Al-Ahram (Opinion)
January 14, 2010 - 1:00am

Since the founding of the modern Egyptian state and with the dissemination and growth of the mass media, Egyptians have sympathised with the oppressed peoples and nations of the world. For two centuries or more, the majority of our people felt that to side with the cause of justice in the region and elsewhere was not only to defend what was morally right but to defend Egypt as well, as Egypt had for centuries been victim of various forms of tyranny and aggression. Even when it was under the British occupation, Egypt did all it could to support its fellow downtrodden Arab, Muslim and African countries and to help them obtain their independence. Indeed, when the British occupation army was standing right behind the Egyptian army in Sinai, the Egyptian leadership decided, against the opinion of only a small minority in the senate, that it was Egypt's duty to take part in the first war in Palestine in 1948. Moreover, one need take only a cursory glance at Egypt's voting record in international organisations to acknowledge that Egypt, under both the monarchical and republican order, has consistently sided with the oppressed against the great powers. Even as Egyptian-US relations shifted from animosity to friendship, this is something that Cairo compelled Washington to live with.

But if Egyptians have always been in tacit agreement over the general direction of their sympathies, they have also drawn a clear and incontrovertible line beyond which they refuse to go: their wholehearted and active support of others' causes stops short of anything that might infringe upon Egypt's higher interests or threaten its national security. Egypt, in short, is the jewel in the crown of the emotional complex of loyalty, identity and eagerness to come to the aid of the oppressed. To expose it to the dangers or tragedies other countries' political leaders failed to ward off is something Egyptians cannot and should not permit. Certainly experience has been the best teacher in this regard. Egypt's numerous trials and tribulations have ripened Egyptian awareness and given it extensive training in an important historical lesson. Egypt has always been able to handle its enemies while its dealings with friends and brothers has always been complicated by machinations and deception. The logical conclusion of this experience -- and the natural priority we accord to Egypt -- is that Egypt will not allow anyone to lure it in a direction it deems undesirable and inappropriate. It might be useful to recall here that even in the times of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, after the Israeli invasion of Gaza, this great leader did not hesitate to round up politicians, intellectuals, poets and Palestinian freedom fighters of all stripes in order to avert a situation in which Egypt would be drawn into a battle that Egypt, itself, had not actively chosen to wage.

Yet, surprisingly, there is a new brand of Egyptians who want to cast this historical wisdom to the winds. Their vehement arguments and strident voices reverberate in the Arab press and across satellite channels, clamouring for Egypt to bow to this Arab brother's whim and surrender to that Arab brother's demands, regardless of the attitudes and actions of those brothers towards Egypt and the Egyptian people. Invariably this group of people make Egypt out to be in the wrong and an object upon which they vie to heap censure and insult, whether the subject at hand is Iran, Iraq, Lebanon or, of course, Palestine. Apparently, to their way of thinking, if Egypt is to prove its regional worth and its commitment to Arabism and Islam it must surrender its will to every Saddam Hussein, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hassan Nasrallah or Khaled Meshaal around or coming.

These "neo-Egyptians", who do not balk at jeopardising Egyptian interests and who seem incapable of understanding why the Egyptian spirit of self- defence draws a line at falling in with a motley bunch of states and political groups, have seized upon the subject of Gaza as their key to departing from Egyptian traditions. From the purely practical standpoint, this collection of eminent writers, well-known journalists and widely reputed novelists have no difficulty whatsoever with the idea of breaching Egypt's borders with tunnels that are used for smuggling arms and other instruments of violence. They are not in the least worried by the coming and going of terrorists through these tunnels for the purposes of training and destruction, as though these lofty intellectuals were in another world when the bombings of Sharm El-Sheikh, Taba and Dahab reaped the lives of dozens of Egyptians along with a handful of foreigners. Nor do they bat an eye at the threats to Egyptian economic interests in Sinai and have no problem with imperilling Egypt's obligations under its peace agreement with Israel as long as the point is to drive Egypt back to the ranks of those whose land is still occupied. It is as though the very concept of borders defies them, whether we speak of the borders that were breached in Sinai or the borders that were infiltrated in the south by another bunch of fundamentalists in order to kidnap foreign tourists.

They will resort to any tenuous argument to justify putting Egypt last, and everything else -- from Tehran to Gaza and from Ahmadinejad to Ismail Haniyeh -- first, and their preferred technique is to obfuscate and confuse the issues. So they say that the wall that is currently under construction along Egypt's border with Gaza is intended to punish Hamas for failing to cooperate with Egyptian efforts to broker Palestinian national reconciliation and for refusing to conclude a prisoner exchange deal with Israel in exchange for Gilad Shalit. Then they say that the construction is a sign of an Egyptian agenda that includes colluding with Israeli and US plans (stepped up in the wake of Israel's failure to accomplish its objectives through the war on Gaza last winter, and Washington's failure to internationalise Gaza's borders) to "strangle" 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza and to get rid of that "chronic headache" before putting a final end to the Palestinian cause. At other times they say that the purpose of the wall is not to safeguard Egypt's sovereignty and protect our national security, as the government claims, but to create a new political situation in Gaza by undermining Hamas's popularity among the Palestinians. More farfetched yet is their claim that the wall is a first step towards a US-Israeli sponsored regional plan to unleash a more ferocious war on Gaza with the aim of eliminating Hamas at the root, after having halted the flow of smuggled weapons. They add that this battle will only be the first phase in a more comprehensive and brutal war targeting all radical forces in the region, from the Palestinian resistance movements through Hizbullah in Lebanon to Tehran which has its eyes set upon an ambitious nuclear programme and a unique regional role.

At times their fantasy knows no bounds. Some of these politicians and writers have become obsessed with a new theory that they think explains everything in Egypt and in the Middle East these days. Their so- called "hereditary succession" theory holds that Egypt has subscribed to a "golden formula" in accordance with which its full cooperation with Israeli policies will serve as its passport for securing Washington's approval for the "succession scenario". This fits in with a favourite premise that states that the Gaza border wall is not so much meant to protect the security of Egypt but rather the security of the regime, which is interested only in perpetuating itself, regardless of whether this serves the higher interests of the Egyptian state or not. Then there is something of a corollary that postulates that the Egyptian government has grown very sensitive to the fallout from events inside Gaza, especially following the rise of Hamas there. Hamas's success in taking over control of Gaza in the wake of its battle with Fatah and its ability to withstand the Israeli onslaught against Gaza last year has augmented the popularity of this offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and, thus, enhanced the status of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt proper. This, as the argument goes, could throw a spanner into the succession scenario, which would encounter popular opposition championed, of course, by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Notice that none of these theories challenge the essence of the subject. In all their loud and long-winded arguments and harangues, not one of these theories' proponents broaches the question of tunnels, smuggled arms and the transit of terrorists. No thought is given to how porous borders might fit into to the establishment of organisational, economic and intelligence structures needed to transport arms and equipment and, naturally, no mention is made of Hassan Nasrallah's confession to having set up a terrorist network in Egypt. Nor do they seem to care that extremists and terrorists are constantly attempting to penetrate international boundaries and air spaces or that an Al-Qaeda operative almost succeeded in hijacking and blowing up a plane from Amsterdam to Detroit. Such spectres do not bother these "neo-Egyptians" who have parted ways with the authentic Egyptian principle of extending a helping hand to the needy insofar as that does not jeopardise the safety and welfare of Egypt.

