From Steven A. Cook
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.
Although the Egyptians generally distrust and dislike Hamas, Israel’s airstrikes present absolutely zero upside for Cairo. Even if Mubarak had the creative capacity to turn crises into opportunities, it is hard to imagine what the opportunity might look like. Cairo worries that chaos in Gaza threatens the stability of Sinai where Palestinian and Egyptian militants could link up and, in turn, could threaten the cold, yet peaceful relations with Israel. What would happen should an attack on Israel occur from Sinai? How would the Israelis respond? Of more immediate concern, however, is Israel’s less than implicit desire to dump Gaza onto Egypt. The last thing that the Egyptians want is responsibility for the 1.5 million Palestinians and the myriad problems of the Strip. Yet, if the Israelis choose to wash their hands of Gaza, the Egyptians actually have few resources to resist. They could, of course, threaten to abrogate the peace treaty, but returning to a state of war with Israel is hardly in Egypt’s interest.
The broader regional implications for Egypt are clear. Israel’s airstrikes have produced widespread outrage in the Arab world and provide opportunity for actors like Iran to play Arab politics. It is only a matter of time before Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad will use Israel’s attacks on Gaza to advance his own popularity (second only to Hezbollah’s Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah) and Tehran’s influence in the region. To the extent that Ahmedinejad can weave a narrative that those at peace with Israel and/or allied with the United States are harming the interests of the Palestinians and thus the Islamic world, Egypt’s regional influence is likely to continue to recede.
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