herd disapproves! What a shocker!

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
3 months ago

The same is true of all the Arab states. None of their leadership has any real time for the mandate arabs, but they have to espouse their cause because of the extreme anti-Israeli sentiment of their populations. The result is that the displaced arabs of Palestine have spent eighty years thinking that somehow they can reverse 1948 and win tthe war which was lost then. After the current episode ends, the cycle will begin again.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
3 months ago
Reply to  Jonathan Nash

It is part of the Arab culture, they make alliances when is suits them and will turn round and stab their former allies in the back as soon as it does not suit them. A sign that things are pretty settled in the Arab world is when villages / families are settling centuries old blood feuds between them, because there is no greater threat they need to stand together against.
Westerners, who think they can rationalise and therefore predict Arab behaviour, are deluding themselves.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
3 months ago
Reply to  Jonathan Nash

Arab peoples are not just anti Zionist (I am that myself) but also passionately pro Palestinian… their religion, which they take very seriously btw, makes that obligatory and more important, heartfelt. You omitted to make that point.

Ron Kean
Ron Kean
3 months ago

Some people might remember the movie Blazing Saddles where an old White woman went around back to give the Black sheriff a pie. She told him not to tell anyone. She didn’t want to appear to like him. It’s the same thing with many Arab leaders. They like Israel but don’t want anyone to know.
The reason is simple. Anwar Sadat. He was the leader of Egypt who made friends with Israel and was killed during a parade. He was an example that I’m sure influences the decisions of leaders in the Muslim world. They risk death for friendship. It’s a wonder Trump did so well.
What’s with so-called Palestinians? They were happy to murder a former King of Jordan. They were kicked out of Jordan in Black September. Then they were kicked out of Lebanon. They led Saddam Hussein to the Kuwaiti oil fields and set hundreds of wells on fire. 300,000 were immediately expelled for that. Few even know all this.
Now, nobody wants to take them. Israel is stuck with them. They were given billions in aid and could have built electric grids, water works, farming communities and tourist attractions but didn’t. They built a military complex and provoked Israel for decades. Israel showed mercy and supplied them with water and electric. Israel tried to help and today is the result.
Egypt is running from the problem and everybody understands. The irony of the situation is how few Palestinians emigrate compared to Syrians, Algerians, Libyans and others from Arab ruled countries. In Israel there are many Arab MDs, businessmen and workers of every trade with amenities, freedom and first world medical care. It’s tough to shed jihadi roots.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
3 months ago
Reply to  Ron Kean

Arab leaders like Israel? ..my arse for parsley! The greedy degenerates fear IsraelUS and love US dollars.. There you have it: Fear and greed.. and yes hatred too (the 3rd great motivator of the wicked).. hatred of Zionists, deep, profound even visceral.. but easily overridden by the other two motivators!

Ron Kean
Ron Kean
3 months ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Iran doesn’t consider itself Arab. Iran leads the Shiites. Shiites are just 20% of the world Muslim population but Sunnis who are 80% fear Iran. The oil rich Sunnis believe Israel is able to stand up to Iran. That’s why Israel has flyover rights in Sunni countries. The Abraham accords included Israel with Sunni countries for, among other things, defense. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
3 months ago

And some people think there should be a single state, from the river to the sea, where Israelis and Palestinian live peaceably side by side with equal rights.
Some people listen to Imagine by John Lennon and think it is a realistic proposition rather than drug fuelled hallucination.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

In this place called Israel, Jews and Palestinians do live in relative peace. In any Muslim nation, such a scene is far less common.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
3 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs do indeed co-exist with equal rights and relatively peaceably. My statement was about Israelis (Jewish and Arab) and Palestinians. The idea that a single state on those lines would not lead to a genocide of one or the other is fanciful and I doubt the Israeli Arabs would fare particularly well within the ensuing battle.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
3 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

Obviously you’ve never heard of post Apartheid South Africa then?? ..or post GFA Northern Ireland either?

R Wright
R Wright
3 months ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

South Africa is a bad example given the state’s policies aimed at ethnically cleansing its white minority.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
3 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

That is grossly inaccurate. Jews in Turkey live unhindered with full citizens rights alongside their Muslim countrymen. I have a colleague there, a Jewish management consultant and 90% of his clients are Muslim. I’ve worked alongside him in Istanbul and Ankara.
You read to much US propaganda.

