Sudarsan Raghavan
The Washington Post
January 10, 2009 - 1:00am

Rarely has an Arab leader been so widely perceived as backing Israel and the United States against the Palestinians, whose struggle has been a fundamental rallying point for Arabs and Muslims for more than six decades.

But Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has rejected popular and regional pressure to open the Gaza-Egypt border and toughen his stance against Israel. In recent days, his government has voiced support for Palestinians in an effort to defuse mounting criticism, but officials continue to suppress anti-Israeli demonstrations.

On Friday, as Israeli forces continued a two-week-old offensive against Hamas, the armed Islamist movement that controls Gaza, scores of Egyptian doctors emerged from their union building in downtown Cairo. They clutched posters reading "Gaza Is Dying" and banners demanding the opening of the Rafah border crossing. One demonstrator held a baby doll, symbolizing a Palestinian child, in a white sheet covered with fake blood.

Black-clad riot police stood before them, grim-faced in their black helmets. Brandishing clubs, they blocked the protesters from entering the street.

"O Hamas, O Hamas, you are for all the people. We are behind you," the protesters chanted. Then they went after Mubarak.

"O Mubarak, Mubarak, make a decision. Open the crossing. Remove the siege," they chanted. "O Mubarak, Mubarak. Are you with us or against us?"

Egyptian analysts say Mubarak fears Hamas and wants to do everything possible to weaken the movement. Hamas has close ideological and historical ties to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, a banned but tolerated Islamist opposition group. Radical Islamists assassinated Mubarak's predecessor, Anwar Sadat, in 1981.

Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt for nearly three decades with U.S. backing, also wants to avoid taking sides in the war and to protect the country's tourism-reliant economy, the analysts said. Hamas has turned for support to Iran in recent years, and Mubarak, like other Sunni Muslim leaders, opposes the Shiite republic's widening influence in the region.

"It is a very serious crisis. And Egyptian public opinion is divided," said Abdel Raouf El Reedy, a former ambassador to the United States. "The more Israel becomes brutal in Gaza, the more pressure there will be on the Egyptian government. It is a challenge to the government."

While many Egyptians celebrate Hamas for fighting Israel in an attempt to achieve Palestinian self-determination, Egypt's secular middle class, including those who oppose Mubarak's autocratic rule, are wary of the movement's ideology and tactics. Many Egyptians are also disillusioned about schisms between Palestinian leaders and worried about the economic and political impact that a huge influx of Palestinians might cause.

"This isn't the Palestinian cause," said Hisham Kassem, a human rights activist and critic of Mubarak. "Hamas has taken Gaza hostage. Now, they want to take the Sinai and the rest of Egypt hostage.

"Mubarak can't have an Islamic terrorist emirate on his border. And it is not in the best interest of anybody in the region. So he has taken a tough position," Kassem said.

Most of the anger toward Mubarak centers on the Rafah crossing, which he has opened only to admit the most serious Palestinian casualties and to allow some aid to enter Gaza. But Egyptians have also demanded that Mubarak's government stop selling natural gas to Israel and expel Israel's ambassador.

"He is not opening the crossing because America and Israel are not letting him," said Awad Abdul Salem, 68, an engineer, in a courtyard of the lawyers' syndicate building Thursday.

"The regime is a traitor," yelled another man next to him.

Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Shiite Lebanese movement Hezbollah, has called for Egyptians to rise up against Mubarak. "Can the Egyptian police kill millions of Egyptians? Of course not," Nasrallah declared on the militia's al-Manar satellite television channel Dec. 28. "You, the Egyptian people, go and open the border. I am calling for a revolution in Egypt."

Senior Egyptian officials accuse Nasrallah of inciting violence in their country. Editorials have gone further, criticizing Iran's Shiite theocracy for fueling the assaults on Mubarak.

