Heba Saleh
The Financial Times
December 29, 2008 - 1:00am

Tens of thousands of Arabs took to the streets for the second day on Monday to protest against Israel’s deadly assault on Gaza as a huge wave of anger spreads across the Middle East.

But it is not just the Jewish state that is being lambasted, as Egypt increasingly finds itself the target of people’s fury with accusations that Cairo has colluded with Israel in its siege.

Demonstrators in Amman, Beirut and Khartoum chanted slogans against Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s president, and protesters have hurled abuse – and in some cases rocks – at Egyptian embassies. Traditionally, Egypt has wielded the most diplomatic clout among its Arab neighbours. It is one of only two Middle Eastern countries to have formal relations with Israel and has a long history of trying to broker peace between Palestinians and the Jewish state.

But now it faces a barrage of criticism with Hamas spokesmen charging that its policy towards the Palestinians shows complicity with Israel, while public opinion at home and abroad has been incensed by the continued closure of the Egyptian border with Gaza.

Muslim clerics from through­out the region have joined calls for Cairo to break off ties with Israel and to open the Rafah crossing with Gaza, through which only humanitarian aid has so far been able to pass.

On Sunday, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shia group, urged Egyptians to take to the streets in their “millions” to force their government to open the sealed border. Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the Egyptian foreign minister, responded by accusing Sheikh Nasrallah of trying to create “chaos in Egypt similar to that he created in his own country”.

Egyptian officials have attempted to shrug off the criticism, hinting the abuse is linked to the ambitions of radical forces such as Iran. But the negative perception of Egypt’s role has been exacerbated by a visit last week to Cairo by Tzipi Livni, Israel’s foreign minister, which came a day before the offensive.

Cairo has previously faced public pressure when Israel has staged offensive against the Palestinians or Hizbollah. This time the criticism is fiercer and Egypt’s room for manoeuvre appears more limited because of its distaste for Hamas, which has close ties to its own outlawed Muslim Brotherhood domestic opposition.

“Egypt has played its role as a moderate power inefficiently,” said Amr El Shobaki, an analyst at the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “It occupied itself with narrow calculations and part of this has been its fear of the Islamists. But that is also tied to the stagnating domestic situation in Egypt and to the absence of democracy.”

He charges that Egypt preoccupation by what he calls “public relations” instead of diplomacy was the reason it invited the Israeli foreign minister for talks last week, a day before the offensive.

“We have been made to pay a heavy price and to appear as if we were behind the attacks, which is not true,” he said.

Egyptian efforts to forge a reconciliation between Hamas and its rivals in Fatah the faction headed by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas foundered last month with the Islamists accusing Cairo of taking sides.

Cairo on Monday allowed several truckloads of humanitarian aid into Gaza and some Palestinian wounded to come in the other direction.

Officials in Cairo have long argued that sealing the border is necessary precaution to pre-empt attempts by Israel to lumber Egypt with responsibility for the impoverished territory.

But to domestic and regional critics Egypt’s closure of Rafah since Hamas seized control of Gaza eighteen months is no less than support of the Israeli blockade and a sign of a willingness to participate in suffocating the Palestinians.

“Gaza is dying because President Mubarak does not like the Muslim Brotherhood,” wrote Ibrahim Eissa the editor in chief of Al Dostour an independent Egyptian daily.


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