The outbreak of any conflict between Israelis and Palestinians invariably puts a spotlight on Egypt. One of the Arab-Islamic world’s most important countries as well as a neighbor to Israel and the Gaza Strip, Egypt has long had influence over the parties and in the past mediated prisoner exchanges and ceasefire negotiations between Israel and Hamas.
In the current war between Israel and Hamas, Israel’s attack in Gaza has killed more than 22,400 people, more than two-thirds of them women and children, with thousands more thought to be buried under rubble and tens of thousands wounded. However, Cairo appears to be playing a secondary role and does not act against Israeli attacks. It has so far refused to accept refugees from Gaza or to temporarily manage security in the Gaza Strip after the war to enable the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority eventually to take over – a proposal reportedly raised by CIA director William Burns. Meanwhile, Qatar, a small wealthy nation of fewer than 3 million people (compared to Egypt’s 113 million), has brokered cease-fires and hostage releases.
Although the Israeli defense minister, Yoav Galant, has introduced Egypt as one of the parties involved in the future of this region and the reconstruction of Gaza in his latest statement for the future scenario of Gaza, the examination of the process of Egypt’s role in the Palestinian issue shows that this country has changed from being the leader of the Arab world and the commander of four wars against Israel for the liberation of Palestine to a country that largely behaves according to the scenarios of Israel and the US in the Palestinian issue.
To understand Egypt’s current role, it is necessary to refer to the Camp David Accords of 1978. Brokered by then President Jimmy Carter between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, the accords established a framework for a peace treaty signed in March 1979. The accords also called for autonomy for the Palestinians under Israeli occupation since the 1967 war.
The peace treaty ended 30 years of war and enmity between the two sides, rooted in the establishment of Israel and the emergence of the Palestinian cause. However, failing to find a solution to the Palestinian issue limited Cairo’s relations with Tel Aviv and relegated them to an elite, “Cold Peace” level.
The treaty did enable Egypt to substantially reduce its military spending, improve its commercial, economic, and political relations with Tel Aviv, and, to some extent, shift to more positive media portrayals of Israel. These ties deepened after Gen. Abdel Fattah El-Sisi became president of Egypt in 2013 after the ouster of a Muslim Brotherhood-led government. Examples of the links include numerous meetings between officials of the two countries, the export of Israeli gas to Egypt [and Jordan], Israel’s assistance to Egypt in suppressing an insurgency in Sinai, and the sale of sophisticated Israeli spying tools to Egypt to help it control its domestic opposition.
A second factor in Egypt’s lesser role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the financial and military aid it receives from the United States. Since 1946, but especially since 1979, the U.S. has provided more than $85 billion in bilateral aid, much of it through the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and Economic Support Funds (ESF). These contributions cover a range of areas, including public health, education, economic development, counterterrorism, military training and the purchase and maintenance of U.S. military equipment. Since 1979, U.S. assistance has averaged about $2 billion a year, most of it military aid. In 2021, the Biden administration cut about $130 million of the $1.3 billion under pressure from Congress over Egypt’s dismal human rights record. For the United States, however, security concerns have generally trumped rights issues.
Egypt also has benefited from strong support from pro-Israel groups in the U.S., most prominently the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which sees the continuation of aid as a guarantee for the maintenance of peace between Israel and Egypt. Given Egypt’s worsening economic crisis, this aid has made Cairo even more dependent on Washington and has restricted Egypt’s ability to oppose U.S. and Israeli views on the Palestinian issue.
Egypt’s own domestic woes are a major factor in limiting its role in the current Gaza crisis. Rapid population growth, widespread youth unemployment, administrative and economic corruption, a severely weakened civil society, widespread poverty, and threats to food security from climate change are among the challenges Egypt faces, in addition to conflict with the remnants of the Muslim Brotherhood and with Islamist militias in the Sinai Peninsula.
On the economic front, the Sisi government has helped military-run companies outcompete the private sector and diverted limited resources into arms purchases and mega-projects of questionable value. The widespread involvement of the military in the government has led to a loss of the independence of the judiciary and the legislature and the country is estimated to have jailed between 20,000 and 60,000 political prisoners. On Dec. 18, 2023, the government announced that President Sisi had won a third six-year term with nearly 90 percent of votes cast – a reflection of independent political parties, youth movements, media, and civil society.
There is no doubt that Egypt is experiencing a crisis of governance that has weakened Egypt’s power and reduced its ability to influence the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Other regional powers have taken a more prominent role, among them Iran, Turkey, and Qatar. In the same year that Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty, Iran experienced an Islamic Revolution that embraced the Palestinian cause and supported militant groups opposed to Israel. After Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, 2023, Israeli officials accused Tehran of being behind the assault. While there is no evidence that Iran directed the attacks or even had foreknowledge of them, Iran has backed Hamas and demanded a cease-fire in Israel’s punishing assault on Gaza while acting to restrain a wider conflict.
Turkey and Qatar have also played a mediating and humanitarian role as countries that have formal or informal diplomatic ties with Israel. Turkey has called for a cease-fire and offered to mediate peace talks while strongly condemning Israel’s actions. Qatar has also defined itself as a mediator in the Middle East equation and opened a channel to Hamas at U.S. request after the group won Palestinian legislative elections in 2006. Ironically, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for years encouraged Qatar to send millions of dollars in cash to Hamas in Gaza in what turned out to be a mistaken belief that the money would deter Hamas from attacking Israel.
In summary, Egypt’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has diminished as a result of the peace agreement with Israel, annual aid from the United States, internal problems and other regional actors. A lasting resolution of this conflict will require buy-in from a different constellation of powers, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as the wider international community.
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About the author:
Eisa Moradi AFRAPOLI holds an MA in International Relations from the University of Tehran and is a former research fellow at the Jahanpajooh Institute for Strategic Studies in Tehran. His research interests include Middle East studies, China’s foreign policy in the Middle East, and Iranian foreign and security policy. Majid DASHTGARD holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from Allameh Tabataba’i University in Tehran and is a former research fellow at the Jahanpajooh Institute for Strategic Studies in Tehran. His research focuses on great power security and politics, Middle East studies, and Iranian foreign policy.