Moubarak’s government has been continuously criticized, and may we say, quite rightly, this
past year by the progressive Arab and World press for its role in the participation of the blockade of Gaza, and its unhelpful position towards the Palestinian people. However, Egypt’s last decisions to build an enormous subterranean steel wall along the border with Gaza, in order to block the tunnels that Gazaouis have used to undercut the international embargo upon their territory, have definitely infuriated the masses all over the region. How can Egypt, the ex leader of the Arab world during Nasser’s era, participate with Israel and the United States in the hammering of the Gaza people? This wall has already been qualified as the wall of shame by opponents all over the region, especially in Egypt and Lebanon, or the wall of death by Hamas members. President Moubarak has defended the construction of this “engineering installations”, calling it a matter of “national security” and “sovereignty” and adding
“it is Egypt’ right and duty to protect and control its borders”.
According to Egyptian officials, the tunnels are a threat, terrorists could use them and the drugs, cash and weapons that purportedly flow into Gaza could also leak into Egypt as well.
Are the Egyptian official arguments acceptable? Is it really Sovereignty and National Security that are guiding the Egyptian’s officials in their policy and in their will to build this subterranean steel wall? This official version is in our opinion rather hard to swallow as the building of the wall is actually showing the Egyptian’s shift in policy regarding the Israeli / Palestinian conflict. Indeed, the perspective has changed: Israel is no longer the enemy, but any Palestinian political party like Hamas refusing a peace agreement under the US diktat has become one. We will do a quick reminder on the Gaza Free March and the Viva Palestina Campaignthat put forward the Egyptian’s role in the Gaza’s blockade and revealing the wall of shame as they happened only a few weeks after the recognition of the wall’s official existence.
The Gaza Free March, constituted of activists from 43 countries, was scheduled in Gaza to commemorate the anniversary of Operation Cast Lead — the winter 2008-2009 Israeli military assault. The demonstrators came to Egypt planning to cross the Egyptian-controlled Rafah gate into Gaza and participate in this March, but to their surprise they were denied access. In addition to that, bus companies that had been hired to transport the would-be marchers to Rafah were told by state security to cancel their agreements; activists who made their way to the Sinai Peninsula on their own were turned back or detained. A Few days after, on the 31st of December, the Egyptian authorities finally allowed 100 of the 1,400 international activists into Gaza. Only 85 out of the 100 authorized to get in actually went: the others refused the offer, considering it as in opposition to the march’s fundamental demand, which was free access to Gaza. These latter therefore organized a day long rally in the Tahrir Square in support of Gaza which was severely suppressed by the Egyptian Security forces. At the same time, the convoy Viva Palestina, made up of hundreds of volunteers and vehicles delivering medical aid, suffered the same difficulties and even clashed with the police leaving 50 activists injured. They were only able to leave the Sinai port of al-‘Arish after a few days of immobility and enter Gaza on the 6th of January.
These two events and the way they were handled by the authorities show the discomfort of the Egyptian government towards any form of Palestinian solidarity or any forms of Resistance, as the tense relationships with Hezbollah and Hamas also show. Let us now study how the Wall of shame made a –rather despised- appearance.
At the time the Israeli soldiers “left” the Gaza strip, maintaining it as an open-air prison since then, an agreement was made in 2005 sponsored by the Bush Administration concerning the Rafah crossing, which is the only entry point that the Gaza Strip does not share with Israel but another country, namely Egypt. The agreement stated that the Rafah crossing would be monitored by the Egyptian and Palestinian Authorities, while continuing to accept the Israeli remote control of the crossing via closed-circuit television. After Hamas coup in June 2007 in Gaza against the Palestinian Authority, Egypt cooperated with Israel to maintain the Rafah crossing closed, claiming that it could not enforce an agreement when one of the contracting parties was absent. This latter was opened only once in January 2008 when Palestinian militants demolished a portion of the border between Gaza and Egypt and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians entered Egypt for a few days to buy the food they desperately needed, otherwise it had been closed continuously. Egypt has allowed only a few Palestinians to cross the border, making seldom exceptions mainly for emergency medical care or to leave on pilgrimage to Mecca. The consequences of this perpetual blockade by Egypt were catastrophic for the Gaza population, especially during the war last year: emergency medical services were not able to perform because of insufficient medical supplies and frequent power cuts. Moreover, conveys of humanitarian aid from across the world had to wait in queue on the Egyptian side of the border, Moubarak’s government limiting the access to the Palestinian territory during the war. Gaza was only slightly able to bypass the blockage thanks to the use and the building of tunnels where food, fuel and first necessity goods were smuggled. According to the director of the UN Relief Works Agency, 60 percent of Gaza’s economy depends on the tunnels.
What is technically speaking this new wall built on the Egyptian border? The Wall of shame is the second initiative launched by the US military to control the border between Egypt and the Gaza strip. The first stage of the initiative processed by American experts started over a year ago with the installation of below ground, state of the art, sensors able to detect any close sound or movement. Four US military engineers, according to Ma’an agency, monitor these sensors, analyse any form of activity and differentiate between new tunnel constructions or daily smuggling.
The second step of the initiative began a few months ago by the construction of a Steel Wall, revealed by the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, to the chagrin of the Egyptian authorities, that would be deployed on 10 km long and penetrate up to 30 meters underground. It has also been widely reported that the wall is being built with American assistance, according to different sources.
