Egypt seems to be trying to stay in the middle regarding the Israeli military offensive against the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. As this enters its fourth month, there are so many contradictions in the official position that Cairo may lose a lot of the influence that it has on the Palestinian issue.
Despite the record rise in the number of Palestinian casualties — more than 23,000 killed, mostly children and women, and 60,000 wounded — Cairo seems to be hiding behind official statements denouncing the Israeli aggression. With growing Qatari and Turkish involvement, and the emergence of strong support from South Africa and Latin American countries for Gaza, the Egyptian position is surrounded by many doubts and questions about why Cairo is tightening the grip on the Palestinians, restricting support campaigns and aid for the Gaza Strip, and trying to besiege the resistance groups and reduce their options.
After 7 October, it became clear that Egypt was procrastinating about opening the Rafah border crossing to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza.
This is the only crossing that is under the control of an Arab country on the border with the occupied Palestinian territories, and which is not subject to the control of Israel (at least in theory).
According to the NGO Sinai Foundation for Human Rights, hundreds of trucks of food and humanitarian aid are accumulating in Al-Arish, in northern Sinai near the Rafah border crossing, amid demands for the Egyptian authorities to open the land crossing permanently to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe getting even worse. Cairo blames Israel’s stubbornness regarding the entry of aid convoys. Egyptian officials say that they cannot guarantee the safety of those responsible for the aid. Such Israeli inflexibility has affected journalists, human rights and relief organisations, international solidarity delegations and public figures.
Egyptian security agents arrested four foreign activists, including former US Congress candidate John Parker, after they organised a protest in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to obtain the necessary permits for the Conscience of the World Caravan to mobilise to Rafah, which was called for by the Egyptian Journalists’ Syndicate. The Egyptian authorities obstructed the convoy, which was scheduled to leave for the Rafah crossing on 24 November, amid leaks that those responsible for it were subjected to security pressure, causing the convoy’s departure to be postponed indefinitely.
Despite the officially announced support for the people of Gaza, Palestinian patients complain about the slow process of getting treatment abroad, which involves obtaining approval from the Egyptians to cross the border and securing ambulances to transport patients to hospitals. Egyptian television channels broadcast daily images of a queue of ambulances in front of the Rafah crossing. There is also a strong propaganda campaign talking about the role of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in supporting the Palestinian cause and saying that Egypt tops the list of donors of international aid provided to Palestine.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health in Gaza complains of the inadequacy of the mechanism for transporting the wounded abroad, which includes sending a list of names and waiting for approval from the Egyptians. So far, only 413 people have left Gaza through the Rafah crossing for treatment, which is less than one per cent of the total number of those wounded since the beginning of the Israeli genocide.
Social media shares video clips and testimonies documenting what stranded Palestinians at the Rafah crossing are exposed to. Palestinians say that they have to pay between two and seven thousand US dollars per person to cross to Egypt. BBC Arabic News Network noted this on its website under the headline “Thousands of dollars in bribes to exit the Rafah crossing”. According to the Egyptian foreign ministry, it has provided an electronic mechanism to register Egyptian citizens wishing to return from Gaza, and that any other method that is being talked about falls within fraud and deception.
According to the independent Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, the worst part is the arrests of dozens of Egyptian demonstrators, and renewing their imprisonment, following their demonstrations in solidarity with the Palestinians. Moreover, those in charge of relief organisations and charities have complained about the difficulties in receiving donations to support the Palestinian people or collecting medical and pharmaceutical aid to send to Gaza.
One Egyptian relief official, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, said that they had received instructions from security agents not to advertise for Gaza relief, or launch humanitarian campaigns to support the Palestinians. Charitable donations generally face harsh legal restrictions in Egypt, and require official and security approvals, but with the start of the Israeli offensive, those affiliated with the authorities, such as the Long Live Egypt Fund, took the initiative to open bank accounts for donations.
The Egyptian regime has also maintained a media blackout on events in Gaza. It did not change the programming or news map on its official and private channels. What’s more, Al-Sisi personally is showing more interest in the Egypt football team’s preparations for the 2024 Africa Cup of Nations. Last month, the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Cairo University cancelled a seminar to discuss the political repercussions of the Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip, without giving any reasons.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders accuses Egypt of being complicit in the siege of Gaza, with no intention of opening the Rafah border crossing to journalists. The group noted that many journalists living in Cairo have been told to ask for approval from Israel to enter Gaza through the Rafah border crossing, which is supposed to be under the control of the Egyptian authorities. Furthermore, the group obtained an audio recording of Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry saying that, “Any unilateral action by Egypt regarding allowing journalists to enter Gaza may be considered by Israel as inappropriate… It may have negative consequences on other arrangements between Egypt and Israel.”
In addition to the ongoing media blockade, though, it seems that there was a green light for media figures close to the Egyptian regime, most notably Ibrahim Issa, to attack Hamas and accuse it of committing war crimes against the Palestinians and of being responsible for the destruction of Gaza.
Political researcher Mohamed Annan explained this by saying that Egypt fears that any solidarity with Gaza will produce an active popular mood that could expand across the country. The authorities are concerned that such activities will cross red lines and become the nucleus for building a wave of popular protests targeting the regime itself, which is a nightmare for the authorities with every mass gathering, whether political or sports related.
According to Annan, this tendency reinforces the desire to avoid a clash with Israel, Egypt’s ally, and the US, Egypt’s supporter, and a wish to identify with the Saudi-UAE vision specifically targeting Hamas, in the hope of making political and economic gains, including loan and aid packages. The Egyptian regime has a pre-set position about the Palestinian resistance, mainly Hamas with its close relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egyptian political and media discourse has long described as a “terrorist” group, especially after the overthrow of democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi by the Sisi-led military coup in mid-2013.
A former Egyptian diplomat, who also asked to remain anonymous, commented by saying that Cairo’s desire to play the role of mediator between Tel Aviv and the Palestinian resistance regarding the prisoner exchange issue, imposes on it a commitment to neutrality. However, the Egyptian regime’s calculations cannot ignore the Muslim Brotherhood roots of Hamas on the one hand, and fears of getting entangled in external issues, even if they are border affairs of a security nature, on the other. This has led to minimising the Egyptian role, tightening the noose on the Palestinians, and not moving effectively to stop the war on Gaza, or even opening the Rafah crossing permanently for the flow of humanitarian aid.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.