Mohannad Sabry is an Egyptian journalist and author who lived in Cairo until 2015, before he left in self-imposed exile after facing mounting threats. In 2011 he was named a finalist for the Livingston Award for International Reporting, and was nominated for an Emmy Award as part of the PBS Frontline team that produced the show “Egypt in Crisis” in September 2013. Sabry is knowledgeable about developments in the Sinai Peninsula, where the Egyptian government has been fighting an insurgency for several years. He is the author of Sinai: Egypt’s Linchpin, Gaza’s Lifeline, and Israel’s Nightmare (2015), which was banned in Egypt soon after publication. Diwan interviewed Sabry in late May to get his perspective on Egypt’s role in the recent conflict in Gaza.
Michael Young: Now that a ceasefire is in place in Gaza, how would you assess Egypt’s behavior during the recent conflict?
Mohannad Sabry: The ceasefire, which Egypt brokered and pressed for quickly and diligently, was evidence of how effective and positive Egypt’s behavior was during this conflict. Without such efforts the war between Israel and Gaza’s armed factions would have continued for weeks and seen hundreds of more civilian and military victims, as well as greater destruction to an already debilitated Gaza.
However, Cairo’s actions during the conflict, which were very different than its past positions on Gaza, raise serious questions and concerns over the true intentions of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s regime. Its position in defense of Gaza and its people, like the full return of communication with leaders of Hamas, took place even as Egypt’s judiciary continued to prosecute and imprison hundreds of people over charges of terrorism and collaboration with Hamas. Even Egypt’s late president Mohammed Morsi, whom Sisi toppled, died in court after being accused of collaborating with Hamas.
While Egypt’s behavior seemed positive, it now has to deliver on promises of working for a just and peaceful solution to the longstanding problems associated with the Palestinian cause and the Gaza Strip. State-sponsored television presenters crying on air over the civilian deaths in Gaza seemed laughable and was met by sarcasm, especially when the same regime mouthpieces had called for burning all of Gaza a few years ago. Unless a real change in Egyptian attitudes materializes, recent Egyptian actions will remain meaningless.
MY: In the regional context, what were Cairo’s calculations? Egypt used to be the main Arab interlocutor on Palestinian issues, but is that still true? How did regional factors play into its behavior over Gaza?
MS: Regional developments and the normalization deals sealed last year between Israel and other Arab states were definitely a major influence on Egyptian calculations. Sisi’s regime wants to show that despite the importance of other regional agreements and developments, Egypt remains the strongest and most capable mediator when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Reestablishing this position was a greater win for Sisi’s regime than all other calculations of preserving peace and protecting the civilian population of Gaza. Egypt did play the humanitarian, propeace card, but the regime was far more concerned with entrenching its rule by maintaining and publicly parading the efficacy of its regional influence. Egypt reaped the fruits of such actions almost immediately, and remained the only party to receive global applause and messages of gratitude from both Israel and Gaza, as well as from U.S. President Joe Biden and other world leaders.
On the other hand, such plaudits impose a grave challenge when it comes to Egypt’s relations with other Arab states—primarily the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, who have been Sisi’s prime backers and financiers since the 2013 coup that brought him to power. Any sense of competition or rivalry with those countries would disrupt the already fragile relations between Egypt’s regime and other regional powers.
MY: Egypt kept the Rafah crossing with Gaza open for humanitarian reasons, suggesting more flexibility than in the past. How would you assess its approach to humanitarian issues this time when compared to what had taken place previously?
MS: The situation at the Rafah terminal and Cairo’s approach to humanitarian issues in Gaza in general cast major doubts over how genuine the Egyptian position was. While the terminal remained open for ordinary travelers, including students and people with travel clearances finalized before the conflict, it remained closed to the victims of the war and to humanitarian aid convoys, journalists, and workers in nongovernmental organizations.
It was only on the seventh day of the conflict that Egypt allowed a mere twelve injured victims to cross the border for treatment. Sources in the Rafah terminal and inside Gaza reported that the majority of injured civilians were banned from crossing into Egypt over security concerns. As for aid, it was only after the ceasefire began that Egypt allowed an 80-truck convoy to enter Gaza, covering trucks with pictures of Sisi and a slogan that was met with condemnation: “The Egyptian President’s Gift to the People of Palestine.”
The recent situation was the opposite of the total closure of the Rafah terminal during the 2014 war. At that time Egypt fully encouraged Israeli military action and state-sponsored media called for the full destruction of Hamas and its fellow armed factions. But this time Egypt did less than the bare minimum of its capabilities on the humanitarian level, after the destructions of infrastructure, hundreds, if not thousands, of civilian homes, and around 2,000 injuries.
Egypt’s approach to Gaza’s humanitarian crisis raised a serious question that the Sisi regime must answer practically: Is Cairo genuine about alleviating the suffering of the people of Gaza or is it simply using their plight as a stepping stone to achieve its political objectives? How it chooses to answer that question will either boost its popularity further or completely shatter the credibility of its sudden shift to adopting humanitarian rhetoric.
MY: Amid signs that there is increasing regional and international dissatisfaction with Israeli mistreatment of the Palestinians, how do you think this might affect Egyptian policies toward Israel?
MS: Egypt and Israel have invested far too many resources in building an unprecedentedly close relationship in recent years since Sisi’s rise to power for them to forgo such an investment over international or regional dissatisfaction. Moreover, both Sisi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have benefited greatly from this relationship, as have their militaries.
The depth and complexity of the Egyptian-Israeli relationship was visible in the contradictions that took place. Sisi’s regime rushed to broker a ceasefire that put an end to the firing of rockets at Israel. Yet it also ran an anti-Israel campaign on state-sponsored television stations that was watched by hundreds of millions of people across the region, and still received public messages of gratitude from Netanyahu and Israel’s celebrated ambassador to Egypt Amira Oron.
At the same time, Sisi remains a very unpopular leader with a bloodstained human rights record, despite how popular his behavior was toward the situation in Gaza. Netanyahu, in turn, faces grave domestic challenges that might end his time in office, which places both governments and their ties at a significant crossroads. The near future will reveal how much Sisi and Netanyahu are willing to compromise on the future status of Gaza and whether the blockade there should be lifted. This will show what remains their top priority.
Once again, how Sisi decides to deal with Israel going forward will determine the fate of his new policies toward Gaza and the Palestinian people. Either he will emerge as a defender of Gaza despite his record and push for lasting solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or he will remain the ironfisted dictator who began his reign with the massacre of protesters on the streets of Cairo.