Mubarak under pressure

Mubarak under pressure

It has been an uncomfortable few days for President Husni Mubarak, watching anxiously as the crisis in Gaza spilled over onto his territory, focusing intense and unwelcome attention – both at home and abroad – on Egypt”s role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Scenes depicting tens of thousands of people streaming across the breached border fence at Rafah, driven by desperation with the tightening Israeli blockade, graphically underlined the danger of instability and violence exploding from Gaza”s pressure cooker into Egypt proper.

Yet even with troops and riot police rolling out barbed wire and water cannon, restoring the status quo – the border sealed and the Palestinians shut in behind it – will not be easy, especially after Mubarak vowed that he would not stand by while 1.5 million people “starved under Israeli”s siege”.

Egyptians are extremely conscious of their leadership role in the Arab world – in politics as in films and literature – and are proud of their support for the Palestinians down the decades, from the disastrous war of 1948 through to Nasser”s 1967 defeat and Anwar Sadat”s triumphant Yom Kippur crossing of the Suez Canal in 1973.

The peace treaty Sadat signed with Israel in 1979 endures, but it is deeply unpopular.

So Palestinian suffering in Gaza strikes a powerful chord with Egyptian public opinion and fuels opposition to an unpopular regime which is blamed for not doing enough to alleviate it, as well as anger with Israel and the US. (It is no accident that George Bush”s recent brief meeting with Mubarak was at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh far from the teeming streets of Cairo. And the Egyptian president has never visited Israel).

Protests by Egypt”s Muslim Brotherhood – semi-outlawed but still the largest opposition movement in the country – were pre-empted this week by the all-pervasive security forces, who rounded up hundreds of the usual suspects before they could mass in Tahrir Square in the heart of the capital.

Still, professional associations and students did manage to demonstrate, making the potential for unrest painfully clear to the president. “It was a popular intifada for Gaza,” boasted the Brotherhood.

“We should be ashamed of ourselves for failing to reach out to our Palestinian brethren,” shouted one Nasserist MP who demanded the government expel Israel”s ambassador. “Why do we have to worry about our relations with Israel more than the lives of innocent Palestinian men and women who are being killed by the Israelis?”

In Egypt, as elsewhere, all politics is ultimately local, and one serious problem for Mubarak is the link between the Brotherhood and Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement that won the 2006 elections and has been running Gaza since last summer”s coup, while keeping up (or failing to stop) daily salvoes of Qassam rockets being fired across the border into Israel.

Khaled Mishal, the influential Hamas leader in Damascus, has reportedly been on the phone to Mahdi Akef, the Brotherhood leader, to coordinate protests and maintain pressure. Both know this episode has been good for Hamas, bad for Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president and Fatah leader who is committed to talks with Israel, as well as for Mubarak – and that it plays well with the Arab “street.”

Solidarity rallies with the Palestinians have been held from Mauritania in the far west of the Maghreb down to the Gulf. Al-Jazeera, the Arabic satellite TV channel, has been bombarding its viewers with the dramatic scenes from Gaza.

Al-Quds al-Arabi, a Palestinian newspaper, printed a cartoon with an Israeli bulldozer ploughing into Auschwitz with a caption reading “the Gaza Strip or an Israeli extermination camp.” In the Rashidiya refugee camp in south Lebanon, thousands of demonstrators chanted: “Where is the Arab League? Where are the neutral countries? Where are the friends of freedom? Glory to the martyrs and shame on Israel, which kills the children of Gaza. We will not give up.”

No wonder that Mubarak has had to walk a precarious tightrope. He dare not risk alienating the Israelis or the Americans (who fund Egypt to the tune of $2bn a year): thus the speedy response to demands that he close the Rafah border.

Still, he is likely to have to give some ground to Hamas. Omar Suleiman, Egypt”s powerful intelligence chief, has been working in vain for months to persuade them to halt the rocket fire which brought this latest crisis to its current climax.

But Hamas leaders, Al Ahram reported, “have not heeded appeals from Cairo to take control of the situation, to avoid any explosion and give Egypt time to use its “good offices” with the Israelis, Americans and others to bring an end to the siege.”

Signals from Israel that Gaza is now Egypt”s problem will only add to Mubarak”s discomfort. “The main Egyptian worry,” commented the Ha”aretz analyst Zvi Barel, “is that they will be the ones considered responsible for every Qassam fired from the Gaza Strip at (the southern Israeli town of) Sderot, as Syria became responsible for (Hizbullah leader) Hassan Nasrallah”s actions in Lebanon.”

Mubarak may yet hark back to the years from 1967 to 2005 when the Israel military was in control of the strip, not the Islamists he fears. It”s all a bitter reminder, in Egypt, across the Middle East and beyond, that Palestine remains the issue that no-one can afford to ignore – and that simply shutting off Gaza will solve nothing.