Quarterly Updates for (16 Nov 2017 — 15 Feb 2018)

With presidential elections approaching in 3/2018, Egypt was increasingly focused on domestic politics this quarter. Egyptian involvement in the Palestinian reconciliation process and the U.S.-led effort to restart Palestinian-Israeli peace talks consequently diminished.

Along with the rest of the Arab world, Egyptian officials publicly denounced U.S. president Trump’s 12/6 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (see “The Palestinian-Israel Conflict” above). However, a series of recordings obtained by the New York Times revealed (1/6) a more complicated dynamic unfolding outside the public eye in Cairo. According to the paper’s report, an Egyptian intelligence officer made a series of phone calls to the hosts of influential local talk shows in the wake of Trump’s announcement, in which he can be heard telling them that increased tension with Israel would not be in Egypt’s interest and that instead of condemning the decision, they should encourage their audiences to accept it. “How is Jerusalem different from Ramallah, really?” he is reportedly heard asking. “We have enough on our plate as you know.” Although at least one of the hosts confirmed the veracity of the tapes, the Egyptian government issued a blanket denial, and Prosecutor General Nabil Sadek ordered (1/11) a criminal investigation into the story, saying that the U.S. newspaper’s article “undermines Egypt’s security and public peace, and harms the country’s public interest.”

Despite the protestations from Cairo, the al-Sisi government has been increasingly friendly with Israel in recent years, especially in light of the expanded military cooperation between the two countries in the struggle against armed groups in Sinai. According to a number of U.S. officials on 2/3, Israeli air support was instrumental in the Egyptian army’s counterinsurgency efforts. The same sources said that Israeli drones, helicopters, and jets had stealthily conducted more than one hundred air strikes on the armed groups since the insurgency intensified in the wake of then president Mohamed Morsi’s ouster on 7/3/2013 (see JPS 43 [1]). While intermittent rumors and unconfirmed reports of Israeli air strikes in Sinai have circulated over the years, both countries have kept the extent of their cooperation secret because of a feared backlash from the Egyptian public. In that vein, an Egyptian military spokesperson denied the Times report on 2/4: “Only the Egyptian army is authorized to and does conduct military operations in specific areas in northern Sinai, in cooperation with the civilian police.”

As in previous quarters, the ongoing conflict in Sinai and specifically the Egyptian efforts to restrict the movement of armed groups in the region had a direct impact on the Palestinians in Gaza (see “Gaza Electricity Crisis” above). Egypt had kept the Rafah border crossing largely closed ever since a major attack on Egyptian troops in 10/2014 (see JPS 44 [2]), blocking or delaying tens of thousands of Palestinian patients from traveling abroad for medical services. In 6/2017, Hamas reached an agreement with the Egyptian government, in which it pledged to crack down on Islamists in Gaza and step up border security in exchange for more frequent openings of Rafah (see JPS 47 [1]). Hamas appeared to be holding up its side of the deal (see “Hamas Cracks Down on Islamists in Gaza” above), but the Egyptian authorities did not keep the border open consistently (see “Movement and Access” above).

After SPIS fighters armed with guns and bombs killed (11/24) at least 235 people (the figure rose to 305 within the next twenty-four hours) at a crowded mosque near al-Arish, Egypt stepped up its counterinsurgency. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the Egyptian army killed approximately 30 SPIS fighters in a series of strikes on known hideouts around al-Arish. The Egyptian authorities also canceled what had been a planned reopening of the Rafah border crossing on 11/25–27. Amid heightened tensions, al-Sisi gave the Egyptian army three months to restore “security and stability,” authorizing them to use “brute force.” It was unclear exactly what tactics al-Sisi was referring to, but the Rafah crossing remained closed for all but seven days from that incident through the end of the quarter.

Also of note: Egyptian naval forces shot and killed a Palestinian fisherman working off Gaza’s coast on 1/13. The Egyptian navy later claimed that the man was fishing in Egyptian territorial waters; Palestinian fishermen frequently fish these waters to circumvent the navigational restrictions put in place by Israel’s blockade.