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How Hamas Saved Egypt

The Oct. 7 attacks pumped badly needed economic and political capital into a failed state

by
Judith Miller
May 15, 2024

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Last fall, Egypt was on the brink of economic collapse. A decade of debt-fueled spending on a pharaonic-scale had emptied its Central Bank coffers. By February, Cairo’s public debt was 89% of its gross domestic product. External debt had soared to 46% of GDP. The pound, its currency, was one of the world’s worst performing. Unable to import supplies and repatriate profits, foreign companies were leaving, or threatening to leave Egypt in droves. Annual inflation was over 35%, and double that for some food staples. Egypt seemed on the verge of a sovereign default—its first ever.

Then came Oct. 7.

Officials, businessmen, and financial analysts say that however horrific the war has been for Israelis and for Palestinians in Gaza, Oct. 7 has helped save Egypt from economic ruin and growing political unrest. To be sure, Egypt is paying heavily for the ongoing Israel-Hamas war on its border. Its three main sources of revenue—hard currency from the Suez Canal, tourism, and remittances from Egyptian workers abroad—have plummeted by between 30% and 40%. But without Hamas’ horrific massacre, which killed 1,200 people and took another 240 hostage, and Israel’s much criticized retaliation in Gaza, Egypt would probably not have gotten the international financial lifeline that has rescued it yet again from economic ruin, just in time.

“Just after the attack, the government began strategizing, successfully it’s turned out, about how to use the crisis to secure a bailout,” said Ahmed Aboudouh, an Egyptian expert at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. “Oct. 7 helped save Egypt’s economy, at least temporarily.”

Last February, the Abu Dhabi Developmental Holding Company (ADQ), Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund, unveiled plans to develop a city by the sea on part of the 65-square-mile peninsula of Ras el-Hekma, one of the few undeveloped areas on the Mediterranean coast, part of a sale worth $35 billion in investment and debt relief, the largest foreign direct investment deal in Egyptian history. Egypt will retain a 35% stake in the project. Since Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the chairman of ADQ, is Emirati President Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan’s brother and the UAE’s national security adviser, the Ras el-Hekma purchase was far more than a financial transaction. It was part of an Egyptian bailout.

Egyptians bristle at the loss of their nation’s diplomatic clout. By reviving its regional profile, Oct. 7 has bestowed another gift on Egypt.

Then in March, Cairo secured a critical $8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, with strong American support. The IMF infusion, in turn, opened other foreign faucets. The European Union promptly agreed to provide another $8 billion in grants and loans, ostensibly to help Egypt’s economy, but in reality, to assure Egypt’s help in preventing Arab and African migrants from reaching European shores. In total, the IMF, Europe, and the Gulf have now poured well over $50 billion of foreign currency into Egypt’s cash-strapped coffers. “The U.S., Europe, and the Gulf clearly agreed that the Sissi government could not be permitted to fail,” said Steven Cook, an expert on Egypt at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. “Geopolitics has taken over.”

Only months before, the IMF had not completed the review of Egypt’s loan agreement approved in December 2022, thereby withholding a tranche of the $3 billion rescue package, as the government had failed to deliver on agreed benchmarks. While the fund attributed its about-face in March to the increasing damage being done to Egypt’s economy by the Israel-Hamas war—or what it euphemistically called a “more challenging external environment”—absent American pressure on the fund and on Egypt to agree belatedly to financial reforms it had previously rejected, the IMF loan and even the Ras el-Hekma deal would not have gone through. Since Washington is the fund’s largest shareholder with a 16.5% stake, it holds sway over its key lending decisions.

The Biden administration, too, was obviously unwilling to risk the economic collapse and political destabilization of the Arab Middle East’s largest country and the first Arab state to make peace with neighboring Israel in the midst of one of the region’s deadliest wars in modern history and with other conflicts around it still raging—especially since Egyptian mediation with Hamas was crucial to White House policy. “Egypt has proven, yet again,” said Aboudouh, “that it is, as its elite believes, too big to fail.”

Arriving shortly after the IMF bailout, I found the mood in Cairo decidedly bullish. The weather was mild; the air relatively sand-free; and Egyptians were busy shopping and preparing for Ramadan, the Muslim month of dusk-to-dawn fasting and evening “iftars,” a seemingly endless series of parties celebrating the breaking of the daily fast.

