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Egypt Has Betrayed Palestinians in Their Time of Greatest Need

The Egyptian government has expressed rhetorical support for Palestinians but is complicit in Israel’s genocide in Gaza.

Egyptians participate in a protest in front of the Journalists Syndicate and break their fast with bread and water in protest against the starvation of the people of Gaza on March 26, 2024, in Cairo, Egypt.

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Famine is imminent” in northern Gaza, where an estimated 70 percent of the population faces catastrophic hunger, according to the United Nations Food Agency. Israeli journalist Zvi Bar’el reported that “Gazans are collecting weeds to prepare meals and mothers cannot breastfeed because they are so weak.”

It took more than five months and the loss of more than 32,000 Palestinian lives for the UN Security Council to finally succeed in issuing a resolution for ceasefire. But the potential end of the war does not mean the end of death. During the holy month of Ramadan, many Palestinians in Gaza have been breaking their fast on nothing more than a piece of bread and glass of water, if that. According to Doctors Without Borders, conditions in Rafah are dire: Many families have been displaced multiple times and have few belongings. They are sheltering in flimsy and unheated tents, with little access to water, sanitation, food or health care. Tens of thousands of people continue to pour into Rafah from neighboring Khan Yunis, where the war was intense.

One of the most disheartening ironies surrounding the current conditions of Palestinians in Gaza is that while there about 1.5 million Palestinians starving and dying in Rafah across the border from Egypt, there are thousands of aid trucks on the Egyptian side that cannot cross the border. Gaza Strip has three crossings. One is the Rafah crossing, located on Gaza’s 7.5-mile border with Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The two other border crossings are Erez, where people cross into Israel from northern Gaza, and Kerem Shalom, a commercial goods junction with Israel in southern Gaza. These two are controlled entirely by Israel. Now that Israel considers the entire strip a war zone, and controls its borders, the Rafah crossing has become the main target for sending humanitarian aid to Gaza. If we know that Gaza’s population is about 2.3 million, we can sense how grave the situation is, as more than half of the population have sought refuge in Rafah to escape the conflict in other parts of Gaza. Besides, humanitarian aid that is sent to Gaza from across the globe, not only from Egypt, has nowhere to go but the Rafah Crossing. This reality on its own is a grave pressure on Egypt, but it is also a responsibility.

It seems a remote possibility to imagine the United States taking a more just position on Israel’s the genocidal war on Palestine. The U.S. vetoed all efforts of issuing a resolution for ceasefire and decided to let a resolution pass after five months and two weeks of the war. But what about Egypt? More than other Arab nations, Egypt has a historical, political and humanitarian responsibility toward Palestinians in Gaza. After all, it is the only Arab country that shares borders with Gaza, while its population suffers war, starvation and genocide. Unsurprisingly, however, Egypt’s relation to Gaza is not straightforward. Egypt has displayed rhetorical solidarity with Palestinians but it has simultaneously acted in complicity with the U.S., Israel, and other Arab autocrats in their campaigns against Palestinians. Egyptian leaders make constant statements about starvation and humanitarian crisis in Gaza, while not taking radical actions to practice this solidarity.

On the eve of October 7 Hamas-led attacks on Israel, and the subsequent Israeli war on Gaza, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had their own plans for the future of Palestine — plans that overlooked Palestinians’ right to self-determination while continuing normalization with Israel and conspiring against Palestinian rights.

One such effort has been the Trump administration-sponsored Abraham Accords, bilateral Arab-Israeli normalization agreements signed on September 15, 2020, between Israel and the UAE and between Israel and Bahrain. It’s no secret that Israel and many autocrats see eye to eye. For Israel, it would rather have status quo without democracy and continue to claim that it’s the only “democracy” in the Middle East. Arab autocrats, for their part, believe that working with and earning the blessing of Israel will ensure U.S. acceptance of their brutal regimes. While Egypt was not in the forefront of these plans, Saudi Arabia and UAE have both been key sponsors of current military leaders in Egypt. Egypt’s government did not reject these plans for Palestine’s future — made without Palestinians’ right to self-determination or any form of liberation. In this context, it’s not an exaggeration to suggest that Egypt is a rhetorical ally for Palestinians but a practical ally for Israel.

