There is a bit of silver lining, even in the Gaza cloud. It’s this: the Egyptian government, aware that the West won’t help it get rid of the revolutionary Islamist regime there, that Israel cannot do it, and that Hamas won’t voluntarily accept subordination to the Palestinian Authority, now understands it has to protect itself from that threat.
For Egypt, the threat is multiple. Most directly, Hamas is a close ally to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, a group that wants to overturn the nationalist regime and give Egypt an Islamist state that would enjoy all the blessings of Iran and Taliban Afghanistan. In or after their revolution, the Egyptian elite would be murdered and all of its property confiscated.
A second threat to Egypt comes from the fact that Hamas is an Iranian client. The days are long gone when Egypt could credibly present itself as the leader of the Arab world and the trend-setter for the region, but it still has a real national interest in what happens elsewhere in the area.
Iran is a threat to Egypt in four ways: Persian versus Arab; Shia versus Sunni; Islamist versus nationalist; and Iran versus Egypt on a state-to-state level of competition. One might well think of a hostile Gaza Strip in relation to Egypt as parallel to what a Communist Cuba has been to the United States.
Do you think Cubans are fighting for healthcare or freedom from Communism?
On a third level, Gaza could easily become a safe haven for terrorists operating against Egypt. Any weapon smuggled into Gaza, for example, could reappear some day in an attack on tourists in Cairo.
With Egypt approaching its first “normal” transition of leadership in forty years the government seems to be all the more nervous about such things.
(President Gamal Abdel Nasser died in 1970 and there was a short-lived but potentially dangerous factional battle, but when President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981 the elite united and Husni Mubarak had no trouble gaining full power.)
So what can Egypt do? It doesn’t want to rule Gaza, as it did between 1948 and 1967. Why ingest such a headache, to mix metaphors. And Egypt’s obvious though not explicit support for Israel’s 2008-2009 retaliation against Hamas’s war brought it criticism. Egypt has also tried and failed to play mediator between Hamas and the PA. Cairo also knows it cannot depend on the United States (who can do so nowadays?)
Thus, the best Egyptian option is to isolate the contagion. An entire new Egyptian security system, with more troops and several zones of control, has been established. A wall has been constructed to prevent Gazans from breaking through and houses have been demolished near the border line. Stepped-up efforts try to control smuggling.
The government has made it clear that nothing crosses the border without its permission, though it isn’t able to enforce that completely of course. I haven’t seen figures on successful smuggling and—truth be told—a lot of Egyptian officials like bribes. So I cannot say how much they have cut down on the cross-border commerce. But they are trying harder.
Remember, the Hamas regime is not just a threat to Israel but to Egypt. Egypt’s government doesn’t forget that for a moment.