The Palestinians in Gaza have been extremely supportive of the Egyptian revolution that toppled the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak. Their support is in part due to the historical relationship between the Palestinians and the Egyptians: Egypt had control of Gaza until the Israeli occupation in 1967 and the Palestinian and Egyptian peoples have a variety of social, political and economic relationships.
However, another important factor explaining their support for the revolution is the heavy burden that the Mubarak regime had imposed on Gaza.
The former Egyptian regime played a negative role in the blockade imposed on the Gaza strip, stifling its people. According to the Israeli press, at the end of 2008 Mubarak’s regime was a firm supporter of the Israeli war on Gaza earlier that year.
Egypt’s former regime wanted to pressure Gaza and put an end to Hamas’s control over the strip. Mubarak’s regime supported opening Rafah crossing only for individuals, and only for a few hours, along with the construction of a steel barrier under the Egypt-Gaza border [to stop tunnelling and smuggling]. The relations between Hamas’ leaders and the Mubarak regime were under the complete authority of the Egyptian intelligence services.
In spite of this, Hamas’s leaders did not criticize the Mubarak regime out of fear that further sanctions might be imposed on the group, and on the Palestinians in Gaza in general. Therefore, today, those in Gaza are thrilled that Mubarak’s regime has fallen, and they see that the blockade they endured for years might finally be coming to an end.
However, Gaza’s joyful support to the new Egyptian government does not usher in, necessarily, the end of the "blockade era." For the new regime is definitely affected by several internal and external factors, which will inevitably affect Egypt’s relation with Gaza. The changes in the relationship between Gaza and Egypt might very well end up being insignificant, and in any case they will not live up to Hamas’ expectations. They will, however, have important results for the humanitarian situation.
First of all, the new Egyptian regime will not close its eyes to the existence of the Gaza-Rafah tunnels, especially after the killing of Egyptian soldiers in Sinai in early August 2012. The Egyptian government will certainly seek to close such tunnels to ensure that Gaza does not constitute a safe haven for Jihadists passing from the Palestinian strip towards Egypt, or worse, to Israel from the Egyptian territories. In the latter case, Egypt might become embroiled in an unenviable political crisis.
The new regime will not tolerate continued weapon-smuggling operations from the Sinai to Gaza. Unlike the Syrian regime, which takes great pride in its support for Hezbollah thanks to the country’s economic independence, Egypt is negotiating with the West and the International Monetary Fund to bring in new investments and obtain loans that could help the state alleviate poverty from which the majority of Egyptians suffer.
Egypt’s new administration cannot, and is not willing, to turn its back on the West. In return for loans and investments, Cairo will make new commitments, mainly related to the measures Egypt should adopt to prevent weapon smuggling into Gaza. In brief, Egypt will not make any radical changes to its policies regarding weapon smuggling to Gaza — whether through tunnels or other channels — in support of the Palestinian resistance.
On the contrary, the new regime will adopt stricter measures to prevent weapon smuggling to Gaza as a sign of good faith towards Western countries, which are expected to grant loans and financial aid to Egypt.
On the other hand, Egypt will adopt a new strategy concerning the Rafah crossing. As the new regime has decided to shut all tunnels and prevent all forms of weapon smuggling, it has also approved the opening of Rafah crossing permanently, which will allow individuals and merchandise to enter and leave the country without having to go through a third party.
Unlike the former regime — which used to claim that the Rafah crossing was closed because of an agreement signed between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel – the new Egyptian government will from now act according to international law. It is noteworthy that Egypt is not a signatory to the agreement on the Rafah crossing, and Egypt’s border with Gaza is subject to Egyptian authority as per international law.
The new Egyptian regime cannot disregard Egyptian public opinion, which is against the blockade on Gaza and the shutting of all arms-smuggling tunnels. The new Egypt will undoubtedly face international pressure to refrain from opening the Rafah crossing permanently for individuals and merchandise.
The world is, however, aware that the Gaza blockade strategy has failed to topple Hamas, and that the new Egyptian regime should listen to its people. There is also a general consensus that Egypt’s new policy of closing all tunnels and arms smuggling channels in return for lifting the blockade is a practical and realistic solution to the problems of all stakeholders in the Rafah crossing dilemma.
Is this exactly what Hamas and the PA want in Gaza and in the West Bank?
Hamas might want Egypt to follow in Syria and Iran’s footsteps in terms of the support they provide to Hezbollah. In other words, Hamas wants Egypt to act as the arms provider, funder, and security sponsor of the organization. However, Hamas is not the decision-maker in this equation, and Egypt’s new leaders will refuse to be involved in any armed conflict with Israel.
In fact, the new Egyptian regime and Hamas’ leaders have different priorities at this important stage. Therefore, Hamas will accept their role as the “administrative rulers” of Gaza and will open themselves to every new opportunity that contributes to Gaza’s economic and urban development.
Hamas will not want to involve Egypt in unwanted events. Furthermore, Hamas is well aware that the conflict with Israel is about the future of the West Bank and not Gaza.
Since Hamas took power in Gaza, residents there have been hoping for an end to the blockade. The PA might oppose opening the Rafah crossing to individuals and merchandise, mainly since such measures might cause further divisions [between the Palestinian factions]. However, it is aware that the national unity depends on several conditions not related to the Rafah crossing.
Ultimately, the PA is not the decision-maker in this equation either, and it is in its best interest to lift the blockade on Gaza so that its considerable spending on Gaza may decrease. It is expected that the new Egyptian policy will lead to a change in Hamas’ functions.
The resistance will drop out of the headlines, and Hamas will tighten its security control over other resistance forces in Gaza so that Israel will lack any pretext for attacking Gaza. Indeed, were they to carry out such attacks amid these circumstances, it might be a source of embarrassment for Israel and Egypt’s new leaders.
In brief, the relations between Egypt and Gaza will change to what best serves the interests of the Palestinians and the Egyptians. Egypt will lift the blockade on Gaza and close all arm-smuggling tunnels to Gaza in order to beef up security along its border, which may lead to Gaza’s role as a resistance force being cancelled or postponed for the coming years.