Egypt has denied requests to solve the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and take in refugees. Several countries have offered cash incentives to Cairo in the hopes it reconsiders, but Cairo has rebuffed them. It has also denied that there is smuggling between Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula. Denial, as they say, is a river in Egypt.
As the war to eliminate Hamas drags on, and with continued American pressure to address the humanitarian situation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hopes to get Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to take in Gaza refugees. Sisi has so far emphatically refused Bibi’s request. The Egyptians have stated repeatedly that they will not take part in the displacement of Gazans. They say this is a red line for the Palestinian cause.
There is something very old-school Arab nationalist about the Egyptian position. The government of Egypt is so committed to the Palestinian cause that it seems ok with allowing more Palestinians to die in this war. Cairo can probably get away with this, given that it is also the policy of every other Arab state right now—including the sponsors of Hamas, such as Qatar, Turkey, and Iran, that helped the terrorist organization prepare for this war.
However, there may be another Egyptian policy challenge brewing. The Israelis have just requested that the Egyptian military evacuate from the Gaza-Egyptian border. The Israelis certainly don’t want any Egyptians caught in the crossfire as they battle Hamas on Gaza’s southern border. The Egyptians are already voicing discomfort.
And for good reason. Israelis will soon begin to discover tunnels connecting Gaza to the Sinai Peninsula. There may be dozens of them. The Egyptians have downplayed the problem. But it’s likely going to become a source of friction.
Despite some early Sisi regime successes in dismantling those tunnels (including by flooding them), the Gaza-Sinai border has become a major zone for Hamas smuggling activity. Weapons and cash move all too freely beneath what is known as the Philadelphi Corridor along the Gaza-Sinai border. In recent years, these tunnels have also enabled Hamas leaders and fighters to come and go as they please.
Once we understand that, we begin to understand how Hamas was able to re-arm and replenish after multiple rounds of fighting over the years. We can also begin to understand how Hamas leaders and fighters have been able to get training and advice from the outside. In other words, Egypt is very much a part of the current crisis in the Middle East.
It’s highly unlikely that ideological affinity explains all of this. If anything, it’s the opposite. The Sisi regime would be content to destroy Hamas because of its longstanding connection to the Muslim Brotherhood. Sisi toppled the Brotherhood government under Mohammed Morsi in 2013. The Egyptian leader still sees the group as a threat.
But the Sinai Bedouins have a lucrative system of smuggling. Historically, the Egyptian military has been incentivized to turn a blind eye to their activities. Today, however, the lax border situation may boil down to a scarcity of resources. The Egyptian government is cash strapped. The country was in an economic tailspin well before the Gaza war erupted. Things may be even worse now that the Houthis have deterred multiple international shipping companies from transiting the Red Sea. Under the circumstances, it is unlikely that Israeli security concerns will top the list of Egyptian military expenditures.
There are reports that Israel, the United States, and even some Gulf Arab states have offered Egypt billions of dollars to take in refugees. And Cairo has still refused. It’s not clear whether cash incentives might convince Egypt to handle the tunnel problem.
Separately, the Egyptians continue to coordinate closely with the United States and Qatar in an effort to hammer out another ceasefire deal that might lead to the release of an estimated 40 Israeli hostages currently in Hamas custody. The Israelis appreciate these efforts, and they trust the Egyptians far more than the Qataris, who have been financial sponsors of Hamas for more than a decade. In this way, Cairo has carefully crafted its image as an honest broker.
However, the tunnel problem may complicate the current arrangement. The very existence of these tunnels creates an optics crisis for Egypt and will raise questions that the Sisi regime would prefer not to answer. Domestically, Egypt’s working with Israel to destroy the tunnels will also be challenging, given that the anti-Israel sentiment in Egypt has grown (it’s a longstanding problem). But Egypt may have little choice, given that Cairo still greatly values it alliance with the United States.
Both sides of the Rafah crossing are likely to see changes in the coming weeks. Whether Egypt cooperates with Israel to implement those changes remains to be seen.