Editor’s Note: Ghaith al-Omari is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former adviser to the Palestinians during permanent-status talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. David Schenker is the director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute and a former US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion at CNN.
Egypt has re-emerged as a pivotal actor in the Middle East thanks to the Israel-Gaza War. Its revived influence was epitomized by the summit Cairo convened on Saturday for a number of Arab and European leaders. Although it didn’t produce a unified statement from the parties, underscoring the challenges of finding common ground, it was the crucial player in drawing top leaders together after several Arab countries refused to meet with President Joe Biden earlier in the week.
Egypt’s importance is not just as a leader among Western-allied Arab countries, however. The country is a critical partner for the Biden administration on all issues related to Gaza because its control of the Rafah crossing — currently the only point of entry into the embattled Gaza Strip since Israel closed all crossings on its borders after Hamas’ October 7 terror attack — allows Egypt to dictate and leverage the terms by which humanitarian assistance can enter the Palestinian territory.
It’s understandable if Washington, which provides Egypt with over $1 billion per year in military assistance, is frustrated that Cairo isn’t allowing American citizens and other nationals to exit Gaza via the crossing, as Egypt has seemingly made their departure contingent on the entry of aid. It’s also understandable if humanitarian groups are frustrated that Egypt won’t open its border for a humanitarian corridor to let out hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Gazans who are trying to take refuge in the south of the Gaza Strip, which Rafah sits on, as the most intense fighting rages in the north.
But Egypt’s positions reflect serious, and legitimate, concerns. First and foremost is the fear of a massive refugee flow if the crossing were opened. A decade after the Syrian civil war started, Egypt claims to host 9 million refugees from different countries, with no horizon of repatriation for most in sight. For Egypt, a deluge of Palestinian refugees would not only pose humanitarian and economic challenges — Egypt is currently experiencing a devastating economic crisis — but also security and political ones.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, in uncharacteristically explicit remarks, on Wednesday warned that transferring Palestinians into Sinai will turn the peninsula into a launching pad for attacks against Israel, eliciting Israeli reprisals, triggering war between the two countries and upending the longest peace between Israel and any Arab country.