Israel’s war on Gaza has sent shock waves echoing throughout the Middle East. Mohamed Naeem, an Egyptian socialist activist, talks about the war’s impact and the way countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran are likely to respond.

The Israeli Defense Forces fire into Gaza on October 11, 2023. (Photo by Jack Guez / AFP via Getty Images)

When Israel’s war on Gaza began, the political situation in the Middle East was already far from stable. Iran faced mass protests, and Egypt was wrestling with Ethopia over the waters of the Nile. Elsewhere, Arab-Israeli relations were beginning to thaw, as the Gulf monarchies sought to expand their political and economic reach through free-trade agreements and diplomatic normalization.

In this conversation, the Egyptian Marxist Mohamed Naeem discusses how the strategic interests of these powers may inform their response to the ongoing war, and what Israel’s all-out assault will mean for the region’s future. A longer version of this interview previously appeared, in Arabic, in the Lebanese magazine Al-Morasel.

Mahmoud Marrwa

What are the transformations in the Gulf that have affected Gaza, in your opinion? And how have they affected it?

Mohamed Naeem

In my estimation, the situation in the Gulf, appearing victorious over the rubble of the Arab Spring, seizes the opportunity of the defeat of the people’s movements to consolidate the foundations of a new regional order. In this order, Gulf money plays the dominant role politically and economically and imposes its own vision of the meaning of the people, their value, and the limits of their freedoms.

But we must differentiate here between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Qatar. The cases of Qatar and the Emirates are alike: they are corporate states, where only a small minority of the population has citizenship of the country, and they are more like shareholders in the state corporation. But Saudi Arabia, in the final analysis, is a country with its own internal dynamics and forces.

Of course, it is governed by an absolute monarchy and an iron security system. But there remain tens of millions of Saudi Arab people on the Arabian Peninsula in Najd, the Hijaz, and the Eastern Province. They have a diverse spectrum of moods and inclinations that was capable of producing both Osama bin Laden and Juhayman al-Otaibi at the far right of the scene, and Abdelrahman Munif and Nasser Al-Saeed at the left. This is also relatively true of Kuwait, although it is smaller, and Bahrain as well, where an early uprising broke out at the beginning of the Arab Spring.

Gulf money plays the dominant role politically and economically and imposes its own vision.

Before the Arab Spring, the Gulf was seeking to renew itself and modernize its social structures quietly in the face of charges of supporting terrorism and promoting Islamic obscurantism. But the equation changed after that, with a new emphasis on generalizing the modernist, neoliberal, and autocratic model of “efficient” monarchical rule throughout the region.

This shift was reflected in Gaza, with Gulf leaders now effectively saying “we want to build the Abu Dhabi–Tel Aviv or Dubai–Tel Aviv railway line, and that’s it.” Mohammed bin Salman came out and said, “We need a solution to the Palestinian situation in a way that eases some restrictions on the Palestinians.” This was not merely a liquidation of the Palestinian issue — it meant stomping all over it with boots.

From this standpoint, my opinion is that Gaza has exploded itself on the regional scene. It declared a suicidal war, and other interests converged with it, the most important of which is Iran. Iran, in my opinion, needs a regional crisis, and perhaps the explosion of new fronts such as Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, in order to confront an internal problem.

Mahmoud Marrwa

How do you read the position of Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the war?

Mohamed Naeem

There is a trade project extending from India to Israel, passing through the Emirates and Saudi Arabia. These are matters that are changing the characteristics of the region and the world and could spark wars if they are not part of regional agreements in which all parties agree.

Saudi Arabia’s position is currently unclear to me, and I cannot decide. It has handled its dealings with caution so far, and as the largest Gulf country and the largest country in the Arab Levant that is still organically cohesive, it has a high degree of maneuverability.

There is a trade project extending from India to Israel, passing through the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

There could be an Israeli effort to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia, but what would make Saudi Arabia rush to do so when Israel can offer a higher price to the Palestinians in return? In the final analysis, Saudi Arabia does not hate the good of the Palestinians as long as they come under its wing. I believe that it will try to mediate between the parties to have a dominant say in the most critical moments in the conflict, so that it can benefit from all outcomes.

There is a difference between the Saudi position and the Emirati position. The UAE has taken great strides toward normalization, the extent of which I do not have data about. I do not understand how far the horizons of cooperation, coordination, and overlap have reached, starting with business and extending into security cooperation.

Mahmoud Marrwa

If we talk about Egypt, how do its leading minds think about this war and Gaza in general? And who are these minds today? Who are its institutional poles?

Mohamed Naeem

I think that the main key to understanding Egypt’s relationship with Gaza currently is Cairo’s recognition of the independence of the Palestinian national decision-making process after the defeat of 1967. This changed Gamal Abdel Nasser’s relationship with Yasser Arafat from one of skepticism towards the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) chief to one of support. After 1967, Egypt recognized the PLO as the legitimate Palestinian representative. It also recognized the existence of a Palestinian people, not just an Arab people in Palestine, who constitute the spearhead of the unified Arab project.

Egypt wants to preserve Gaza as a place under the administration of the Palestinians, and it is absolutely not willing to compromise on this position. Egypt does not want to control Gaza. It would be very harmful to Egypt if it had to manage a territory with two million people and tens of thousands of armed men, including thousands of trained elite forces. This is something that may greatly affect and even threaten the political equation within Egypt itself. This is the thickest red line of all, regardless of the temptations or pressures.

Egypt has already learned the lesson of being responsible for the Gaza Strip between 1948 and 1967 in light of the Palestinian guerilla presence, since this was one of the reasons for the 1956 war. Why did Israel attack in 1956? Because the Palestinian guerrillas, under the leadership of an Egyptian lieutenant colonel named Mustafa Hafez, worked against the Israelis for four or five years. This ended up being one of the justifications for Israeli participation with Britain and France in the tripartite aggression that is known as the Suez Crisis in Western accounts.

