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May 27, 2011 | 22:36 GMT

10 mins read

Implications of Egypt Opening the Rafah Crossing

Egypt announced it will open the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip on May 28, one of several slight adjustments to the country's foreign policy by the military council that has ruled the country since February, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The council is attempting to preserve stability at home and in the region by maintaining a precarious balance: It wants to show its citizens that the SCAF has harkened a new era in Egypt, but it also must ensure that Israel does not feel its strategic relationship with Egypt is under threat. The new regional political reality in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring has left Cairo with little choice but to embark upon this path.
Egypt is set to open the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip on May 28, the latest of several foreign policy shifts by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) since the ousting of former President Hosni Mubarak. At the same time, the SCAF has changed the way it operates at home in trying to manage a multifaceted opposition while trying to enhance Cairo's status as a regional player. The SCAF's ultimate goal is to maintain stability and preserve the country's almost 60-year-old military regime, which is forcing it to maintain a precarious balance. At home, it is attempting to create the perception that the military is leading the country toward a new era following Mubarak's ouster, mostly by moving the country toward elections, but also by putting officials from the former ruling National Democratic Party on trial and by making slight adjustments to its foreign policy, especially with regard to Israel and Hamas. However, amid all these moves, the military will seek to ensure it holds itself together as the main power broker of the state while avoiding raising tensions with Israel to the point that their peace treaty breaks down and a hot conflict becomes possible again.

Managing Change at Home

The main lesson the Egyptian military took from the events of January and February is that the methods it had used for years to maintain stability at home have proved to be riskier in the new political environment. The regime will do what it must to ensure its survival, but its new strategy is to create the impression that — to borrow a phrase oft cited in Tahrir Square during the original demonstrations — "the army and the people are one hand." The SCAF's main tactic in this new strategy is to move the country toward democratic elections. The council prefers to rule but not govern, and thus it is attempting a swift transition to a multiparty political system. Parliamentary polls are scheduled for September, with a presidential vote six weeks later, and elections are open to the country's entire political spectrum, allowing the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to establish its first-ever political party, along with several Salafist groups. Organizing elections this quickly — and then allowing everyone to participate in the political process — allows the military to convey the impression that it is ceding power to the people while minimizing the risk of allowing any one group enough time or space to amass too much influence. But as the country's ultimate power broker, the military will always be ready to intervene if it feels its position is truly being threatened. Foreign policy is another tool at the SCAF's disposal in its attempt to manage affairs at home. A large number of Egyptians bristle at the close relationship Cairo maintained with Israel — and by extension, the poor relations it held with the Palestinians — during the Mubarak era, and the SCAF thus has attempted to change the perception of how Egypt interacts with its northeastern neighbors. Already, Cairo has begun to play natural gas politics with Israel, refusing to restart its shipments to the country, halted following a series of recent attacks on pipelines, until the two can agree on a higher rate. The SCAF has also said it is considering re-establishing diplomatic relations with Iran and angered Israel when it allowed Iranian naval ships bound for Syria to pass through the Suez Canal in February. However, the foreign policy arena in which Cairo can achieve the most is in the way it interacts with the Palestinians in Gaza. The reconciliation agreement signed between Fatah and Hamas in April was facilitated by Cairo, a way for the SCAF to try to bring Hamas more into the political mainstream so that it could more effectively contain the Gaza-based militant group. Giving Hamas an incentive to refrain from launching attacks on Israel serves the SCAF's interests as it removes a potential cause for protests on Egyptian streets (as occurred following Operation Cast Lead). The decision to open Rafah — originally announced just two days after the reconciliation deal, the official date only finalized May 25 — is merely the latest example of the SCAF's efforts to show that it has increased its support for the Palestinians in Gaza.

