Egypt’s dilemma: Gaza and beyond

Tarek Osman
12 January 2009

The deep heart of Egypt's centralised political system is intensely engaged in seeking an end to the war in Gaza begun with Israel's air-assault on 27 December 2008 and intensified by the ground-level invasion from 4 January 2009. But the Egyptian administration's concern is not just diplomatic or humanitarian, for Cairo has reason to worry about the unsettling domestic political implications of Israel's ferocious campaign.

Among openDemocracy's articles on conflict over Gaza:

Khaled Hroub, "Hamas's path to reinvention" (9 October 2006)

Fred Halliday, "Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq: three crises" (22 June 2007)

Volker Perthes, "Beyond peace: Israel, the Arab world, and Europe" (22 January 2008)

John Strawson, Rosemary Bechler, "Palestine: the pursuit of justice" (28 January 2008)

Eyad Sarraj, "'Gaza is quite a dynamic place now': an interview" (29 January 2008)

Geoffrey Bindman, "Gaza: unlock this prison" (7 March 2008)

Jeroen Gunning, "Hamas: talk to them" (18 April 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: hope after attack" (1 January 2009)

Avi Shlaim, "Israel and Gaza: rhetoric and reality" (7 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the Israel-United States connection" (7 January 2009)Egypt cannot avoid being affected by the Gaza crisis, for at least three reasons: its geographical proximity, including its control of the Rafah border-crossing; the way that the conflict and its effects is being witnessed live on satellite channels by millions in Egypt as well as throughout the Arab world; and its prominent role in the dynamics of the internal Palestinian dispute between Fatah and Hamas.

But the war in Gaza is only the most immediate of a wider set of issues that is bearing down on the regime of Egypt's long-term president - Hosni Mubarak - and which will continue to dominate the national-security agenda of its successor. These include how to balance its classical role as the mainstay of Arab nationalism and more recent pragmatism over the dispute with Israel at a time when the Egyptian and Arab "streets" are becoming increasingly angry and Islamised (see Roula Khalaf, "Egypt's balancing act", Financial Times, 5 January 2009).

The larger context

The immediate item on the agenda is the handling of the events in Gaza. The Hosni Mubarak regime, in power since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in October 1981, has in its foreign policy never followed a populist course that focuses on playing an (as it were) "heroic" role. Rather, it has sought to become the Arab world's ultimate pragmatist, irrespective of the views of its citizens (see "Hosni Mubarak: what the pharaoh is like", 16 January 2006).

For the moment the administration is attempting to address the fervent domestic response to the Gaza war through its routine methods: internally, strict policing of the streets, dividing of the opposition and crushing of potential challengers; externally, clever diplomacy and public rhetoric. Its diplomatic interventions have included working with France on an initiative to secure an overall ceasefire, and with Turkey and Germany to allow a settlement that would include monitoring of arms-smuggling from Egypt to Gaza (see Heba Saleh, "Egypt presses Hamas on border monitors", Financial Times, 11 January 2009).

Egyptian leaders hope that their flurry of activity would be enough to contain the situation and contribute to the passing of its most severe phase. If they fail to secure the regime's credibility in the eyes of its people or other Arabs, it may care little: this was never its primary objective. What is far more worrying for Cairo is that the Gaza conflict highlights longer-term trends in the region - including the outlook of Israel's new generation of leaders and the shifts in political sentiment among Egyptians and other Arabs - which will pose acute problems for a post-Mubarak Egypt.

The end of something

The destruction and suffering in Gaza reinforce a feeling common to millions of Egyptians and other Arabs as well as Palestinians themselves: that the strategic decision made by Yasser Arafat and his Fatah movement to renounce violence and adopt peaceful negotiation with the elected leaders of Israel as the only means of achieving a Palestinian state has proved futile.

The general feeling on the Palestinian and Arab street is that the panoply of diplomatic initiatives and titles - "peace process", "declaration of principles", "roadmap", "quartet", and the rest - are basically different ways of selling the Palestinians a "solution" that sanctions injustice and embeds humiliation in the face of Israeli power. In the minds of millions, there is no credibility left in any negotiation with the Israelis.

This rejection, anger and inclination towards violence - reflected in increasing sympathy for Fatah's radical rival, Hamas - can be seen in the increasing Islamisation of the Palestinian and Arab (including Egyptian) streets, and the associated embrace of ideas of jihad and martyrdom in a "holy war" against the Jews. The extraordinary violence inflicted on Palestinians in Gaza, which intensifies existing conditions of poverty and hopelessness, fuel these emotions. In addition, the sense of victimhood and of a historic assault on all Arabs enlivens nostalgia for ayam al-karama (days of dignity and pride).

In such desperate days, the people look for a hero to believe in - one as different as possible from the pragmatic leaders who (as a grieving mother on a pan-Arab TV station put it) "negotiate with the enemy over the corpses of our children". The forces gaining ground in the Arab world from Israel's war are ones (such as Hamas) that:

Tarek Osman is a writer and a merchant banker

Among Tarek Osman's articles in openDemocracy:

"Egypt's crawl from autocracy" (30 August 2005)

"Hosni Mubarak: what the Pharaoh is like" (16 January 2006)

"Egypt's phantom messiah" (12 July 2006)

"Mahfouz's grave, Arab liberalism's deathbed"  (23 November 2006)

"Arab Christians: a lost modernity" (31 August 2007)

"Nasser's complex legacy" (15 January 2008)

"Egypt: the surreal painting" (14 May 2008)

"Youssef Chahine, the life-world of film" (29 July 2008)* reject the policies of ruling Arab administrations

* have no links to the Arab world's successive defeats and humiliations

* portray themselves (plausibly or not) as clean and honest

* detach themselves from the Arab society's rich and social elites

* boast conspicuous religious foundations. 

