Analysis: The Egyptian tightrope act between Israel and Hamas

Egypt does not hesitate to blame Hamas, but also must pay lip service to Arab public opinion.

sarkozy mubarak gaza 248.88 ap (photo credit: )
sarkozy mubarak gaza 248.88 ap
(photo credit: )
The semi-official Al-Ahram daily laid bare the dilemma at the root of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's position in an editorial last week: "Israel's loathsome crime with Hamas assistance," reads the headline. Alongside a scathing attack on Israel, the paper emphasized the fact that had Hamas not fired missiles at Israel, the war would not have taken place. Egypt does not hesitate to blame Hamas, but at the same time it must pay lip service to Arab public opinion by accusing Israel of barbaric behavior against the Palestinian population in Gaza. Egypt is the biggest Arab state and does not want to relinquish its position as the leader of the Arab world. This is a fact that should never had been forgotten, and this is the mistake the Israeli government made when, pursuant to the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, the defense of the Philadelphi Corridor was entrusted to Egypt - which it accepted reluctantly. It did not relish the idea that it would appear to be defending Israel against the Palestinians of Gaza. The smuggling of weapons is the main problem in this war on Hamas. Without the supply of explosives and missiles, Hamas would lose its capability to harass Israel and therefore its avowed Islamic vocation to fight against Israel. This would take from Hamas its raison d'etre. Can we reach an understanding with Egypt? Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Egypt's foreign minister, made the improbable statement recently that no weapons had been smuggled into Gaza from Egypt and that it was all done from the sea - thus putting the onus on Israel. In view of the number of Grad missiles falling on our cities in the South, the tons of TNT needed to booby-trap hundreds of buildings, and to mine roads in the Gaza Strip, it is doubtful the Israeli navy patrolling the coast of Gaza would have missed traffic on that kind of scale. One has to remember that in the Arab world one does not admits one's failings but tries to transfer them to some other person. Countries, too, behave like that. The point that Aboul Gheit was making was that Egypt would not accept an international force stationed on its territory to prevent weapons smuggling "that never happened." That is what he said to the visiting German foreign minister, Frank Walter Steinmeier, on Friday. Here lies the heart of the problem. How to reach an understanding with Cairo that would stop the underground passage of arms without infringing on Egypt's sovereignty and impugning its honor. Hamas built under the very nose of the Egyptians hundreds of tunnels through which it smuggled all the weapons and material it needed to confront the IDF. This is how Hamas became a military force to count with. Did Egypt let it happen on purpose to weaken Israel, as some pundits would have it? It would be more accurate to say that Egypt simply did not want to enter into a long fight with the Palestinians in Gaza. Stopping smuggling would have entailed fighting and even killing Palestinians. Doing so in order to defend Israel's border would have provoked an outcry in Arab public opinion. Opposition forces would have used it to try and destabilize Egypt. On the other hand Egypt stood firm and refused to open the Rafah terminal; it openly blames Hamas for the current situation. The Egyptians have very little room to maneuver. Hence their proposal: an immediate cease-fire that will be followed by an Israeli withdrawal and then negotiations for a new truce. This is unacceptable for Israel. After a long period of restraint, it waged war on Hamas in order to stop for once and for all missiles and mortars - and this can only be done by blocking the tunnels. Something that can only be accomplished with the assistance of Egypt on the other side of the border. In this very complex equation we are confronted with another absurdity. Hamas, as an offshoot of the extremist Muslim Brotherhood movement, is a potential threat not only to Egypt, but also to all other Arab countries in the region: Jordan, Syria, and even North African countries. In all these countries, the Muslim Brotherhood has established powerful political parties to pursue their goal of creating Islamic states in the Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition group in Egypt, announced on Sunday that security forces had arrested 16 of its leaders for involvement in a January 9 protest in the coastal city of Alexandria against Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip. Furthermore, everybody is aware of the connection between Hamas and Iran. The destruction of Hamas is therefore in the interest of Egypt and the pragmatic Arab countries - but not one of them is prepared to say so overtly. Far from it, they all spout rhetoric in defense of the Palestinians in Gaza - that is, of Hamas, It does not make the Egyptian position any easier. Together with the other pragmatic countries, Egypt would like Israel to destroy Hamas. It will, however, continue to condemn Israel while trying to keep popular protest manageable. But time is running short and if it takes too long, the Egyptians will have to pressure the UN to put a stop to the operation - as they already did with the first Security Council resolution. Add to this volatile mix religion, nationalism and the hatred of Israel so carefully nurtured in Arab countries and it becomes obvious that one cannot expect an easy outcome. Nevertheless, one can safely say that an understanding between Israel and Egypt will be found - because it is of vital interest to both countries. However, it will not be the perfect one we are seeking. It is worth remembering that in the quicksands of the Middle East, nothing is stable and no agreement holds for ever. The writer is a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt and a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and State where he is the editor of its Arabic Website,