Egyptian Policy in Palestine: A Downward Spiral

Wednesday July 19, 2017

By Palestine Center Intern


Following a 2013 coup that removed the democratically elected Mohamed Morsi from power, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seized control Egypt. Reinstating a secular, authoritarian government, Sisi also initiated a new chapter in Egyptian relations with Israel and Hamas. This new chapter adds to a book already thick with history; Egypt’s role as a third party to the Israel-Palestine conflict dates back to shortly after the North African state gained its independence from Britain in 1952. However, the new regime’s policy goals and what drive them mark a sharp departure from previous administrations. Announcing in his first presidential address that he would “work to achieve the independence of Palestine with its capital in East Jerusalem”, Sisi became the first Egyptian head of state to endorse a two-state solution.[1]

However, Egypt’s interests in the region run much deeper and more complex than Sisi’s public platform on the issue belie and in many cases even contradict it. Coupled with the role Egypt played in the 2014 Gaza Conflict, examining Egypt’s prerogatives in its dealings with Israel and Palestine is crucial for the peace process.

Prioritizing Counterterrorism

Egypt’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is first and foremost influenced by the violence engulfing the Sinai Peninsula. Following the coup that removed Morsi, the intensity and frequency of violence in the region has more than doubled. In response, Sisi’s regime has undertaken a targeted counterterrorism mission in the peninsula that has had disastrous effects for Gaza. In 2013, Egypt closed the Rafah border, the only crossing point between the two countries. Two years later, it destroyed over 3000 homes in order to establish a 1 kilometer long buffer zone along the border.[2] Egypt further flooded the tunnels used to bring supplies into Gaza and alleviate the effects of a decade long blockade maintained in coordination with Israel. The flooding displaced thousands and destroyed a smuggling industry estimated at $500 million annually that helped bring unemployment in Rafah down from 50 to 20 percent.[3]

From the beginning, Sisi has coordinated counterterrorism efforts with Israel, in many cases violating the Camp David Accords in order to deploy forces in the B and C Zones of the Sinai Peninsula.[4] A pragmatic partnership has developed between the two nations once considered existential enemies, typifying Sisi’s new approach to the region that prioritizes national counterterrorism interests above anything else. Much of this collaboration results from a shared hatred of Hamas, the ruling party of the Gaza Strip.

Relations with Hamas

Despite talks of a potential thaw between the government and Hamas, particularly in the wake of the shipment of oil to an electricity-starved Gaza, these notions should be dismissed. All Egyptian aid has been predicated on promises from Hamas to increase border security, not good will. However, Egypt’s relationship with Hamas is about more than mere counterterrorism. The regime makes frequent efforts to connect the Islamist group with its Egyptian neighbor, the Muslim Brotherhood, a group which faces frequent persecution and arrests. In fact, Sisi lobbied Donald Trump to have them named a terrorist organization during a recent visit to the White House despite the fact that the group renounced violence in the 1970’s.[5]

The government desperately wants not only to secure its northern border, but to remove Hamas from power. Recent talks between Cairo and Hamas regarding Mohammed Dahlan’s return to politics in Gaza reveal that the Egyptian government would rather see the man once accused of murdering Yasser Arafat in power than the democratically elected government.

Based on the secular regime’s relationship with Islamism, exemplified in its domestic relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and the overthrow of democratically elected Mohamed Morsi, it seems unlikely that a Hamas controlled Gaza could ever produce favorable relations with its southern neighbor.

Issues of Legitimacy

That Egypt has left Gaza out to dry is nothing new; the strip has long had to fend for itself without aid from its southern neighbor. Neither should it surprise anyone that Egypt wants to protect itself from terrorist cells operating in the Sinai. However, it is the linking of these two issues combined with a concerted effort to remove Hamas from power in Gaza that should cause concern for Egypt’s future.

History proves an undeniable link between rises in domestic, Islamist violence and Egyptian military and diplomatic interactions with Israel. For example, Najeh Ibrahim, the founder of Al-Jama’a Al-Islamiyya, names the signing of the Camp David Accords, seen as a diplomatic embarrassment for Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat, as the turning point in the group’s relationship with the government. This fallout culminated in the assassination of al-Sadat.[6] A similar fallout occurred following the 1967 War as people lost faith in Nasserism and drew closer to religious identity.

Conversely, Egyptian military and diplomatic success against Israel silences conflict between secularist and Islamist identities. Victories in the Suez Canal Crisis and The Crossing, in which Egyptian forces took control of the Eastern bank of the Suez Canal, brought sweeping support for the secular regime.

This correlation exists because of the overwhelming popular support for the Palestinian cause. Despite the government’s determination to prioritize domestic politics, the Egyptian people have long backed Palestinians. However, the connection extends further than mere public opinion. Violence rarely erupts from foreign policy decisions alone. Rather, this violence reflects a deeper conflict between secular and religious identity and the legitimacy of the Egyptian state.