Members of the business community were particularly chipper. “The IMF loan and direct foreign investment will get Egypt through the next three years,” said Hisham Ezz al-Arab, chairman of the Commercial International Bank, Egypt’s largest commercial bank and a former adviser to the country’s Central Bank. The IMF loan and investments from the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf states were a “massive shot in the arm,” said Mohamed Younes, a businessman who heads Concord International Investments Group. “Now Egypt will boom.” Amr Moussa, a former minister of foreign affairs, said that Egypt had “turned a corner.” Egypt’s leaders now understood that the country needed to “recreate” its economy and open up. Before the international cash infusion, “there was a question mark about Egypt. Now there is an exclamation point!”

Not everyone shares their optimism. President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi has blamed the country’s economic woes on factors beyond his control—the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which temporarily caused the price of flour and hence, bread, an essential and heavily subsidized staple—to soar. But financial analysts say that although these events undoubtedly caused economic disruptions, Sissi himself is largely to blame for his country’s economic malaise. Without major structural changes in the way the economy is being managed, or mismanaged, they warn, Egypt will soon be back begging for more loans.

To secure the IMF bailout, Egypt agreed to adopt what for Cairo are radical measures to restore the country’s economic credibility. These include, among others, liberalizing the currency’s exchange rate, tightening monetary policy, reforming public financing, and reducing public spending on social support and infrastructure.

First, after years of refusing to float its currency to reflect its true value, the government shifted gears. As of last fall, while the official rate of the Egyptian pound, which is pegged to the U.S. dollar, was 31 Egyptian pounds to the dollar, the black-market rate was 75.

Although Egypt had devalued the pound three times since 2022, Sissi had refused to float the currency, saying he was unwilling to make the public suffer. But on March 6, as the IMF was finalizing its essential loan, he did just that. Egypt’s currency instantly lost about half its value, much to the shock of middle-class Egyptians, many of whom are paid in pounds, but must pay for services like Netflix, private-school tuitions, magazine subscriptions, and hotels and travel abroad in dollars. Once the pound reflected more or less its true value, however, the black market largely evaporated, at least temporarily.

To ease the financial blow and prevent the middle class from continuing to be hollowed out by rising inflation and a devalued currency, (the pound that officially was 31 to the dollar in late 2023 was 7 to the dollar when Sissi came to power a decade earlier), Cairo lifted its regulation barring Egyptians from getting more than $250 in foreign currency on their credit cards and no more than $5,000 from their bank accounts. At the same time, Egypt’s Central Bank loosened import restrictions and raised interest rates—another IMF condition—by an unprecedented 6%. The hike prompted foreign investors to buy almost half of the $2 billion in short-term local currency debt that Cairo sold the next day. And Egyptians abroad, who had been wary of sending their earnings back home to an unstable banking system, flocked to do so. The Central Bank reported in late March that Egyptians working abroad sent $4 billion in remittances back home in three days after the IMF loan and the floating of Egypt’s currency.

Other IMF conditions for the loan may be far tougher for Cairo to implement, however, especially those which require President Sissi to change the way he has run Egypt since taking over in 2013.

While most Egyptians are preoccupied by the daily struggle to survive and their own country’s financial woes, Egypt faces severe foreign policy challenges, most stemming from its unfortunate neighbors. Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry described Egypt’s daunting foreign policy landscape in an interview in his office in the new $58 billion administrative capital. To its south, a civil war between two rival factions of the military in Sudan has killed at least 13,000, internally displaced over 6.5 million, and prompted over 2 million others to flee the country as refugees, many of them—just how many is in dispute—to Egypt. Since the ouster and subsequent death of former leader Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011, Libya, another wealthy but problematic neighbor, has struggled to rebuild state institutions due to the spread of the Islamic State and other militant armed groups throughout the country and the outbreak of yet another ongoing civil war. To the east, ships in the Red Sea on Egypt’s border have been repeatedly targeted by Iranian-backed Houthi fighters in Yemen.

