The Questions for Egypt

Nihal El Aasar

On Saturday, October 14th, Israel gave 1.1 million Palestinians in Gaza an impossible ultimatum: either move to the southern half of the Gaza Strip or be killed, a request that the UN decried as “inconceivable.” Some heeded the warning—but Israel attacked them nonetheless. In a flagrant breach of international law, Israel bombed Palestinians who chose to evacuate to the south along the designated corridors leading towards the Rafah border crossing, which connects Gaza and Egypt. The IDF also bombed the Rafah passage multiple times, resulting in at least nine injuries on the Egyptian side. At the time of writing, bombings in the “safe” southern half of Gaza have continued unabated, and over 7,000 Palestinians have been killed, with full backing from the U.S., the U.K. and the E.U.   

In an effort to deflect responsibility for the bloodshed, Israel and its Western backers have incessantly asked why Egypt is not willing to open its doors for Palestinian refugees from Gaza (the majority of whom are, let’s remember, already refugees). The fact of Egypt’s restrictive—but crucially, not always closed—border is often cynically used by Zionists to cast the Palestinians as a globally undesirable population, painting all Arabs into one homogenous mass and eliding complex political realities in the process. In the present crisis, however, the question of allowing refugees into Egypt is most often framed as one of humanitarian concerns, obscuring the actual goal of this “solution” to the crisis: ethnic cleansing. As the people of Gaza know firsthand, when Israel expels Palestinians from their land, they are notoriously never allowed back.

The demand that Egypt take in 2.2 million refugees from Gaza in furtherance of Israel’s completion of the Nakba is not only immoral, but logistically infeasible as well. On October 24th, a document (currently being circulated by Israeli Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel) was leaked to the Israeli news site Calcalist. It detailed Israeli plans for the forced transfer of Palestinians in Gaza to the Sinai peninsula as a culmination of Israel’s genocidal purge of the Strip. Pressure on the Egyptian government to take in the exodus of refugees is already underway, with unsubstantiated reports in regional press stating that the U.S. is prepared to offer Egypt some significant debt relief in exchange for hosting a large number of refugees in Sinai. 

Egypt is currently facing a historic debt crisis; Bloomberg Economics ranked Egypt as second only to Ukraine in terms of countries most vulnerable to defaulting on debt payments. The Egyptian debt crisis has been little-discussed in the West, but it is a daily reality for Egyptians, who continue to face mounting inflation and unparalleled price hikes as a result of Egypt’s complete reliance on international lending from the IMF and wealthy Gulf states. Such reliance circumscribes Egypt’s range of action, making it difficult and unlikely for it to act independently from U.S. interests—including on foreign policy. 

This wouldn’t be the first time the U.S. has used the prospect of debt forgiveness as a tool to bring Egypt in compliance with its policy demands. Most recently, in 1991, the United States and its allies forgave half of Egypt’s external debt ($11.1 billion USD, out of $20.2 billion) in exchange for Egypt’s participation in the second Gulf War in the anti-Iraq coalition. The precedent for 1991 however, was the 1978-1979 Camp David accords—Anwar Sadat’s infamous normalization treaty with Israel under the auspices of the U.S., which saw Sadat break with the anti-colonialism of his predecessor Gamal Abdel Nasser. In the post-Camp David period, Egypt became a creditworthy state for Western governments and Western-backed international institutions, both of which increased economic and military lending. The upshot was the further cementing of Sadat’s move away from the self-sufficient autonomy of Nasser’s regime.

Despite the potential of loan forgiveness, it remains unclear whether the Egyptian government is yet willing to consider the possibility of absorbing Palestinian refugees, in light of several countervailing domestic and regional considerations. First of all, most of the Egyptian population is staunchly pro-Palestine. Due to the long history of Palestine as a significant element in Egyptian political consciousness, millions of Egyptians would stand in opposition to the displacement of Palestinians. In the run-up to the Egyptian presidential elections, Egyptian president Abdel Fatah El Sisi’s popularity is at an all-time low due to the dire economic situation, with public dissent exacerbated by his unprecedented crackdowns on political life. He is clearly wary of appearing opposed to the public with respect to Palestine. In a statement last week, Sisi said, “Egypt rejects any attempt to resolve the Palestinian issue by military means or through the forced displacement of Palestinians from their land, which would come at the expense of the countries of the region,” even acknowledging that Egyptians would “go out and protest in their millions […] if called upon to do so.”

