Egypt is holding its nerve over the Rafah operation. But its restraint shouldn’t be taken for granted

Journalists protest in support of Palestinians in front of the Egypt Journalists Syndicate in Cairo, Egypt, on December 13, 2023. (Photo by Mahmoud Elkhwas/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Journalists protest in support of Palestinians in front of the Egypt Journalists Syndicate in Cairo, Egypt, on December 13, 2023. (Photo by Mahmoud Elkhwas/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

So far, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) operation in Rafah remains ‘ limited’, meaning it is still under the threshold of a major military incursion like the previous bloody assaults on Jabaliya, Gaza City, and Khan Younis.

This should be good news for Egypt’s security. However, the reality is far from it. The operation, launched on 7 May, creates two major threats for Egypt.

Refugees

The first is a potential mass exodus of Palestinian refugees into Sinai. For Egypt, this has been a ‘ red line’ since the start of the war.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government seems to take Cairo’s concerns seriously. The IDF’s incursion from south Rafah has put pressure on Palestinian civilians to relocate to places such as al Mawasi in the west and Khan Younis and Deir al-Balah to the north (away from the Egyptian border) indicating close coordination with Egypt.

This should not be surprising. The two countries have a long history of security cooperation since signing the 1979 Camp David peace treaty, which each views as the bedrock of regional stability. But even with Israel’s precautionary measures, the threat of a refugee influx into Egypt has never been more real.

To mitigate this scenario, Egypt is adopting what officials in Cairo call a ‘containment’ strategy. This includes ratcheting up international pressure on Israel by conditioning the reopening of the Rafah Crossing (the main conduit for humanitarian aid into Gaza) on the IDF’s withdrawal from the area and returning control over the crossing to Palestinians.

Israel’s surprise at Egypt’s hard position on the crossing is bewildering. Smart IDF strategists should have understood that any agreements made with Egyptian counterparts on the crossing before the Rafah assault would crash under the weight of Israeli control of the crossing: footage of Egyptian aid being inspected by Israeli soldiers would be a nightmare for Egyptian officials, who would face unruly public anger.

Instead, Egypt is pressuring Israel to ensure the continued flow of aid from other land crossings under Israeli control, such as Kerem Shalom and Erez. Cairo showed it means business on 12 May by announcing it would support South Africa’s genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which may encourage more countries to join.

Egypt, like the US, also wants Israel to avoid operating in the densely populated Rafah City to prevent a spike in civilian casualties. Additionally, it wants Israel to set a short timeline for the operation so that it won’t go on indefinitely.

Egyptian officials also understand they have the backing of their American counterparts on mediation – another leverage card over Netanyahu. This is the first time since the Suez War that a US administration’s public views align with Egypt’s and Arab interests: to restrain Israel and stop the war.

Domestic politics

The other threat to Egypt is domestic. Since the start of the war, its leadership has been carefully monitoring reactions on the street.

A prolonged economic crisis has created a pressure cooker in Egyptian society, and officials in Cairo understand that the war may bring hidden anger to the surface.

On 20 October, an engineered protest intended to show support for the government’s position on Gaza got out of control, as chants turned hostile against President Sisi’s policies. This was a lesson learned for Egyptian officials: weaponizing the street is playing with fire and could have dire consequences for domestic and regime stability.

Egypt has sharply criticized Israel since the Rafah operation began. Egyptian media has also increased its castigation of Israel. Each should be primarily understood as domestic (and pan-Arab) messaging.

Israel’s occupation of the Rafah Crossing and the footage of an Israeli armoured vehicle waving a giant Israeli flag along the Philadelphi Corridor (a 100-meter-wide road that splits Gaza and the Egyptian borders and part of the Camp David agreements) were exceptionally provocative on Egyptian social media and motivated Cairo to further harden its stance.

Limited leverage

Despite its legitimate frustration, Egypt’s strategy is, so far, superficial. It reveals weakness and limited leverage, particularly over Israel.

Relying on a discursive posture and threatening, time and again, to suspend the peace treaty (which everyone knows is not on the table) diminishes Egypt’s credibility.

The more Cairo hypes its threats without backing them up with escalatory actions (under the threshold of tearing up the treaty) the less seriously Israel and Egypt’s partners, particularly the US, will take them.

Egyptian weakness is aggravated by an overly risk-averse foreign policy since Sisi came to power in 2014. Another is the Biden Administration’s hesitance to maximize the cost for Netanyahu and his extremist partners in the Israeli cabinet of not heeding warnings against a full-scale ground invasion of Rafah – beyond the symbolic decision of withholding ammunition.

Egypt is not alone in this: other Arab States who signed normalization deals with Israel continue to voice their concern but without taking real actions to meaningfully scale down ties.

Ceasefire

In this hostile environment, Egypt sees a ceasefire agreement as the only way out of this predicament. A good deal would include the release of Israeli hostages, pouring aid into Gaza and setting the conditions for negotiations of a two-state solution.

For Israel, this means taking back the hostages who are still alive and selling the political settlement to the Israeli public as a victory.

For Egypt, this agreement would make Hamas (now extremely battered and weakened) able to play a junior role with the Palestinian Authority in Gaza’s future governance. Cairo’s concern is that the longer the war goes on, and the more Hamas rule is degraded, the more likely that Gaza descends into a security vacuum where religious extremism, Jihadism and gang rule prevail – and threaten hard-earned security in Sinai.

For Netanyahu’s cabinet, this scenario is a hard pill to swallow. Ending the war without completely wiping out Hamas (a tall order, regardless) could be seen as an Israeli defeat and mark Netanyahu’s political end.

In Cairo, nobody is under any illusion this is the primary motivation behind Israel’s procrastination on the Egypt-Qatar ceasefire proposal, a deal backed by CIA Director William Burnes and accepted by Hamas – though Israel maintains that last-minute changes were behind their rejection of the deal.

Egyptian officials have, so far, maintained their restraint. But this should not be taken for granted. Although joining South Africa at the ICJ is largely symbolic, it still reveals a deep sense in Egypt that it is backed into a corner and has to push back.

If Netanyahu orders a large-scale invasion of Rafah, Egypt may see no option but to move on from symbolism and rhetoric to real action. That, in turn, that could undermine relations – and all that the Camp David treaty achieved – for years to come.

Ahmed Aboudouh, Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme.

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