"... Egypt's intensifying anti-smuggling measures and the erection of a border wall are at odds with its claim to back the Palestinian cause. It has several reasons for doing so -- chiefly its distaste for Hamas, and US pressure -- but its reference to national security is unlikely to be credible to the domestic audience. As the situation in Gaza deteriorates, Egypt's opposition could mobilise public opinion on the issue in the context of upcoming elections and expected presidential succession........A year after Israel's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, the construction by Egypt of a wall along its border with Gaza and measures taken against tunnel smuggling highlight Egypt's cooperation with Israel in blockading the Hamas-controlled Palestinian territory. This position opens the regime to both domestic and foreign criticism, (as) the blockade of the Gaza Strip is threatening its healthcare systems and putting patients' lives at risk
ANALYSIS: When Israel launched its attack on Gaza in December 2008, the repercussions on Egypt were vast:
- Hamas and its allies -- Iran, Syria, Qatar and Hizbollah in Lebanon -- launched the harshest criticism publicly levelled against Cairo since former President Anwar al-Sadat signed the Camp David agreement.
- That criticism stung, and Egypt responded by launching its own media offensive while, on the domestic front, it followed in Sadat's footsteps by making the case for an 'Egypt first' policy that put national security concerns above solidarity with Palestinians.
- Boosted by Western support, Cairo was put at the centre of the process that brought that war to an end -- then dubbed the 'Egyptian initiative', although its initiator had been French President Nicolas Sarkozy .....
Despite shock at Israel's tactics in Gaza, many Egyptians responded to some extent to the 'Egypt first' argument. Doing otherwise was discouraged, since activities showing solidarity with Gaza were brought under heavy security scrutiny.
Dual policy. A year later, Cairo continues to offer the only official mechanism for negotiating a permanent truce, a prisoner exchange between Hamas and Israel, and inter-Palestinian reconciliation. At the same time, Egypt is a key enforcer of Israel's Gaza blockade through its refusal to open up the Rafah crossing ....
Motives. There are several possible explanations for Egypt's decision to go ahead with such a highly criticised project:
- Egypt may want to strengthen its chokehold on Hamas in the context of its refusal to sign a Palestinian reconciliation agreement favourable to Fatah.
- It may simultaneously want to continue to narrow Hamas' room for manoeuvre, and present its removal from power as the only solution for Gazans to improve their lot.
- Moreover, Egypt is under heavy Israeli and US pressure to put an end to smuggling -- currently Gaza's main lifeline -- and is rewarded for its cooperation by being maintained as the only internationally-sanctioned channel for negotiations with Hamas, and by the improvement of US-Egypt ties. Congress recently approved unprecedented economic aid to Egypt and a major sale of F-16 fighter jets -- previously, Congress had withheld 100 million dollars in aid, in part because of the tunnels.A mixture of these explanations is plausible, combined with the reality that angering the United States and Israel may lose Egypt its privileged negotiating role at a time when its regional influence is already declining. Moreover, alternative policies may reward Hamas, possibly encouraging the Islamist current across region and in Egypt itself.
Justifications. For much of 2009, Egypt was able to pursue this policy discreetly without encountering significant domestic opposition, pushing the 'Egypt first' line against any dissenting voices. However, media attention over the wall construction has put Cairo on the defensive, particularly as it coincided with worldwide demonstrations marking the one-year anniversary of the Gaza offensive and brought attention to the territory's inability to rebuild due to the blockade.
The Egyptian government has deployed several arguments to back its stance:
1. PNA absence. ......Palestinian National Authority (PNA) representatives must be present at the border. Since this is not possible without Palestinian reconciliation, Cairo has blamed the Palestinian factions (and Hamas in particular).
2. Passengers only. Egypt also insists that Rafah will remain a passenger terminal only, with commercial traffic to Gaza redirected via Israel. According to an Egyptian diplomat, this will remain the case (with a few humanitarian exceptions) until a permanent settlement of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. This argument reflects Egypt's desire to clear itself of any responsibility for Gaza, which it argues is entirely Israel's responsibility as an occupying power, and its fear of Israeli attempts to turn Gaza into Egypt's problem.
3. Security. National security was again invoked to justify the wall in light of Hamas' breach of the previous border wall in January 2008. Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit described the wall as a "defensive measure", and the upper house of parliament, the Shura Council, issued a report approving of its construction. Religious sanction was also obtained from al-Azhar, the highest religious authority in Egypt, which issued a fatwa defending the wall.
Criticism. Nonetheless, there is clear domestic opposition to the scheme: it had been widely criticised in the media and in parliament by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including by some who claim that it is part of an attempt to gain US approval for the potential presidential succession. Activists claim that the absence of a wider uproar is due to the regime's zero-tolerance policy over protests for Gaza. During the past year, several Egyptian activists have been arrested and foreigners involved in the pro-Gaza movement have been refused entry into the country. Should the humanitarian situation in Gaza further deteriorate due to the blockade, activists may brave the security clampdown.
A linkage of domestic opposition with regional criticism provoked a strong reaction from Cairo during the Gaza offensive and is doing so again. Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Mufid Shehab (who is often used as a government spokesman) last week launched a vitriolic attack on Al-Jazeera over its coverage of the Rafah wall. Likewise, pro-regime television was mobilised to defend the erection of the wall.
Even so, the arrival of two major groups of international activists for Gaza -- the Gaza Freedom March and Viva Palestina -- in the last week of December embarrassed Egypt, which refused most of the first group entry to Gaza, leaving hundreds protesting in Cairo. It also made the second group rearrange its route and backtrack its humanitarian goods convoy from Aqaba, Jordan, to Lattakia, Syria.
Hamas leader Khaled Meshal visited Riyadh on January 3 and asked Saudi Arabia to become more involved in inter-Palestinian negotiations, a move Cairo will see as threatening its monopoly over these talks. Should Qatar and Syria join the chorus against the wall in earnest, there could be a repeat of the Arab political and media 'cold war' seen during and in the immediate aftermath of the Gaza war. Such a revival would damage both Egypt's claim of regional leadership and influence its domestic image...."