Another dire, longer-run challenge is Ethiopia’s construction of a dam on the Nile, which Egypt relies upon for over 95% of its drinking and irrigation water. Last year, Ethiopia began filling its upstream dam whose reservoir could hold back more than 80% of the Nile’s annual flow. But negotiations between Egypt and Ethiopia to assure Egypt the water it needs—especially for Sissi’s new cities—have failed to achieve a breakthrough.

“Egypt is quite safe,” Minister Shoukry said. “But there are threats and instability all around us.”

Without Hamas’ horrific massacre, Egypt would probably not have gotten the international financial lifeline that has rescued it yet again from economic ruin.

No single problem is as vexing, however, as how to handle relations with Israel since the Oct. 7 attack and its retaliation to eradicate Hamas in Gaza, with which Egypt shares a long border and an unhappy history. There is no love lost between Egypt’s rulers and the Palestinians of Gaza. After the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Egypt administered the Gaza Strip, not a role that Egypt relished. When Israel captured Gaza in the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel administered the region until the Oslo Accords of 1993, after which Israel slowly transferred the administration of the Gaza Strip over to Yasir Arafat’s Palestine Authority. After Israel withdrew from Gaza unilaterally in 2005, the PA ruled the strip until Hamas was elected in 2006, violently ejected the Authority, and began firing rockets into Israel. Egypt and Israel responded by sealing Gaza. While Israel tried to prevent weapons and other contraband from entering the Strip, Egypt’s side of the border was more porous. The smuggling was aided by Hamas’ tunnels on both borders. While Egypt claimed to have closed the tunnels on its border at Israel’s insistence, Israeli officials have said that Egypt did not do so, and that banned material continued to make its way into Gaza, enabling Hamas to build formidable military infrastructure and a tunnel network underneath the entire Strip.

Egypt has also been schizophrenic about its pioneering peace with Israel that President Sadat forged in 1978. After Sadat’s assassination by militant Egyptian Islamists, partly for having made peace with the “Zionist entity,” as Israel was then known among Islamists, Sadat’s successor, Mubarak, honored the peace treaty. But he never fully explained to Egyptians why peace with Israel was in Egypt’s vital security interests. Relentless propaganda against Israel since then has helped fuel the feeling of many Egyptians that their leaders have betrayed Palestinians and the Arab cause that Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s first Arab nationalist authoritarian leader, long championed, albeit as an instrument to advance Egypt’s regional primacy against Arab rivals.

As a result, while Cairo and Jerusalem continue to observe a cold peace, there is virtually no contact with, or cooperation between members of Israeli and Egyptian civil society. Egypt has quietly but steadfastly refused to grant Israeli journalists visas to report on the country, even sympathetic reporters who know the country well. Almost all of Egypt’s unions forbid contact with their Israeli counterparts on pain of expulsion—from elite engineers, doctors, academics, and journalists to lowly bawabs, the aging men who guard the doors of Egyptian apartments and offices.

So Egyptian leaders have long managed their own people’s rage as they developed closer relations with Israel. Shoukry said that after Oct. 7, “we condemned the attack, early.” While Egypt has little sympathy for Hamas given its brief, if disastrous experience with Islamist rule under the Muslim Brotherhood, photos on television and social media of Israel’s bombing of Gaza and the growing plight of Palestinians facing deprivation and famine have outraged many Egyptians. Despite its human rights abuses and allergy to criticism of the regime, Egypt is not a totalitarian state. Sissi must still take public sentiment into account.

That partly explains why Egypt’s close security cooperation with Israel, though widely known, has been rarely publicly discussed. Yet for many years, Egyptian and Israeli security agencies and the military have worked together on mutual challenges—especially to counter Iran, the Islamic State, and other Sunni Muslim militants operating in the Sinai. While Egypt finally managed to suppress militant Islamists and discontented Bedouin in northeastern Sinai in a quiet war which peaked in 2013, it might not have done so without Israeli assistance.

This posture of maintaining close security cooperation with the Israelis and open lines to Hamas, is central to Cairo’s geopolitical role. Shoukry said that Egypt has worked hard as a broker in talks between Israel and Hamas to secure a cease fire and the return to Israel of its remaining hostages in Gaza, but so far without success. “We haven’t been able to bridge the gap,” he said, confirming reports that differences between the two sides have not yet been reconciled and may be irreconcilable.

