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Commentary Last Updated: Jan 11th, 2008 - 00:29:59

Sandwiched between competing interests
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Jan 11, 2008, 00:28

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The Egyptian government has not only discovered it can't please all of the people all of the time, it's having trouble pleasing any of the people any of the time. The problem is its friends, allies and neighbours are divided and placing demands on Egypt to take sides.

A prime example of the position in which Cairo finds itself occurred last week. When up to 3,000 Palestinian pilgrims arrived in Egypt en route from Makkah to Gaza, Israel, citing security issues, demanded that they be routed home via the Israeli-monitored border crossing Kerem Shalom rather than Rafah, controlled by Egypt.

Egypt agreed to Israel's request, even though the pilgrims had initially exited Gaza through Rafah, and quickly found itself in the eye of a storm.

Amid outrage from Hamas officials within the group, who feared arrest under the new plan, the pilgrims refused to budge. The result was that some were stranded on ferry boats or in the border town of Al Arish, where they were temporarily housed in a sports stadium, complaining of hunger and cold.

In the meantime, Egypt was being pressured by Israel to stick to its agreement and was warned that if it didn't, the peace process could be compromised. In addition, Hamas threatened Cairo it would stir up trouble within Egypt if it refused to open the gates.

Thanks to the intervention of the Saudi government, which certainly felt a sense of responsibility concerning the Haj pilgrims' welfare, the Egyptian government decided to open Rafah.

Hamas lauded Egypt for not giving in to Israeli "blackmail." The exhausted pilgrims were relieved. But the Israelis were livid and so was the Mahmoud Abbas-led Palestinian authority, which accused Egypt of back-stabbing.

Egypt did the right thing. Although it has certain agreements with Israel it is, after all, a primarily Muslim country and considers itself as one of the leaders, if not "the leader," of the Arab world.

If it had insisted on re-routing pilgrims via Kerem Shalom, resulting in arrests, then it would have been open to accusations of behaving in an anti-Islamic fashion.

That would not have sat well with devout Egyptians, who throughout the dispute called upon Shaikh Al Azhar to issue a fatwah (decree) in the pilgrims' favour.

For Egypt, the border with Gaza has long been a political hornets' nest as it is responsible for preventing the smuggling of cash and weapons to prop up Hamas, considered by Israel and most Western countries as a terrorist organisation.

Likewise, Rafah monitored by European officials until the Hamas take-over of Gaza when they fled leaving the unwanted baby to mother Egypt.

It's an uncomfortable situation for Egypt to be in as the overwhelming majority of ordinary Egyptians sympathise with the Palestinians' legitimate struggle.

Yet members of the Egyptian military and police force have to put aside their personal emotions and affiliations so as to guard a frontier from the perceptions of Israeli security concerns.

Thankless task

It's a thankless task. Palestinians feel betrayed while Israel gives Egypt a regular ticking-off for what it calls poor border policing.

The Egyptian government protests it cannot do more as under the 1978 Camp David peace agreement it is only allowed a maximum of 750 soldiers to patrol the border, and these are barred from carrying heavy weapons. Each time it requests an amendment to that limit, Israel turns it down.

Tensions came to a head last month when Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni accused Cairo of doing a "terrible job" of securing the border.

She was promptly taken to task by Egypt in a statement, which read: "It is better for the Israeli minister to concentrate on negotiation efforts with the Palestinians, instead of speaking randomly about issues she should not be dealing with if she is not fully aware of the situation."

Egypt has also accused Israel of trying to throw a wrench in the wheel of Egyptian-US relations, after the Israeli government forwarded video tapes to Washington purporting to show Egyptians assisting weapons smugglers and Hamas members to enter Gaza.

Israeli complaints have already resulted in Congress suspending $100 million in military aid to Egypt. However, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak told Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak his country had nothing to do with the US decision.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abul-Gheit isn't buying it. If Israel continues "to push and try to affect Egypt's relationship with the US and harm Egyptian interests, Egypt will certainly respond," he said.

Some angry Egyptian parliamentarians have even suggested that Cairo's commitment to Camp David should be reassessed.

To add even more spice to the mix, Egypt is currently being wooed by Tehran, which has offered to assist Cairo in its pursuit of nuclear energy; a proposition that would go down like a lead balloon with Israel and the US in the unlikely event it was taken up.

If Egypt is ever to be relieved of its tightrope act, all parties need to allow it some leeway. Constant naggings, criticisms and depriving it of funds are not the answer.

The only solution is for everyone to work towards a Palestinian state and a comprehensive peace deal but, tragically, that's easier said than done.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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