Since October 7, Egyptian officials have had to navigate conflicting pressures — from ongoing popular anger and economic deterioration at home, to its strong alliance with Israel and the influence of the reactionary regimes of Saudi Arabia and UAE. On October 10, 2023, and in one of his first early statements about the war, Egypt’s military dictator, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, spoke in broad terms, warning against escalation in the conflict, and calling for protecting civilians from both sides. On October 15 and beyond, after the escalation in the war, when it was undeniable that the Israeli response was extraordinarily disproportionate and amounted to collective punishment, el-Sisi’s government started to emphasize this line: Israel’s assaults have exceeded “the right of self-defense.” Egypt refused Israeli proposals for a mass transfer of Palestinians in Gaza to the Sinai Peninsula. Egyptian leaders also refused a role in Gaza’s security after the war.

But it was South Africa, not Egypt or another Arab country, that took Israel to the International Court of Justice in the Hague on charges of genocide after months of indiscriminate killings of civilians in Gaza. Further, as an entrusted ally to Israel, some reports suggested that Egypt even warned Israel before the October 7 attacks, something that Israeli officials denied. It was Qatar, not Egypt, that became the main sponsor of ceasefire talks. While Egyptian officials continued to complain that it’s the Israeli side that is stopping aid caravans into Gaza, el-Sisi’s government has arrested pro-Palestine protesters in Egypt and expelled foreign activists who were seeking a permit for a convoy into Gaza. Recently, Egypt hosted truce talks that representatives from Egypt, the U.S., Qatar and Hamas attended, but an Israeli delegation did not show up.

Two pieces of background information are needed here. First, in 1979, Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty that eventually returned the Sinai, which borders the Gaza Strip, to Egyptian control. As part of that treaty, a 100-meter wide strip of land known as the Philadelphi Route was established as a buffer zone between Gaza and Egypt. According to the peace accord, only people, not goods, are allowed through the Egyptian border crossing. All cargo traffic must go through the Kerem Shalom border crossing on the Israeli side. In the aftermath of the 2006 Hamas election victory, Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza. But while the peace accord is a binding document for both parties, it has been violated consistently by both Egypt and Israel in the context of their collaborations to combat alleged terrorism in Sinai.

Second, the current leadership in Egypt emerged out of a military coup in July 2013. El-Sisi, the leader of the coup, has been president of Egypt since 2014 and was recently elected for a third term, which will start this April. Since his rise to power, el-Sisi has constructed his legitimacy as a strong security man whose role is to save Egypt from the chaos and the instability of the Arab Spring. El-Sisi’s regime proved to be a counterrevolutionary force par excellence. Internally, a significant goal of his rule was to punish pro-democracy activists and possibly all civilian oppositions for the revolution in Egypt, where he is launching some of the most repressive and brutal regimes in contemporary Egyptian history.

Under el-Sisi, Egypt’s external debt has exploded to $164.7 billion. With the current war aggravating Egypt’s economic problems, given the massive foreign debt and the near collapsing economy, it would not be too far of a stretch to imagine el-Sisi accepting a proposal for a mass transfer of Palestinians to Sinai if Egypt’s debt is waived, an offer that has reportedly been considered.

Regionally, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been sponsoring the el-Sisi regime to a certain degree. As a former leader of the military intelligence apparatus in Egypt, el-Sisi has been a close collaborator with Israel on intelligence issues, including in his campaigns against insurgents in Sinai. But as several rights groups emphasize, the dictator has been using counterterrorism to target his opposition and silence any talk about the decline of human rights in Egypt. Let us recall here that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak used to be a trusted mediator between Israel and Palestinians and among Palestinian factions. El-Sisi, however, has become known mainly as a security actor and Egypt has lost its leading role as a trusted mediator, with Qatar and other Arab countries emerging to replace it.

