In 2013, the Egyptian scene saw strategic shifts with the Egyptian army deposing elected President Muhammad Morsi on July 3, 2013. A year after the coup, the new regime continues to face instability at all levels, political, security, and economic. This has heavily preoccupied and bogged down the regime, limiting Egypt’s ability to exercise its usual regional role in the Palestinian arena.
Possible scenarios in the near term for the new Egyptian regime in relation to the Palestinian question include either retreat to local Egyptian concerns, which could mean the continuation of the attack on “political Islam” and the negative attitude toward Hamas; or seeking to play an active regional role to cover up its internal problems, and also for fear of vacuum that could be exploited by rival parties.
This latter scenario could lead to a more balanced conduct by the Egyptian regime, and one that is more accommodating toward the Palestinian parties, including Hamas. The third, and more likely scenario would see Egypt play a minimal regional role, which could be stepped up gradually in a way that is commensurate with the improvement of the situation in Egypt. This could mean adopting the general attitudes of the “moderate axis,” and continuing the attack on Islamist movements while easing measures against Hamas, including the blockade of the Gaza Strip (GS).
Political life in Egypt, since the military coup carried against President Morsi and its takeover of the state on 30/7/2013, has seen a systematic process of exclusion targeting the opponents of the coup. These parties either faced criminalization and direct bans such as the case with the Muslim Brothers (MB) movement and April 6 Youth Movement, or faced marginalization and harassment, as happened with the allies of the coup themselves. This restored to a large extent the pattern of government under Hosni Mubarak’s regime, but in an amended version according to the requirements of the current stage.
At the security level, protests in “support of legitimacy” continue albeit at a slower pace. However, there are indications that the anti-coup camp is growing, and that it is no longer confined to the MB movement, despite the intimidation used against them. To be sure, according to available figures, thousands of people have been killed since the coup, and more than 41 thousand people have been arrested by mid-May 2014.
The deteriorating economic situation in Egypt throughout the year that followed the coup is one of the most important indicators of instability in Egypt. The unemployment rate rose to 13.4% in the first quarter of 2014, while the poverty rate in 2012 and 2013 was about 26%, in addition to Egyptian public debt, which reached more than 92% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
In short, the political regime led by ‘Abdul Fattah al-Sisi finds itself mired in a series of security, economic, and political challenges, which will be difficult to overcome in the near term. This reduces the likelihood of an Egyptian engagement in regional issues, and even if Egypt engages, it will be below Egypt’s real weight, in an uncertain environment that is still in flux, and at a time when the Egyptian regime is still in dire need of some countries, which weakens its leadership role.
Egyptian-Palestinian Relations Under Indirect Military Rule:
The political and ideological schism in Palestine has created a dichotomy in Palestinian foreign relations, dominated by the attitudes of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah and the Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip (GS). As for the main principles governing post-coup Egyptian foreign policy, there is one which has to do with the extent of cooperation of external parties in safeguarding the stability of the new regime, and the other is the latter’s bid to fight “political Islam” especially the MB movement, which is represented by Hamas in Palestine.
Hence, tension exists between post-coup Egypt and Hamas. It began with an Egyptian campaign to destroy tunnels between GS and Egypt, where by June 2014, more than 1,700 tunnels were destroyed. The Egyptian regime then re-imposed a form of “rationed” siege; from 1/7/2013 until 31/5/2014, the Rafah crossing was closed 234 days out of 335 days, with an average of 830 people per day whenever it was opened. In September 2013, the Egyptian army established a buffer zone between GS and the Egyptian territory, to prevent the digging of tunnels and deal with existing ones. The new regime’s strained relationship with Hamas reached such an extent that in March 2014 an Egyptian court banned the activities of Hamas, ordered the closure of its offices in Egypt and prohibited any kind of interaction with it; ironically, the same court denied having jurisdiction in a case related to banning Israel’s activities in Egypt.
