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What’s Stopping Egypt From Stepping Up in Gaza?

Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had rejected a proposal, which he discussed with U.S. CIA Director William Burns, for Egypt to oversee security in the Gaza Strip after Hamas’s defeat until the Palestinian Authority (PA) could take over.

That Egypt has rejected playing any role in managing security in a post-Hamas Gaza should not come as a surprise. Although Egypt has high stakes in securing its border with Gaza and preventing any infiltration by Hamas fighters, Egyptian internal dynamics restrict its options and limit its involvement in any future arrangement.

As U.S. President Joe Biden laid out in an op-ed in mid-November, current U.S. policy aims for the ultimate reunification of Gaza and the West Bank under a reformed version of the PA. Until that happens, though, an interim administrative body will likely be needed to take over in Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s desire that Israel maintain responsibility for Gaza’s security, despite U.S. disapproval, risks dragging the region into a protracted war.

Meanwhile, the feasibility of having an Arab coalitionassume interim control over Gaza hinges on the internal stability of Egypt. Those trying to persuade Cairo to participate in such a difficult mission by offering aid packages or even debt relief misunderstand the underlying factors guiding Egypt’s decision-making.

The first factor is the position of the country’s military. The Egyptian military’s foremost priority is its own institutional cohesion. It will sacrifice anything and anyone to maintain this unity, as it did when it withdrew support for former President Hosni Mubarak following the January 2011 revolt. Consequently, the military establishment views its cohesion as a key characteristic of its stability and strength, and it will not risk jeopardizing that by embarking on an unpopular agenda. This was most evident in the decision to refrain from engaging in the wars in Yemen or Libya, where Egypt’s closest allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, needed its military most.

As FP columnist Steven A. Cook has written, the Egyptian military is not like its Syrian counterpart. In Syria, a single sect (the Alawites)—whose members make up a small fraction of the population—forms the ruling elite and controls all sensitive positions in the country’s army. As such, the military had few qualms taking up arms against the Syrian people to defend the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Egypt’s military, on the other hand, is nonsectarian and reflects, to a large extent, a diverse societal fabric. Consequently, it can’t diverge too far from the public consensus, or it risks fracturing.

After Hamas’s Oct. 7 assault on Israel, the popularity of the Palestinian cause has skyrocketed in Egypt, alongside many other countries in the Arab and Muslim world. The rising Palestinian death toll and the images of devastation from the Israeli military operation in Gaza have only inflamed popular sentiment in these countries against Israel and its backers, and in support of Palestinians and their fight to resist the occupation.

This widespread perception will not go away anytime soon, as shown by the protests sweeping those countries, including Egypt. The killing of two Israeli tourists in Egypt by a police officer is another sign of how this sentiment penetrates many layers of the population.

With public opinion so hostile to Israel, Egypt’s military will have little appetite to participate in a security mission in Gaza that involves collaborating directly with Israel to stamp out any lingering pockets of Hamas resistance. Public criticism has already been mountingin the face of the existing collaboration of the Egyptian military in tightly controlling the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza and the inadequate trickling of humanitarian aid to the distraught Gazan population.

The Sisi regime’s denial of such collaboration has not landed well with the outraged public. Since Cairo is currently failing to convince its own public about its security measures at the crossing, one can only imagine the repercussions of being perceived as Israel’s police officer in Gaza.

Public resentment in Egypt was brewing even before Oct. 7, and the Gaza conflict has only pushed that resentment into overdrive. The frustration of facing another sham presidential election in December and the people’s inability to stop Sisi from extending his reign to 2030 is likely to produce even more unpredictability and uncertainty in Egypt’s near future. The economy will also undergo changes: Soon after the election, another significant currency devaluation, under conditions mandated by the International Monetary Fund, will test popular tolerance.