But returning to the question of the Egyptian institutional mind and its poles, my opinion is that there are no poles. The Egyptian state has been like this since 1967. The July state arising from the Free Officers Movement coup of 1952 thinks in the same way in its security and sovereign incarnations, whether we are talking about the army, the intelligence services, or the police. Perhaps the army and the intelligence services are more specialized due to their particular knowledge of the Israeli and Palestinian dossiers — and more importantly, their monopoly on the correct, detailed information about them.

Peace between Egypt and Israel is not the peace of the braves, as Anwar Sadat said it was. It is actually closer to the peace of snakes.

It should not be underestimated that the current regional reality is primarily based on the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, which represents the most established and stable understanding in the region for nearly fifty years. Agreements are one thing, but tampering with the Camp David Accords is something entirely different.

We should also remember that peace between Egypt and Israel is not the peace of the braves, as Anwar Sadat said it was. It is actually closer to the peace of snakes. It is an old and established peace — a legacy of cooperation, security coordination, and mutual business. But at the same time, it is a peace between enemies, in which each party is well aware of its structural hostility to the other. It is a hostility that could express itself suddenly at any moment.

Here I need to touch for a moment on something beyond Gaza. The world and the region have treated Egypt, a priori, and for many decades, as a force for peace and stability in the Middle East. The question is: What are the guarantees for the continuation of this impulse while Egypt’s borders are all on fire? Look at Sudan, Libya, and now Gaza . . .

Why is the existence of a “peaceful Egypt” taken for granted while it faces a strategic, existential challenge with Ethiopia over the sources of the Nile, as well as existential challenges at the level of its public finances and economy? This region, and even the world, is still oblivious to the idea of Egypt as a force of sabotage and escalation. This is something that may have terrifying costs locally, regionally, and globally.

Mahmoud Marrwa

How do you view the calculations of other regional powers?

Mohamed Naeem

I am not an expert on each party individually, but it is clear that all parties in the region, with the exception of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, are actors in crisis: socially, politically, economically, and with their own people. What makes the idea of the outbreak of war so plausible is its brilliance as an idea that is being entertained by different parties at the same time, as a way out of such crises and a way for them to make gains.

Iran’s Islamic Republic regime has been facing widespread, courageous, and self-sacrificing popular protests for more than three years.

Let’s take Iran as an example. The Islamic Republic regime has been facing widespread, courageous, and self-sacrificing popular protests for more than three years. Perhaps some pillars of this regime wished for an American and Israeli escalation against them. What do they have to lose?

Iran’s rulers know how to unite a large sector of the home front and neutralize their opponents by inciting a Persian-Islamic nationalism that draws from the heritage and literature of national liberation and confrontation against imperialism. This, in my opinion, is what made the Americans quickly come to the region and declare that the war is essentially their war, whether to contain it or to expand its scope.

Mahmoud Marrwa

Is the Palestinian resistance threatened with exile this time as well — a scenario similar to the PLO’s expulsion from Beirut in 1982?

Mohamed Naeem

If you are talking about the armed resistance, the Palestinians are fighting on their land now, not in the isolated refugee camps in Lebanon. If you mean uprooting Hamas specifically, then I believe that the Palestinian organizational infrastructure is capable of reproducing itself again so long as it is on its land, and within the social and popular incubators that produced it. Palestinian resistance is not a political decision of a regional party, and it can continue so long as it is not subject to complete day-to-day occupation of the land by Israel.

But if you mean exile to the Sinai, the fact that Israel and the United States are pressing hard in this direction does not mean that it will happen. This would seriously threaten peace with Egypt. Just because the Americans present a scenario that appears to be ready and prepared, this does not mean that it is adult, intelligent, or achievable, even if it were to be imposed by force at a particular moment.

The perception that Egypt will rule the Palestinians militarily on behalf of the Israelis is extremely foolish.

Suppose, for example, that Israel reoccupies Gaza and installs a puppet authority, which I do not think is that straightforward. If it happens, it will only last for a few years. Let us imagine the displacement of the Palestinians for several kilometers into Egypt. Would that mean that the story is over?

The perception that Egypt will rule the Palestinians militarily on behalf of the Israelis is extremely foolish. The most likely scenario here is that you will displace the Palestinians by several kilometers and lose your peace with Egypt within a few years. What a very clever plan! The Palestinians left Beirut in 1982, but PLO armed men were near the Israeli Dimona atomic reactor just four years later, while the first Palestinian Intifada was at its peak.

Mahmoud Marrwa

In conclusion, what impact do you expect this crisis to have on the authorities in the region, especially if the war lasts for a long time and the scope of popular mobilization in support of the resistance and the people of the Gaza Strip expands?

Mohamed Naeem

This will be determined by how these authorities behave and how they manage their positions within this conflict, as well as the impact of the war or its extension on people’s daily lives, materially, morally, and emotionally. I cannot generalize, so I can only talk about Egypt.

I believe that in the Egyptian case, this war will reconnect the national issue — the issue of national liberation and the relationship with imperialism and its representatives in the region — with the social issue, the issue of freedom and democracy. It will be difficult to separate them from each other, especially after the American liberal discourse has revealed a very ugly face and a disdain for our existence as human beings from bottom to top. This is what will push people back to extreme positions in all aspects: nationalist, leftist, Islamist — everything.

We are now still in the heat of the event. But when people contemplate the situation they are living in — in the official “paradise,” in the alignment that places us comfortably and coolly in the position of half-humans — I do not know what this could produce, what kind of rhetoric and what kind of mobilization.

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