Egypt at the crossroads

Cairo must overcome its inhibitions vis-a-vis its own Islamists and take real action to stop smuggling.

January 12, 2009 21:21
3 minute read.
Egypt at the crossroads

Mubarak 248 88. (photo credit: AP [file])


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For a myriad reasons it suits those who mold international public opinion to minimize the intrinsic importance of Egypt's contiguity to the Gaza Strip. Not only does Egypt border Gaza, it even ruled it for most of the time between 1948 and 1967. This geographic reality could well become the source of Gaza's salvation just as, in recent years, it became the source of its misfortune. Egypt's role is pivotal. Hamas propagandists like to portray Gaza as "one big prison" totally blockaded by Israel. Yet, as any map shows, Gaza isn't fully encircled by Israel. Its southern end, the Philadelphi Corridor, borders Egyptian Sinai. This outlet could, assuming prudence and good will, become Gaza's lifeline. Or it could continue to serve as a gateway for the importation of death - which is what it became during years of assiduous weapons smuggling by Hamas. There can be no lasting stability between Israel and Gaza unless the Philadelphi Corridor is plugged up to prevent gun-running and transformed, instead, into a conduit for improving Gazans' living standards. This necessitates a vigilant presence. The buildup of Gaza's rocket arsenal since 2005 illustrates what happens when so vital a passage is abandoned to the supervision of a disinclined Cairo and international observers with no clout. It is this state of affairs that allowed Hamas commanders to travel freely in and out of Gaza for training in Iran. While IDF deployment along the Corridor offers the best way to stop Hamas smuggling in weapons, terrorists and illicit cash, it is not our first preference. Such a deployment would be diplomatically and militarily problematic. The international community does not want to see Israel carve out a buffer zone there, and holding that thin sliver of territory would leave our soldiers highly vulnerable. The best way - militarily, diplomatically and politically - to secure this crucial bit of real estate is from the Egyptian, not the Gazan side. WERE Egyptian goodwill unadulterated and its commitment to getting the job done unstinting, sealing Philadelphi would still be a tall order. Alas, Egypt has not over-extended itself. Its failure to keep Gaza from becoming a combustible repository of Hamas weaponry isn't merely the result, as Cairo claims, of not having enough personnel on the border because the Israel-Egypt peace treaty caps their allowable number. In reality, Hamas's ability to connect Gaza and Sinai via hundreds of tunnels has better explanations: the failure to check rampant lawlessness among Sinai Beduin tribes; sclerotic Egyptian decision-making, which deprives officials on the spot of authority; and the failure to adequately recompense those charged with securing the border, leaving them susceptible to bakshish. But the best explanation is that Hosni Mubarak's regime failed to make the cessation of smuggling its own priority. While on the one hand, it didn't want Hamas to grow ever stronger, it didn't, on the other hand, want to be seen as collaborating with Jerusalem against Hamas. Trying to have it both ways has now come back to bite the regime. It inadvertently helped create the explosive situation that forced Israel into Operation Cast Lead. Egypt is in a bind. Its own national interest isn't far from Israel's, yet it dare not inflame its domestic Islamist opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, which is closely tied to Hamas. It is understandably loath to allow a free flow of Gazans - who might have Brotherhood or Iranian ties and stir up more unrest inside Egypt. Keeping the current situation on a low flame may strike Egypt as the least distasteful of a poor menu of choices. Yet it is a recipe for further bloodshed. If the Philadelphi Corridor isn't permanently secured, another - worse - round of warfare is inevitable. It would leave Hamas approaching Hizbullah in strength and posing an even greater risk of destabilization within Egypt. Egypt stands at a fateful crossroads. It must, finally, overcome its inhibitions vis-a-vis its own Islamists and take real action to stop arms trafficking. Alternatively, it must allow an empowered multi-national military presence on its soil to do the job. Either way, Egypt ought to desire the most effective supervisory mechanism, one it can oversee and coordinate, thereby cementing its status as regional leader.

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