Despite a dire economic situation, any relief from multilateral financial institutions would require a long timeline to benefit the population. Therefore, Cairo is likely not concluding that debt relief is a means to appease protesters and sway public opinion at this juncture. The repeated currency devaluation and the dire financial situation are primarily attributed to the Sisi regime’s failed policies and unhinged focus on infrastructure and megaprojects without first instituting a sufficiently protective social safety net.

This has created profound resentment among the population, and therefore, no amount of money coming from abroad could restore confidence in Cairo’s ability to efficiently govern, balance its budget, and deliver better outcomes for its citizens without a structural change in the governing body.

While Cairo is evaluating how to respond to its own security needs in the wake of the Gaza crisis, it also has its eye on the Muslim Brotherhood, the archrival of the Egyptian regime, which is waiting in anticipation to regain its place on the political stage. The Islamist political organization has experienced significant blowssince 2013, affecting its popularity and presence in the street. But the shocking military success that Hamas, a Muslim Brotherhood  offshoot, achieved on Oct. 7 has given the organization new life.

Although Egyptian public support for Hamas is not limited to Islamist-leaning crowds, the Muslim Brotherhood’s presence and relevance have been accentuated by recent developments. The group maintains a strong media presence through its different TV channels and social media outlets, which have been boosted by the fact that the state controls all other media.

The group’s ability to influence public opinion is much easier when it aligns with an already overwhelming pro-Palestinian popular sentiment. If the Sisi regime directs the military to participate in a security arrangement that results in a clash with Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood will not waste the opportunity to destabilize an already fragile regime.

During Mubarak’s tenure, Egypt had a significant role in managing Gaza by brokering deals  between Hamas and Israel despite Mubarak’s tense relations with the Muslim Brotherhood. Mubarak’s regime managed to find leverage points while dealing with the two parties. He played the extensive tunnel network bypassing Egyptian border controls with Gaza as a strong leverage card after Hamas took over the strip in 2006. Cracking down on the tunnels while blocking the aboveground border crossing was one way to pressure Hamas, while occasionally turning a blind eye to the smuggling infuriated the Israelis. Mubarak also had excellent relations with the PA in Ramallah.

In contrast, although it played a role in pausing violence in 2014 and 2021, Sisi’s regime has had too little to offer to actually maintain forceful leverage over Israel, Ramallah, and Gaza after carrying out its  massive crackdown over the tunnels into Gaza in 2015. It has thus settled for a minor role as a channel of communication among the warring parties rather than being an influential player capable of meaningfully shaping outcomes in the conflict.

Egypt’s diminished role in mediating deals is being filled by an expanding Qatari role, as evidenced by the recent truce and hostage exchange deal, in contrast to the major role that Egypt played in the prisoner swap deal that secured the release of Israeli solider Gilad Shalit in 2011.

Meanwhile, due to the Sisi government’s repeated blows, the disarrayed and alienated Muslim Brotherhood has become less influential over the political wing of Hamas—creating a vacuum that Iran has happily stepped in to fill. This increased Iranian influence over Hamas will prove yet another a significant hurdle for the stability of any interim arrangement in Gaza, and one that Egypt will have little ability to counter.

All these political, economic, and regional factors have significantly diminished Egypt’s ability to be an effective center of power to influence actors in this conflict; instead, it will prioritize territorial integrity and preventing security breaches. If international policymakers don’t take these factors into account, Egypt will not be a durable partner in a peacekeeping arrangement after the war.

Relieving Egypt’s economic situation temporarily through aid packages or debt relief will not be a good enough incentive, given all the other factors. The country’s inherent political instability, compounded by the lack of proper governance and hope for change in the foreseeable future, will cancel the expected benefits of economic assistance. It will not guarantee internal stability or the ability of the military to stretch its jurisdiction outside its borders.

The stakes will be too high for the military, and by extension, for all other players in the region. A fragile Egypt will not be capable of playing its role as a major stabilizing force in the Middle East. It will only leave a vacuum that stronger regional powers will attempt to fill.

Source: Foreign Policy

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