January 23, 2009 | Memo

Egyptians’ Nuanced Approach to the Gaza Crisis


Speaking with Egyptians in Cairo and the Nile Delta during my recent visit, it was evident that the war in Gaza elicited passionate expressions of anger against Israel. However, while Israel remained the primary target of Egyptian outcry, as it traditionally is, the general reaction was far more nuanced. For example, when I asked one man, displaying a picture of a child wearing a Hamas headband on his cell phone, if he actually supported Hamas, he said no and spoke angrily about Hamas' role in the conflict. Indeed, Egyptians were actually acknowledging Hamas' responsibility for dragging Gaza to the brink of destruction.

The Iranian Dimension

Emotionally, the constant live coverage in the Arab media of dead Palestinian women and children only reinforced Egypt's historical support for the Palestinian cause. The humanitarian crisis in Gaza was of great concern to all Egyptians. Ideally, they would have liked to see the government open the Egypt-Gaza border to humanitarian aid in order to alleviate the suffering of Palestinians. Yet, I heard no prominent voice in favor of actually opening the borders, as most Egyptians were aware that the subsequent influx of Palestinian refugees would be problematic, and that Hamas and Iranian operatives could hide among the civilians.

Egyptians increasingly view Hamas as a national security concern and hold it partially responsible for the escalation of violence with Israel. Egypt officially plays the role of mediator between Hamas and Israel, but have failed to broker a sustainable truce between the two. In fact, Egyptian officials warned Hamas of the consequences of launching rockets towards Israel, but Hamas chose not to heed to Cairo's advice, and opted to instead align itself with Hezbollah and Iran. In the eyes of many, Hamas must bear the consequences of its decision.

An Affront to Egyptian Pride

Furthering Egyptian resentment towards Hamas was the December 28, 2008, killing of Egyptian army officer Yasser Fareeg by a Hamas militant. Thousands of people attended his funeral in the Nile Delta province of Kafr-El-Sheikh and his young widow frequently appeared in Egyptian media, enhancing the emotional dimension of the incident.

Egyptians also took offense to the rhetoric of populist leaders, like Hassan Nasrallah and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, accusing their country of conspiring with Israel against the Palestinians. These statements, such as Iranian cleric Ayatollah Ahmed Khatami asking Egyptians “are you the servants of Israel and do what they say?” during a Friday sermon, were perceived as an affront to Egyptian pride.

In response, Egyptians were quick to note all of the sacrifices made by Egypt in support the Palestinians. Almost every household has someone who fought in one of the four wars against Israel: President Mubarak himself served in the 1956, 1967 and 1973 wars. The memories of countless lost loved ones and the presence of numerous veterans with missing limbs serve as daily reminders of the sacrifice that Egypt has made for the Palestinian cause. Moreover, the country's economy has never truly recovered from the devastation caused by these wars. Accusing Egypt of not doing its part is simply, to Egyptians, without merit.

As a result, Egyptians generated a more rational and nuanced reaction to the Gaza conflict. The official and independent media were given leeway to convey Hamas' role in dragging the Palestinians into this latest tragedy. Even Adel Imam, one of the most prominent movie stars in Egypt and the Arab world, publicly blamed Hamas for provoking Israel. Similarly, ordinary citizens are also expressing their frustrations: a retired tax inspector from the Nile Delta province of Sharqia Delta noted, “we support the Palestinians, but Hamas and Iran want to drag us into a war.” For once, criticizing Hamas was not taboo.


As images in the media suggest, demonstrations in support of the Palestinians continued in Egypt throughout the conflict. Although some, such as members of the Muslim Brotherhood (a natural ally of Hamas), did not differentiate between the Palestinian cause and Hamas, not all demonstrators supported the terrorist group. In comparison to other countries in the region, Egypt had the most sensitive position in the Gaza conflict: it had to balance its traditional support for the Palestinian cause with its commitment to the peace process and national security interests. For once, the rhetoric in Egypt regarding actually reflected this reality.

Khairi Abaza is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He recently returned from Egypt.