It is notable that, shortly after Sisi’s statement, and after almost a decade of an absolute prohibition of demonstrations, state-aligned parties and charities held state-sanctioned demonstrations in support of Palestine in designated areas on October 18th—the first sanctioned demonstration since Sisi became the Egyptian president in 2014. Despite an attempt by state security forces to contain the marches, some protesters were able to move towards Tahrir Square. They chanted, pointedly, that this was a real protest, not a mandated one, and not one in support of the sitting president. Protestors even called for “bread, freedom, and an Arab Palestine,” a spin on a famous chant from Egypt’s 2011 uprising. 

There’s something genuinely inspirational in seeing Egyptians back in Tahrir Square after a decade of repression. During following spontaneous demonstrations that arose in universities and in front of the Journalists Syndicate at Al-Azhar, Egyptians chanted, “No displacement or resettlement, the land is the land of Palestine,” and “Neither Negev nor Sinai, Palestine is entirely ours,” referring to President Sisi’s comment asking that Palestinians be placed in the Negev desert instead of the Sinai Peninsula. 

That same day, volunteers at the Rafah border staged a sit-in as well—even Egyptian online influencers took part. Around twenty trucks of aid—a cursory concession that was laughably inadequate—were allowed to pass. Then, the border was closed again. 

There has been some speculation that Sisi agreed to allow these demonstrations as an attempt to co-opt the Palestinian cause to boost his dwindling popularity. There is also a theory that he is allowing some space for some civil liberties in an effort to stave off social unrest. Both options could well be true, but I think there is a third reason: the Egyptian government—not unlike the Israeli government in this sense—is at a loss for what to do. Sisi may have simply been testing the waters to gauge the extent of the tension and take the measure of the sentiment on Egyptian streets. 

Despite the fact that last week’s demonstrations were officially sanctioned, over 100 people were still arrested, either at the protests or at their homes in the following days, according to independent Egyptian publication Mada Masr. Furthermore, as a result of the movement into Tahir Square and the subsequent spontaneous protests during last weekend’s demonstrations, further protests this weekend have been prohibited, resulting in the dispersal of protesters at Al-Azhar mosque and various universities. 

Friends whom I’ve spoken with in Egypt (who will remain anonymous due to the security situation) have communicated that they feel stifled by their inability to adequately show solidarity with Palestine and press the Egyptian government to take more drastic action, including opening the Rafah border and sending medical teams. Some online have even compared the prevailing mood to the sense of dejection and impotence felt after the 1967 “Naksa” (Egyptian shorthand for Israel’s victory over Egypt; the West refers to it as the Six-Day War). Others have claimed that Egypt is also occupied in its own way—both by the tyrannical government and by Western interests.

The ongoing crackdown on dissent and public displays of solidarity also reflects a deep anxiety in the Egyptian government regarding the potential influx of Palestinian refugees—an influx which fundamentally would change the domestic make-up of postcolonial Egypt and the broader dynamics in the region. If Palestinians settled in Sinai continued resistance operations (or, likely, even if they didn’t), their presence would give Israel reason to attack Sinai in “self-defense,” at a time when Egypt is already struggling to assert sovereignty on the North of Sinai due to the activities of Islamist militias.

There is also the possibility that the (practically guaranteed) entry of militants alongside other refugees, combined with the popularity of the Palestinian cause amongst Egyptians, could influence a number of Egyptian citizens to join the resistance movements. Furthermore, Palestinians would instantly become the majority population in the Sinai, further undermining Egyptian sovereignty in the area. It is not an exaggeration to think that the expulsion of Gaza into the Sinai could precipitate Egypt’s own version of Black September, the 10-month long civil war in the 1970s in Jordan between Jordanian forces and Palestinian militants. 

