August 4, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Gaza Conflict: Egypt Loses, No Matter the Outcome

• As the death toll in Gaza rises, international pressure to ‘do something’ increases, particularly on the Arab States

• But Israel has little to show for its efforts so far, and will carry on with its security objectives in Gaza

• Saudi Arabia and Egypt are inching more towards the middle ground and away from tacit support for Israel in the battle against the Muslim Brotherhood’s offshoot Hamas—but Iran is already there

• This leaves regional actors with uncomfortable choices; however, Saudi Arabia will cope with the conflict’s outcome better than Egypt.

The longer Israel’s latest incursion into Gaza lasts, the more Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab States that hoped to see Hamas dealt a knock-out blow will face problems from the Arab street. Not only are protests from the Arab street becoming more vocal as the dead and wounded pile up, but with no end to the killing in sight, the political fallout is increasingly working against Israel’s ‘closet’ supporters.

Few political leaders care much what the United Nations thinks, especially not in Israel where the international body is seen as stacked against it, but the UN’s light blue logo still means something to the many millions of people who applaud its  worldwide humanitarian efforts. The UN also has a degree of credibility that other political bodies lack, especially when it comes to reports from places like Gaza, where UN officials on the ground are generally regarded as impartial witnesses to what is going on. They inform and influence public opinion.

The UN reports, therefore, of civilian casualties, shelled schools, and the desperate plight of a people squeezed into ever-smaller spaces, have generated considerable international concern. Israel is not likely to stop Operation Protective Edge however, until it attains an acceptable measure of security for its people by achieving something more tangible than the destruction of a few tunnels. Furthermore, it will feel little pressure to do so while public opinion at home and in the US remains favorable enough to ensure that there is no change in the long-standing US policy to support Israel. But the Arab States, whose leaders face few domestic challenges to their rule, operate in a different international climate: their comfort zone lies more towards the middle of the pack.

Taking the deterioration of the situation in Gaza together with the likelihood that it is going to get worse, it is hardly surprising that the Arab States have begun to change their approach. Immediately after the collapse of the ceasefire on August 1, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia complained of international silence over what he described as “war crimes.” The same day, President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt said that despite the end of the ceasefire, he still hoped that peace talks could take place in Cairo. After initially turning a blind eye, the two major Arab powers seem to have decided to get involved.

There are two good reasons for this. First, as King Abdullah pointed out in his speech, the death and destruction in Gaza is likely to radicalize yet another generation of extremists who believe that nothing will change until everything changes. The second is that the silence of the Arab States has left space for Iran, which has been both vocal and active in urging action to stop the bloodshed. In doing so, Iran has managed to project something beyond its expected opposition to Israeli action: it is bidding to reclaim itself as the champion of the ‘oppressed,’ even if they are Sunni Arabs.

More problematic still is Iran’s re-affirmation of support for the military wing of Hamas, after a period of chill, by Qassim Suleimani, the powerful head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ al-Quds Force on July 30. Not only does this suggest that whatever Israel does over the coming days, Hamas and/or other ‘resistance’ groups in Gaza will recover, but also that Saudi Arabia and Egypt now have a choice of either joining Iran, or siding with Israel on the one hand or with the violent Salafist opponents of Hamas, such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, on the other. There is no more room in the middle.

Saudi Arabia is likely to overcome this problem, as it has so many times in the past; but the far less experienced team around al-Sisi may find it harder. It is not just Hamas that views the Egyptian Government as a partial player in the Israel-Gaza conflict, so too does most of the rest of the World. Al-Sisi and his advisers have a long way to go to have any chance of playing the regional role in Middle East politics that they claim to seek. In fact, having made clear that political opposition to Muslim Brotherhood-allied Hamas was more important than providing humanitarian assistance to its neighbors in Gaza, Egypt is in a worse position now than it was when the conflict started—and with no easy way out.


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