The SCAF's Domestic Audience

The SCAF is addressing three distinct groups through its actions: the Tahrir Square activists, the Islamists (primarily the Muslim Brotherhood), and those who fall in between. The pro-democracy activists who largely organized the original demonstrations were back in Tahrir Square on May 27, calling for a "second revolution" and attempting to label the day the "second Day of Rage," in reference to the events of Jan. 28. Roughly three and a half months after Mubarak was forced out, the visions the Tahrir crowd held of an Egypt radically transformed have given way to a reality where very little has changed: The economy is still suffering, crime is increasing and political freedom is no more prevalent than during the Mubarak regime. With the exception of the brief euphoric period immediately following Mubarak's Feb. 11 ouster, protests among this demographic never really stopped. Nevertheless, as disillusionment with the SCAF has grown, so has the call for a return to large-scale demonstrations demanding a litany of different reforms. The pro-democracy activists have been less placated by the push toward elections than their Islamist rivals, and while they support the foreign policy shift away from an overtly pro-Israeli stance, they are much more concerned about their own situation than the plight of the Palestinians. Thus, they remain on the streets. The SCAF, while taking their demands seriously, also knows that this segment of society is not large enough to jeopardize the military's grip on power. Indeed, the Egyptian protests were a relatively small event that the military used as a smokescreen to carry out a carefully orchestrated coup. A second round of protests will be no more successful than the first unless the Tahrir activists amass a large following in previously apathetic sectors of Egyptian society. The next group the SCAF is speaking to is the Islamists, primarily the Muslim Brotherhood. These sectors feel they have the most to gain from the opening presented by the elections and thus have closely allied themselves with the military council. They boycotted the May 27 demonstrations in Tahrir, rejecting calls for a second revolution to focus on the September elections. The changing Egyptian foreign policy toward Israel and Hamas appeases the Islamists more than the secular-minded activists in Tahrir — Hamas is an offshoot of the Brotherhood, after all — but this would not matter if the Islamists did not have their own interest in aligning with the SCAF in support of the push toward democracy. This, in turn, helps the SCAF to prevent the ongoing demonstrations from reaching a critical mass, which is the only thing that creates the potential for a true popular revolution in Egypt. The final group is the vast majority of Egyptians who do not align themselves with either the Tahrir protesters or the Islamists. These people never protested against the Mubarak regime, and the SCAF wants to keep them off the streets. These people's demands are mostly related to improving the country's economic and security conditions, both of which have suffered greatly since January. Elections and foreign policy maneuvers do little to affect their viewpoints, and thus the military would prefer to absolve itself of the responsibilities of governance to avoid being blamed for the ongoing issues the country is facing.

Regional Shifts and Opportunities

The underlying theme in the foreign policy shifts that Egypt has undergone since the SCAF took over has been the pursuit of a more equitable relationship with Israel. Underlying this general shift is the understanding between both countries that neither desires to see a fundamental change in the relationship, one that would place Egypt in direct confrontation with the Israel Defense Forces and undermine Israel's sense of security in the Sinai buffer. Just as Egypt's geopolitical relationship with Israel has not changed, neither have its strategic goals in relation to Hamas, which the SCAF, like the Mubarak regime, wants to prevent from creating instability in Egypt. What has changed, however, is the way in which Cairo goes about achieving this. Previously, Egypt tried to keep Hamas boxed in, isolated within Gaza. Following the Hamas takeover of Gaza in June 2007, Egypt has kept the Rafah border closed, with a few exceptions. Cairo wanted to distance itself from any potential responsibility for Hamas militancy against Israel and prevent infiltration onto Egyptian soil. The series of underground tunnels connecting Gaza to the Sinai and the rampant corruption that takes place between Egyptian border guards and smugglers has rendered this effort imperfect, but the intention was what mattered, in terms of perceptions. However, in the past few months, things have begun to change, with Hamas beginning to show signs of moving more toward the political mainstream. Of course, there are elements within the group that would be extremely unlikely to ever abandon the struggle against Israel, and the situation in the Palestinian territories could change any moment, as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains ripe for militancy and could give rise to splinter militant groups seeking to displace Hamas' political leadership. Egypt's facilitation of the reconciliation deal with Fatah indicates that the SCAF is attempting to contain Hamas by bringing it closer. Constant communication with all parties involved throughout the process is a way for Egypt to establish more influence with the Palestinians, whereas opening up Rafah is a way of establishing goodwill with Hamas. (Egypt had seen much of its leverage over the group decline ever since the Hamas takeover of Gaza, and Hamas' resultant isolation provided Iran with an opportunity to build up its influence with the group via its ally, Syria.) There have also been rumors reported by STRATFOR sources that the SCAF has offered Hamas Politburo chief Khaled Meshaal, who lives in Damascus, a new home base in Cairo. This would be a way for Egypt to weaken Syria's position among the Palestinians and gain more control over the events there, as it is obviously easier for the SCAF to monitor Hamas' activities when it is based in Cairo. Egypt would be hesitant to allow such a move, however, leaving open the possibility that Hamas — if it were to leave Syria — would relocate to Qatar, which has reportedly made an offer to Meshaal as well. This approach is risky; if Hamas were to return to militancy after these moves, Israel would be under increasing pressure to hold Egypt responsible. That explains why Egypt has placed restrictions on who can pass through Rafah and has prohibited goods from being transported through. It also explains why Cairo is proceeding slowly with its efforts to mend relations with Iran. The SCAF likely understands this risk, and Egypt and Israel have almost certainly been communicating throughout this process to assuage any Israeli concerns. Israel has been rather muted in its response to the Rafah news, indicating that it may understand that Egypt's motivations are not being driven by any true desire to alter the fundamental strategic relationship. Israel — like the SCAF, most likely — would prefer to be living with the "old" Egypt, but the sea change in the political environment of the Arab world (the so-called Arab Spring) has forced both parties to understand that the tactics employed toward the strategy of maintaining stability in the region must be altered.

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