The 2011 revolution and 2013 coup reemphasized a deep-seated conflict in national identity between a secular authoritarian regime deriving its legitimacy from military and diplomatic supremacy and an Islamist regime deriving its legitimacy from God and public support: in the only free and fair elections in its history, the Egyptian people democratically elected the Islamist Mohamed Morsi. Except for Morsi’s brief stint in power, each of Egypt’s past presidents, from Nasser to Sisi, were secular military men. In the words of Dr. Shibley Telhami, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, “This had been a military regime. It still is. It has never left since 1952. Yes it was popular but it was a military regime.”

Islamist rhetoric, pioneered by Sayyid Qutb, epitomizes a dichotomy between the Islamic world, Dar al-Islam, and the non-Islamic world, Dar al-Harb. As a colonizing, Jewish state with a long history of atrocities against Palestinians, Israel is the epitome of Dar al-Harb and any adverse interaction between Israel and Egypt therefore undoubtedly posited the Egyptian state as Dar al-Islam. Put quite simply, when Egypt succeeds against Israel or helps Palestine, it wins legitimacy not only as a military regime, but as an Islamic one. When it loses to Israel or abandons Palestine, it loses that legitimacy. However, when it collaborates with Israel to target Palestine, such as it is doing now, Egypt switches sides all together and brings to the forefront issues of national identity and religious practice.


The secular regime’s relationship with Islamism combined with Sisi’s specific policy decisions regarding Hamas, Gaza, and the Sinai have created a negative feedback loop in Egyptian politics. Increased counterterrorism and isolation of Gaza leads to decreased legitimacy of the government in the eyes of religious groups which in turn leads to more violence. Likewise, violent rejection of the ruling regime provokes austere government crackdown on religious groups.

Sisi’s position towards Hamas reflects the secular government’s fear of Islamism more than anything else. In Hamas, Egypt sees an existential threat to its own survival. The credence that a successful Hamas government would give to Egyptian Islamist movements poses an enormous problem. This explains why the only time Egyptian policy in the region changed to the benefit of Palestine and the citizens of Gaza was during Morsi’s time in office when a religious Egyptian identity was finally allowed to emerge.

Violence in the Sinai and policy in Gaza must be understood at least in part as a function of perceptions of Egyptian legitimacy and a historic conflict with religious identity. Of course many factors form the roots of terrorism, such as the rapidly declining economic situation in the Sinai and the deep cultural divide between the peninsula and the mainland. However, the ideology espoused by these groups revolves around religious grievances with a secular government and motivates conflicts of identity. The intense spike in violence specifically targeted at Egyptian officials that resulted from Morsi’s overthrow in 2013 evidences this claim.

What This Means for Gaza

For the Gazan people, Egypt’s actions spell disaster. The Strip is already in crisis: unemployment sits at 42%, only 3.8% of its water is safe for drinking, and its population receives less than 4 hours of electricity each day.[7] Help, from Egypt or elsewhere, is not coming. The Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas, has expressed its unequivocal support for Egypt’s counterterrorism policies and, following its decision to cut off power to Gaza, all but abandoned the strip and its people.[8] Meanwhile, Israel is happy to sit back and allow infighting to weaken Gaza, Hamas, and any notion of Pan-Arab nationalism.

That Hamas officials have allowed power-sharing negotiations with Mohammed Dahlan to take place exposes the true weakness of the position they currently occupy. Stretched by Cairo, Ramallah, and of course Tel Aviv, Gaza faces abject isolation on all sides unless Hamas bends to the will of its neighbors. While governments use the strip as a pawn to jockey for political influence, the Gazan citizens who live under the conditions imposed on them by these foreign powers are left to suffer.


The government’s new strategy regarding relations with Israel reveals a perplexing misreading of history and Egyptian attitudes. Egypt’s actions in the Sinai, if done at the expense of civilians living in Gaza and in collaboration with Israel, will only further justify a rejection of the legitimacy of Sisi’s secular regime. Further manipulation of the political situation in Gaza reveals that the nation’s conflict with Islamism not only overshadows its policy interests in Israel and Palestine, but has begun to dictate them.

Ultimately, Egyptian counterterrorism can only do so much. The root causes of the conflict must be addressed and if they are not, we can only expect to see a further deterioration of relations with no end in sight. While Sisi continues to prioritize military counterterrorism, regardless of its consequences, peace will elude the region.

[1] Mohamed Soliman, “Sisi’s New Approach to Egypt-Israel Relations,” The Washington Institute Fikra Forum, July 29, 2016.

[2] “Egypt ‘Demolishes Thousands of Homes’ for Sinai Buffer Zone,” BBC News, September 22, 2015.

[3] Sahar Aziz, “De-Securitizing Counterterrorism in the Sinai Peninsula,” The Brookings Institute, April 30, 2017.

[4] Soliman, “Sisi’s New Approach to Egypt-Israel Relations.”

[5] Dibie Ike Michael, “Egypt: El-Sisi Visits Trump, Requests Muslim Brotherhood Be Declared a Terrorist Group,” Africa News, April 3, 2017.

[6] Stephanie Dornschneider, Whether to Kill: Cognitive Maps of Violent and Nonviolent Individuals, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 68.

[7] United Nations Country Team in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, “Gaza Ten Years Later,” United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, July 11, 2017.

[8] Ramzy Baroud, “Fighting for Survival in the Sinai: Egypt’s Convenient War,” The Palestine Chronicle, October 24, 2014.