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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

On The View From Egypt, Part Four, Or, Gaza, We Have A Problem

What had been a truce between Israel and the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip seems to have abruptly come to a halt; with the Israelis blaming Hamas and Hamas blaming Israeli oppression of the displaced Palestinians for the simmering hostilities that are now boiling over into military-scale violence.

Before the recent holidays and an immoderate amount of snow buried me in things that could not be done on the computer we had been having a conversation about the strategic importance of our relationship with Egypt. Within that series of discussions we explored the influence of the political opposition, and we considered the fragility of President Mubarak’s hold on power.

We also noted the immediate proximity of Egypt to the Gaza Strip.

Today we’re going to tie all of that together—and the end result of all that tying is that we better keep a close eye on Egypt, because trouble in Gaza has spilled over into trouble in Cairo….and that’s one more Middle Eastern problem we don’t need.

If you’re looking for more details as to why Egyptian politics have been a one-party affair since the Republic’s founding, information about the opposition, or a consideration of the country’s strategic importance, have a look at Parts One, Two, or Three of this series.


So that we might put some of the background in place, here are some of the salient facts surrounding the events of the past few days:

A ceasefire that had existed between Hamas and the Israeli Government has expired. That ceasefire, however, had been a bit of an imperfect exercise.

Some attacks from Gaza into Israel have been self-attributed by Hamas (actions that they have described as responses to Israeli aggressions); and there are suggestions that forces loyal to the rival Fatah movement have also been involved in attacks. The Israeli Foreign Ministry reported 2502 rockets or mortars were fired from Gaza in the first 11 months of 2008, resulting in 17 Israeli deaths. (The ceasefire began in June of 2008.)

Over the four days since the ceasefire’s expiration at least 1100 Palestinians have been killed or wounded by Israeli airstrikes, with some airstrikes targeting tunnels that connect the Gaza Strip to Egypt.

The tunnels are important because they are used to import supplies to the region when normal commercial crossings are restricted or closed by the Israeli Defense Forces. (Truck crossings into Gaza have been reduced from 475 daily before Hamas took control of the region to 123 daily in October 2008 to none for the past eight days.)

The IDF reports that the tunnels are used to import weapons as well.

It is also reported that IDF troops are massing near the Gaza border. It is possible that an entry into Gaza by the IDF is imminent, but as of this writing that has not yet occurred…or it may have already occurred, as reported by the sometimes reliable Debka.com.

And it’s the tunnels that connect this story to Egypt.

As you may recall from our earlier conversations, there are many Egyptians who support the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamist views, and there are also many Egyptians, unassociated with Islamism, who feel a sense of solidarity with Gazans and their struggles with Israel. Add to that the fact that President Mubarak’s secular but increasingly unpopular Government has been cooperative with Israel as they have worked to isolate Gaza and you have the makings of some serious trouble in the Egyptian street.

And as of today, the trouble seems to have started.

In a country with a Government that attempts to deter undesired street demonstrations with an extremely hostile internal security response, El Badeel of Cairo reports as many as 200.000 of the undeterred may have taken to the streets in demonstrations against the Government in cities such as Cairo, Alexandria, Tanta, and even down the Nile in the farm country of Minya and Asyut.

The Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ahmed Abul-Gheit, and the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, are trading words—and Egyptian police and military border guard units are firing on Palestinians who attempt to enter Egypt through holes blown in the wall (by the bombing raids…) that would normally prevent such entries.

Now here is where it gets tricky.

Hamas, the ruling party in Gaza, is essentially descended from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood—and the last thing Mr. Mubarak wants is hundreds of thousands of Hamas supporters taking up permanent residence in his country, especially if they end up forming fairly insular communities out in the Sinai Desert where the Egyptian internal security apparatus is at it’s weakest.

On the other hand, being perceived as supporting Israel is fraught with 200,000 or so of its own perils—and if the internal security apparatus can’t control the demonstrations, or uses unusually harsh methods to regain control, the internal security threat to Mr. Mubarak’s control from his own citizens will also rise dramatically.