There is a precedent for Gazans entering Sinai. In 2008, tens of thousands of Palestinians entered Egypt from Gaza after militants blasted through the Israeli border fence. As Palestinians took advantage of the situation to purchase items like food and electronics from stores in Sinai, neither the Egyptian security forces nor Hamas intervened. Then, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak stated, much to the dismay and anger of the U.S. and Israel, that he “had no choice but to let the Palestinians in,” under popular pressure from Egyptians, only stopping the flow after the fifth day, and only rebuilding the border fence after the Palestinians had returned.

The height of Egyptian nationalism in the Nasser era was constructed in opposition to the existence of the Israeli state, which makes the Egyptian population arguably the largest anti-Zionist population in the Arab world. Additionally, Hamas began as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, the same Muslim Brotherhood that the current Egyptian regime all has all but eradicated in Egypt. An ingress of Hamas members alongside other Palestinians into Sinai might in turn revive not only the Muslim Brotherhood, but all kinds of opposition factions in Egypt, who would see in the Palestinian cause a new raison d’etre—while on Egyptian territory. The Egyptian opposition and the Egyptian population are quite cognizant of the fact that Egypt is a client state of the U.S., and the reason that its authoritarian rule and crackdowns are propped up by the United States is largely due to the existence of Israel—namely, the U.S. counts on the Egyptian government asserting control to keep the overwhelmingly anti-Zionist population at bay. 

That is why Egyptian politics are intertwined with and steeped in the Palestinian struggle. And it is why a democratic elections have not been allowed until now. It is for this reason that the crackdown on pro-Palestine demonstrations in Egypt have been the most brutal, despite their shared history of struggle. Almost every time a major event has taken place in Palestine since the creation of the state of Israel, demonstrations were almost sure to follow in Egypt. The pressure of these demonstrations have, historically, been incredibly strong. Indeed, student demonstrations arguably led to former President Anwar El Sadat’s decision to go to war with Israel in October 1973, and it was the Second Intifada protests that forged the way for the organizing that eventually led to the January 2011 uprising. And it is precisely why, during the Palestinian uprising of May 2021, Egypt was the only Arab country to prohibit demonstrations for Palestine, making it the first time in the history of the country that a major event had happened in Palestine without a reaction on the Egyptian streets.

Of course, the decision to accept refugees from Gaza is not entirely up to Egypt. It seems that the incessant bombing campaigns, along with the leaked expulsion plans and historical precedent, point towards Israel making the decision unilaterally.  That being said, there are several options that reside between the complete expulsion of Palestinians in Gaza and the refusal to accept any Palestinian refugees. Egypt could take some refugees in exchange for a partial debt relief package. Egypt could accept the refugees and then allow them to slowly migrate to Europe, a contingency recently threatened by an Egyptian ministry spokesperson in a meeting with the E.U. If Israel creates its usual “facts on the ground” scenario whereby Palestinians are forced to evacuate, then Egypt might be left with no choice but to accept the aid package anyway, even if the ensuing implications would be disastrous for the country and the region. 

Recent events have also shown that the conflict may spill over into Egypt regardless of its actions (or lack thereof) on the border.  On October 26th and 27th, Taba and Nuweiba, two cities in Sinai, were struck by projectiles from as-yet-unknown sources, resulting in at least six injuries. Still, the most important issue, and the central point of most of Egypt’s focus, is the demand that the Rafah border crossing must be opened, and must be opened indefinitely. Its use as a humanitarian corridor could help stave off the death, starvation, thirst, and disease that Israel has imposed upon the Palestinians in Gaza. (The bombings, alas, are a different story.) Egypt shares this border with Palestine outside of Israel’s direct control (but not without pressures from Israel and its Western backers). The Egyptian government should be pushed to keep the crossing open—not for the purpose of displacing Palestinians, but rather as the bare minimum measure needed to avert more horrors.

Despite the uncertainty regarding the refugee situation, one thing remains certain: the Egyptian people stand in solidarity with Palestine. Former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir said, “The old will die and the young will forget.” But look around you. You will see the young on the streets, many of them too young to remember the Intifadas. They are those who were born and raised in the age of normalization; in fact, for many, this easily could have been their first-ever demonstration. The young do remember—and as long as they do, Egypt’s political fate will be forever bound to the cause of Palestinian liberation.♦

Nihal El Aasar is an Egyptian researcher and writer living in London. 

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