Analysis |

Sissi Torn Between Palestinians and Hamas

Egypt's leader came to power as a terror fighter, but he cannot ignore Gaza without its overlords.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi adresses the African Union summit
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi adresses the African Union summitCredit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi has yet to denounce Israel's assault on Gaza, much to the chagrin of local journalists.

“I call on all Egyptians who haven’t lost their humanity, on all Egyptians who love Palestine and view its problems as their own and its fate as theirs, to raise the voice of solidarity by all available means," posted Mustafa al Nagar on the Masr Al-Arabiyya website. His hope was to make Egypt's leaders understand "that Egyptians oppose the shedding of their brothers’ blood, and that they know who their friends are and who their enemies are.”

Sissi must also have heard the calls of renowned journalist Amr Adib who, on his TV show "Cairo Today," devoted nine whole minutes to a harsh attack on the president. “Let all the dead in Gaza be on your conscience and on your head. The survival of Gaza is your responsibility," Adib admonished the president. "I demand a strong Egyptian position to counter the Israeli regime…open the Rafah border crossing and send ambulances.” El-Sissi did open the crossing to enable wounded Gazans to enter Egypt, also sending medical teams to treat them at a hospital in nearby El-Arish. However, Egypt is torn between the cries of the wounded and its loathing of Hamas.

The Egyptian dilemma was best explained by journalist, director and screenwriter Mohammed Amin, who wrote Thursday that “there are those who believe that our hatred of the Muslim Brothers will cause us to turn a blind eye to the shattering of Gaza, or to be joyful at their defeat, or who think that we are too busy watching World Cup soccer to cry over innocent victims. Not at all!" He insited that Egyptians are not ignoring their conscience.

"We are all waiting for Egypt’s response, not a military one but a diplomatic one," he contended. "We must ask ourselves who are the dead in Gaza? Why weren’t Khaled Meshal, Ismail Haniyeh or other Hamas leaders the ones who died? Why this timing for a war? Does Hamas want to take Egypt’s pulse? Why did Hamas’s Izz ed-Din Al-Qassam brigades declare that their attacks were dedicated to Egypt in honor of the tenth day of Ramadan (commemorating the crossing of the Suez Canal by Egyptian forces in the 1973 war)? We distinguish between Hamas leaders and the residents of Gaza. It wasn’t Egypt that reshuffled the deck. If Hamas dedicates attacks to Egypt, were the Hamas attacks in Sinai (against Egypt) also dedicated to some benefactor? Does Hamas wish to embroil Egypt in a meaningless war?”

Comments by journalist Amani al-Khayat were even more venomous. “The Israeli attack on Gaza is a miserable show, orchestrated by Hamas," he wrote. "Hamas has traded in the blood of Gaza residents ever since it kidnapped the three soldiers (sic). It strove to stage this show merely to appear as a resistance hero.”

This distinction between Hamas leaders and civilians is almost impossible. An Egyptian leadership intent on helping Gazans by stopping Israeli attacks cannot ignore Hamas, which holds in its hands both the rocket fuses and the power to stop firing. This challenge presents a dilemma for Sissi, who has branded himself as someone set on fighting terrorism and uprootin the Muslim Brotherhood as well as the terrorist organizations in the Sinai desert. His seizure of power in July 2013 was legitimized largely based on this platform, which he immediately started applying. He quickly declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, with Hamas as its military wing.

The rift between Hamas and Egypt started with accusations that Hamas was responsible for the killing of Egyptian officers in August 2012 and that it assisted Muslim Brotherhood prisoners escape from jail on the eve of the 2011 revolution, as well as charges that it collaborated with Salafi groups that attacked Egyptian military targets in Sinai. Sissi viewed Hamas as evil already during former President Morsi’s rule, and started, contrary to Morsi’s position, to destroy tunnels leading from Sinai to the Gaza Strip. Subsequently, this became a major military campaign which led to the neutralization of most of these tunnels.

Hamas, which is more a Palestinian national movement struggling against Israel than a religious offshoot of the Brotherhood, enjoys the support of many Egyptian movements seeking a rupture between Israel and Egypt. On Thursday, grassroots opposition movement Tamrud called for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador in Cairo and the abrogation of the Camp David agreements. This movement includes numerous activists and tens of thousands of social network users and other unofficial social groups. It provided significant support in mobilizing the demonstrations against Morsi last June, paving the way for Sissi’s takeover.

The Egyptian president is not considering rescinding the Camp David agreements nor expelling the Israeli ambassador from Cairo. However, civil society forces have much more power than they did in the days of Hosni Mubarak, and Sissi, who has been viewed as a friend of the revolution for three years, will not be able to ignore them.

It is currently hard to assess to what extent popular movements, with their growing opposition to attacks in Gaza, will be able to influence Sissi. The general turned civilian president has made it clear he does not pay much heed to public opinion. During his campaign he told public sector workers that coffers are empty and he would not raise their salaries. Last week the government took an unprecedented and bold decision, raising gasoline and diesel prices by 78 and 63 percent, respectively. Rising fuel prices have always been test cases in Egypt, as elsewhere. For decades governments have preferred to borrow more money rather than risk confronting their citizens.

Sissi decided to go ahead and so far, despite serious public grumbling, things appear to be quiet. Conspiracy theorists have suggested that Israel’s campaign was timed to divert attention away from rising fuel costs inEgypt. Sissi responded by saying that Egypt’s interests are more important to him than his popularity. He is trying to bolster this in other ways, such as by participating in a bicycle race to encourage citizens to save fuel. He has also announced he would donate half his salary to the national treasury.

The Gaza bombings are the last thing he needs now, although it provides him with the opportunity to position Egypt as a key regional player. He is the only one who can talk to both sides while holding some influence. Hamas, which thought that reconciling with Fatah would also lead to reconciliation with Egypt, has no choice but to listen to Egyptian representatives.

Israel is also paying close attention. The Egyptian foreign office and its military intelligence are already involved in finding a way to achieve a ceasefire, and the only question is when Sissi will make a public statement which will indicate who won the battle for Egypt’s favors.

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