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 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
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.
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
It's a thankless
task. Palestinians feel betrayed while Israel gives Egypt a regular ticking-off
for what it calls poor border policing.
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
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.
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
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.
S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes
feedback and can be contacted by email at email@example.com.