November 13, 2023

IntelBrief: What is Egypt’s Role in the Future of Gaza?

AP Photo/Lewis Joly

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Egypt’s proximity to and historical relationship with the Gaza Strip, as well as its relations with Israel, make Cairo pivotal to a stable outcome of the Israel-Hamas conflict.
  • Egyptian control over the Rafah crossing, the only Gaza outlet still open, has put Egypt’s leadership at the center of efforts to protect the Gaza population from the effects of the war.
  • Although publicly urging a ceasefire, Egypt has a history of animosity with Hamas and would privately welcome a successor Gaza government that rejects political violence and commits to negotiations with Israel.
  • Cairo does not want a large influx of Gaza refugees into the Sinai Peninsula because of uncertainty over whether and when the refugees might go back to their homes.

Over the past two decades, as the perceived threat from Iran to the Arab states has supplanted concerns about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Egypt’s regional clout has been overshadowed by that of the Gulf Arab monarchies, which now wield significant influence not just in the region, but globally. However, due in part to its large population, geographical location, and its status as the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel, Egypt has remained key to any resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In connection with the aftermath of the 1948 war that attended the creation of the State of Israel, Egypt assumed control of the Gaza Strip and its population of Palestinians who fled or were forcibly displaced by the fighting. Cairo ran the territory until the Six-Day War of June 1967, in which Israel captured it from Egyptian forces. In 1982, in conjunction with the U.S.-brokered 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty and Israel’s return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, Israel also ceded to Egypt control of the Rafah border crossing linking the Gaza Strip and Egypt, though the Israelis still maintained considerable influence over the crossing. In 2005, with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) governing Gaza, Israel withdrew from the Strip entirely. Israel nonetheless maintained tight control over the Strip’s land and sea borders and restricted the movement of Gaza residents into Israel.

Hamas’ forcible takeover of the Gaza Strip from PA/PLO officials in 2007 heightened the security threat emanating from the territory to both Egypt and Israel, the latter of which viewed Hamas’ takeover of Gaza as a setback to any prospects for a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. Hamas continued to reject Israel’s right to exist, refused negotiations with Israel, and accepted copious amounts of funds and arms from Tehran. Meanwhile, under successive governments, Israel believed that it could simply manage the Palestinian issue through a divide-and-conquer strategy, elevating Hamas in an attempt to weaken the PA in the West Bank. This all occurred while the international community continued to look the other way and mostly ignored the demands for a Palestinian state.

Egypt saw Hamas not only as obstructing a permanent solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but also as an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood organization that opposed the regime of then-President Hosni Mubarak. The current President, Abdel Fattah El Sisi, came to power in a 2013 military-led overthrow of the elected president Mohammad Morsi, a senior Muslim Brotherhood figure considered sympathetic to Hamas and regional Islamist movements. Seeking regional stabilization, the leaders of Egypt and other Arab states privately support the same post-Israel-Hamas war outcome that U.S. officials are advocating – an eventual restoration of PA/PLO governance of Gaza. That outcome would unite the political structure of Gaza with that of the PA-run West Bank, whose leaders have long supported negotiations with Israel and disavowed the use of political violence or terrorism as a means of achieving political objectives. However, like many other regional and world leaders, Sisi and his Arab allies have all denounced Israel’s approach to the conflict in Gaza, which has resulted in the deaths of thousands of Palestinian civilians, including many children. Numerous hospitals in Gaza have been targeted since the conflict kicked off over a month ago. President Sisi reportedly called for an immediate cease-fire in the Gaza Strip during a meeting with visiting CIA Director William Burns on November 7. Sisi reiterated this call over the weekend at the joint Islamic-Arab summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, declaring the need for an immediate and sustainable ceasefire in Gaza “without restrictions or conditions.”

Recognizing its limited ability to influence Israel’s operations, Cairo has sought to insulate itself from the fallout from Israel’s decisions. But Cairo has sought to balance its support for the civilian residents of Gaza against the security ramifications of allowing large numbers of Gaza residents to flee to Egypt. Cairo has worked with U.S., Qatari, Israeli, and other international officials to increase the flow of humanitarian aid through the Rafah crossing for distribution to Gaza civilians. After many days of delay and indecision following the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, Egypt also enabled foreign nationals to leave Gaza through that border post. As the humanitarian aspect of the conflict becomes the overarching imperative of negotiations, including hostage negotiations, Egypt will inevitably play a more central role, given its control of the Rafah crossing. The amount of humanitarian aid flowing into Gaza provides Egypt with a primary seat at the negotiating table in the conflict, especially on the issue of hostages.

The Egyptian government has steadfastly opposed admitting Gaza residents into Egypt, including Israeli and other suggestions that Gaza residents could be temporarily housed in neighboring Sinai. Egyptian officials seek, at almost all costs, to avoid the refugee burden that such regional states as Jordan, Lebanon, Türkiye, and other states have borne in hosting large refugee populations from Iraq and Syria that fled wars there. Some Egyptian leaders suspect that Israel - in order to ensure that no threat re-emerges from Gaza - seeks to permanently displace Gaza’s civilian population in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world. From a security standpoint, Egyptian authorities also fear adding to the decade-long terrorism threat emanating from Islamic State affiliates and other Islamist factions operating in the Sinai Peninsula. Some Egyptian officials reportedly assess that Hamas or other Palestinian militants would operate in any refugee camps in the Sinai and potentially empower existing Sinai militant groups.

Egyptian leaders are also reluctant to undertake the political and military risks that would be needed to help secure the territory after Israel’s military operations conclude. According to a Wall Street Journal report, during their November 7 meeting, President Sisi rejected a proposal from CIA Director William Burns for Cairo to temporarily manage security in the Gaza Strip after the war until the PA is prepared to take over. That position might reflect a calculation by Cairo that, while Hamas’ military wing might be defeated by Israel, its ideology cannot be eradicated, and Hamas militants will still operate there. Neither Egypt nor any other Arab government has an appetite to fight a counterinsurgency campaign that would involve high numbers of casualties, as well as produce casualties among Palestinian civilians. Egyptian and other Arab leaders are skeptical that the PA can be reformed and re-energized to the point where a restoration of its rule would be broadly accepted in Gaza. Underlying the Egyptian and broader Arab position is an expectation that the responsibility for Gaza’s post-war security would default to U.S., European, and partner forces acting on behalf of Israel if the Arab states refused to help secure the territory.

Notwithstanding Egypt’s current insistence on keeping its involvement in Gaza limited, Egypt’s border with the territory and its historic role in Gaza and broader Palestinian affairs will no doubt cause U.S. and global officials to place substantial pressure on Cairo to play an extensive role in post-war Gaza. Seeking to end its own isolation that followed its 1979 peace treaty with Israel, Egypt supported the Israeli-PLO Oslo Accords in the early 1990s, which led to the formation of the PA. Egypt backed all subsequent Arab-Israeli peace treaties, including the 2020 Abraham Accords that saw the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan normalize relations with Israel. In every previous clash between Israel and Hamas, Cairo has been instrumental in brokering the ceasefires that ended each outburst of violence. In all likelihood, in order to preserve its global and regional relationships and avoid a repeat of the October 7-related Israel-Hamas combat, Egypt will likely eventually acquiesce to a significant security role in Gaza - if no credible alternatives develop. However, Egypt’s leaders will, in return, extract the maximum amount of concessions possible from U.S. officials, partner countries, and the wealthy Gulf states that largely lack the military capability to help secure post-war Gaza.