Riddle of the Sphinx: How Does Egypt Do It?

With each new round of Israeli-Palestinian confrontation, Egypt emerges strong and indispensable. But its years-long role in the embargo of Gaza is underestimated.

Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher
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Palestinians at the Rafah crossing between Egypt and the southern Gaza Strip on August 27, 2014.
Palestinians at the Rafah crossing between Egypt and the southern Gaza Strip on August 27, 2014.Credit: AFP
Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher

The latest and most brutal Israel-Hamas war has ended with an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire, and not for the first time. Although Washington, Doha, Ankara, and a few others angled for a starring role, this war showed that when it comes to Israeli-Palestinian mediation - particularly Palestinians of the Islamist persuasion - all roads lead through Cairo.

Part of me feels thankful for the role that Egypt consistently plays in luring bitter enemies back from the warpath. But part of me bristles at the added international legitimacy Cairo gains with each diplomatic coup, all the while suppressing democracy at home, jailing local and international journalists, and most stunningly, managing to evade a definitive plan for lifting its own blockade of the Gaza Strip.

My own last trip to Gaza led through Cairo, a reporting trip I made in the final days of Operation Cast Lead. Israel had decided to close the border to journalists - a public relations mistake that wasn’t repeated this time around - and so many Israel-based reporters were getting into Gaza through Egypt. For me and my travel companion, this entailed flying to Cairo and going straight to the Egyptian government’s international press department, drinking coffee with the director, filling out some paperwork, and then complying with the demand that we write a letter stating that, should we be injured in Gaza, we won’t hold the Egyptians responsible. We then had to bring said letter to the U.S. embassy to be notarized, then go back to the press office to drink some more coffee. Now, only a five-hour drive stood between us and the Egyptian border town called Rafah, and finally, the Rafah Crossing.

On the Egyptian side, it was chaotic. Palestinians trying to get in, Palestinians trying to get out, and bewildered border guards unsure of what to do with a trickle of foreigners waving their access letters from the press office in Cairo.

In comparison, the Gaza side of the crossing was like entering the first-world: modern, clean, orderly. An official for the Hamas foreign ministry met us at the new terminal, helped shepherd us through and then sent us on our way.

The devastation I saw was mind-boggling - some neighborhoods looked more like they’d been hit by an earthquake than a war - and it’s mind-boggling to think that this time around the destruction and death count only grew, due in part to the fact that this war lasted twice as long. The Hamas leadership chose this war, and the Israeli leadership helped set the stage for it in the many choices it’s made. Both sides are culpable, in different ways. But what about Egypt? Cairo almost never comes in for criticism for upholding its own blockade of Gaza, one that was maintained throughout the war and prevented the possibility of letting Palestinians flee the fighting. While Iraqis and Syrians become refugees in neighboring countries, Palestinians in Gaza who don’t support Hamas - yes, such people do still exist - couldn’t even turn to their next-door-neighbor for safe haven, even a temporary one. Egypt did allow some injured Palestinians to enter for treatment, but largely kept the border closed. President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi has many reasons for that: He is no fan of Muslim Brotherhood-linked Hamas, and he doesn’t want Islamic militants in Gaza hooking up with al-Qaida affiliated militants in the Sinai.

Of course, Rafah’s history is a complicated one. Most recently, when Hamas took over Gaza in a violent coup in 2007, the Rafah Crossing was closed by the Egyptian authorities. European Union monitors, who had been stationed there following the Israel’s disengagement in 2005, closed up shop for lack of security. A skeleton staff of the EU Border Assistance Mission still exists in Tel Aviv, and according to its website, is ready to be reactivated pending further political developments.

They may have to wait a bit longer. The cease-fire agreement calls for the opening of Rafah, but the details need to be worked out in a separate bilateral deal. In other words, at a time and under conditions still to be determined, probably involving the return of Palestinian Authority forces.

Heeding international pressure, Egypt just since the ceasefire softened its policy on Rafah. On Wednesday, a United Nations World Food Program convoy crossed from Egypt into the Gaza Strip for the first time since 2007, carrying enough food for around 150,000 people for five days, the WFP said.

Of course, the problem ought to be put in perspective. That food was procured in Alexandria, a seven-hour drive from Gaza; in comparison Israeli cities are around the corner. I will never to subscribe to the wishful and unrealistic thinking of some people in Israel who argue that Gaza should be Egypt’s problem: Let them provide for its food and water, its electricity and building materials. And as long as Israel controls the five other crossings into Gaza, as well as access by sea and air, it still bears primary responsibilty, and leaves itself answerable to the charge that Gaza is still occupied. But nor should it be the case that access to and from Gaza from Egypt be treated as an insignificant part of the equation.

As someone who is troubled by the loss of every Israeli and Palestinian life, the cease-fire couldn’t come too soon, and I feel grateful that there’s something of a responsible big brother on the block who can make that happen. But that same big brother is imprisoning fellow journalists in Egypt, including the three al-Jazeera journalists you’ve probably heard of as well as at least 14 you haven’t, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. My friend and colleague Mona Eltahawy tweeted the following when a famous Egyptian human right lawyer died Thursday – he had defended clients from Islamists to homosexuals but couldn’t manage to get his own adult children out of prison. “Add to the list of our regime's crimes: veteran human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif al-Islam died as two of his three children [are] in prison for activism.”

It is with all of this in mind that one can only watch in awe at how with each new round of Israeli-Hamas confrontation, Egypt comes out stronger – a moderate, indispensable player in a Middle East racked by instability and extremism. The cease-fire deal gives Egypt an international face-lift – but the lines and wrinkles are still visible.

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