He also confirmed the existence of what he called “full coordination” between Egypt and Israel on border crossings from Gaza into Egypt. As of mid-March, he said, Egypt has facilitated the crossing of some 48,000 people of 100 different nationalities at its border at Rafah. While he did not specify the nature of the coordination, other Egyptian and Israeli officials said that, among other things, no Palestinian has been permitted to cross into Egypt without the approval of both Egyptian and Israeli intelligence agencies. The Biden administration has backed Cairo in adamantly rejecting any temporary relocation of Gazans in the Sinai to allow Israel to clear the Hamas stronghold of Rafah.

Some Palestinians have managed, however, to cross into Egypt through another channel that says much about how the country operates under Sissi. While Egypt has closed the southernmost Rafah crossing to most refugees, money still talks. Since the war erupted in mid-October, Egypt has permitted just a single travel agency, called Hala Tourism and Consulting, to operate cross-border journeys from Gaza into Egypt. The firm is based in the office of its parent company, Organi, which owns construction, mining, transportation, and tourism firms and is based in Cairo’s Nasr City. Its crossing fees have risen fivefold since the war began—from $5,000 to $10,000 per adult, and half that for children, far more than the average Palestinian can afford.

Even Palestinians of Egyptian origin must pay, according to a report from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a nonprofit investigative collective. Gazans who have Egyptian citizenship must still fork out what amounts to a bribe of between $650 and $1,200 a person to leave Gaza and enter their own country, the OCCRP report says.

According to Israeli and Egyptian sources, Hala is owned by Ibrahim al-Organi, the leader of an influential Bedouin tribe in northern Sinai. Hala did not respond to a request for comment. But according to reports, which two Egyptian experts on the crisis later confirmed, Hala’s license and virtual monopoly on border crossings were granted by none other than Mahmoud al-Sissi, an Egyptian general who is the deputy head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate and the eldest of President Sissi’s three sons. An Egyptian government spokesman declined to comment on the report.

In our interview in mid March, Shoukry expressed what he called “grave concern” about Israel’s plan to launch a ground assault into Rafah to root out the remaining Hamas fighters—about 4,000 fighters, or what Israel says are Hamas’ last four brigades. “Such an operation would increase the number of civilian casualties and the level of Palestinian frustration,” Shoukry said. It would also constitute what he called a “double displacement” for Palestinians who have already been forced out of their homes in Gaza City and Khan Yunis, the two largest cities in the Gaza Strip. As a result, Rafah’s population has exploded, from some 280,000 to 1.7 million people.

When Israel finally took control of the Rafah border crossing last week, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry was quick to issue a statement condemning the operation. The statement called on “all influential international parties to intervene, pressure against escalating the current crisis and allow diplomatic efforts to achieve their desired results.” A few days later, Egypt went a step further and announced its support for South Africa’s case against Israel at the International Court of Justice. “The announcement of the intervention in this case comes in light of the expansion in scope and scale of Israeli violations against civilians in Gaza,” the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said.

The Egyptians say they fear that Israel’s military incursion into Rafah might prompt tens of thousands of Palestinians camped between the Israeli army and the Egyptian border to try to push their way across the Rafah crossing. Shoukry worried about the risk to Egypt from what he called “unvetted elements”—i.e., Hamas militants—embedded in the fleeing refugee population. The Egyptians say that they fear if they were to grant even temporary asylum to Palestinians in the Sinai, those “unvetted” Hamas elements would not only try to reignite the recently suppressed conflict in Sinai, but try to attack Israel directly from Egyptian soil. “The Camp David peace accords have withstood pressure from a series of crises in the region,” he said. “We’ve been able to contain this one. But we don’t want a resurgence of terror in Egypt,” he said.

To prepare for such a contingency, the military has increased its security presence on its side of the border. While Shoukry would not discuss how Egypt would respond if Palestinians were to try to cross en masse into Egypt, several newspapers have shown photos of Egyptians erecting concrete walls topped with watchtowers around an 8-square-mile strip of land on their side of the Rafah border. Military analysts say that the enclosed area could hold about 100,000 people. But published satellite photos do not show any infrastructure to feed or shelter them.