As we have observed, the blockade of Gaza would not be possible without the Egyptian cooperation, but what is Egypt’s interests and role in the building of this wall? Is it to protect the Egyptian’s sovereignty as proclaimed by Moubarak and his allies? This is quite hard to believe when we know for a fact that Egypt’s request to amend the 1978 peace treaty to double its number of soldiers from 750 to 1500 was refused by Israel or that during the installation of sensors as seen above, US forces have kept the Israeli side informed about any detected movement, despite that the entire operation is conducted on Egyptian soil.
So much for a so-called sovereign country!
More seriously, Egypt’s attitude is based on external and internal reasons. Firstly, Egypt wants to stay a close ally of the United States and continues to cooperate closely with Israel on security matters. Egypt has actually been pressurized and used by Israel and the USA as a tool to cease the smuggling through the tunnels. Israel has notably requested that the U.S. annual grant assistance of 1.3 billion dollars in military aid to Egypt should be conditional on their efforts to counter smuggling through tunnels. The Consolidated Appropriations Act voted by the US Congress in 2008 includes the support of 100 million dollars conditional to Egyptian efforts to detect and destroy smuggling tunnels. Egypt’s cooperation has been more than efficient, as the Gaza Blockade shows, acting as a tool of Israel and the USA and explaining why criticism from Washington of Egypt’s human rights record and its non democratic political system has been remarkably muted since the 2007 closure of Rafah. Mubarak’s regime has also recently won two important concessions from the United States: A portion of the assistance given by the US government will now be put into an endowment, which makes it more difficult for the US Congress to make the aid conditional on particular reforms; and last December Egypt was setting an agreement to acquire at least 20 new F-16 fighter jets from US manufacturers.
The Palestinian Authority has also favored and agreed on the closing of the Rafah crossing, fearing a strengthening of Hamas position. The President Mahmoud Abbas has moreover supported publicly the construction of the Steel wall on the Egyptian border, claiming that it was Egypt’s right to protect its sovereignty and added that
“the steel wall is not to starve the Palestinian people, but the existing tunnels are used to bring whiskey, drugs and Mercedes. As for humanitarian goods, thousands of tons enter through the crossings points”.
The President of the Palestinian Authority has proved once again that he is only the President of its servants and is not in touch with the realities and the suffering of its own population.
Secondly, we should not underestimate the internal reasons motivating Egypt in the pursuit of the blockade. Mubarak’s government mistrust of Hamas is quite clear and well known, it has been heard many times that Hamas officials complain about the Egyptian’s partial attitude towards them during the inter-Palestinian dialogue. Moubarak’s government has indeed pressured Hamas to satisfy the quartet and the International Community’s diktat: the end of the armed struggle, the recognition of Israel and the recognition of past agreements such as Oslo. Hamas has refused several times those requests because it neglects the right of the Palestinians while no substantial efforts are asked from Israel. The Egyptian authorities consider Hamas as an armed Islamist militia linked both to Iran, regional enemy of Egypt, and to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition group in the country. Hamas’authority in Gaza is perceived as a serious security threat and a potential destabilizing factor for the region. Egypt also does not want to be the main opening of Gaza on the outside world and fears to manage an impoverished, unstable and crowded territory.
Egypt has tried since the announcement by the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, to justify the construction of the wall to its population by different means notably through religious fatwas. The Egyptian government has actually resorted to the Islamic Research Council, headed by the Sheikh of al-Azhar who is Egypt’s highest semi-official Muslim institution, to publish a fatwa supporting the wall and condemning as violators of the Shari’a those who oppose to it. This propaganda is definitely not enough for the Egyptian opposition parties and the population who profusely and loudly condemn the building of the wall by the authorities. An Egyptian Committee to Break the Siege of Gaza was created in support of the Palestinians and in opposition to Mubarak’s policy towards Gaza. They have already organized a fair few mobilizations in Cairo such as last January 15th when about 100 members and supporters of the Committee to Break the Siege of Gaza tried to convene at the Doctors’ Syndicate in downtown Cairo in preparation for departure for Gaza, but they were stopped by Egyptian security services. In other Arab countries contestation has also grown: for example, a newly formed activist movement based in Beirut called “The Campaign to Stop the Wall of Shame” has already publicized the role in the building of the wall of the Arab contractors, the company in charge of the site.
In conclusion, Egyptian negative attitudes towards the International convoys for Gaza and the construction of the subterranean wall on its border show Egypt’s long time changing perspective towards the Israeli Arab conflict. Since Camp David Peace agreement with Israel, Egypt has slowly resigned from any role in the Israeli Arab conflict and moreover opposed more and more any form of Resistance against Israel. We can observe this change through Egypt animosity against Hamas and Hezbollah. The shift in Egyptian policy has even turned the Palestinian into enemies, the main threat indeed is not anymore Israel but any Palestinian who refuses to abandon the arm struggle and satisfy Israel and American conditions. Finally, Mubarak has turned since many years into an instrumental tool of the Americans and the Israelis, therefore betraying the population feeling and aspiration to be close and to support the Palestinians.
Somewhere below the ground, Gamal Abd El Nasser is rolling in his grave.
Orient le jour, Moubarak défend la construction de la barrière souterraine entre Gaza et l’Égypte ,25/01/2010
Ursula Lindsey, Egypt’s Wall, February 1, 2010, MERA; http://www.maannews.net/eng/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=246255; Samah Idriss; يَحدث في مصر الآن; Al Akhbar, 18/01/2010
Ahmed Moor ; Lebanon activists launch campaign targeting Egypt’s “wall of shame”, The Electronic Intifada, 21 January 2010