Last December, under pressure from President-Elect Donald Trump and Israel, Egypt withdrew a draft resolution it had introduced in the UN Security Council (UNSC) that condemned Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. While the draft was eventually reintroduced and passed, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s decision to bend to Trump’s will is significant.
Sisi’s siding with Trump reflects the deteriorating relationship between Egypt and the Palestinians. This is coupled with a derogatory discourse about Palestinians coming from Sisi’s regime, which has been widely disseminated throughout the Egyptian media.
Overall, this suggests that future cooperation between Sisi, Trump, and Israel is not just likely; it will also come at the expense of the Palestinians, especially those inside Egypt.
Compared to other Arab states, the size of the Palestinian community in Egypt is relatively small. Currently, there are approximately 80,000 Palestinians residing in Egypt. Unlike in Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, Palestinian refugees in Egypt are not served by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Also, with a few exceptions, they do not live together in closed communities and are, therefore, less visible.
The relationship between Egypt and the Palestinians has gradually soured over the last fifty years. After the so-called Golden Era that began under President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the relationship between Egypt and its Palestinian community deteriorated under Anwar Sadat, who became president in 1970. Unlike Nasser, who took an antagonistic approach with regard to Israel and granted greater rights to Palestinians in the country, Sadat sought rapprochement with Israel and eventually signed the Egypt-Israel peace treaty in 1979.
The peace treaty compounded an increasingly tense relation between Egypt and the Palestinians. A year before, a group of Palestinians who opposed Egypt’s peace negotiations with Israel assassinated the Egyptian Minister of Culture Yousef El Sebai. At El Sebai’s funeral, Egyptian Prime Minster Mostafa Riyad declared, “No more Palestine after today!”
Sadat also revoked equal treatment for Palestinians under Egyptian law, which Nasser had instituted. This change created substantial difficulties for Palestinians seeking to access education, find employment, and travel abroad. Sadat’s successor Hosni Mubarak continued Sadat’s policy towards Israel, while Egypt remained Israel’s closest ally in the region.
Around the time of the 2011 revolution, pro-Palestinian sentiment seemed to be on the rise. Resentment towards Mubarak’s warm relationship with Israel was apparent in the protests that eventually deposed him. Following his overthrow, these pro-Palestinian feelings remained prominent. During the revolution, massive protests occurred at the Israeli embassy in Cairo, for example, which had been off-limits under Mubarak. After President Mohamed Morsi was elected, the Egyptian government started to take a more friendly approach towards the Palestinians.
Since Sisi’s rise to power, however, discrimination against Palestinian refugees in Egypt has only worsened. Following the military coup that overthrew Morsi in July 2013, the military began a witch-hunt against the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi’s party. Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, is connected with the Muslim Brotherhood. Due to the close association made in parts of the Egyptian media between Hamas and the Palestinians, public opinion about Palestinians has deteriorated, something which has seriously affected Palestinian refugees in the country.
Sisi’s Policies Match His Discourse
Sisi’s derogatory discourse regarding Palestinians is also reflected in his policies. He has, for example, sought an even stronger relationship with Israel than any of his predecessors have, declaring “we will turn over a new leaf and accomplish not less, and perhaps more, than in the Peace Accord between Egypt and Israel in 1979.”
He has also instituted the closure of the Rafah border crossing and created a buffer zone between Sinai and the Gaza Strip. These actions have strengthened the Israeli siege of Gaza that has been in place since mid-2007.
Since July 2013, Egypt has only opened the Rafah crossing for a few days at a time, often only several hours a day and with severe restrictions. These actions have led to a reprimand from the United Nations envoy to the Middle East, criticizing Egypt for compounding the suffering of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
According to the Sisi regime, the crossing has been closed for security reasons. It is common knowledge, however, that the decision is a politically motivated one, a fact confirmed by a spokesperson for the Egyptian Armed Forces, who told online Egyptian newspaper Mada Masr that there is “no danger on the border between Egypt and Gaza.”
In 2014, the Egyptian government took even more aggressive actions towards Gaza, creating a buffer zone between the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula, which involved flooding tunnels from Gaza and destroying hundreds of homes on the Gaza border. These actions followed a series of attacks on Egyptian security forces in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula. The attacks, which led to the death of over thirty Egyptian troops, were claimed by a group operating from Sinai. Nevertheless, Egyptian authorities manipulated the situation to their advantage and held Hamas and its network of smuggling tunnels between the Gaza Strip and the Peninsula responsible.
The Sisi regime’s politically motivated attacks against the Palestinians have gone further than the border crossing with Gaza. After a court ruling in March 2014, Egypt banned all Hamas activity and closed all its offices in Egypt. In February 2015, another Egyptian court declared Hamas to be a terrorist organisation.
Various high level Hamas leaders and officials criticized the court’s verdict that labelled Hamas as a terrorist organisation, calling the ruling “the biggest mistake against the Palestinian resistance” according to state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram, and a “deviation from Egypt’s longstanding position in support of the Palestinian cause” according to Middle East Monitor.
The assassination of Egypt’s Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat on June 29, 2015 further weakened relations between Sisi’s regime and Hamas. Magdy Abdel-Ghafar, the Egyptian Minister of Interior, blamed the Muslim Brotherhood based in Turkey for organizing the attack. He also claimed that Hamas “provided training for militants to execute it and also took part in planning it,” according to Egyptian state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram. This blunt accusation put even more pressure on already poor relations between Egypt and Hamas.
Media Complicit in Smear Campaign
Egypt’s media has contributed to the negative portrayal of the Palestinians. Even supposedly independent media outlets have adopted the regime’s narrative on this issue. This is largely because of how Sisi’s regime has used national security as a way of undermining press freedoms and imprisoning journalists. These repressive methods have limited independent news coverage and silenced critical voices, including through self-censorship.
As reported in The Guardian, TV news presenter Mahmoud Saad explained the nature of this self-censorship:
No one has ever made me say something I didn’t want to say, but they have made me not say what I wanted to say… The military should never, ever, ever be covered… You have to let them decide what to say and when to say it.
Egyptian media coverage of Israel’s 2014 onslaught against Gaza is a good example of its negative approach to the Palestinians. Much of the coverage blamed Hamas, instead of Israel, for the conflict in the Gaza Strip. As TV host Ahmad Moussa put it, according to Mada Masr, “you have two occupations: Israeli occupation and Hamas occupation. Hamas is the reason for what’s going on now.”
TV host Amany al-Khayat went even further, arguing that Hamas deliberately caused the conflict. She claimed that Hamas needed a political victory to address its widespread financial problems and as leverage in its rivalry with the Palestinian Authority.
Various media outlets also spread rumors that Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood had agreed to establish a Palestinian state in the Sinai Peninsula. These outlets also alleged that Hamas had organized attacks on Egyptian prisons to free members of the Muslim Brotherhood over recent years.
Future Sisi-Trump Cooperation Likely
As a result of this growing animosity between the Egyptian regime and Hamas and the negative portrayal of Palestinians in the media, life in Egypt has become more difficult for Palestinian refugees. The souring relationship has led to more violent incidents, arrests of Palestinians, and a growing fear of persecution among members of this community in Egypt.
The fact that Sisi pulled the UN Security Council resolution because Trump asked him to fits within the already existing trend of hostility toward Palestine and the Palestinians in Egypt. In the future, this animosity may become a pretext for closer cooperation between Trump, Sisi, and Israel. As such, any improvement in the situation of Palestinian refugees residing in Egypt will not materialize anytime soon.