Egypt has re-emerged as a pivotal actor in the Middle East thanks to the Israel-Gaza War. Its revived influence was epitomized by the summit Cairo convened on Saturday for a number of Arab and European leaders. Although it didn’t produce a unified statement from the parties, underscoring the challenges of finding common ground, it was the crucial player in drawing top leaders together after several Arab countries refused to meet with President Joe Biden earlier in the week.
Egypt’s importance is not just as a leader among Western-allied Arab countries, however. The country is a critical partner for the Biden administration on all issues related to Gaza because its control of the Rafah crossing — currently the only point of entry into the embattled Gaza Strip since Israel closed all crossings on its borders after Hamas’ October 7 terror attack — allows Egypt to dictate and leverage the terms by which humanitarian assistance can enter the Palestinian territory.
It’s understandable if Washington, which provides Egypt with over $1 billion per year in military assistance, is frustrated that Cairo isn’t allowing American citizens and other nationals to exit Gaza via the crossing, as Egypt has seemingly made their departure contingent on the entry of aid. It’s also understandable if humanitarian groups are frustrated that Egypt won’t open its border for a humanitarian corridor to let out hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Gazans who are trying to take refuge in the south of the Gaza Strip, which Rafah sits on, as the most intense fighting rages in the north.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, in uncharacteristically explicit remarks, on Wednesday warned that transferring Palestinians into Sinai will turn the peninsula into a launching pad for attacks against Israel, eliciting Israeli reprisals, triggering war between the two countries and upending the longest peace between Israel and any Arab country.
Additionally, the movement of Palestinian refugees out of Gaza would evoke memories of the mass displacement that accompanied the creation of Israel in 1948. Egypt fears that such an eventuality would bring an end to any future prospect of Palestinian-Israeli peace based on a two-state solution, instead bringing a diplomatic void, and inflaming Arab public opinion.
Additionally, Egypt has privately held that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is ultimately Israel’s problem, and that the latter should bear any political or territorial costs of its resolution. During the Trump administration, an American proposal to build infrastructure in Sinai to serve Gaza was roundly rejected by Cairo, part of Egyptian fears that a slippery slope that could draw it into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Egypt is also concerned that open crossing could allow in Hamas and its sympathizers. Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sisi’s most serious domestic political rival. And Egypt has faced Islamist terror in the Sinai Peninsula since the 2011 revolution that toppled the Mubarak regime.