There are those in Israel who want Egypt to take control of Gaza…and it is possible that Israel will use the blockade to create an atmosphere that will “require” Egypt to take “humanitarian” steps—something that might be popular in the Egyptian street…but something that Mr. Mubarak, as we have noted, has no desire to accept.

There are also those who would like to see the Fatah Party take over again in Gaza, removing Hamas from power—but you may recall that Hamas was able to come to power in Gaza because many ordinary Gazans perceived Fatah and Yasser Arafat to be extraordinarily corrupt and ineffectual during their time in power.

The bad news for the US?

We are perceived throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds as the blindly supportive enablers of what Israel is doing in Gaza…and we are perceived in Egypt as the country that enables Mr. Mubarak’s often highly oppressive rule.

As things go badly for the Palestinians, ironically, they get bad for us—and probably for the Israelis as well.

Why? Well, as I often say to my friends, we are making enemies faster than we can kill them. This blind support of Israel against the Gazans isn’t helping matters…but Johann Hari tells the story much better than I:

The world isn't just watching the Israeli government commit a crime in Gaza; we are watching it self-harm. This morning, and tomorrow morning, and every morning until this punishment beating ends, the young people of the Gaza Strip are going to be more filled with hate, and more determined to fight back, with stones or suicide vests or rockets. Israeli leaders have convinced themselves that the harder you beat the Palestinians, the softer they will become. But when this is over, the rage against Israelis will have hardened, and the same old compromises will still be waiting by the roadside of history, untended and unmade.

To understand how frightening it is to be a Gazan this morning, you need to have stood in that small slab of concrete by the Mediterranean and smelled the claustrophobia. The Gaza Strip is smaller than the Isle of Wight but it is crammed with 1.5 million people who can never leave. They live out their lives on top of each other, jobless and hungry, in vast, sagging tower blocks. From the top floor, you can often see the borders of their world: the Mediterranean, and Israeli barbed wire. When bombs begin to fall – as they are doing now with more deadly force than at any time since 1967 – there is nowhere to hide.

--From an editorial in The Independent, December 29, 2008


There is one bit of good news: if Hillary Clinton can find a way to be seen as an “honest broker”, instead of just a supporter of Israel, the incoming Obama Administration could change the atmosphere enough to allow Gazans and Israelis to again return to negotiations. Can the Obama Administration change the atmosphere enough to induce Israel to adopt a less hard-line anti-Palestinian stance? That may be the biggest question the new Secretary of State finds on her plate next month.

Another possible bit of good news: a rapid settlement and return to a semi-ceasefire status could reduce the long-term political damage. In the unfortunate event of a large-scale ground action by the IDF, it is likely the long-term damage increases. (Some suggest the Israelis chose this moment because they feel the Obama Administration will be less supportive of a hard-line policy than the Bush Administration. If this is true, the window for aggressive action may be closing sooner rather than later.)

So here we are: The Israeli actions against Gaza, intended to end the desire of Gazans to attack Israel, are likely to have exactly the opposite effect…which is spilling over the border to create all kinds of problems for the Mubarak Government in Egypt…all of which means all kinds of new bad news for us.

Hillary Clinton might have problems negotiating with all the players…but if she can overcome that obstacle, there could be a better outcome down the road than we have today.

If Israel cannot be convinced to find a way to develop a different relationship with their Palestinian neighbors—and vice versa—eight years from now President Obama will find himself just as vexed as Mr. Bush is today with his giant Middle Eastern failure…and if events cause Egypt, Pakistan, and maybe even Morocco to slide over to the Iran end of the “scale of hostile nations”, he may find himself quite a bit more vexed than he ever expected.

8 comments:

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Thank you for this very informative post.

Happy New Year to you and yours.

fake consultant said...

you're more than welcome...and thanks to my friends in egypt, we will have more "inside" news and views just shortly..or at least as shortly as the new addition of snow to my schedule permits.

Anonymous said...

