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(photo credit: AP)
Egypt's interest in avoiding a massive Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip and its concern for the humanitarian situation there goes beyond its strong desire to see a stable and peaceful Middle East.
It also has to do with the increasing pressures of public opinion both inside and outside the country.
While there isn't much sympathy in Egypt for Hamas, there is a lot of sympathy for the Palestinian civilians who are suffering under the tight blockade imposed on the Hamas-controlled strip and who would be vulnerable in a military offensive, said Gamal Abdel Gawad, head of the international relations unit at the Cairo-based al-Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies.
"The Egyptian public cannot tolerate a massive Israeli military operation in Gaza in which Palestinians will be hurt, particularly civilians," Gawad said. An escalation of violence there "would make the living conditions much worse. There will be a political cost for Egypt and the Egyptian government has to do something about it."
It was reported Thursday night that Defense Minister Ehud Barak has instructed troops to open Gaza crossings Friday for humanitarian supplies.
Massive public protests against Israel and in support of Palestinians are not uncommon in Cairo when tensions or violence flare with Israel.
There were particularly frequent and angry demonstrations at the start of the second intifada. Egypt withdrew its ambassador from Israel.
"If you expose the Egyptian government or any government to pressure, to criticism, this could be destabilizing," Gawad said.
There is also the fear that an Israeli attack in Gaza would allow Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and other radical forces to use it as a pretext to mobilize their public and strengthen their position in the country, he added.
"Palestine is an easy and cheap way to move the Arab public in any country," he said. "This is something that people in Israel should recognize."
Egypt has also been the recipient of mounting criticism and pressure from states such as Syria and Iran, which have accused it of siding against the Palestinian people by not opening its Rafah border crossing to allow humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip.
However the crossings from Egypt to Gaza are regulated by an international agreement between the Palestinian Authority, Israel and the European Union rather than Hamas, which Egypt is not eager to legitimize because of its illegal takeover in 2007, Gawad said. In addition, the agreement - which Egypt considers important to respect - designates Rafah as a crossing for individuals rather than for goods.
Yet Hamas is "very successful" in making its case and showing the deteriorating situation in Gaza, which has an impact on public opinion, said Dr. Abdel Monem Said Aly, director of the al-Ahram Center.
"Hamas could solve the problem by giving the crossing points to the Palestinian Authority; that's the agreement," Aly said. "If we have the Palestinian Authority there, we will have the European Union there accordingly... and we will have the right actors in place."
Then if the Israelis rejected aid at that point, he added, they would be the ones to blame. "If Israel were to allow more aid from Egypt into Gaza, it would help Egypt domestically by showing that the country at least is doing its best to minimize the damage from a humanitarian perspective," Aly said.
Israel has sealed the borders with the Strip during the last nine days due to security reasons.
Egypt is also dealing with the global economic crisis and does not need another crisis similar to Israel's Second Lebanon War with Hizbullah on its borders, Aly said.
"That is the last thing we would like to have at the moment," he said. "We are very concerned about the international global situation. It's affecting Egypt in a variety of ways."
In addition, many Middle East experts say they are skeptical of claims that Egyptian officials would not be opposed to a limited Israeli offensive in Gaza against Hamas.
"They have no interest today in an Israeli operation in Gaza because they are afraid of the whole delicate balance of Israeli-Palestinian relations," said Emmanuel Sivan, history professor at Hebrew University. "This being said, if there was a way of Hamas disappearing tomorrow, without bloodshed, they would be delighted. They remain basically inimical to Hamas, but I don't think they will take the harsh measures that this might imply."
Gawad, too, said that he does not think that Egypt's policy is to end the Hamas regime in Gaza by the use of military force, as some have suggested.
"The Egyptian position is that there is no military solution to the situation in Gaza; it's basically a political problem and should be handled by political means," he said.
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