How to understand Egypt’s role in the Israel-Hamas conflict

A man and two young children wear backpacks and wheel suitcases along the pavement.
A Palestinian man and his children arrive at the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt on October 14, 2023. | Abed Rahim Khatib/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

The legacy of past conflicts is holding up aid at the Gaza border with Egypt.

Under conditions that the United Nations has already labeled a “humanitarian catastrophe,” hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have fled south in preparation for a potential major Israeli assault on the northern part of Gaza. As the hospitals, homes, schools, and streets of the south fill up with the displaced and injured, time is running out to get lifesaving aid in — or to help people, including hundreds of US citizens, leave.

Planes full of medical equipment from the Red Cross and the World Health Organization are at the al-Arish airport in Egypt’s Sinai, some 28 miles away from the Rafah border crossing on Gaza’s southern border, Reuters reported Saturday. Though the aid is critical for the thousands of Gazans injured by ongoing Israeli Air Force strikes since Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, the border crossing remains closed while Egyptian, Qatari, US, UN, and Israeli officials attempt to negotiate an opening.

US citizens in Gaza were told Saturday to move closer to the Rafah border crossing, only for them to be unable to evacuate as southern Gaza becomes more and more crowded — and runs low on basic supplies like food, fuel, and medicine.

The status of the border crossing has been somewhat muddled; Egypt says its side remains open but that Israeli Air Force bombardments on the Gaza side of the crossing have stopped the flow of traffic and kept the border crossing closed. But Egyptian security officials also told Reuters they are holding up the planned evacuation of some Gazans, including foreign citizens, as they await a deal to allow aid into Gaza.

“Every hour these supplies remain on the Egyptian side of the border, more girls and boys, women and men, especially those vulnerable or disabled, will die,” the WHO said in a statement Saturday.

As aid negotiations continue, the question of what happens next for Gazans as Israel launches its “next stage” of the war remains: Will powers with competing relationships and interests be able to negotiate some measure of safety for civilians, and will this next phase of the war create more Palestinian refugees, who may never be able to return to their homes? Egypt is central to that question.

Egypt has a complex relationship with Hamas

Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza and perpetrated last week’s attack on Israel, counts Iran as its closest state ally. But the group has a long and complicated relationship with Egypt, too, which makes backchannel, or unofficial, communications possible.

Egypt and Qatar have negotiating backchannels with Hamas, Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, told Vox in an interview.

“There are backchannels, there always were,” Sachs said. “The main one is with the Egyptians, they have open communication with Hamas. They despise Hamas, of course, and they blockade the Gaza Strip, but their intelligence has frequent communication with Hamas.” This has allowed them in the past to negotiate ceasefires and exchanges between Israel and Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups, he said.

The primary reason Egypt despises Hamas, as Sachs put it, is because it originated as the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group which Ḥasan al-Bannā, a teacher, devout Muslim, and Egyptian nationalist, started in Egypt in 1928.

The Muslim Brotherhood began as a religious and educational group focused on providing social services in Egypt; it took as its guiding principle the idea that the Quran and the Hadith — a text most Muslims believe contains the words and traditions of the prophet Muhammad and a basis of Islamic law — should be the foundations of modern Muslim society. The group spread quickly in the Arab world in the 1930s and ‘40s, during which time it also became more violent and more politicized. The group’s failed assassination of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in October 1954 initiated a government crackdown, forcing the group underground throughout the 1960s and ‘70s.

But things were different in Gaza, which Egypt had controlled before Israel took it over in its 1967 war with the coalition of Egypt and Syria. “Ironically, the Muslim Brotherhood [could] now operate” in Gaza, Daniel Byman, a senior fellow with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Vox in an interview.

And because the Palestinian liberation cause was closely aligned with Arab nationalist and international communist projects during that time, to Israel, “political Islam seemed better than Arab nationalism,” Byman said. The Palestinian left was, in the 1970s and 1980s in particular, the main opposition to the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority under Yasser Arafat. Those secular, Marxist groups were responsible for several terror operations throughout the Middle East at the height of their power.

“Hamas comes directly out of the Muslim Brotherhood” in Gaza, “not a spinoff or anything like that. It is the Muslim Brotherhood,” Byman said.