On the other hand, the Egypt-PA relations returned to its previous levels same as they were under Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptian regime realigned itself back with the “moderate” axis that supports the peace process and the policies of the PLO and the PA in Ramallah. For this reason, President Mahmud ‘Abbas announced his support for the Egyptian future map as soon as Sisi declared it in his coup speech. ‘Abbas met with Sisi in April 2014, and attended the inauguration of Sisi in June 2014.
Under the circumstances and interferences experienced by the Arab region, which has been marred by a state of instability since the beginning of the Arab revolutions and the subsequent counterrevolutionary waves, the political decision of the new Egyptian regime was brought back to the fold of regional and international trends, aiming to thwart revolutions and reproduce old regimes in a new form. The Egyptian regime put the fight against “political Islam” at the top of its priorities, which has been translated to a redefinition of Egypt’s role in the region. In this context, the Egyptian-Palestinian relations in the near term will be affected by a variety of parameters, including:
1. The Egyptian internal situation that is unstable at all levels, security, political and economic, which limits the possibility of the new regime playing an active and effective role in the Palestinian issue.
2. The instability in the region, with the regional map being reshaped and the continued role of “political Islam” in the region.
3. Egypt’s historical role in the Palestinian issue, and the Egyptian regime’s fear that the other powers may fill that vacuum, which puts pressure on the new regime to preserve Egypt’s regional role.
4. The special relationship between GS and Egypt and its impact on the national security of Egypt, and the strategic, political and economic interrelationship between them.
5. The ideological background of the Hamas movement, which the new regime sees as an extension of the MB movement.
6. The commitment of the new regime to the peace process, at a time when the balance of power is skewed in favor of Israel.
7. The Egyptian alliances in the region, and the stances of countries influencing Egyptian decisions towards the Palestinian parties.
8. The relationship between the new regime and Israel, and the extent of their cooperation.
9. The relationship between the Egyptian regime and international powers, and the latter’s vision of the Egyptian role on the Palestinian question.
1. Retreat to internal local Egyptian concerns, pending the stabilization of the situation in favor of the regime, and the emergence of enough confidence to play an active regional role. This means negative retreat in line with regional trends seeking to strike “political Islam.” Therefore, according to this scenario, the Egyptian regime would continue its attack on the Islamists, and continue its hostile policies towards Hamas, including tightening its blockade of GS. All this limits the ability of the Egyptian regime to play an active role in managing the Palestinian issue, especially with regard to Palestinian reconciliation.
2. Seeking to play an active regional role to divert attention away from internal problems, and also for fear of a vacuum that could be exploited by rival regional parties. Therefore, the new regime would seek to ease the blockade, and attenuate the attack on Hamas, giving itself a greater ability to play a more balanced, more accommodating, and more acceptable role especially as far as Palestinian factions are concerned.
3. Playing a minimal regional role that can be stepped up gradually as the situation improves in Egypt. This means continuing the pressure and blockade on Hamas in line with the attack on “political Islam,” while reducing some tension and alleviating some problems in GS.
All indications suggest the new Egyptian regime is drowning in internal problems. For this reason, it is not expected in this period of time that the new regime would restore Egypt’s traditional role in sponsoring the Palestinian issue, whether in terms of internal Palestinian arrangements or the peace process. If the regime insists on continuing the enmity with Hamas as part of the Islamist camp, this could weaken Hamas in GS, but it could also affect Egypt’s role in putting the Palestinian political house in order. At any rate, Egyptian influence on the details of the Palestinian issue in the near term will remain limited.
1. Hamas must continue to distance itself from internal Arab crises, especially in Egypt.
2. Accusations and smear campaigns against Hamas in Egypt must stop, and energy must be focused on protecting GS from Israeli aggression and blockade.
3. Fully opening the Rafah crossing, and finding economic solutions that abolish the need for digging tunnels between GS and Egypt.
4. Rushing the reordering of the internal Palestinian political house and developing a political program that determines the nature of the relationship with Arab, Islamic, and international parties.
5. Exposing any Israeli attempt to instigate strife, and to exploit tense relations between Hamas and the new regime in Egypt to strike the resistance in GS.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Mr. Wael Sa‘ad for authoring the original text on which this strategic assessment was based. .