In the summer of 1970, the-then Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser declared his support for a United States initiative to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, putting him at odds with Palestinian refugees residing in Cairo. When hundreds of Palestinian student activists protested over Egypt’s acceptance of the Rogers Plan, Nasser, long a champion of Palestinian rights, had them rounded up in the dead of night and deported to Jordan. When they arrived in Amman, many of them were still in their pyjamas.
Irrespective of its rhetoric to the contrary, throughout the last four decades, the Egyptian government’s policies towards the Palestinians have signalled a marked departure from its historic reputation as a regional leader determined to challenge Israeli hegemony. In fact, and particularly in light of General Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s recent assumption of the presidency of Egypt, the days ahead promise to feature a rejuvenated obstructionist role by Egypt in the struggle for justice for Palestinians.
Within just a few hours of the military coup that ousted President Mohamed Morsi a year ago, Sisi resumed the total siege of the Palestinian population of Gaza. This included the most aggressive push to date in the campaign to demolish the tunnels that provide goods critical to the survival of Gaza’s 1.7 million residents.
It was no coincidence that Sisi was reportedly in frequent contact with his Israeli counterparts during the most pivotal moments of the coup leading up to the wave of unprecedented violent repression launched by the Egyptian state against its own citizens. In the US, the pro-Israel lobby has devoted considerable energy to bolstering the Egyptian military even as it commits human rights abuses and erodes any chance at a representative government in Egypt. The alignment of the security establishment in Egypt with Israeli strategic interests is a process several decades in the making.
From the moment former President of Egypt Anwar al-Sadat signalled his willingness to reach a separate peace deal with Israel in the mid-1970s, the survival of Egypt’s authoritarian regime became a top priority for Israel and its chief benefactor, the US. In exchange for the steady flow of economic and military aid from the US, Egypt realigned its foreign policy in support of US-Israeli interests, from extending support to the shah’s regime in Iran to isolating so-called radical Arab regimes in Syria and later, Iraq. Egypt’s policy towards the Palestinian national movement’s various factions has ranged from attempted cooptation to outright destruction.
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By the end of the Cold War, Egypt’s outsourcing of its foreign policy seemed a small price to pay to be on the winning end of a global conflict that had left a destructive mark on the Middle East. For its part, the Palestinian leadership that signed the 1993 Oslo Accords recognised that it had been caught in the midst of a US-sponsored regional security agreement between Israel and Egypt.
One would be hard pressed to argue that the so-called peace process has done anything more than create a pliant Palestinian Authority (PA) to which the irksome tasks of occupation could be outsourced. In turn, this has allowed for the growth of illegal Israeli settlements at historically unprecedented rates and for the establishment of an apartheid regime in the Palestinian territories.
Even as its decision to participate in the 2006 elections signalled a desire to be admitted into this arrangement, Hamas’ victory in the legislative elections was deemed too threatening to a carefully constructed status quo. Under former president Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s policy shifted from one of reluctant ally to enthusiastic partner in the weakening of the Palestinian position, culminating in the aggressive role it played in the siege of Gaza since that Hamas electoral victory.
Egypt’s former chief of General Intelligence, the shadowy Omar Suleiman, was the architect of this policy. In his bid to isolate and pressure the Hamas leadership at one point Suleiman remarked that he wanted Gaza “to go hungry but not starve”. Repeated attempts to reconcile between Hamas and Fatah over the course of the next five years were continuously hampered by Suleiman, who in overseeing the negotiations, was prone to creating disincentives for Fatah to form a unity government with Hamas; for instance, offering security training and continued flow of weapons to the PA as long as it kept Hamas isolated.
The deep divisions among the Palestinians strengthened Egypt’s hand in Gaza, something that did not go unappreciated by the US and Israel, as demonstrated by leaked diplomatic cables dating back to 2007.
The Egyptian uprising and beyond
It was no surprise then, when at the height of the anti-Mubarak uprising that began on 25 January 2011, Mubarak abandoned his project to pass on the presidency to his son Gamal and instead appointed Suleiman as his vice president and successor in a bid to shore up US backing for the survival of his regime.
Contrary to the musings of journalist Thomas Friedman that the uprising focused purely on domestic concerns, the millions of Egyptians who called for Mubarak’s removal made explicit demands for change in Egypt’s foreign policy, highlighting its destructive role in Gaza in particular. For a regime that had tied its economic liberalisation programme to its normalisation with Israel, its failed domestic policies were inevitably linked to a perceived immoral regional outlook, as seen in the infamous deal to sell Egyptian natural gas to Israel at below market prices.
Despite the cancellation of that gas deal and the lifting of some of the oppressive conditions in Gaza, the post-Mubarak era was hardly transformative. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, which for decades had been vocal in its condemnation of Egyptian normalisation with Israel, maintained a partial closing of the Rafah crossing and continued the campaign to destroy the underground tunnels between Gaza and Sinai during the short-lived Morsi presidency.
Notwithstanding the fact that Morsi never challenged the Egyptian foreign policy establishment with regards to Israel and Palestine, the wave of anti-Morsi protests created a narrative of Egyptian capitulation to a terrorist regime in Gaza. A strong undercurrent of anti-Palestinian rhetoric dominated the anti-Morsi movement in the months leading up to last summer’s military coup.
The process by which Egyptian solidarity with Palestinians went from being a key feature of the January 25 uprising to one of the first casualties of the July 3 coup serves as further confirmation that this movement was in fact the counter-revolution plotted by the Egyptian security apparatus in connivance with short-sighted revolutionaries seeking to settle their score with the Muslim Brotherhood.
During the course of Sisi’s ascendancy, the Palestine card, as it were, has served two primary functions. First, Sisi has wedded the military’s counter-revolutionary aims with the notion that Egypt’s security establishment is indispensable to US and Israeli regional interests. Secondly, the anti-Palestinian narrative was a critical part of the coup leaders’ attempts to displace the revolutionaries’ demands for a more just policy towards Palestine.
The espionage case alleging that Morsi spied on behalf of Hamas is by far the most politicised of the litany of criminal charges that have been brought against the former president since the coup. The publicity surrounding this trial promises to fulfil both Sisi’s international as well as domestic objectives.
For all the rumours of a Hamas takeover of Sinai, it was actually Israel that extended its military operations into Egyptian territory with an August 2013 drone strike that killed five people in an example of the close coordination between the Egyptian and Israeli military.
As for the future, the Sisi regime is likely to step up Mubarak-era efforts to maintain disunity and conflict among the Palestinian factions. In late April, Hamas and Fatah announced that they had reached an agreement to form a unity government. Notably absent from the latest round of negotiations was Egypt, the traditional intermediary in these talks.
Meanwhile in Egypt, Sisi continues to employ repressive tactics to crush the political opposition at home while playing a vital role in Israel’s ability to do the same in Palestine.
Abdullah Al-Arian is assistant professor of history at Georgetown University, School of Foreign Service in Qatar and author of Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Sadat’s Egypt.
Follow him on Twitter: @anhistorian