The changing region

This overall trend may have momentous consequences for Egypt, one of the handful of Arab countries which has diplomatic relations with Israel. From the 1940s to the 1970s, the combative rhetoric of Arab "rejectionism" found receptive ears in Cairo - the heart and reservoir of Arab nationalism. The establishment of peace with Israel in the period following then-president Anwar Sadat's dramatic visit to Jerusalem in November 1977 ushered the country into a new phase (see David Govrin, "Israelis and Arabs: the Sadat precedent", 27 November 2006). The exhaustion from three decades of wars and the aspiration of millions of Egyptians for a better life dulled if not extinguished the receptiveness.

The result - a combination of sympathy but inaction - perfectly suited the interests of an Egyptian administration able to contain the Egyptian street's fluctuating emotions while pursuing its own icy pragmatism. The fallout of the Gaza war, however, may be the prelude to a new dynamic that will take hold in the period after a change of government in Egypt (see "Egypt: the surreal painting", 14 May 2008).

Hosni Mubarak has ruled Egypt without any serious challenge since 1981. The president's power is based on a variety of sources: among them iron power, solid military credentials, and the claim of historical continuity with the 1952 revolution. All these have given Mubarak the uncontested authority to impose a pragmatic foreign policy in the face of a sullen and sometimes fiery Egyptian street. The post-Mubarak administration - especially if it turns out to be a dynasty, headed by the president's son and head of the ruling National Democratic Party's policy committee, Gamal Mubarak - will be politically more lightweight and have limited military capital.

Its relationship with an unsettled people would as a result be put in question from the outset. This would affect both its foreign and domestic policy. A new government in Egypt can have no illusions about the real dynamics of power - military, economic, political - in the middle east. The situation in Israel will compound the problem, for the character of decision-making there is changing. The founding generation that witnessed the creation of Israel as a tiny, vulnerable state has left or is leaving the scene - the 85-year-old Shimon Peres (who won election to the ceremonial presidency in mid-2007) is its last prominent figure. That Israeli generation, which lived through the wars of the 1940s to the 1970s - when Egypt was Israel's greatest threat - realised the invaluable strategic gain to be made in sidelining its giant neighbour. 

Israel's more recent ruling generation has not experienced the difficult years of 1948-67; has not fought a real war against a serious, sizable enemy; has never seen Israel in serious danger; does not share the wisdom of its predecessor; and is haughtily aware of Israel's unrivalled power (economic, scientific and, of course, military) in the region. It is more than capable of using every opportunity to exercise this power, especially at a time when the Arab world is exposed and helpless (see "The hundred years' war", Economist, 8 January 2009).

This is as evident in the Gaza war of 2008-09 as it was in the war in Lebanon in summer 2006. In both cases, the unapologetic use of extreme violence in the face of international shock and protest reflect Israel's awareness of its own power and its enemy's feebleness. How would a new and untested administration in Cairo with a very tenuous legitimacy respond, if and when Israel acts in similar fashion against the Palestinians (again), or Lebanese, or Syrians - or indeed Iranians? (see Paul Rogers, "Will Israel attack Iran?", 30 November 2008). The dilemma will be agonising.

The Cairo question

The way the next Egyptian administration answers that dilemma will in part depend on the nature and interplay of three forces: its mandate from the people, its relationship to the military establishment, and its ties with the United States. A number of options are conceivable; for example, one where the new government manages to acquire a strong popular mandate (unlike today), is only weakly dependent on the US (unlike today), and is deeply interwoven with the military (like today). This combination would also enable the next political leadership to fulfil a primary objective: containing and managing the pressures from the Egyptian street.

A key issue in the transition will be the source of the new administration's legitimacy. The post-Hosni Mubarak administration will be able to maintain its strategic course only if it can build a new social and institutional power-base - most likely by winning over the country's middle class through effective economic development, and by forging and maintaining strong links with the army.

The legitimacy of the new regime will also be formative in shaping Egypt's regional role - including its relationship with the four regional heavyweights: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Israel itself. The way the three key forces (popular mandate, military bonds, and dependence on Washington) evolve and interact could lead Cairo to revise its recent assuaging pragmatism and return it to a more combative engagement in the search for regional leadership (see Fred Halliday, The Middle East in International Relations, Cambridge University Press, 2005).

Whatever the outcome, Egypt's difficulties over the Gaza crisis show how its national-security approach towards the Palestinian-Israeli (and Arab-Israeli) struggle will become an even tougher challenge. The aftermath of the Gaza war of 2008-09 will be bitter, and the need for active and coherent diplomacy urgent. As new players and new dangers arrive on the regional scene, what happens in Egypt is critical to the chances of progress across the middle east when the rockets fall silent.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData