Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's decision followed Israel's deadly raid on the "Freedom Flotilla" trying to bring aid to Gaza earlier this week, which has stoked outrage across the world, perhaps nowhere more so than in Egypt. The Egyptian government's 1979 peace deal with Israel is deeply unpopular with its citizenry, who are also angry that their government is adding to the burdens of Gazans.
The border opening was mostly about symbolism, with the Mubarak government bending to the pressure to end its participation in the blockade without breaking. More than 100 Palestinians were allowed through the Rafah crossing into Egypt Wednesday and several truckloads of goods were sent into Gaza. But Egypt restricts the types of goods allowed into Gaza and only Palestinians with special permits are allowed to cross – mostly students and those seeking medical treatment.
In the past, Egypt has cracked down hard on protests calling for an open border with Gaza. But Israel’s killing of nine activists during the Monday raid stoked a new fury across the Muslim world and left Egypt in a difficult position. A partial opening at Rafah was what the regime had to do to keep the ire from overflowing, said many Egyptians.
“The Egyptian people are extremely angry about what Israel did,” said Reda Khalil, an engineer. “All of us are upset, and there was no other choice for Egypt but to open the crossing to support our Palestinian brothers.”
He voiced hope that Egypt would leave the border open. “There will be problems if they try to close the border after a few days,” he says.
Complicating Egypt's stance towards Gaza is the fact that it's ruled by Hamas, an Islamist movement closely aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is Egypt's strongest opposition movement. After Hamas swept to power in the 2006 Palestinian elections, the Mubarak regime feared a successful Muslim Brotherhood-style government on its doorstep as an example its own citizens might want to follow, so Gaza's economic isolation also served its own interests.
Not surprisingly, a leading Muslim Brotherhood figure here says the border should stay open. “It is a good escape but it is not enough,” says Essam El Erian, a member of the Brotherhood's Guidance Bureau. “I hope that it is the first step in the way of the continuous opening of the border for goods and persons. I think the Egyptian authorities are now under pressure, and if they really want to change the policy it will happen in the next few weeks.”
How long will Rafah stay open?
Egypt has opened the border for brief periods since Israel imposed heavy restrictions on the movement of goods and people from Gaza in 2007, but it's also been moving to tighten up control. An announcement late last year that Egypt would build an underground fence on the border to stop the smuggling tunnels that have become economic lifelines for tens of thousands of Gazans, led to tension and an exchange of fire between Palestinian and Egyptian border guards.
Hossam Zaki, spokesman for Egypt’s Foreign Ministry, said the government hasn't decided how long the Rafah crossing will be open. “The president didn't specify that, so it's going to be until further notice,” he said. The decision also did not change the type of goods allowed into Gaza, he said. Rafah is mainly used as a crossing for people, not goods, but Egypt has permitted some aid, mostly medical supplies, into the territory. It has not allowed the building supplies Gaza needs to rebuild after Israel’s offensive last year.
Israel sealed the Gaza border when the Islamist group Hamas took control of the territory in 2007, only allowing a trickle of food and goods into the territory. Egypt largely followed suit, but periodically allows shipments into Gaza and permits some Palestinians to cross. Both Egypt and Israel are motivated by a desire to see Hamas weakened. Hamas's charter calls for the destruction of Israel. Egypt also fears taking the burden of responsibility for the situation in Gaza from Israel's shoulders.
Closing the tunnels
Egypt has further angered its citizens with the decision to build the subterranean wall along the border to block the smuggling tunnels. Many of the day-to-day goods used in Gaza are smuggled through the tunnels, but they are also used for weapons. Hamas taxes the smuggled goods, and reducing that source of revenue would further pressure the movement, which is already experiencing a financial crunch. Emad Gad, an analyst with the government-financed Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, says Egypt’s wall is near completion.
Egypt’s position has not only provoked the ire of its citizens, but has provided an opportunity for rival Arab states to criticize the regime. Opening the border now will keep countries like Qatar and Syria from accusing Egypt of siding with Israel, says Mr. Gad.
“The Egyptian regime is trying not only to deflect the anger on the street, but also to drop a card from the hand of the hard-liner countries,” he says. He predicts the border will remain open for several months.
Egyptians have staged multiple demonstrations against Israel in Cairo since Monday, including a large protest attended by many members of the Muslim Brotherhood. The demonstrations are notable because Egypt has largely quashed protests over Gaza since Israel’s offensive in the territory which ended in January 2009. That conflict left about 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead.
With the spotlight on the issue, Egypt could find it difficult to revert to its former policy of keeping the border closed. But Gad does not anticipate the regime completely abandoning its policy; he says after several months the regime will likely return to only intermittent openings. “It's a very hot issue now, because the blood is there. But after two months the Egyptian public will forget,” he says.