These people who are driven by various ideologies to dismissing Egypt's interests should take stock of the real truth, as opposed to their twisted and reconstructed version of it. The chief aim of the wall being constructed along Egypt's border with Gaza is to halt the influx of threats coming from that direction. The border fortifications are purely defensive and the decision to build them was prompted by Hamas's and Hizbullah's infiltration of our borders in 2008 and 2009 and the threat or actual harm their operations caused to our economy, the security of our people and the lives of Egyptian police and border guards. The wall is not an "offensive" construction, which is to say that it is not targeting anyone. Its purpose is not to punish Hamas for refusing to sign the Egyptian proposal for Palestinian reconciliation or concluding a prisoner exchange deal for Shalit. The success or failure of those matters ultimately falls upon the Israeli government and Hamas, which will have to sustain the consequences of their actions.

The idea that the border constructions are meant to cut the lifeline for 1.5 million people in Gaza is even more absurd. The following facts and figures put paid to such a notion. Between 29 December 2008 and 28 December 2009, Rafah Crossing opened 15 times. Some 76,000 Palestinians crossed over into Egypt during this time. More importantly, the amounts of medical and food assistance that passed into Gaza above ground through Rafah increased over the past year. They included a total of 628,7911 tonnes of medicines, 856 tonnes of foodstuffs (of which there were 2,000 cartons of mineral water, 980 tonnes of dairy products and 165 tons of frozen meat products), 224 ambulances, three refrigerators for transporting blood, 194 mobile clinic vehicles, 560 oxygen tanks and medical scanning machines, 1,000 stethoscopes and 100 blood pressure gauges. In addition, 55,374 tonnes of foodstuffs and 212 tonnes of pre-prepared meals passed through the overland crossing at Al-Awja, and another 151,1433 tonnes of foodstuffs passed into Gaza through the crossing at Karem Abu Salem.

On top of this, several relief convoys crossed through Rafah into Gaza, notably the "Viva Palestina" caravan that brought in 200,220 tonnes of medicines and other assistance, the "Hope" caravan consisting of four truckloads of medicines, an ambulance and other assistance, and once again the "Viva Palestina" caravan that brought in another 226 tonnes of medicine and assistance. Also, between 1 January and 23 December 2009, 1,446 patients and 1,212 escorts -- or a total of 2,658 people -- came into Egypt from Gaza for the purpose of medical treatment. Further, furniture, equipment and machinery were sent into Gaza to furnish schools and repair their facilities. Also, 2,042 Palestinians from Gaza were allowed to pass through Egypt on their way to and from Saudi Arabia to perform the minor pilgrimage between 15 and 27 August, and another 2,227 Gazans were permitted to pass back and forth through Egypt to perform the hajj pilgrimage in November.

The foregoing statistics underscore a firm and consistent Egyptian policy. Egypt will not allow a single Palestinian to starve or to face a food or medicine crisis. There is no relationship whatsoever between the facilities that are being constructed along the border with Gaza and the political dispute between Egypt and Hamas that dates a considerable way back while no new factors have altered that relationship. Nor are there any grounds to the notion that the construction is somehow linked to an Israeli-US plan to wage another war on Gaza. Indeed, recent history and, above all, Israel's war on Gaza last year point anywhere but in the direction of this theory.

As for that business about linking the border question with the "succession" question, it is unfortunately no exception to the genuine tenor of public debate in Egypt these days. It is more in the nature of a bad joke, which may be permissible on less crucial subjects than Egypt's national security. The charge that Egypt is working on behalf of Israel is equally tasteless and an insult to the lives and sacrifices Egyptians gave in the course of the Arab- Israeli conflict. In all events, for those who are unaware or feign ignorance, Israel has no need for Egypt to reinforce the Egyptian-Gaza border. Israel is perfectly capable of protecting its own security because it knows that this is the prime determinant of its survival. Security is the first item on any candidate or political party's campaign agenda in Israel. Meanwhile, no one has done more favours for Israeli security than various Palestinian parties, starting from those who fractured the Palestinian front and the PA and ending with those who lashed out against friend, ally and all those who sympathise with the Palestinians, leaving the cause of Palestine in the hands of a group that is more obsessed with causing embarrassment to the Egyptian government than with winning Palestinian rights.


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