When Trump announced Jerusalem was Israel’s undivided capital under his so-called “deal of the century”, the Egyptian public questioned whether Al-Sisi had a hand in preparing the plan. His support, after all, came just half an hour after the announcement.
Officially, Egypt supports the establishment of a Palestinian state on its pre-1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital. According to Mada Masr, Al-Sisi’s statement originally included a sentence to that effect, but in a later draft it was removed, after it had passed through the president’s office for review.
Since he came to power, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s rule has been decidedly anti-Palestinian. When Egypt’s military overthrew Mohamed Morsi on 3 July 2013, one of the first things the generals did was close the Rafah Crossing and deport Palestinians arriving in the country through Cairo Airport.
But in some respects the Egyptian dictator has tried to maintain nominal respect for the Egyptian position. In 2017, it was Egypt which filed a draft resolution rescinding Trump’s declaration that Jerusalem was Israel’s capital amid the global outrage that followed his announcement.
The price for Egypt’s new position was $9 billion, the amount promised at the economic workshop for the deal of the century in Bahrain last summer. It’s a big chunk of money for Egypt, given the dire straits it has found itself in under Al-Sisi’s mismanagement of the economy, and should provide some generous bonuses for the ruling generals, who we know through the whistleblower Mohamed Ali are getting rich through corruption and at the expense of their own people.
For its part, Israel has achieved political and economic gains it never imagined could be possible. This has been described as the golden age of Israeli-Egyptian relations symbolised by the transfer of Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia, which opened up the Straits of Tiran to Israel, and compounded by security cooperation between the Egyptian and Israeli army in Sinai.
As Yehya Okail, a former MP in Sinai, once told me:
Hosni Mubarak was a treasure to Israel, however Sisi is much more than that. Israel never imagined that it would be served by anyone in the history of Egypt as Sisi has done.
Trump’s plan proposes “cross-border services” including building desalination and power plants next to the Egypt-Gaza frontier. Observers have long talked about the US’ plans to build infrastructure projects in the Sinai Peninsula where Palestinians can work.
As Al-Sisi laid the groundwork for these projects, Sinai’s indigenous population, the Bedouin, have felt the plans acutely. The government has razed homes and obliterated fertile farmland, offering Sinawis no compensation for their loss. All of this has taken place under a protracted “war on terror” in Sinai authorities have been fighting for years now. As well as being accused of systematic war crimes, the army is no closer to defeating the estimated 1,000 militants there.
With Trump’s announcement, Egypt has another excuse to ramp up security in Sinai, which is already suffocating under a curfew and restrictions on goods entering the peninsula. No one knows better than the people of Sinai that increased security in the peninsula is a pretext for increased repression. At the beginning of the week, Egypt arrested 32 women from a prominent North Sinai tribe.
Reports reveal high level military and intelligence leaders have demanded security forces be on high alert in anticipation of events in Gaza, including the claim that Palestinians will storm the border and make their way deep into Egyptian territory. With this, Egypt has flipped the narrative on its head to persuade the public it is Palestinians that want to flood Sinai, not that it is preparing to give its own land up at the behest of Israel and the US.
It’s not just in Sinai that people will feel the reverberations of Trump’s deal. Dual Palestinian-Egyptian national Ramy Shaath, the general coordinator of BDS Egypt who was imprisoned for speaking out about Egypt’s participation in the Bahrain workshop, and his colleague Mohamed El-Massry, are both imprisoned as part of the regime’s crackdown on pro-Palestinian solidarity. Their sentences and conditions could be negatively affected by the announcement and its aftermath.
Whilst the Egyptian regime has made a significant shift in its official position, in the long-term convincing its people isn’t so easy, as is evident from the public outcry in January, not just over the government’s official response to the deal of the century, but also because last month was when Israel began transporting natural gas to Egypt under a $15 billion deal.
In an attempt to change hearts and minds, Egypt intelligence sent round a WhatsApp to top media editors with instructions on how to report on the announcement. It asked them to refer to the US proposal as a “peace plan”, rather than the more negatively-viewed deal of the century, it said was viewed as an American-driven project to secure Israel’s interests. Editors were told not to address or focus on religious or national elements of the plan or to ask Al-Azhar for its view on the matter. It also asked journalists to emphasise the historical and pivotal role of Egypt on the Palestinian issue.
Attempts to control the narrative are widespread. One source in Sinai told me that two people were arrested in Arish around Christmas over Facebook posts about Israel, another researcher said that only high-ranking officers in the Egyptian army know they are cooperating with Israel in Sinai. These incidents show how entrenched pro-Palestinian sentiment is in Egypt, and how insecure the regime is. But it won’t stop Trump’s “favourite dictator”, as he presses ahead with the deal of the century to his benefit and to the detriment of his own people.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.