Out of curiousity... if you were in Mr. Obama's position... what would you propose to help rectify this current state of affairs with Gaza under attack?

How would you propose a cease fire?

How would you bring peace to an area that has been in turmoil for hundreds and thousands of years?

~alterego in HI

(very informative piece btw- thanks!)

fake consultant said...

there are probably two options from which he will choose.

one is to pressure israel to immediately stop the incursion.

this could be done by threatening to cut off aid. because about half of us voters are supportive of israel, and about half supportive of palestine the political cost is lower than it might be at other times.

option two would be to tell israel to keep doing what they are doing--and i hope he does not choose that option.

the next thing he could do would be to announce that the us will now negotiate directly with hamas.

israel will be furious, but it's the only game in town--and after these attacks, hamas will have more influence in gaza than they did the day before the attacks started.

at some point, the next step forward might consist of showing both sides how the current course is failing. you might try to get both sides to "grow" the economic cooperation between them.

there is the possibility that israel will refuse to make any concessions. in that event it might be necessary to move forward without israel, but it's too early for me to present a plan that goes in that direction.

the next story is looking like it will be based on an alternative plan, but i'm still conversing with people in the region to see if it can be made to make sense.

alterego said...

how about a cease fire of say 24 hrs. to evacuate the people of Gaza? well... for those that would like to be evacuated. i'm not saying they would have to leave Gaza for good... but only for the time being. evacuate to neighboring countries who protest what israel is doing... giving them temporary shelter. then let hamas and israel duke it out.

i really don't see the US condemning israel for defending its people... especially since the US did the same thing by invading Afghanistan & Iraq when they came under attack in Sept. 2001. that would be the pot calling the kettle black.

South Bend Journal said...

Great article. Who comes out better at the end of this conflict in the eyes of the Palestinias? Hamas or Fatah?

fake consultant said...

let me start with alterego's question first:

it will be tough to get gazans out to other countries for a couple of reasons.

--i don't think there is a desire, for political reasons, to import large numbers of people the ndp/egyptian government percieves as being sympathizers of the muslim brotherhood into egypt (you'll recall hamas was born from the brotherhood...); which would be the most logical destination for gazans based on the logistics of moving masses of people quickly.

that said, i suspect the egyptian street would be very supportive of such a move--and it's that divergence of opinion between public and government that is where the trouble lies for mr. mubarak.

i've been told that many egyptians wish they did not have to be on the hook for resolving this problem--but this may not be something they can prevent, despite their wishes.

--beyond that, hamas would see no value in duking it out with israel. it seems much more likely that they would do as many forces do in asymmetric warfare...fade into the woodwork and reappear at a more opportune time.

the challenges of sorting out who is whom among the re-displaced gazans would make this plan tough for israel to accept.

--gazans themselves might not wish to be re-displaced either...but it could be better than gaza for many, so i suspect quite a few would take advantage of the offer, especially if the destination was egypt.

i suspect you're correct that the us would not be likely to publicly condemn israel--but it would be entirely possible that an obama administration might choose to slow down the flow of aid...discreetly...which would send a fairly strong message without being too overt about it.

now as to the question of who looks better at the end: for the moment, gazans are likely to gravitate back to hamas ("the enemy of my enemy is my friend")...but the long term is not so clear.

gazans were gravitating away from hamas until this attack--and a lot of that was related to hamas' inabilituy to make life better for gazans.

that said, i have not seen fatah bring anything new to the table that would change their image in gazans' eyes--and should israel choose to "favor" fatah by allowing them concessions not offered to hamas, it may actually hurt fatah by aligning them more closely with the enemy that just invaded gaza.

so with all that in mind, the most likely outcome, at least as of this moment, is that hamas becomes more popular for the moment...but over the long term, if no progress occurs for gazans, i forsee a power vacuum in the strip, with neither hamas or fatah able to effectively lead.

a hamas/fatah unity government? it might work...or it might create one group gazans lose confidence in, instead of two.

lady macleod said...

...very informative. "Vexed" indeed!