Foreign Policy Blogs

Tunnel Vision: How the Egyptian Army “Won” the War over Gaza

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, right, walks with then-Egyptian Minister of Defense Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi into the Ministry of Defense in Cairo April 24, 2013. Photo Credit: Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, right, walks with then-Egyptian Minister of Defense Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi into the Ministry of Defense in Cairo April 24, 2013. Photo Credit: Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

The Egyptians may not be receiving fulsome applause at the U.N. this week for their diplomacy to date, but quietly, Israeli, Gulf, and American leaders are clapping, in large part due to Cairo’s reaffirmation of a hardline stance against Hamas this past summer.

When the Egyptian government, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, brokered a ceasefire in 2012 between Hamas and Israel, I predicted — wrongly — that as a result, Arab governments “will be less likely to knuckle under in response to an Israeli move in Gaza or the West Bank.” This has not happened, and it will not happen now. Popular disappoint in Gaza over this was well-captured over the summer by an (unattributed) statement going around the Internet that went along the lines of “If I die tonight [in Gaza], donate all of my organs to those in need. Except for my middle finger, give it to the leaders of the Arab world.”

As Nathan J. Brown and Michele Dunn have noted, President Adbel Fattah el-Sisi cares less about being a broker than his predecessors did because Egypt has new priorities in handling Gaza. The Islamist imperative is the overriding security concern. An active domestic insurgency lasted from the 1980s to the late 1990s, waged by Islamist organizations such as Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya. After this campaign died down, fears of internal war receded even as tourist sites in the Sinai were targeted throughout the 2000s. But today, the concern is much greater with the Brothers disenfranchised and parts of the Sinai lost to smugglers, Bedouin gangs, and the terrorist group Ansar Bait al-Maqdis A return to the 1990s (when mass shootings and assassinations reached their height) is greatly feared, so draconian measures are being implemented nationwide — and especially on the border with Gaza.

Even Mohamed Morsi’s improved relationship with Hamas after 2012’s Operation “Pillar of Defense” was embedded in Mubarak-era continuity. The regime stalwarts of the General Intelligence Directorate (GID) facilitated negotiations towards a ceasefire with their Israeli counterparts at that time. While Morsi was more sensitive to Hamas’s interests and sympathetic to Egyptian public opinion, he also saw the 2012 mediation effort as a way to score points with Tel Aviv and Washington.

He didn’t score very many, however. The Emirati and Saudi governments were far more concerned about undermining the Muslim Brotherhood than any progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front. The Obama Administration’s statements after 2012 continued to be mealy-mouthed, alienating pretty much every notable Egyptian actor that the White House engaged with. Israel, still moping over Mubarak’s ouster, did urge Washington not cut off aid, but also mistrusted Morsi’s ultimate intentions. Tel Aviv only accepted it would be doing business with new Egyptians because it continued to work with many of the old familiar faces in the military-intelligence complex.

But Egypt under Morsi, like Egypt under Mubarak, still had no real interest in effecting a sea change for the Palestinians’ behalf. Cairo cared about Cairo. And with Hamas’s control of the strip slipping due to rival factions, Morsi had to deal with a rapidly expanding smuggling network and the renewed low-intensity conflict in the Sinai, linked to Gaza by criminal and tribal ties. Egypt under Morsi continued to destroy the tunnel system on the Gaza-Egypt border apace: “solidarity” went only so far.

Then came Tamarod and the armed forces, riding a wave of public polarization in June and July 2013, ending in a coup that ousted the Brotherhood and the re-banning of the Brotherhood. The army was back in the saddle.

The Gulf states, except for Qatar, were clearly thrilled at this turns of events. Israeli leaders, too, were pleased: with renewed vigor, they lobbied Washington to maintain military aid to Egypt despite the coup. The U.S. even refrained from uttering the word “coup” — in part due to deference to Israel but for other reasons as well — and tacitly welcomed the restoration of the old order. The U.S. decision to not call the coup and coup was probably the most influential foreign input of the time, since it conferred de facto legitimacy on General (now President) Sisi.

The confused back-and-forth among the U.S., Israelis, Egyptians, and both Fatah and Hamas underlined Egypt’s new priorities when “Protective Edge” began, priorities that happened to be much closer to Israel’s than anyone else’s. Egypt’s new leaders are among the winners of that operation: domestic dissent has been further brought into line by cultivating anti-Palestinian sentiments during the fighting. And the new-old military government can now go on to destroy far more smuggling tunnels than either the Mubarak or Morsi administrations. And no other Arab state will so much as say “peep” about it, with the possible exception of Qatar. Even though 100,000 still remain homeless in Gaza after the summer war, and both the food insecurity and unemployment rates exceed 50 percent.

While Egypt’s generals may have gotten what they wanted for now, the fact of the matter is that neither the economic siege of Gaza nor the counterterrorism campaign in the Sinai have put an end to the region’s rampant arms and people smuggling. But at the same time, because it is so determined to seal off the pressure valves that scorched Mubarak and Morsi alike, the Egyptian deep state is pushing Islamist discontents towards more armed action against it.