The Egyptian-Palestinian relationship has been strained recently, but this trial by fire may forge stronger ties in the medium term.
On August 6 gunmen attacked an Egyptian army checkpoint on the Sinai Peninsula border with Israel, just south of Gaza. Sixteen soldiers and an unknown number of assailants died in the initial clash. The surviving assailants dashed across the border where they were promptly killed by the Israeli army. The brutality of the strike — the soldiers were preparing to break their day-long Ramadan fast when they were attacked — shocked both Egyptians and Palestinians.
Swift condemnations came from all sides as the search for additional assailants and their enablers began in the Sinai and among the Palestinians in Gaza. The Egyptians also sealed the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip, casting a pall on previous optimistic signs from the new Egyptian leadership regarding their intention to ease the Gaza siege — yet that may still be in the cards. The Egyptian revolution resulted in the election of the country’s first overtly Islamic leader, Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Before he was elected, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which had ruled since President Hosni Mubarak was deposed, stripped the role of the presidency of much of its power. The new president faced the choice of either accepting this truncated rule or pivoting to confront the country’s military. Another precarious relationship the new president had to maneuver was with the Palestinians in Gaza — long on the Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda. Under Mubarak, Egypt had actively maintained the siege of the distressed Strip, but Morsi signaled early on that he was prepared to work with the Hamas-led government — further straining his relationship with SCAF, the principal executors of the Mubarak-era policy.
Among Morsi’s motivating factors may have been the popularity of the Palestinian issue in Egypt. Average Egyptians may not have prescriptions for how to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but the moral force of the Palestinians’ claim resonates with the overwhelming majority of Egyptians. While popular opinion was a negligible feature of Cairo’s political landscape pre-January 25, 2011, today it carries much more weight.
The Muslim Brotherhood also has deep institutional ties to Hamas, as Brotherhood members, including Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, founded Hamas. While operationally independent, the two organizations’ foundational affinity has remained. Morsi’s election was loudly celebrated in Gaza — not only because of the expectation that he would ease the siege, but his election was also taken as an affirmation of Hamas’ political legitimacy.
Egypt’s new president met with both Mahmoud Abbas — the head of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority — and Ismail Haniyeh, his Hamas rival. The meetings came after Morsi eased restrictions on travel to the Gaza Strip that have long been in place.
While it is unclear who perpetrated the attack in the Sinai, Palestinian concern was that the killings would end the relatively friendly treatment they had been receiving from the new government. The president would have to distance himself from any group or policy perceived to have been lenient on security in the enormous and largely vacant Sinai, and at least one figure in the Egyptian government claimed publicly that the assailants had received support from Gaza.
Initially it seemed that the Palestinians’ concerns were justified — the Egyptians closed the Rafah crossing despite comprehensive Hamas cooperation with the Egyptian security forces in the hunt for the groups behind the attacks. But developments quickly gained a new trajectory.
The president used the Sinai attack as a pretext for wresting control of the country from SCAF. He first sacked the chief of intelligence and head of police in Cairo; several days later the president retired both Field Marshall Tantawi, the head of SCAF, and one of his main subordinates from public life. This ouster coincided with the conditional reopening of the border with Gaza. It appears Morsi used the attacks to double down on his first policy instinct vis-à-vis the Palestinians: more cooperation and aid.
The election of a new president in Egypt meant a reconfiguration of the relationship with the Palestinians in Gaza. And when it appeared that Morsi’s agenda would be threatened by an Islamist attack, he recast the episode to yield an unambiguous victory for himself, his party, his agenda and ultimately the Palestinians.
AHMED MOOR is co-editor of "After Zionism: One State for Israel and Palestine" and a Masters in Public Policy candidate at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government