Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Opinion: How will Sisi’s Egypt deal with Libya and Gaza? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY SARAH BENHAIDA A picture taken on May 21, 2014 shows an Egyptian man sitting next to graffiti of Egypt’s ex-army chief and leading presidential candidate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. European tourists no longer jostle on the hotel dance floors and many sunbeds […]

Barring a surprise, Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi will be elected as Egypt’s next president. It is clear to everyone that domestic challenges, in particular security and economic challenges, will be the top priority for Egypt’s next president. If that president is Sisi, he will have come to power on the back of a popular mandate that was in evidence even before he announced his candidacy. He has chosen between remaining Egypt’s military commander and stepping forward as a political leader, bearing the hopes and dreams of the Egyptian people on his shoulders. He will also doubtlessly be aware that the Egyptian people have raised the ceiling of their expectations to a level that perhaps no president can meet.

Many Arab and international states are waiting to see what President Sisi’s policies are and how his administration will deal with a number of sensitive Arab and international issues, some of which are directly linked to the domestic situation in Egypt.

The latest developments in Libya will likely take priority over all other external issues. It is very upsetting to see what is happening in Libya today, in terms of the presence of militias on the ground and the general state of division and chaos that has existed since the toppling of the Gaddafi regime. It is clear that the country has become fragmented, which numerous figures have warned against over the last two years.

The violence of the jihadist militias present in Libya, as well as their control of large areas of Libyan territory, caused the beginning of the destruction of the foundations of post-Gaddafi Libyan unity. But in the eyes of many observers, the recent actions of General Khalifa Haftar could push Libya towards a civil war that would create chaos in the country for an unknown period of time. This would also have worrying consequences on Egypt and other neighboring countries.

How would Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, Egypt’s putative president with a strong military background, deal with a civil war in Libya?

This question is hard to ignore. But it would be unwise to look for an answer at this juncture, especially since we have to consider that Egypt could support Haftar. This, of course, assumes that the former Libyan army chief—a defector from the Gaddafi camp—is able to restore security to Libya in the first place. The idea of Haftar being able to achieve this is, in my opinion, nothing more than wishful thinking. Neither Libya nor Egypt nor any state that was part of the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 can go back to how they were before, particularly since ‘how things were before’ is what the people rose up against in the first place.

While it is true that people want peace and security and are willing to postpone the realization of democracy to secure them, anyone who believes that people yearn for any form of tyranny that injures peoples’ dignity and takes away their right to live honorably is surely delusional.

A second question about President Sisi’s likely foreign policy revolves around how his administration would deal with Gaza. It is no secret that the people of Gaza have high hopes that Sisi’s Egypt would end the suffering caused by the ongoing closure of the Rafah border crossing. These hopes were revived—even increased—following the signing of a reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah. Rumors about Egyptian support for one side or the other have since subsided, or at least not increased. These are confrontations that have been raging for more than 40 years, and every time the Palestinians optimistically believe that such score-settling is behind them it rears its ugly head once more.

Of course, no compassionate heart can accept the besiegement of any group of people. A siege is a siege, and there is no rational person in Egypt who can deny the suffering the closure of the Rafah border crossing causes ordinary Gazans. It sometimes reaches tragic levels, especially in the case of those who need medical treatment.

It is also illogical to imagine that anyone in Egypt—from Upper Egypt in the south to the Nile Delta and the Sinai Peninsula—deliberately wishes this kind of pain and suffering on the people of Gaza. It is similarly illogical to suppose that the majority of Gazans wish evil on Egypt and its people. How can anyone even imagine this, when the close relations between the people of Egypt and Gaza—which have existed for centuries—are well known? So, what exactly is the problem? In short, and as everyone in Gaza and Egypt knows, the problem is the absence of trust.

What is the reason for this lack of trust? Which side has squandered this trust, which had existed since Nasser’s era?

It was squandered by misconduct on the part of those Palestinians who thought the correct response to the closure of the Rafah border crossing was to dig tunnels into Egypt and then fall prey to the greed of those in charge of the “tunnel trade.” This led to an expansion of these underground tunnels to the point that they almost resemble underground cities. There are rumors that some parties in Egypt, or even in Israel, have contributed to this flourishing trade with the aim of making personal gains. There is no commodity that cannot be obtained via the tunnel trade, from smartphones to luxury cars. A credible source once told me that a member of a Sudanese delegation who visited the Gaza Strip to show solidarity with the people of Gaza and condemn the siege whispered in the ear of one of the Palestinian aides that some of the goods available in Gaza were not available in Khartoum.

It was not strange to see Hamas legitimize the tunnel trade by imposing taxes on it. The question, however, is: Now that these tunnel networks have reached this size and sophistication, isn’t it strange that they are being used in a way that incites suspicion on the part of Egyptian security apparatus?

I don’t think there is anything strange about this whatsoever. More than this, Egyptian suspicions developed after the escalation in terrorist operations in the Sinai Peninsula. Since one of the groups claiming responsibility for these terrorist acts is Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis, also known as Ansar Al-Quds—meaning “Supporters of the Holy House” and “Supporters of Jerusalem” respectively. Some of the questionable allegations began to reassert themselves as a result, as if the liberation of Jerusalem could only come at the expense of the security of other Arab territories.

So how can this squandered trust between the Egyptians and Palestinians be restored? Egypt is the larger and more capable party, which gives us hope that Cairo will take the initiative and build a new framework to reduce the burden on the people of Gaza. This is a burden based on the collective punishment of Gazans caused by the misconduct of a few, of course, and it can be alleviated without placing Egyptian security at risk. For instance, Egypt could impose strict security checks before issuing entry passes to Gaza residents.

In any case, it would not be difficult for Sisi—who drafted the transitional roadmap that will most likely ultimately deliver him to the presidential palace through the ballot box—to put Gaza and Cairo on the road to restoring a trust which never should have been lost in the first place.