The July 2014 round of violence between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip took Egypt by surprise. Indeed, since his inauguration as President of Egypt on June 8 2014, Field-Marshall Abd el Fattah el-Sisi focused primarily on the first items of his political agenda, namely domestic problems, ranging from economic reforms , social unrest, Muslim Brothers subversive activities and terrorist attacks on his armed forces in Sinai, the Western Desert, in Cairo, and other localities throughout Egypt.
President Sisi began his tenure by urging Egyptians to work harder. He asked Egyptians to wake up at 5 am and requested his ministers to set an example by showing up in their offices at 7 am. Sisi continued with a personal campaign to encourage lower consumption of fuel when he surprisingly took part in a 20-kilometer bike marathon wearing sports gear and followed by cabinet ministers, actors, singers, military and police.1
Unprecedented in Egyptian modern history, Sisi announced he was donating half his salary and half his personal assets, including his inheritance, to help the Egyptian economy, followed immediately by a contribution of $ 140 million to the Egyptian Armed Forces. Sisi even enforced a maximum wage of almost $6,000 in the public sector.2
From the very first days of his presidency, Sisi ventured into a “minefield” where few Egyptian presidents before him had dared to enter –cutting subsidies on basic food stuffs, commodities and energy. Sisi raised fuel prices by almost 80 percent as a prelude to cutting the subsidies that eat up nearly a quarter of the state budget. In the last ten years, Egypt spent $96 billion on energy subsidies. By raising the price of fuel, Egypt hopes to save almost $65 billion that will benefit services such as health and education. Sisi also raised taxes on alcohol and cigarettes, imposed new property taxes, and plans to introduce a new scheme for value-added taxes.3
Sisi’s decisions were met with anger. Protests broke out after the announcements. Dozens of drivers and passengers blocked the road in the middle-income Cairo neighborhood of Shoubra el-Kheima. President Sisi defended the decision to raise fuel prices saying it was “bitter medicine” that was “50 years late.” He called on Egyptians to make sacrifices, vowing to repair an economy growing at the slowest pace in two decades and describing raising energy prices as the only way to save the nation from “drowning in debt.” Sisi warned Egyptians to expect more pain over the next two years from economic problems that had accumulated over the last four decades and need to be fixed.4
President Sisi continued to concentrate on stabilizing the domestic front with a campaign against terrorists in Sinai and inside Egypt. Sisi is well aware that his regime remains a target for the Muslim brothers and other organizations aimed at destabilizing the regime and creating havoc in order to return to a Muslim State governed by Shari’ah Law. In one of the few interviews about himself, Sisi said that he had survived two assassination attempts and his interior minister had been the target of a suicide car bombing. Accordingly, Sisi’s government continues to ruthlessly hunt the leaders, activists and rank and file of the Muslim Brothers while trying to promote the process of re-building the legislative pillars of Egypt Parliamentary life.
Sisi’s attitude toward the Muslim Brotherhood put him at odds with the organization’s regional sponsors: Turkey, Qatar and the Muslim Brothers’ Palestinian offshoot- Hamas. His standoff with the Obama Administration and his brutal crackdown against the Muslim Brothers created increased tension and a severe crisis of trust between Sisi and the U.S. Administration. Facing this situation in the geo-political sphere, and confronted with sanctions by the U.S., Sisi took a first step in warming up military relations with Russia, consolidated Egypt’s relations with the Arab monarchies of the Gulf (with the exception of Qatar), and initiated a rapprochement with Ethiopia in order to find a compromise on the thorny issue of the Renaissance Dam to be built on the Blue Nile.
During the past year, the issue of the Israeli-Arab conflict was not at the center of the attention of the Egyptian regime. The only connection was in relation to events in Sinai. Israel was lenient enough to allow deployment of Egyptian forces in the Sinai well beyond what was agreed upon in the Camp David Accords. Intelligence cooperation was ongoing and enabled a strong confrontation of the Jihadists in the Sinai Peninsula. For the first time there was a convergence of interests between Israel and Egypt over the situation in the Sinai and specifically in the Gaza Strip.
Unlike the Muslim Brothers who were high on the Sisi Administration’s agenda, Hamas was an item left “on the shelf” to be taken care of at a later stage while being deliberated and decided upon in the corridors of the Egyptian Ministry of Justice and courts. Hamas was designated as a collaborator of the Muslim Brothers and accused of participating in terrorist operations against Egyptians targets inside Egypt and Sinai as well as harboring terrorist groups and Muslim Brothers leaders inside the Gaza Strip. Hamas was even designated as a terrorist organization, its assets frozen and activities inside Egypt forbidden. Egypt destroyed most of the tunnels that were dug along the 11 kilometer border between Gaza and Egypt (tunnels that assured the flow of weapons and goods to the Hamas enclave) and closed the Rafah crossing point that links the residents of Gaza to the rest of the world.5
This was the background on the eve of the Israeli “Protective Edge Operation” against Hamas. July 2014 found Egypt exasperated by Hamas and its regional sponsors, fuming against the U.S. and busy with stabilizing the domestic front against on-going terrorist activities initiated by the Muslim Brothers and Jihadist factions trained in Gaza, with special relations with Hamas that granted them safe haven in the Gaza Strip.
Sisi’s sour relations with Hamas complicate efforts to end the latest round of Hamas-Israel armed confrontation. Unlike his predecessors, Sisi chose to impose on Hamas Egypt’s terms for a ceasefire, rather than adopting his predecessor’s attitude that reached a deal in 2011 resulting in the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held in captivity by Hamas; and in 2012 a ceasefire that lasted until the end of June 2014.6
As a result, Hamas rejected this overture, and tried to circumvent Egypt by encouraging and engaging an alternative mediation path through Turkey and Qatar, only to ignite Cairo’s ire and decision not to change one iota in its official proposal to Hamas. Even the Israeli ground invasion did not alter President Sisi’s tough approach, even though he allowed open and harsh criticism of Israel. This tension between Sisi’s adverse attitude and punitive approach towards Hamas on the one hand, and on the other, his need to satisfy the pro-Palestinian Egyptian public opinion has been evident in the gap between Egypt’s policy and its pronouncements. While the Rafah crossing remains mostly closed, with only temporary openings in recent days to permit the entry of aid and outflow of wounded Gazans, Egyptian officials have publicly condemned Israel’s “atrocities” and asked for a cessation of hostilities. Egypt’s Foreign Ministry spokesman declared that Cairo stood “with the Palestinian people, who pay the price for the hazards and brutal attacks,” and accused Israel of “flouting the rules of international law.”
A defeat of Hamas is probably what President Sisi wishes for the most. Such a defeat would most likely project on Egypt’s on-going campaign against terrorism. On the other hand, a victorious or even partially weakened Hamas would have dire implications for the stability of the Egyptian regime since it would be a model for all those who wish to see an end to the Sisi presidency in Egypt, be it the Muslim Brothers or all other Al-Qaeda and non-Al-Qaeda affiliates and organizations. The Jihadists as well as Hamas now realize that they face not only an Israeli enemy but an Egyptian-Israeli coalition that has decided to eradicate their presence. This is why it is in the national interest of both Egypt and Israel to subdue Hamas and strive for conditions for a permanent ceasefire.
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3 http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-07-06/el-sisi-says-price-rises-to-save-egypt-from-debt-drowning.html; https://finance.yahoo.com/news/egypt-president-raises-cigarette-alcohol-134552843.html