Concerns over security, however, are only part of the story. Israel seizing the Rafah crossing means Egypt no longer has sole control over the entry point into the Strip. It also means the IDF will begin to uncover the tunnels that run underneath the border into Sinai. The revelation that the stalwart enemy of the Muslim Brotherhood had a hand in the military buildup of Iran’s Muslim Brotherhood proxy in Gaza is publicity the Egyptians are desperate to avoid.

Despite the existence of what Shoukry called “full coordination” between his country and Israel over the Rafah crossing, Israel continues to doubt Egypt’s willingness and ability to control the flow of weapons and other contraband across the border. Shoukry bristles when asked about reports of alleged Egyptian aid continuing to reach Hamas without Israeli approval through the Rafah crossing.

Egypt, he said, has done everything possible to prevent the current crisis. Asked about reports that senior Egyptian intelligence officials warned their Israeli counterparts shortly before Oct. 7 that Hamas was preparing a major assault, Shoukry declined comment, deflecting our conversation to a broader political context. “We continually warned about the danger of political stagnation,” he said, referring to the long-frozen Israel-Palestinian peace process. “And Israel has repeatedly accommodated Hamas at the expense of the Palestine Authority.”

While he declined to specify how Israel has reinforced Hamas to weaken the PA, many Egyptian and Israeli critics of the Netanyahu government have publicly complained about Netanyahu’s alleged authorization of cash payments from Qatar, Hamas’ political headquarters, to Hamas leaders in Gaza.

Instead, Shoukry fell back on the stock talking point of Arab, and Biden administration, officials, namely that Netanyahu’s rejection of the possibility of a “two-state solution” to the crisis was strengthening Hamas. Because Hamas would reject recognition of Israel and a two-state solution, he argued, Hamas would be deprived of its role as the “force of resistance to Israeli occupation” if Israel endorsed it. Instead, he added, “Hamas would then be regarded as an obstructing factor.” Echoing the Biden administration’s sales pitch for a Palestinian state, now more unthinkable than ever in Israel, Shoukry added, “Saudi Arabia’s recognition of Israel is contingent upon a resolution of the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict.”

Egypt, the self-proclaimed “Umm al-Dunia,” or “Mother of the World,” is increasingly irritated by its diminishing influence in the region. Its officials resent the Gulf’s growing economic and widely perceived political importance in Middle Eastern affairs. Its annoyance is particularly evident at the mere mention of mega-rich Qatar, the Gulf sheikhdom of 2.6 million people, only 300,000 of whom are of Arab origin. Yet Qatar, which hosts Hamas’ political leaders and supports the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot in Gaza, increasingly claims to be the leading negotiator between Israel and Hamas. The UAE, which championed the Abraham Accords recognition of Israel, has also jeopardized Egypt’s role as the Arabs’ main interlocutor with Jerusalem. Egyptians, who take pride in their country’s history and heritage, bristle at the loss of their nation’s diplomatic clout. By reviving its regional profile, Oct. 7 has bestowed another gift on Egypt.

But while Egyptians are disturbed by the Israeli-Hamas war and the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza, the country seems increasingly focused on its grave domestic challenges. “Egypt obviously cares about the region, but our priority is building our country,” said Abdel Monem Said Aly, an influential Egyptian analyst.

Whether Egypt will be able to reform the militarized state capitalism that has battered the private sector and redistributed income from the beleaguered middle class to the army remains to be seen. “Sissi will do this because he knows he must,” said one non-American diplomat. “This is Egypt’s last shot to get it right.” But many financial analysts doubt that Sissi has the desire or ability to reign in his fellow generals upon whom his continued rule of Egypt depends.

Sissi may not have to face that choice. With 110 million people living on less than 10% of the land along the Nile, Egypt may well be, as Egyptians repeatedly told me, too big to fail. The reaction of the West and the Gulf Arab states following Oct. 7 gives the Egyptians every reason to believe it’s true.

Judith Miller, Tablet Magazine’s theater critic, is a former New York Times Cairo bureau chief and investigative reporter. She is also the author of the memoir The Story: A Reporter’s Journey.

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