For nearly 40 years, the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza, which became Hamas, didn’t have sufficient power to be a threat to Egypt; they didn’t even participate in the First Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, Byman said. But when Hamas gained that power during its takeover of Gaza in 2007, former Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak called the situation a “coup against legitimacy” and supported Israel’s blockade against Gaza. Mubarak was deposed during the Arab Spring, and Egyptians elected Mohammed Morsi, who was affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and hoped to expand relations with Gaza.

Morsi served only a year and four days before he was deposed by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s current strongman president. Sisi has heavily suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood and has in the past vilified Hamas and its connection with the Brotherhood. But he has also coordinated with the group against an Islamic State insurgency in the Sinai, supported relief efforts in Gaza, and mediated ceasefires between Israel and Hamas in previous rounds of conflict. That mediating role also strengthens the US’s reliance on Egypt and Sisi.

Still, Egypt’s security concerns are not unfounded; Hamas built several multipurpose tunnels connecting Gaza and Egypt. Those tunnels helped Hamas circumvent the blockade and smuggle in vital supplies like food, medicine, fuel, and construction materials. They are also used to store weapons caches and hide Hamas fighters, and they are difficult to target and destroy. Hamas has also used them to smuggle weapons and perpetrate cross-border raids and kidnappings.

Palestinians and the question of return

Part of the reason Egypt is concerned about opening the Rafah border crossing is the possibility of extremist elements, including Hamas, coming into the country. But it is also contending with its own internal problems as well as the issue of civilian refugees entering the country without any plan or possibility of return. And Egypt is facing serious internal economic challenges which make the possibility of taking on Palestinian refugees untenable.

Egypt already relies heavily on Gulf Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to fill its coffers, help stave off democratic movements in the region, and counter the influence of Iran and Turkey. That unofficial alliance, though, has faltered in recent years over geopolitical and economic disagreements. Egypt has sought a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to help alleviate those pressures, but that money comes with its own pressures to make democratic governmental reforms and enact tougher economic policies.

Those economic issues also increase the possibility of internal unrest — which an influx of refugees, including some sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood by virtue of ties to Hamas, could exacerbate.

Still, it would likely be internally unpopular for Egypt to do nothing to help Gazans, Byman said. “The Egyptian people do not like Palestinians being killed, so the Egyptian government has to recognize some degree of popular concern on these issues. That means working with Hamas in some ways when there is a crisis.”

But Egypt also has an evolving relationship with Israel, starting with the Camp David Accords, signed by US President Jimmy Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1978. That relationship has grown from a framework for peace talks to economic and security cooperation that’s important to both sides. Specifically, Israel helps Egypt fight Islamic extremists on the Sinai peninsula and imports natural gas into Egypt, which puts pressure on the Egyptians not to upset that relationship.

“The question is, will [the Egyptian government] suffer more from helping or not helping? The goal would be to be seen as helping, but not do much from the Egyptian point of view,” said Byman.

There is also the difficult issue of Palestinians’ continued displacement since 1948; most Gazans are the descendants of refugees from the first Arab-Israeli war, which Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe. Palestinians live in diaspora all over the world, including in the US, and in refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. For Egypt to be seen as contributing further to that pattern, even given the humanitarian crisis, is undesirable, too.

Even moving Gazans in desperate need of medical care to Egypt is complicated, Zaher Sahloul, the head of MedGlobal, a medical NGO that operates in crisis zones, told Vox in an interview. “We’re against that as an international organization. We’re against evacuating people from their homeland [so they become] refugees.”

There are some developments in the situation as of Sunday, though; Israel has turned on water access in southern Gaza, though Médecins Sans Frontières, a medical group that operates in conflict zones, said in an email statement Sunday that their Gaza teams “report that accessing water is difficult, and is getting worse by the hour. Gaza’s water shortage has now reached a critical threshold.” Without fuel or electricity to run the region’s water treatment plants, “there is now no longer any drinking water being produced in Gaza.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been traveling throughout the Middle East in recent days, as the US and other stakeholders try to negotiate aid to Gazans, as well as safe routes and ceasefires to ensure people can move somewhat safely. “We believe that civilians should not suffer because of the depravity of Hamas,” Blinken told Randa Abul Azm of Al-Arabiya Sunday. “And among other things, that means that they should have food, water, medicine, all the basic essentials that they need.”

Blinken met with Sisi on Sunday, and told reporters in a briefing before he headed to Israel that “Rafah will be reopened. We’re putting in place with the United Nations, with Egypt, with Israel, with others, a mechanism by which to get the assistance in and to get it to people who need it.”

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