Cardboard signs with text in Arabic reading ‘the crossing is under threat of bombardment, danger to approach’ on the fence of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt in the south of the Gaza Strip, on Oct. 19, 2023

Mohammed Abed/AFP via Getty Images

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Why Egypt Leaves Palestinians in Gaza to Die

The Jewish state has long been a useful villain in Egyptian conspiracy theories. Now that might be backfiring on Egyptians and Gazans at once.

Samuel Tadros
October 21, 2023
Cardboard signs with text in Arabic reading 'the crossing is under threat of bombardment, danger to approach' on the fence of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt in the south of the Gaza Strip, on Oct. 19, 2023

Mohammed Abed/AFP via Getty Images

This article is part of Hamas’ War on Israel.
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Viewed from Washington, Hamas’ barbaric attack on Israel must have seemed a gift to the Egyptian regime. Shunned by Washington due to its dismal human rights record, and confronting a serious economic crisis, Egypt’s fortunes were running downhill fast even before federal prosecutors indicted U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez on charges of conspiring to act as a foreign agent for Egypt, putting the prospect of a continuation of the U.S. annual aid to the country in question. With Hamas’ massacre of Israeli civilians, and the certainty of a massive Israeli ground invasion to follow, it seemed like Cairo would once again become a desired partner to bring stability and peace to the region—in return for much-needed financial assistance of course.

Instead, with many innocent Palestinian lives at stake, Egypt has strongly and consistently rejected the opportunity to play a constructive role in a major regional crisis. Not only has Egypt refused to open the Rafah crossing to allow the evacuation of Americans from Gaza, but it has insisted that under no circumstances would it allow Palestinian civilians to flee to Sinai. U.S. Secretary of State Blinken was also on the receiving end of a bizarre tirade by Egypt’s dictator, President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who insisted that Jews had never been oppressed in the Middle East. Coming in the aftermath of his humiliation in Saudi Arabia, Secretary Blinken’s ordeal at el-Sissi’s hands must have seemed a good metaphor for the Biden administration’s failure in the Middle East.

While the Biden’s administration’s failed regional policies—from attempting to reach an accommodation with Iran to a general apathy toward the Middle East that has left the region in turmoil—may explain much of the current fiasco, the lack of constructive engagement from Cairo goes much deeper than an expression of hurt by a former partner. In fact, Cairo’s behavior should not come as a surprise to Washington, at least not if anyone had been paying attention to the country’s politics and internal dynamics for the past decade.

For over 70 years, Egypt’s political and cultural scene has been dominated by antisemitism, not simply as a form of hate but more importantly as an ideology for mass politics and a pillar of a national totalitarian project. The signing of a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 did not weaken this dispensation; rather, it amplified it. Since the Camp David Accords, antisemitism has become a powerful tool of mobilization by the Egyptian opposition across the political spectrum; a means to augment public anger against the Mubarak regime by painting them as traitors. In response, the regime has eagerly exploited and promulgated antisemitism through its propaganda apparatus in order to prove its own bona fides.

The results of the massive validation of antisemitism as a cornerstone of Egyptian political discourse by both regime opponents and supporters are depressingly easy to spot. Successive generations of young Egyptians live in a wildly irrational fantasy world, having been brainwashed from birth with Jew-hatred and conspiracy theories from blood libels and Holocaust denial to sharks in the Red Sea being planted by the Mossad.

The upheaval in the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution only intensified this process. With the country in turmoil, it was only natural for people to attempt to explain the unprecedented changes around them by falling back on preestablished notions—namely, a Jewish conspiracy. Qatari and Iranian propaganda arms further kindled those fires with a flood of fabricated stories about alleged Jewish conspiracies to harm Egypt.

When Sissi removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power in 2013, he justified his actions by accusing the Muslim Brotherhood of deviating from Egyptian nationalism and serving its Islamist ideology and foreign interests. In the following months, Egyptians were bombarded with conspiracy theories regarding the Muslim Brotherhood, often involving the United States and Israel. The U.S. Sixth Fleet had attempted to invade Egypt to save the Brotherhood; Egyptian naval forces had defeated them and captured their commander; Hassan El Banna, the founder of the Brotherhood was a secret Jew. President Obama had given the Brotherhood $8 billion in return for Egypt conceding 40% of Sinai to Hamas so Israel could then take over Gaza.

If the claims sound irrational, it is because they are. But in a country where political forces from left and right cannot agree on anything besides Jew-hatred, and with the state propaganda machine at his disposal, those lunacies all became established facts in Egyptian politics. Suggestions by Westerners of land swaps to ease the population concentration in Gaza only served as proof of those theories. Not wanting to be outdone, the Muslim Brotherhood has in turn accused President Sissi of being a secret Jew and of approving giving Sinai to the Palestinians as part of President Trump’s “deal of the century.”

The result is a political climate in which no Egyptian politician can possibly agree to the entry of Palestinians to Sinai. Egypt certainly has legitimate concerns about that suggestion; from fear that Israel would not allow the return of those refugees following the end of hostilities, concerns regarding the financial burden of hosting those refugees, fears of Hamas militants infiltrating the country and mixing with Islamist insurgents in Sinai, and alarm at the prospect of attacks against Israel from Sinai and possible Israeli responses. However, these concerns—most of which are susceptible to rational analysis—are dwarfed by the hysteria and conspiracy theories that frame the conversation about Palestinians and Sinai inside Egypt. While Egypt is in desperate need of financial assistance, the economic crisis has also made the regime increasingly unsure of the country’s stability and fearful of inciting popular resentment.

How much does Sissi himself believe his regime’s conspiracy theories? From crushing civil society and independent media because it is utilized as part of a fourth-generation warfare by the West against Egypt, to his repeated statements about conspiracies against the country, Sissi has made it clear throughout his reign that he deeply believes them—and shapes his policies accordingly. And if his tirade to Blinken sounded bizarre, it should hardly have been surprising. After all, in 2015, his regime produced a TV series called the Jewish Quarter, which argued exactly as the president did, that Jews had always lived happily in Egypt without any oppression and it was only because of two actors that this imagined utopia came to an end; the Muslim Brotherhood and the Zionists.

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Samuel Tadros is a Middle East scholar.