By Lisa Anderson (*) – Foreign Affairs –
As Israel readies for a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, much attention has shifted to how Egypt will respond in the coming days and weeks. The Egyptian government, after all, has been party to the 16-year-long Israeli blockade of Gaza, enforcing tight controls on what comes in and out of the enclave through the border crossing at Rafah. That crossing now offers the only escape route for people trying to flee Gaza and the only point of access for much-needed humanitarian aid for the besieged territory’s 2.2 million residents. A UN-brokered deal has allowed some trucks carrying humanitarian aid into Gaza from Egypt—not enough, given the magnitude of the crisis and the number of displaced people. Many more trucks wait on the Egyptian side, but it is unclear when Israel will agree to permit their entry. Depending on the scale of the Israeli offensive, many Palestinians in Gaza may seek to exit the enclave through Rafah. Egypt may not open the door.
Turmoil in Gaza is not entirely a bad thing for the regime of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. In many respects, his government would be happy to see Israel eliminate Hamas, an organization that grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood—the Islamist group that is Sisi’s bête noire. As the Egyptian economy flounders, Sisi may also see an opportunity to squeeze debt relief and other concessions from Western countries and international institutions in exchange for agreeing to humanitarian aid corridors and facilitating the departure from Gaza of foreign nationals.
But in condoning the destruction of Hamas by Israel, Sisi courts opposition at home. The Egyptian public is outraged by the ongoing Israeli bombardment of Gaza and the potential ground offensive. Government-sanctioned protests on behalf of the Palestinians have, in the past, served as opportunities to express ordinarily stifled dissent against the Egyptian government itself—and they could do so again. U.S. policymakers have long conflated regime and national interests in their dealings with countries in the Middle East, but the two are in fact separate. Like most of its counterparts across the region, the Egyptian government is an autocracy. It is neither representative nor popular at home, prizing stability over domestic accountability. And yet that lack of accountability may now undermine Sisi’s rule, as angry Egyptians grow increasingly disenchanted with a government that both impoverishes them and fails to address the desperate plight of their neighbors.
THE SHADOW OF 2011
The politics of the current conflagration owe much to what followed the Arab uprisings of 2011. At the time, there was a concerted and largely successful counterrevolutionary effort, led principally by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to defeat and ultimately destroy the leadership of those associated with the regional rebellions. Although the discontent was, as the protesters repeatedly insisted, about “bread, freedom, and social justice,” the regimes that were reluctant to acknowledge such demands framed dissent as identity politics; the beleaguered governments resorted to sectarian loyalties and kinship ties to both shore up support and discredit opposition. In Egypt, the post-uprising presidential elections boiled down to a contest between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. By that time, the Brotherhood, which had been founded in Egypt in 1928 as an anticolonial movement contesting British influence, had not only won a solid following in Egypt among opponents of the secular post-independence governments but strong transnational influence across the Muslim world, spawning often unruly political offshoots from Algeria to the Gulf.
In 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood, in the person of its leader Mohamed Morsi, squeaked out a victory in Egypt’s freely contested presidential elections. Although it represented a remarkable repudiation of the military autocracy that had ruled since 1952, the Morsi government proved to be inexperienced, incompetent, and easily undermined by opponents both at home and abroad, particularly in the Gulf, where fear of populism was indistinguishable from suspicion of Islamist political movements. As if to cement that association, during its brief year in power, Morsi’s government proved an exceptionally attentive patron and protector of Hamas in Gaza. Morsi called for the lifting of the Israeli blockade, mediated a cease-fire after an outbreak of hostilities with Israel in November 2012, opened the Rafah crossing into the Sinai, and promoted trade between Egypt and Gaza. Morsi’s removal from office in the summer of 2013 by Sisi, then defense minister (..) marked not simply the demise of Muslim Brotherhood rule but the end of the only popularly elected government in (recent) Egyptian history.
Sisi was supported by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and relied on financial and operational support from those governments in his subsequent consolidation of power. This was the beginning of a decadelong effort, led by the Emiratis and soon joined by Mohammed bin Salman, the young and ambitious crown prince of Saudi Arabia, to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood and all political parties, movements, and leaders associated with Islamist politics across the region. For Egypt, this endeavor translated into tens of billions of dollars of central bank deposits and no-strings investments in Gulf-style mega projects such as the New Administrative Capital, an entirely new city designed to remove government operations from congested—and protest-prone—downtown Cairo. In all, this support permitted Sisi to secure his rule through patronage, particularly from the military and intelligence sectors. The United States also participated in the region-wide anti-Islamist campaign, as Washington extended its battle against al Qaeda to encompass fighting the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and related offshoots, including Islamist militant groups at odds with the Egyptian government in the Sinai Peninsula.
Today, Hamas is one of the last living embodiments of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Sisi government sees it as an offshoot and ally of the Morsi regime it deposed a decade ago. For both Sisi and his Gulf patrons, Israel’s threat to destroy Hamas can only be welcomed: Israel will be doing them a favor for which they will be genuinely, if discreetly, grateful. Even as demonstrators have flooded the plazas and squares of many capitals in the Arab world, including Cairo, to protest Israel’s gathering offensive, Arab governments have offered only muted responses to Israel’s declaration of war in Gaza. On October 21, Egypt hosted a summit to discuss the unfolding violence in Gaza, offering a chance for Western powers and Egypt’s Arab neighbors to rehearse predictable statements without making any commitment to action.
