The Egyptian government is quite busy these days dealing with continued unrest, instability, and economic woes. Yet it has somehow found both the will and the resources to flood some of the smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza.
Former president Hosni Mubarak’s regime attempted on a few occasions to destroy the tunnels, but this policy has actually escalated under new Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s government, and has accelerated in recent weeks. The question is, why is this happening now and what does it mean?
There aren’t any immediate answers, but the superficial explanation is that Mr. Morsi’s government is stepping up security measures to prevent weapons smuggling into Gaza. However this likely isn’t the entire story, and there seems to be some missing context.
There has been very little news recently about the Sinai Peninsula, despite the fact that significant events have occurred there since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.
There have been numerous attacks on gas pipelines in the Sinai Peninsula that deliver natural gas from Egypt to Israel. And last August 35 masked gunmen killed 16 Egyptian soldiers there, commandeered an Egyptian military vehicle, and then entered Israeli territory, after which Israeli airstrikes bombed the vehicle and killed those in it.
The Morsi government closed the Gaza border after the August attack, claiming that some of the perpetrators and weapons used came through the tunnels from Gaza into the Sinai Peninsula. The tunnels are used for weapons smuggling into Gaza, however Palestinians denied the claim that they were involved in the attack. Many of the weapons flooding the Sinai Peninsula now are actually coming from Libya.
There is no doubt that Mr. Morsi is under immense pressure from both the U.S. and Israel to address security issues in the Sinai Peninsula. However there is also a strong bond, both ideological and emotional, between the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Mr. Morsi is attempting to navigate these geopolitical forces while solidifying the Muslim Brotherhood’s power in Egypt, and asserting Egypt’s power regionally.
It could be that Mr. Morsi wants to broker a reconciliation deal between Fatah and Hamas. Flooding the tunnels could be a way to put pressure on Hamas to show more flexibility toward Fatah. Mr. Morsi could also be sending a message to Israel that Egypt won’t take responsibility for Gaza.
However, the U.S. and Israel are also likely pressuring Mr. Morsi to shut down the Palestinian resistance in Gaza. And Mr. Morsi has every reason to comply. Egypt’s economy is languishing in the wake of the revolution and the continued instability in the country. The Morsi government probably feels it can’t afford to risk loosing aid money provided by the U.S., nor that it can risk nearly $5 billion in loans from the International Monetary Fund. It also wants to consolidate and preserve its power.
Interestingly, Hamas has been largely quiet about the recent flooding of the tunnels, and a few news reports have hinted that Egypt is helping Israel and Hamas negotiate a deal that could end the blockade of Gaza in exchange for a halt in weapons smuggling to Hamas.
This remains to be seen, as do the details of any such deal. The question for Palestinians is whether or not this deal, if it is in fact being negotiated, will be a fair one for them. Even if Israel and Egypt lift the blockade of Gaza, the larger issues – land, water, and Jerusalem – will remain, as will Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation.