The killing of an Egyptian soldier on the Gaza border Wednesday is just the latest in a series of events which have put Egypt’s role in the embargo on Gaza in center stage. Egypt’s participation in the blockade is highly unpopular here and throughout the Arab world.
“This situation of course harms Egypt’s reputation and its position within the international community,” says Ibrahim Mansour, Chief Executive Editor of El Destour, an independent daily. “It shows that Egypt is an important part of the severe blockade going on against Gaza right now, which in the end only serves Israel’s agenda.”
Last week, Egypt delayed hundreds of foreign activists from traveling to Gaza. Unable to march in Gaza they brought the protest to Cairo, blocking traffic on major roads and holding a sit-in in downtown’s Tahrir Square.
On Tuesday, Egyptian officials delayed – and reportedly tear-gassed - an aid convoy headed by British left-wing Parliamentarian George Galloway. Some of the protesting Palestinians in Gaza were awaiting Mr. Galloway’s convoy, while others were demonstrating against Egypt’s construction of a new border wall meant to curb underground smuggling into the Hamas-controled Gaza Strip.
Hundreds of Palestinians were gathered at the border for the protest, and many began to throw rocks at Egyptian security forces assembled on the other side. The Egyptian forces reportedly opened fire, injuring at least 20 Palestinians. Egypt's official state new agency, MENA, reports that 17 Egyptian police were also injured and seven foreign activists were detained.
Nabil Abdel Fattah, the assistant director of the government-linked Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, says the clashes are not in response to Egypt’s border project but instead are “a clear manifestation of anti-Egypt feeling by Hamas.”
“A majority of the Egyptian people are very angry about Hamas thinking and behaviour,” he says. “These episodes reduce people’s support for Hamas and the people in Gaza.”
But many Egyptians seem more cynical than angry. They see a foreign hand – the US or Israel – in Egypt’s participation of the blockade, and in the wall to stop smuggling.
“Egypt is facing a lot of pressure,” says Osama, an emergency room doctor drinking tea in a downtown coffee shop. “The idea of building a wall came out of nowhere, but I don’t think it was an Egyptian idea. It was foreign, just like the blockade as a whole.”
Left with no other trade routes, the smugglers’ tunnels provide an economic lifeline to besieged Gaza, bringing in everything from bullets to baby formula – and even a lion for the Gaza zoo. The territory has been under embargo since the militant Islamic group Hamas took power there in June 2007.
Egypt has come under pressure from the United States and Israel to end the smuggling, which is centered on the town of Rafah. Local media reports suggest the project could be a step in that direction by extending a steel wall deep underground in an effort to sever any tunnels which survived Israel’s 22-day Gaza offensive in January 2009.
But Egyptian officials have downplayed the project, falling over themselves in an unusual effort to defend what they say is a legal and routine national security measure.
In a speech before parliament on Tuesday, Cabinet Minister Mofeed El Shehab called “the principle of borders sacredness and sanctity is an imperative rule of the international law,” and said allegations that Egypt is building a “steel wall on our borders with Gaza” were “baseless.”
The country’s state-backed religious authorities have also weighed in in support of the project. On January 1st the Islamic Research Academy at Al Azhar Mosque, a venerable 1,000-year-old seat of Sunni learning, issued a statement calling construction of the barrier both permissible under Islamic law and “one of the legitimate rights of Egypt.”