Throughout Israel’s brutal campaign in Gaza, Egypt has presented itself as a friend of the Palestinians. In reality the Egyptian government, against the will of its citizens, continues to enforce the blockade of Gaza and offer tacit support to Israel.

Palestinians at the foot of the wall separating the Gaza Strip and Egypt on May 9, 2024, in Rafah, Gaza. (Hani Alshaer / Anadolu via Getty Images)

Earlier this month, at least two Egyptian soldiers (some reports claim three) were killed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in a clash along the border between Egypt and Gaza. The event followed Israel’s occupation of the “Philadelphi Corridor” — a buffer zone between Egypt and Israel — days earlier, a move that is widely considered to be a violation of the 1979 peace accords between the two states.

The reaction of the Egyptian state has been restrained. Initial news of the killings did not come from the military but from an Israeli television channel and, in one of the three cases, from a Facebook post by the brother of the slain. The soldiers were not given a military funeral, and no military officials even attended the funerals that were held in the hometowns of the deceased.

The eventual statement made by the military on the event — a short post on social media — has since gone viral and infuriated many. In it, the military spokesperson attempts to camouflage the fact that it was the Egyptian military that came under attack and derisively describes one of the soldiers as “one of the elements tasked with securing [safeguarding]” rather than “soldiers” — a phrase that could imply anything from a member of a private security firm to a warehouse consultant. At the time of writing, the military has yet to comment on the death of the second soldier.

Egypt’s soft stance toward Israel is part of a broader trend that has seen the African nation become increasingly willing to cede sovereignty to other regional powers. In 2017, the regime handed Tiran and Sanafir, two Red Sea islands, to Saudi Arabia, a move that inspired a wave of protests from Egyptians accusing Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the country’s president, of paying back the Gulf monarchy for backing it during the military coup of 2013. Egypt is currently in the process of talks with the United Arab Emirates to sell off coastland north of Cairo, which it claims it must do to deal with its ongoing balance of payments crisis.

The military regime’s ascension to power in 2013 was coupled with a hypernationalistic rhetoric pushed by the state and centered around the military. Phrases such as “Long live Egypt” became the official campaign slogan of al-Sisi after 2013. However, since the coup it has become clear that the brand of Egyptian nationalism that has been promoted under al-Sisi has been one devoid of much of the usual paraphernalia that accompanies military, ultranationalist, and/or fascist governments. Unlike the typical hallmarks of such governments, which tend to (over)emphasize the unique character, capabilities, and strengths of the nation, the al-Sisi government and its media apparatuses has over the last decade undertaken a concerted and planned effort — barely noticed in Western media spheres — to disparage the Egyptian population and even the country as a whole.

For years, Egyptian media outlets, and al-Sisi himself, have described the population as lazy, spoiled, immoral, and dishonest — a dominant maxim promoted by media outlets is that “Egypt’s fault is not with its leaders, but within us as a population.” Al-Sisi, for his part, regularly describes Egypt as a “poor” and incapacitated state in need of handouts — most recently declaring that he did not “inherit a [real] country” when he came to power. Al-Sisi has often used this language to justify policy decisions such as making cuts to subsidies. Ultimately, the military regime believes that there is something fundamentally flawed in the moral character of ordinary Egyptians, and that it is its job to “discipline” the population into shape through a combination of austerity and repression.

The military regime of al-Sisi represents a rare form of popularist-militarist-nationalism committed to undermining its own sovereignty. While there have been other historical examples of nationalistic governments that have had their sovereignty compromised, what sets the al-Sisi government apart is that it has increased the power of its domestic elite by at times weakening its national sovereignty.

In this respect, modern Egypt represents a third category of compromised sovereignty. It is not in the category of historical client governments such as Vichy France and the Italian Social Republic, established as a front by foreign powers. Nor is it identical to the Ottoman or the Qing Dynasties, which attempted but failed to resist foreign subjugation and ultimately fell prey to it due to structural factors such as military defeats or technological inferiority.

Egypt has a transactional, or mercenary, relationship to its sovereignty, which it cedes to preserve the economic interests of its elite.

The Egyptian government differs from these earlier authoritarian states, however, in that it is an example of a stable military regime, with almost no serious internal or external threats, that proactively volunteers to surrender its sovereignty. Egypt has a transactional, or mercenary, relationship to its sovereignty, which it cedes to preserve the economic interests of its elite.

There have, of course, been many instances in which Egypt has nakedly pursued its own national interests to the detriment of other regional powers. For instance, the African nation limited its involvement in the Yemen war despite Saudi pressure; reportedly provided weapons to support the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria, engineering a rapprochement with Iran in the process, to Saudi consternation; and took the Russian position at the UN by opposing condemning the Syrian government. On both the domestic and foreign policy fronts, therefore, Egypt promotes a contradictory anti-populist populism.

The Politics of Rafah

Even before the seizure of the Rafah border crossing, the Egyptian government claimed that its involvement in the siege and prevention of the exit of Palestinians into Sinai was motivated by a desire to oppose an Israeli plan to displace the Gaza’s inhabitants to Egypt. On this, the government is correct. Israeli politicians and officials have long promoted the notion of an alternative home for Gazans and Palestinians in the Sinai. The Egyptian government is also correct in stating that any displacement will not be temporary, but very likely permanent.

Yet this does not undermine the fact that this decision should not have been one for the Egyptian government to make but should instead have been handed to the Palestinians fleeing for their lives. Egypt is obligated both morally and under international law to open its border to people facing persecution — a position supported by the overwhelming majority of the Egyptian population. Ignored by the Egyptian government’s self-serving claim to act as defenders of the freedoms of the Palestinians is the fact that Egypt had long been a party to the siege of Gaza, and under both the Hosni Mubarak and al-Sisi governments, demonized Palestinians by casting Gazans in particular as a threat to Egyptian national security. But the strong sense of solidarity between Egyptians and Palestinians has undermined the al-Sisi government’s attempts to draw a wedge between the neighboring peoples, even as the military dictatorship has made the cynical decision to raise the levees on refugees fleeing Gaza via the Rafah border to close to $10,000 per person in some cases.

In the context of Egypt’s complicity in the ongoing genocide in Gaza, it is crucial to remember that al-Sisi’s ascension to power in 2014 was almost universally welcomed in Western capitals — despite post-2011 promises that Western governments had “learned the mistakes of the past” and would no longer be in the business of supporting regional dictatorships. As of today, the Egyptian government has arrested more than one hundred Egyptians for protesting in solidarity with the Palestinians, a clear sign that the West’s reassessment of its position on regional dictators was motivated by its own geopolitical interests rather than a need to defend human rights.

Amid the current moment of heightened attention to the Palestinian cause in the West, we should also take into view the role that other regional actors continue to play in the suppression of Palestinians. Governments such as Egypt’s have allowed the genocide in Gaza to take place through their suppression of domestic opposition to it and their collaboration with its executioner, Israel. For this reason, the pressure on Western allies of Israel must extend to a critique of the entire regional authoritarian order, which facilitates the ongoing genocide of the Palestinians.

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