Ron Kean
Ron Kean
3 months ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

There’s a lot to be learned when you read Wikipedia’s “Turkish Jews” and scroll to the section on Antisemitism. The key report was, “In October 2013, it was reported that a mass exodus of Turkish Jews was underway. Reportedly, Turkish Jewish families are immigrating to Israel at the rate of one family per week on average, and hundreds of young Turkish Jews are also relocating to the United States and Europe.[98]” Turkey isn’t a haven for Jews but wealthy Jews probably know who to pay to be safe.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
3 months ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Maybe the Israelis should treat the Palestinians just like Turkey treats it’s Jews, Armenians and Kurds, perhaps.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
3 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

Nevertheless it WOULD work of tried
Indeed it DID work (after a fashion) under 100s of years of Ottoman rule. And one final point: the current system DOESN’T work, does it!

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
3 months ago

No mention of US aid to Egypt? Cut that and millions of Egyptians will be starving.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 months ago

It seems that Egypt and the rest of the Arab world has a choice to make: accept the presence of Israel and get involved in crafting a workable solution that does not include perpetual violence or not. No one likes Hamas, yet here we are on the verge of a potential regional conflict that no one wants.

James Kirk
James Kirk
3 months ago

The Arab states are spineless ditherers. They are scared of the Russian backed Syrians and Iran. Hamas are destabilising murderers who have spent their aid money on tunnels, guns and rockets. They would never have engendered a prosperous sea side city, preferring to have Gaza in squalor surrounded by enemies.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
3 months ago
Reply to  James Kirk

Almost true.. but a prosperous Gaza city under IOF blockades? Dream on baby…

William Brand
William Brand
3 months ago

Sisi remembers that Egypt has lost 3 wars against Israel a nuclear power with no nukes involved. One bomb on the dam at lake Nasser sends a wall of radioactive water to destroy Egypt. Many Egyptian religious fanatics would risk it again, but Israel now has nukes and if they lost a conventional war would use their nuclear weapons.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
3 months ago
Reply to  William Brand

This regrettably is very your. The devil has powers..

Jack Martin Leith
Jack Martin Leith
3 months ago

Has UnHerd moved author bios down below so we can skip the article and go straight to the comments?

William Brand
William Brand
3 months ago

The 2-state solution is also an impossibility. Israel has proved willing to trade land for peace. They gave back the Sini and would remove settlers from the west bank etc. The Palestinians have refused to even consider this option and demand all of Israel. They continually refuse American efforts to impose this solution. The Jews know this and have given up trying to trade land for peace, but Biden keeps demanding them to do it even though there will be no peace if the Israeli withdraw from lands. This war can either end with genocide of the forceful exile of one side or another. The likely end will be the return of Christ with a divine mandate to “rule the nations with a rod of iron“. Perhaps Moslems will submit to a Devine decree, but I doubt it. Without Christ appearing in person, its nuclear genocide, an oppressive apartheid state or mass exile to Africa for the Palestinians. Some corrupt African rulers can be paid to take a minority group. Luckily, all prophetic signs indicate that Our Savior will soon descend from heaven to settle the problem.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
3 months ago
Reply to  William Brand

I’d like to say your contribution is distorted but I’m afraid it is just plain lies.. Plans are already well under way for Israeli settlements in Gaza! Right now you can buy your Israeli seaside mansion in Gaza off the plans.. check it out.
Or maybe you prefer a view of the newly planned Ben Gurion Canal cutting Gaza in two?
The genacide is just a simple “resettlement” in advance of those two upcoming developments..

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
3 months ago

How did Hamas get all its weaponry if not through Egypt? I guess the Egyptians aren’t so good at border security?

Robert Pruger
Robert Pruger
2 months ago

I understand the author to be saying that in regards to Hamas and the Gaza residents Egypt (Sisi and company) are between a rock and a hard place. Co-religionists who also share a common language and other customs are viewed as life threatening. Where does that leave the Israelis?
On a number of occasions and in numerous ways Hamas has threatened the existence of Jews. Considering Egypt’s fears that leaves little room for error for Israel as a nation or Israelis as a people.