Egyptian minister Moufid Shehab called it “the engineering installation on our eastern borders” — a euphemism that at least suggests a certain discomfort in official circles. Its many opponents more succinctly call it “the wall of shame,” and say it illustrates the Egyptian government’s willingness to go along with Israel and the United States in their longstanding project to squeeze the people of the Gaza Strip until they turn against Hamas, the Islamist movement that has run the territory since 2007.
Muslim clerics have split over the legitimacy of the steel wall under construction along the Gaza-Egypt border, designed to intercept the dozens, possibly hundreds, of illicit tunnels that keep the Gazans supplied with everything beyond the barest necessities.
Those indebted to the Egyptian government say it is a matter of national security and a justified response to smuggling; independent clerics on satellite television channels, who carry rather more weight with the devout, say it is a crime. All the main opposition forces in Egypt, from the Muslim Brotherhood to leftists and liberals, say the project is a national disgrace.
The government’s international reputation hit new lows over the New Year period when police in the Sinai town of El Arish clubbed foreign activists trying to break the blockade and take supplies to Gaza.
So what does the Egyptian government have to gain from building the massive underground wall between Egyptian territory and the Gaza Strip? Why is it so willing to flout domestic, Arab and large swathes of international public opinion on such a sensitive matter?
Through all the twists and turns of the past two years, when Egypt stood at the center of attempts to restore Fatah control over Gaza, one overriding anxiety dictated Egyptian policy toward the impoverished and densely populated coastal strip: the possibility that Israel might dump responsibility for Gaza on Egypt, washing its hands of its international obligations to supply the Gazans with food, water, fuel and medical supplies.
In the worst case scenario, from Cairo’s point of view, Israel could then seal its own borders with Gaza completely and hold Egypt accountable for any military activity that originates in the territory. The Egyptian government has not forgotten the precedents of 1956 and 1967, when Palestinian guerrilla activity from Gaza helped drag Egypt into war with Israel, with especially devastating consequences in 1967.
The Egyptian government, which has grown increasingly conservative and unimaginative as President Hosni Mubarak grows older, also shares Israel’s and Washington’s fear of Hamas, which it sees as an illegitimate troublemaker threatening the regional status quo and serving the interests of Shiite Muslim, and potentially nuclear, Iran.
Egypt and its Arab allies — mainly Jordan and Saudi Arabia — long ago renounced the use of force in their dealings with Israel. Hamas, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and others keep the banner of armed struggle aloft, striking a chord with ordinary Arabs and serving as a constant reminder that alternative strategies are possible. In the case of Egypt, Hamas is especially threatening because of its historical and institutional links with the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood, the government’s most formidable opponent. What’s good for Hamas is good for the Brotherhood.
Against this historical background, more immediate considerations seem to have pushed the Egyptian government into a form of cooperation that goes far beyond the commitments it made to Israel in the peace treaty they signed in 1979.
Although the Egyptian domestic political scene looks calm on the surface (even the Muslim Brotherhood is in serious internal disarray), the governing clique faces parliamentary elections later this year and presidential elections in 2011. The last thing they want is a repetition of 2005, when street protests were weekly events and the US openly supported democratic change in the Arab world. That enabled the Muslim Brotherhood to win one fifth of the seats in parliament, more than any opposition force had held since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952.
So much for sovereignty
This round of elections is even more delicate, mainly because of the succession question that hangs over the country as Mubarak ages and his 46-year-old son, Gamal Mubarak, shows every sign of maneuvering to take his place. Prominent party loyalist Mustafa el-Fiqi, chairman of the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, dropped a bombshell this month when he said that the choice of the next Egyptian president would need US approval and Israeli clearance.
“Is Egypt becoming another Iraq?” asked the independent Cairo newspaper Al Masry Al Youm. “What sovereignty are we talking about when one must garner the consent of foreign countries to become president?
“We want to ask the regime what benefit it gleans from adopting policies — some of which are declared, others covert, and all invariably disgusting — that dovetail so nicely with Israeli and US interests?” it added.
Best-selling novelist and liberal activist Alaa el-Aswany says he has no doubt about the rationale behind the scenes.
“The Egyptian regime has proved that it will no longer hesitate to commit any crime in order to please Israel, so that Israel puts pressure on the US…to accept President Mubarak’s son Gamal as his successor,” he said.
Jonathan Wright is the managing editor of Arab Media & Society