For Sisi, the Israeli invasion of Gaza provides other opportunities, as well. Certainly, U.S. or other international pressure on the Egyptian government to admit Gazans fleeing Israeli bombing is unlikely to get results. This is in part a matter of principle. As the examples of Jordan and Lebanon (both home to large Palestinian refugee populations) illustrate, Palestinian refugees never get to go home. Insofar as there is any residual commitment in the Arab world to a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that recognizes Palestinian sovereignty in any part of the contested territories, it is represented by the refusal to accept more expulsions.
But Egyptian intransigence on Palestinian refugees is also pragmatic. Egypt’s long-standing dependence on fuel and food imports has bloated its foreign debt, thanks in part to the war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic. Securing further international financing has grown more costly, and domestic subsidies continue to drain government resources. The resulting economic crisis has led to several rounds of currency devaluation—mandated by the International Monetary Fund—with more to come, and skyrocketing inflation that is immiserating not just the poor but a middle class that once formed the backbone of support for Sisi’s government. Egypt’s woes have also disillusioned foreign investors, including even the ordinarily indulgent Gulf countries. The prospect of adding hundreds of thousands of refugees to the millions of already impoverished Egyptians is more than any Egyptian government could tolerate. Moreover, many Hamas militants would likely escape into Egypt through any such exodus, creating yet another headache for authorities. Egypt’s prisons are already full of homegrown Islamists. There are an estimated 40,000 political prisoners in Egypt and not a lot of room for more.
Nonetheless, Sisi’s government will try to turn this crisis to its advantage and extract as much foreign aid from the turmoil as it can. Although it will not admit Gazan refugees, it will hold out the promise of various kinds of humanitarian concessions, such as opening aid corridors into Gaza, and special deals, such as permitting the evacuation of foreign nationals. Debt relief will be high on Sisi’s list and the United States can expect the Egyptian president to bring substantial demands to the table. U.S. dealings with Egypt have come under particular scrutiny ever since allegations surfaced in September that Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey and the chair of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, accepted bribes from Egyptian officials to secure foreign aid for the country at a time when lawmakers in Congress have been questioning its human rights record. But to win cooperation now, Sisi will demand that the spigot remain open. He will insist that the United Nations, the European Union, and others help provide humanitarian assistance for people in Gaza. And Egypt will ask the International Monetary Fund for another concessionary loan and urge the Arab League to facilitate more investment in infrastructure development in the country.
What might be called “crisis rents” have kept a lot of regimes in power in the Middle East for a long time; many governments are practiced at being ready to provide whatever the moment seems to demand—wartime preparations, diplomatic overtures, hosting refugees, and, of course, intelligence cooperation—in exchange for securing debt relief and Western acquiescence to domestic repression. This is another moment in which the regime in Egypt, and probably those in Jordan, Lebanon, and perhaps even Syria, will try to wring acknowledgment and support from a U.S. administration with a short attention span, a lot of other foreign policy priorities, and a desperate wish to be rid of the apparently perennial problems posed by the Middle East.
RAGE AND RESENTMENT
Insofar as the United States and the Europeans choose to support these regimes, they are placing themselves squarely on the side of autocracies that are resented with increasing bitterness by their own citizens. Western powers have spent the past decade making quiet accommodation with a slew of Arab autocracies, including Egypt. Popular discontent is growing. Hamas may be distasteful to most Egyptians—who rue the unhappy tenure of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood—and indeed to most Arabs who are appalled by Hamas’s brutality, reminiscent of ISIS’s notorious cruelty. But in its spectacular claim on the world’s attention in the face of Israeli repression and global neglect, the militant group also evokes the popular uprisings of 2011. The Abraham Accords, the normalization deals between Israel and a handful of Arab states brokered by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, put Israel firmly in the camp of the anti–Muslim Brotherhood Arab autocrats and exacerbated a popular view across the Arab world that their governments care more about lucrative business opportunities and high-tech surveillance and security contracts than about the well-being of the people they rule. The Egyptian regime stands very much with these autocrats and, like them all, would welcome Israel’s destruction of Hamas.
The Egyptian people, however, see their own circumstances very differently: like the people of Gaza, they are trapped by corruption and neglect in an apparently endless spiral of poverty and subjugation, as bread, freedom, and justice seem increasingly out of reach. That kind of despair breeds only bitterness and anger. The Sisi government may be able to deflect and contain protests against its own policies but only at the cost of more repression, since local echoes of Palestinian discontent and frustration are not hard to discern in the demonstrations of solidarity that have spread across the country. An Egypt caught in cycles of turmoil and tyranny will serve nobody well—not its people, its neighbors, nor its patrons. Choosing to ignore the damage being done by the U.S. embrace of autocracy may serve the Biden administration or even the next one, but it sows the seeds of generations of rage and resentment.
(*) Lisa Anderson is James T. Shotwell Professor of International Relations Emerita at Columbia University and was President of the American University in Cairo from 2011 to 2015.