Nothing unites Arab public opinion as much as hostility toward Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. The corollary is that there is no greater betrayal, in the minds of the Arab public, than taking Israel's side against the Palestinians and on that count, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak finds himself on tricky ground.
On Jan. 6, Mubarak's security forces found themselves engaged in clashes with Palestinians demonstrating at the Gaza border against Egypt's enforcement of the Israeli blockade against the territory. Hamas, the Islamist party that governs Gaza and which is at odds with the Egyptian regime, had called the protest to pressure the Egyptians over their delay of a Gaza-bound aid convoy. Others came to demonstrate against Egypt's construction of an underground steel barrier meant to block off the smuggling tunnels that provide both a vital lifeline to Gaza's blockaded economy and a pipeline to resupply the arsenals of Hamas.
The perceived collusion of Mubarak with the Israeli effort to topple Hamas by choking the life out of Gaza's economy has fueled a political backlash. "We are, of course, calling for lifting the siege, and giving the Palestinians a normal life," says Essam al-Eryan, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition group. "But the Israelis and Americans are pushing Egypt to secure the Israelis. And this is not our duty ... the Palestinians are no threat to Egypt."
In last week's clashes, Palestinians pelted Egyptian forces across the border with rocks, and the Egyptians responded by firing shots and tear gas into the crowd. One Egyptian soldier was killed, reportedly by a Palestinian sniper, and scores of Palestinians were injured. Earlier, Egyptian security forces had clashed with international activists accompanying a relief convoy that had originated in Britain, leaving more than 50 people injured. The group's leader, leftist British MP George Galloway, was expelled from Egypt on Jan. 9, after exiting Gaza.
Restrictions on Gaza's economy began with Hamas' election victory in 2006, and became a full blockade after the movement's militias ejected security forces loyal to Fatah, whom they accused of plotting a coup. The Israelis hope that if they choke off the inflow of even basic goods to a bare minimum, the population will turn on Hamas. Israel has also presented most construction materials from entering the territory, which has prevented the reconstruction of thousands of homes and other structures damaged by last year's Israeli offensive aimed at stopping Hamas rocket fire. Egypt, which controls the only Gaza border crossing outside Israeli territory at Rafah, has cooperated in enforcing the blockade. It has also begun to move more forcefully against the tunnel economy.
Egypt, which depends on billions of dollars of annual aid from the U.S., says its actions in Gaza are driven by its own national interest. Not only is there pressure from Washington to stop smuggling into Gaza, but Mubarak is a staunch supporter of the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and views Hamas as an ally of his own most feared opponents, the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
But although Egypt's compliance in the siege has been widely denounced in much of the Arab world and in Turkey, the Egyptian public remains largely oblivious. That's because the government has successfully persuaded much of its citizenry that the blame for Egyptian-Gazan tension lies with Hamas and Israel, even mobilizing state-funded religious authorities to criticize Hamas and give their blessing to Egyptian security measures on the Gaza border.
Hala Mustafa, editor of the state-funded Al-Ahram Quarterly Democracy Review, says Egypt's role in the blockade is based on its obligations under its peace agreement with Israel. "In this accord, Egypt has to watch its border and should not allow any third party to cross the border in order to attack Israel." As for blocked aid convoys, she says: "This aid has been used as ... a kind of propaganda to bring the attention of the other Arab communities and the international community against Egypt."
The state-sponsored press has reinforced efforts to deflect criticism for Egypt's Gaza policies by appealing to nationalist sympathies, focusing on the killing of the Egyptian soldier during last week's clashes, and on Hamas extremism. Last weekend's opinion pages were flooded with vitriolic rants against Hamas that ranged from accusing it of having neither religion nor country to accusing it of acting in Israel's interests.
"Who killed the Egyptian soldier? Palestinians. Egypt would never fire on the Palestinians. That's a lie," said Mohamed al-Tamimi, a retired air-force pilot, who also admitted that he disliked the government. Others suggest that domestic social and economic woes have made most Egyptians indifferent to foreign affairs.
But while it may be ahead in the domestic p.r. game on Gaza thus far, the regime of the aging President Hosni Mubarak, who has held power for nearly three decades, is struggling to maintain legitimacy in the face of other domestic threats. Corruption, police brutality, a widening income gap and a recent spike in Muslim-Christian violence have added fuel to Egypt's disorganized but politically diverse opposition. And it may not be long before Gaza comes back to haunt it.
"From the reaction in the Arab press, and from people in the Arab world, there is no justification for what Egypt is doing [regarding Gaza]," says Marina Ottaway, Director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. But it's unlikely to mean much in current domestic politics. "Essentially, it's just one more sign of the differences that exist between government actions and public opinion, but I do not expect any dramatic repercussions."
Indeed, public outrage may mean little for a regime that is not exactly dependent on a democratic mandate. "You are not talking about a Western society under a Western regime," says Hala Mustafa. "[Popularity] is not calculated this way in Egypt or in the Arab world in general. Popularity is not the element or the factor that could really influence the regime or push the regime to adopt this policy or that one." But for an already unpopular regime, an unpopular approach to Gaza may still be a step onto ever thinning ice.