Analysis: Despite hostile public, Egypt won’t destroy Israel relations
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in Cairo, Egypt on Feb. 6, 2024.
(Photo: Chuck Kennedy/U.S. State Department)

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has greater worries and ‘will not compound his country’s woes unless he absolutely has to,’ experts tell JNS.

By Israel Kasnett
February 18, 2024

(JNS) — Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is confronting a complex array of challenges along the country’s northeastern border with Gaza. 

With approximately 1.4 million Palestinians amassed in Rafah on the Gaza-Egypt border, el-Sisi is engaged in negotiations for the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas and simultaneously attempting to keep diplomatic ties with Israel intact. 

However, amid these diplomatic efforts, he faces domestic issues compounded by strong anti-Israel sentiment among the Egyptian public, who perceive him as being too closely aligned with the United States and Israel.

Speculation has arisen regarding the potential dissolution of Egypt’s 45-year peace treaty with Israel in the event of an Israel Defense Forces incursion into Rafah. Israel asserts that the city serves as a stronghold for the last four Hamas battalions, which must be eliminated in order to win the war.

However, according to Jacob Olidort, director of research at the Washington-based Jewish Institute for National Security of America, it is “unlikely” Egypt would end its peace treaty with Israel if the IDF enters Rafah.

“Although this appeared to be a real concern following el-Sisi’s remarks several weeks ago, the [Egyptian] foreign minister’s statements in recent days made it clear that Egypt’s cancellation of its peace treaty with Israel is highly unlikely,” he told JNS.

Speaking at a press conference in Slovenia on Feb. 12, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said, “There is a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, which has been in effect for the past 40 years and will continue to be,” according to Asharq Al-Awsat.

Egypt would adhere to the 1979 peace treaty as long as it remains reciprocal, he said, adding, “Therefore, I will rule out any comments that have been made on this matter.”

Olidort emphasized that canceling the treaty “would mean ending the deep cooperation between the Egyptian and Israeli militaries in fighting Islamic State in the Sinai, as well as U.S. military assistance.”

Eran Lerman, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, believes el-Sisi has greater worries and “will not compound his country’s woes unless he absolutely has to.”

In Lerman’s view, el-Sisi would not take the extraordinary step of cutting ties with Israel unless Israel expelled the Palestinians to Sinai or some other action, military or otherwise, that would lead to a massive breach of the fences. 

According to Lerman, this is something Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is “committed to avoid.”

Haisam Hassanein, an adjunct fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JNS he doesn’t believe Israel and Egypt would get into a conflict or cancel the peace treaty because of Hamas.

However, he said, Egypt “worries about a spillover to its territory, which could liquidate the Palestinian issue or open the door for Hamas and jihadi operatives to infiltrate its border by posing as refugees.”

“Previous bloody clashes between Palestinian militias in their host nations, such as Lebanon and Jordan, don’t inspire confidence in Cairo,” he added. Moreover, “If they attack Israel from Sinai, it could strain Egypt-Israel relations,” he noted.

This concern over a spillover has reportedly prompted Egypt to begin building a containment area for Palestinian refugees in Northern Sinai on the Gaza border as a precaution.

In addition to Israel’s war against Hamas, Egypt is currently dealing with a multitude of other issues. As Lerman recently wrote, “the Egyptian pound is in free fall; investors and business leaders are leaving; essentials are in short supply; tourism is in decline; and now, attacks on Red Sea shipping have led to a plunge in Suez Canal income, and the failure of talks with Ethiopia on the filling of the Renaissance Dam has cast a shadow on Egypt’s vital water supply.”

In addition, a civil war is raging in neighboring Sudan and Libya remains unstable.

All this places Egypt in a precarious position, and the need to demonstrate it is siding with the Palestinians seemingly clashes with its need to cooperate with Israel.

Olidort noted however that Egyptian public opinion is important, as are the “optics of how the government appears in relation to Israel and its operation in Gaza.” 

He said Egypt’s position with regard to the Palestinians in Gaza “has less to do with shouldering the economic burden of caring for them or the security burden of fighting Hamas—there is, rest assured, no love lost between the Sisi government and Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood—and a great deal to do with the public opinion pressure to not appear to side with either Israel or, militarily, with the United States.”

Egypt’s domestic challenges, and particularly its mounting economic woes, are very real, said Olidort. “But there is a clear recognition that compromising its regional reputation could make matters worse,” he added. 

According to Olidort, the concerns of a spillover from Gaza as the IDF turns its focus on Rafah “are just as much about optics as about security; just as threatening, in the Egyptian view, as a porous border is the political blowback caused by a public narrative that Egypt is helping Israel push Palestinians from their land.”

At the same time, according to Lerman, Israel is “eager to preserve a highly valuable strategic relationship, even if the Egyptian public domain is still quite poisonous.”

As Israel moves forward with plans to invade Rafah and root out the Hamas terrorists there, including the group’s leader Yahya Sinwar, much of the international community and media have condemned Israel’s plans.

For instance, the South African government has gone as far as submitting an “urgent request” to the International Court of Justice in The Hague to consider whether Israel’s planned offensive in Rafah constitutes a “further imminent breach of the rights of Palestinians in Gaza.”

In a statement released on Friday, the ICJ declined to take additional measures.

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron called on Israel to restrain itself in Rafah. “Many of the people in Rafah have already moved three, four or five times. It is not possible for them to move again,” he said on Tuesday. “That is why it is so important that the Israelis stop and think before going ahead with any operations in Rafah.”

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been pushing back against these warnings, telling ABC News in an interview on Sunday: “Those who say that under no circumstances should we enter Rafah are basically saying lose the war.”

“Victory is within reach. We’re going to do it. We’re going to get the remaining Hamas terrorist battalions in Rafah, which is the last bastion, but we’re going to do it,” Netanyahu said.

Israel’s position has been that only military pressure will secure the hostages’ release.

The daring commando operation in Rafah earlier this week that saw the rescue of Israeli hostages Fernando Simon Marman and Norberto Louis Har from Rafah only strengthens this position.

Luckily for Israel, Hamas’s affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, el-Sisi’s sworn enemies, means he needs to support Israel in its fight to defeat Hamas.

“At the end of the day, Egypt has as much an interest in the defeat of rabid Islamism as we do,” said Lerman.

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