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Israel-Gaza: Neighboring Egypt's tricky tightrope act

November 7, 2023

The Egyptian government is balancing the public's pro-Palestinian sentiment and calls for aid with a fear of facilitating a permanent displacement of Palestinians from Gaza. Potential domestic unrest also plays a role.

People take part in a protest in support of Palestinians, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, at al-Azhar Mosque in Old Cairo
At pro-Palestinian protests, Egyptians also shouted slogans critical of their current government.Image: MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY/REUTERS

The current conflict between Israel and the militant Hamas group in Gaza has led to a difficult balancing act for Egypt. The neighboring nation is the main facilitator for getting humanitarian aid into Gaza, but also draws a red line when it comes to taking in displaced Palestinians.

"Cairo's positioning is increasingly informed by the alarming, rising civilian death toll as the ground invasion [in Gaza] proceeds, as well as by reported European and US pressure to open the Rafah border crossing to Palestinians who wish to cross," Michelle Pace, an associate fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House and a professor at Denmark's Roskilde University, told DW.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi has made it clear that the Rafah border crossing — the only crossing into Gaza not controlled by Israel — won't become an entrance for Palestinians from Gaza. 

"Egypt clearly and strictly confirms that it will never accept the displacement of any Palestinian into Egyptian territory," he said.

El-Sissi has repeated this in various ways since the outbreak of the conflict, which started after the brutal October 7 Hamas terror attack that killed around 1,400 Israelis. 

"Egypt recalls very well what happened in 1948, when following the Nakba [Arabic for catastrophe], Palestinians who had been forced out of their homes and villages were not allowed to return back when that war ended," Pace said. "Egypt believes that pattern could repeat itself."

"Nonetheless civilians in Gaza have the right to seek asylum and only they alone can decide how and when to exercise this right. Egypt is obligated to let civilians in, if they want," Timothy E. Kaldas, deputy director of the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told DW.

"That said, it should be made eminently clear by Israel's partners that Gazans have a right to return to Gaza when hostilities end and Israel's leaders should be warned that preventing them from doing so would constitute ethnic cleansing," Kaldas added. 


A view of humanitarian aid from Pakistan for Palestinians as it waits for the reopening of the Rafah border crossing on the Egyptian side to enter Gaza
Humanitarian aid is piling up at Egypt's Rafah border crossingImage: AMR ABDALLAH DALSH/REUTERS

Potential threat to Egyptian security

A further Egyptian argument against allowing people in is that it would probably be impossible to separate Palestinian militants from civilian refugees, Pace said. 

"If Palestinian jihadist groups established logistical, ideological and operational links with [counterparts] based in Sinai, Egypt fears that those militants could try to launch attacks on Israeli targets from Egyptian territory, inviting retaliation from Israel and unsettling its relations with Egypt," she added.

El-Sissi also voiced this concern during a recent press conference in Cairo.

"Sinai would become a base for terrorist operations against Israel, and we, in Egypt, would bear the responsibility for that. The peace we created [in 1979, when a peace treaty with Israel was signed, the ed.] would slip away from our hands, all under the context of eliminating the Palestinian cause," he said. 

Kenneth Roth, former executive director of Human Rights Watch and now a visiting professor at Princeton University in the US, says that el-Sissi is also "particularly sympathetic to Israel's attempts to crush Hamas because he himself used horrible violence to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, a more peaceful cousin of Hamas, including the 2013 massacre of 817 protesters in Rabaa Square in Cairo."

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi encouraged citizens to protest for Palestine but then cracked down on those who criticized him Image: Ahmad Hassan/AFP/Getty Images

Crackdown on protesters

The past month of the conflict has also had an impact on the relationship between the authoritarian Egyptian government and the country's people.

"Differences due to economic difficulties in the country, but also because of authoritarianism, have eased a little bit," according to Nathan Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, and a current fellow at the Hamburg Institute for Advanced Study in Germany. "Attention has focused instead on protecting Egypt's national borders," he said. 

This is welcomed by el-Sissi, who is highly likely to be re-elected in Egypt's upcoming presidential elections, which are widely assessed as being undemocratic. 

International funding in exchange for assisting in Gaza could also help address Egypt's ongoing economic crisis. The local currency has lost more than half of its value since March 2022 and Egypt's foreign currency reserves are almost depleted. The conflict in Gaza will also impact tourism, a mainstay of the Egyptian economy.  

Roth doubts the conflict will keep the Egyptian population and its government aligned long term though.

"As public opinion turns from sympathy for Israel, after the horrible October 7th Hamas slaughter of Israeli civilians, to horror at the far larger number of Palestinian civilians now being killed under Israeli bombardment, questions inevitably will be asked about why the Egyptian government continues to partner with Israel," Roth told DW. 

The Egyptian government is already preparing to nip any dissent in the bud. Last week after Egyptian protesters called for justice and freedom during government-sanctioned pro-Palestinian rallies, Egyptian security forces detained around 70 people in Cairo and Alexandria. According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, 16 protesters were charged with "joining a terrorist group" and "committing a terror act."

WHO regional director: Egypt preparing for '15,000 patients'

Edited by: C. Schaer.

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa