El-Sisi’s Predicament with the Gaza Crisis
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi

The current crisis in Gaza represents the first real foreign policy test for Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.  Hamas’s rejection of the Egyptian initiative to end hostilities calls into question Egypt’s ability to maintain its decades-long special status as mediator, a role it assumed by virtue of its relations with all parties – Israel and the United States on one hand, and the PLO and Hamas on the other. The manner in which this crisis is resolved, including the role of Egypt’s rulers in ending the conflict, will help define Egypt’s foreign policy under el-Sisi.  

Egypt’s Interests

When Israel attacks the Gaza Strip, all eyes are on Egypt. It is an influential Arab country, the only one that is directly adjacent to Gaza (and thus controls an access point), and it has historically played an important role in the development of events there, including the general trajectory of the Palestinian issue. Gaza’s political geography is a dimension of Egyptian national security, as is the living history of the relationship between Egypt and Palestine.

Even before the election of Mohamed Morsi in 2012, Egypt maintained good working relations with the Hamas-led authority in Gaza, despite its ideological differences with the movement, through intelligence channels orchestrated by late Egyptian intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman. Egyptian policy was guided by its security interests, especially in light of the rising concern of terrorism originating from the Sinai Peninsula. Maintaining a working relationship with Hamas meant controlling the fragile Sinai border and coordinating on issues like weapons smuggling and counter-terrorism.  Egypt’s successful communications with Hamas’s leadership in its role as a broker in Palestinian-Israeli affairs bolstered Egypt’s status regionally and internationally.

An Incomplete Initiative

Events during the present crisis in Gaza suggest that that status has eroded.  Egypt’s July 14th initiative aimed to stop the “hostile activities” and begin negotiations between both sides after 48 hours of cease-fire. [1]

However, the initiative had several flaws, underscoring Egypt’s diminishing capital during negotiation. In a glaring lack of diplomatic courtesy, the document was crafted without consulting Hamas (which claims it only learned about the initiative through media accounts, another diplomatic gaffe), and it completely disregarded the demands of the Palestinian resistance, instead adopting the minimalist demand to cease aggression (with an apparent eye to helping Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu save his political future).  Hamas and the Islamic Resistance Movement emphasized that the Egyptian initiative did not address their demands to remove the blockade on Gaza or to release prisoners.[2]

Sisi defended the initiative and denied that it was coordinated in advance with Israel to exclude Hamas. Speaking on state television on the anniversary of the July 23, 1952, revolution, el-Sisi stated that the initiative aimed to ease border congestion by opening crossings, emphasizing that direct talks between both sides to negotiate all other issues would follow.[3]

The Egyptian government pushed the Arab League to adopt the proposal both in order to put more pressure on the Palestinians to accept it, as well as to show it off to the international community as a political document demonstrating Egypt’s leadership.

Hamas’s Crisis with the Egyptian Regime

However, the gap between Egypt and Hamas goes deeper than mere breaches of diplomatic etiquette.  Hamas and the Sisi administration regard one another with mutual suspicion.

Hamas is keenly aware of the importance of the Rafah crossing, which the Egyptian authorities have been strictly monitoring since the start of the conflict, to its economic viability and political survival. Egypt has kept the crossing mostly closed since former president Mohamed Morsi’s ouster[4] and has worked to destroy the tunnel network used to bypass it. Even worse (and much to Israel’s satisfaction), Egyptian courts have designated Hamas as a “terrorist organization,”[5] identifying it as a strategic threat to Egypt’s national security.

Hamas knows that Sisi’s strategic relations with Israel date back to his position as head of Egypt’s Military Intelligence. That connection continued throughout his military and security coordination in the Sinai Peninsula. Despite the current crisis, el-Sisi is likely to maintain a positive relationship with Israel in order to protect Egypt’s relations with the west, particularly the United States.

Beyond just Sisi, Egypt’s bitterness toward Hamas originates from its ongoing tension with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is perceived to threaten Egypt’s national stability after the ousting of Mohamed Morsi. Hamas has attempted to reassure the Egyptian authorities that its resistance is solely focused on liberating the occupied Palestinian territories, but Cairo continues to regard it with hostility.

Meanwhile, various Egyptian media outlets--notably pro-government media professionals--have launched a major campaign against Palestinians and the Gaza Strip. Some media professionals have even demanded that the Netanyahu government continue its bombardment of Gaza in order to drive out Palestinian factions led by Hamas and the rest of the Palestinian resistance forces.[6]

A Diminished Egyptian Role

The Egyptian government is still uncertain about its leadership role in the Arab world, and it has yet to demonstrate a change in approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with any promise of resolving the crisis in Gaza.

Hamas failed to accurately gauge the sensitivity of the conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian regime after Morsi’s ouster last July, and as a result found itself in a strategically disadvantageous position without a sympathetic moderator to speak up for Palestinian demands. 

 The emergence of a regional hub in support of the Hamas Movement, including Qatar and Turkey, may be better able to manage this crisis than the Egyptian government and its supporters, including Israel and the United States. Although its geographic and strategic position means Egypt’s engagement in Palestinian affairs cannot be ignored, Egypt has lost whatever cards it had to win the confidence of regional and international powers.  


[1] Nidal al-Mughrabi and Jeffrey Heller, “Egypt Launches Initiative to Halt Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” Reuters, 15 July 2014, http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/07/14/uk-palestinians-israel-idUKKBN0...

[2] Patrick Kingsley, “Hamas Tells Egypt It Rejects Gaza Ceasefire,” The Guardian, 16 July 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/16/egypt-no-negotiations-gaza-...

[3] “Video: Complete Speech of President Sisi on the Anniversary of 23 July,” al-Shurouk, 23 July 2014, http://www.shorouknews.com/news/view.aspx?cdate=23072014&id=82af4bc7-989....

[4] “Political parties Urge Egypt’s El-Sisi to Open Rafah Crossing Permanently,” Ahram Online, 13 July 2014, http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/106117/Egypt/Politics-/Poli....

[5] “Egypt Court Bans Palestinian Hamas Group,” Al-jazeera, 5 March 2014, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/03/egypt-court-bans-palest....

[6] Jihad Abaza, Egyptian Press Repeat Israeli Lies as Sisi Keeps Gaza Border Closed,” Electronic Intifada, 15 July 2014, http://electronicintifada.net/content/egyptian-press-repeat-israeli-lies....

Read more: