Analysis: Egypt hedges its bets in Gaza

Mubarak concerned it could become base for global jihad.

gunmen 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
gunmen 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Israel's unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip in August 2005 has prompted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to deepen his country's involvement in Palestinian affairs. Egypt, which controlled the Strip from 1948 to 1967, has always shown interest in what's happening in this tiny area, home to some 1.3 million Palestinians - most of them refugees. Following the Israeli pullout, Mubarak decided to dispatch Egyptian security officials to keep a close eye on developments there. Those security officials have found themselves playing roles ranging from advising and training Palestinian Authority policemen to mediating between Fatah and Hamas. In recent months, the Egyptians have also tried to mediate in the case of kidnapped soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit. PA officials said last week that Egyptian Intelligence chief Gen. Omar Suleiman had finally convinced Hamas and two other armed groups to release Shalit in return for several hundred Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. On the eve of the Israeli withdrawal, the Egyptians also played an instrumental role in persuading most of the armed Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip to agree to a unilateral truce with Israel. The truce, known as tahdiyah (calm), ended seven months ago when Palestinians resumed their rocket attacks on Israel in response to a tragic incident in which several members of the same family were killed by what the Palestinians claimed was an IAF missile attack on Gaza City's beach. Egypt's growing involvement in Palestinian affairs stems mainly from Mubarak's desire to appease Washington and to divert attention from his troubles at home. But there are other reasons behind Mubarak's decision to play the role of trouble-shooter in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mubarak's biggest fear is that the Gaza Strip, which is entirely under the control of armed militias, could turn into a major base for global jihad and other terrorist groups. Reports about al-Qaida terrorists who have infiltrated the Strip through the border with Egypt have left Mubarak and his top security officials extremely worried. These terrorists, who apparently work in cooperation with elements in Egypt's banned but powerful Muslim Brotherhood, are said to be very active among the Beduin population in Sinai. Mubarak's merciless crackdown on al-Qaida cells in Sinai has forced some of the terrorists to flee to Gaza, where they have been welcome to use the training camps established on the ruins of some former settlements. The Egyptians fear that these terrorists will eventually return to Egypt to carry out attacks. The absence of IDF troops along the Philadelphi Corridor, the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, has put Mubarak's regime at risk. The weapons smuggling industry that has flourished there in the aftermath of disengagement poses a serious threat, not only to Mubarak's regime but also to that of PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Some PA security commanders are convinced the Egyptians are not doing enough to combat the smuggling. According to these commanders, the main reason for this is Mubarak's fear that the weapons, including tons of explosives, could end up in Cairo if they don't make their way to the Gaza Strip. Mubarak, who has been in power since 1981, is under growing pressure at home to end his one-man rule and to implement major political reforms. He hopes that acting as mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will keep the world's attention off his internal problems. Last week Mubarak announced that bold reforms would be implemented in Egypt in 2007. But Egyptians have every reason to doubt that the proposed changes will ever be fully implemented. Mubarak called to end the country's emergency law, but only after a new counterterrorism law is passed. Several times in the past he made similar pledges to accelerate reforms, but none has ever come to full fruition. Aware of the Palestinians' "democratic experiment," which brought Hamas to power in January 2006, Mubarak also proposed to outlaw parties based on religion, a step directed against the Muslim Brotherhood. This means that instead of expanding participation, Mubarak is aiming to eliminate political competition before opening up the playing field. Mubarak's proposed "reforms" would also require presidential candidates to be endorsed by a minimum of 250 elected members of the parliament and local councils, which are dominated by his ruling party. Critics say the changes are designed to facilitate the way for his son, Gamal, to succeed him. And Mubarak knows that an Egyptian-brokered prisoner exchange between Israel and the Palestinians or a regional peace conference under the auspices of Cairo will also bring him closer to achieving his desire to enthrone his son. After all, if Syria's Hafez Assad got away with it, there is no reason why he can't, too.