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The return of Palestinian Egypt

January 25, 2014 at 9:11 am

Egypt’s decision to reopen the Rafah border crossing with Gaza was anticipated; nevertheless its timing had significant political import. It was not just a positive undertaking on the border, but it was also a decision linked to the meaning of Egypt’s very existence. The country is seeking to restore its image as a crucial supporter of the Palestinian cause because Palestine has always been an Egyptian national cause.

With the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas, which Egypt helped to push through, the decision to reopen the Rafah crossing has angered Israel and caused anxiety in the US; it has prompted intense pressure on Egyptian decision-makers, including unequivocal warnings directed at Cairo during the recent AIPAC conference attended by Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and US President Barak Obama. The conference was a forum to express the growing fears resulting from Egypt’s new policies; the Rafah decision was even described as a violation of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

It was in this climate of hostile pressure that Egypt decided to open the Rafah crossing; ease restrictions on the border; abolish all procedural constraints on Palestinian movement; and abolish entry visa requirements for Palestinians of all ages. The relaxation on restrictions also took into consideration Palestinian students in Egyptian universities, as well as patients seeking treatment. The net result was that the Rafah crossing was opened in the full meaning of the word without any restrictions worth mentioning. In other words, new Egypt has taken the decision to throw a lifeline to the besieged Palestinians and end its support for the blockade of Gaza.

The Egyptian decision reflects a tangible shift in policy and the restoration of primacy for its own national interests. It is a confirmation of Cairo’s independence and is a far cry from the policies of the ousted regime which gave priority to Israel’s wishes. The Mubarak regime had sealed the Rafah crossing and enforced procedures which stifled the Palestinians. The ex-president played his sinful role with due diligence and merged the interests of his family with those of Israel. He governed according to a well understood golden rule: he will serve Israel’s demands with a view to securing approval from Washington and its financial rewards, his leadership of the government and thus be able to bequeath his position to his son.

Just as Mubarak’s leadership was an embarrassment to the people of Egypt, so too was his policy of servitude to Israel. The entire shameful edifice was brought down by the Egyptian revolution which had no identifiable leadership. This allowed it to benefit from the Military Council which took on the role of the interim authority during the transition stage.

Mubarak’s personal departure was a major blow to Israel; according to Israeli General Benjamin Ben Eliezer, Mubarak was “Israel’s greatest strategic treasure” and according to the current Israeli President, Shimon Peres, he was the most significant individual in Israel’s life after its founder, Ben Gurion. Israel was shocked by what transpired and sought to stop it by applying pressure on its patrons in Washington and the larger European capitals and considered military action to prevent Mubarak’s overthrow.

An Israeli-US plan to invade Egypt would have been carried through had the Egyptian military leadership not acted pre-emptively to create a new reality which forced Mubarak to step down. The Egyptian military took crucial political action, and in an atmosphere of national confidence in the army the Military Council became the reluctant decision-makers. Washington and Tel Aviv tried to influence its decisions and pushed it to refuse permission for an Iranian warship to pass through the Suez Canal; the ship passed through from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean despite the pressure.

This was a bad omen for Israel and a cause for resentment in Washington. However, this was an indicator of a new foreign policy. Nabil Elaraby, a distinguished diplomat, was chosen as the new Egyptian Foreign Minister after which he was chosen unanimously to replace Amr Moussa as the Secretary General of the League of Arab States. The Arabs adhered to the fundamental national trend in the school of Egyptian diplomacy representing a complete contrast to Ahmed Abu Gheit, Mubarak’s Foreign Minister. The choice of Elaraby was an indication of how far removed he was from Abu Gheit and Egyptian policy abandoned service to Israel.

It is true that there hasn’t yet been any formal hostility to Israel and Cairo has announced its commitment to the peace treaty with the Zionist state. However, in practice, cooperation with Israel has been reduced and Egyptian rhetoric against Israeli aggression has been stepped up. Tel Aviv has been warned against launching another belligerent attack on Gaza and the transitional administration in Cairo has worked assiduously on Palestinian reconciliation and set the foundations for emerging relations with Hamas. It has also expressed readiness to extend links with Iran and develop necessary links with the Gulf States under the leadership of Saudi Arabia.

Such new policies are not in Israel’s interest as it was accustomed to Egyptian support. Along with Washington, it believed that Saudi influence had a crucial role to play in Cairo and the whole scenario appeared to be linked to exchanges in the Egyptian interior ministry, most of which were linked to Mubarak’s fate following his overthrow. The vigilance of the Egyptian people was a crucial factor and the crowds in Tahrir Square helped to galvanise the resolve of the Military Council which has opted to refer Mubarak and his sons to the criminal court on charges including the export of Egyptian gas to Israel.

The transformation was dramatic and with it the Saudi and Israeli pressure seeking to guarantee amnesty for “the friend Mubarak” was shot down. Israel had not quite got over the shock of Mubarak’s departure before the opening of the Rafah border crossing dealt it another blow. Remember this decision well; Palestinian Egypt is returning.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.