Gaza Strikes Reverberate in Egypt

Protesters in Alexandria, Egypt, call on the president to open the Gaza border, which he has done only for the most serious Palestinian casualties and to allow some aid through.
Protesters in Alexandria, Egypt, call on the president to open the Gaza border, which he has done only for the most serious Palestinian casualties and to allow some aid through. (By Tarek Fawzy -- Associated Press)
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By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 10, 2009

CAIRO, Jan. 9 -- 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.

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