To be sure, Egypt did the right thing by refusing a mass transfer of Palestinians to Sinai and declining to be part of security arrangements for Gaza after the war. But these refusals would not have happened without public pressure. Despite the unprecedented repression in Egypt, Egyptian journalists organized protests in their association. On March 8, Egyptian women protested in the street for the first time in years, expressing their solidarity with Palestinian women. Most of the aid that is going to Gaza from Egypt is collected by and organized by Egypt’s civil society, not the government. Reports also suggest that one of the el-Sisi regime’s men in Egypt, a native businessman from Sinai, Ibrahim al-Arjani, who built his business in capitalizing on pro-government military to fight Islamists in Sinai, has been making profits off of Palestinians who are coming to Egypt through Rafah. When Mada Masr, one of the remaining independent news outlets in Egypt, explored the dreadful actions of Arjani in Sinai and Rafah, the Egyptian government charged its editor with disseminating false news, and running a website without a license, instead of responding to the reports. I want to clarify that by suggesting that Egypt has betrayed Palestinians, my reference here is to the Egyptian regime, not the people, many of whom have been trying to resist the repression and protest in solidarity with Palestinians.

Many Egyptians, Palestinians and observers are watching the Egyptian government with great disappointment. They see the el-Sisi regime as not only failing to provide democracy and development to Egypt, but also becoming an almost crony regime that revolves around the orbit of reactionary Arab regimes, the U.S. and Israel. Older generations in Egypt and Palestine remember Egypt as a global leader of anti-colonial struggles in the 1950s and the 1960s, including the struggle in Palestine. Egypt also was a leader of the non-aligned movement in the 1960s. Younger generations compare the el-Sisi regime with Mubarak, who was relatively a trustworthy ally to Palestinians. In short, Egypt can and should offer Palestinians more than empty rhetoric.

Egypt must shift its position from rhetorical solidarity and ongoing complicity to a strong stance for justice for the Palestinians. In the short term, Egypt can do much better than begging Israel to let aid go through Rafah. Egypt should form field hospitals by the border, establish emergency transportation for medical help to Egyptian hospitals, and sponsor international solidarity and aid delegations to Rafah. Egypt should make use of its complete sovereignty over the Rafah Crossing. Now with the ceasefire resolution passing, it remains unclear whether Israel will comply. Regardless however, the genocide is continuing through displacement and starvation, in the form of humanitarian and health crises, due to the lack of sanitation and infrastructure as war continues.

At the moment, Israel’s postwar plans for Gaza involve direct military control over the Strip, with the assistance of close Arab allies, especially the UAE with some façade of Palestinian collaborators. Israel wants to dictate Gaza’s future. For example, one of the potential security plans for Gaza’s future proposed by Israel and the UAE also involves a Palestinian, Mohammed Dahlan — the former national security adviser and a leader of the Fatah party, who is also a security adviser to the government of UAE. Dahlan is also one of Israel’s closest collaborators. Another plan involves postwar construction in Gaza. Some unverified information suggests that Israeli real estate firms may be planning to build beach resorts in Gaza after the war. Setting aside this information, it is clear that Israel prioritizes security over reconstruction. And when it comes to reconstruction, Israel prefers that this task be done by its close Arab allies. (Palestinian input is not a priority.)

Needless to say, neither Israeli genocidaires nor Arab autocrats should decide the future of Palestinians in Gaza and Palestine at large without including Palestinians themselves. If Egypt cannot be a true advocate for Palestinian liberation and self-determination, it should not join the dreadful plans of Israel, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Certainly, no viable peace or end of the conflict can be based on excluding Palestinians and their right to live in dignity and self-determination.

Let us strive for a free Palestine — no longer one where starving Palestinians resort to eating grass, but a future full of flourishing and freedom.