Egypt and Jordan are the only Arab states to have signed peace treaties with Israel. And Egypt has always straddled the delicate line between being a staunch American ally, receiving $1.4 billion in U.S. aid annually, and its leadership role in an Arab world resentful of American policies, especially since the 2003 Iraq invasion.

Still, Egypt has supported the Palestinian struggle for statehood. During the Palestinian uprising that began in 2000, Egypt withdrew its ambassador from Israel to protest the military tactics used against Palestinians.

Today, many Egyptians would like to see similar measures. They view Mubarak's efforts with French President Nicolas Sarkozy to negotiate a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas as a temporary remedy that will do little to stop Israeli dominance in Gaza or provide a haven for Palestinians. "These efforts are superficial," said Fatima Ahmed, 17, a commerce student at Cairo University. "The real effort will be to open the crossing."

Mubarak's opponents charge that the 80-year-old president is more interested in preserving his grip on power and ensuring that his son, Gamal, succeeds him by shattering any threats, external or internal, to his rule.

"He says it's about Arab national security, but it's about protecting his own regime," said Mohammed Habib, the Muslim Brotherhood's first deputy chairman.

Before Friday's demonstration, more than 1,000 doctors and medical professionals had gathered inside an auditorium of the medics' syndicate. To enter the hall, they had to walk over a 20-foot-long Israeli flag. Speakers denounced the government for keeping Egyptian doctors and food shipments out of Gaza. "How can we not allow food through? What is the logic of this?" one speaker asked.

Some attacked Egypt's state-run media for asserting that Hamas was responsible for the current crisis and for not excoriating Israel. Muslim Brotherhood leaders called for the government to release members it has detained and to broaden the struggle against Mubarak, seeing in the crisis an opportunity to bolster their group's popularity.

"We have to act politically, not only in the health sector," Mohammed al-Beltagy, a Muslim Brotherhood official, declared from the lectern.

Hossam Zaki, Egypt's chief Foreign Ministry spokesman, described the attacks on Mubarak as the latest manifestation of a rift in the Middle East -- one that has widened since the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon -- between groups that favor violent resistance to solve Arab-Israeli conflicts and those, led by Egypt, who favor political settlement.

"They are after Egypt's credibility. They are after Egypt's role as a stabilizer," Zaki said. "They know that if they can undermine us, it would be much easier to go ahead with their agenda.

"We don't want the Arab street to identify more and more with issues promoted by the Islamist movements," Zaki said. "This is extremely dangerous, and it has serious consequences."

Mubarak's supporters say he is a pragmatist who understands that Israeli-Palestinian tensions cannot be stopped through emotion alone. Many are rallying around Mubarak out of patriotism, angered by the Arab world's attacks on their nation's credentials as a supporter of Palestinian self-determination.

Sarah Abd al-Fattah, 24, an accounting student at Cairo University, questioned why Persian Gulf governments have not threatened to withdraw assets from the United States.

"Why is all the talk about Hosni Mubarak? We have our own large population to worry about. Our economy is in crisis. Mubarak is under a lot of pressure from outside and inside Egypt," she said. "We need to talk about the Gulf states. Financial power brings real power. They should be supporting us, not standing against us."

Her classmate Mahmoud Ahmed, 20, nodded. "I feel Egypt is doing what it can. If we do anything else, Egypt becomes a party to war. Nobody wants that," he said.

Ahmed Yousry, another student, said he cared passionately about the Palestinian people. But he has grown disgusted with fractures between Hamas and Fatah, which runs the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

"At the end of the day, they have to rely on themselves," said Yousry, 21. "They have to take their rights with their own hands."

The trio said they had no plans to demonstrate for Palestinians. "It won't achieve anything," Yousry said. The three said they didn't want the Rafah crossing opened up, fearing the prospect of tens of thousands of Palestinians flowing into Egypt.

"We are already overpopulated," Abd al-Fattah said.

"And," Ahmed said, "there will be no one left to fight for Palestine."


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