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Egypt Builds Walls and Bans Protests to Navigate the Gaza Border

If the Egyptian government could miraculously make the border between Sinai and the Gaza Strip disappear, it probably would. Whether the issue is smuggling or protesting, there is nothing more sensitive for Cairo than Gaza. Two recent decisions–the construction of an anti-smuggling wall and the prohibition of a protest march headed for the border–give a good idea of what Egypt’s situation is.

Last week, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that Egypt is building an underground wall to prevent smuggling tunnels between Sinai and Gaza. The tunnels are used to transport everything from livestock to motorcycles to weapons into Gaza, which has been under blockade since the Islamist militant group Hamas took control of the Strip in June 2007. Egypt has cooperated with the blockade by keeping its border with Gaza closed. The tunnels are illegal and periodically bombed by Israel.

Egypt has justified the construction of the metal by way of an editorial in a state-run newspaper that said, “They forget that the smuggling of weapons through tunnels under the Sinai is a direct assault on Egypt’s sovereignty — on the legitimacy of the state.” The Foreign Minister has said that Egypt will do whatever it needs to in order to protect itself.

Egypt’s security is not the main issue in Egypt’s decision to block the tunnels or take part in the Israeli-led blockade on Gaza. Ostensibly, it’s possible that an open border with Gaza could allow a free flow of Hamas militants into Sinai, which they could then use as a base to fire rockets at Israel, something along the lines of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. This could be a potentially disastrous scenario in which Israel bombs Egyptian territory to stop rockets aimed at its soil.

But this doesn’t seem like the real reason behind the underground anti-tunnel wall, or for that matter, Egypt’s aid in the blockade. Rather it seems that these policies are at the urging of Egypt’s patron: The United States.

Reports on the underground wall all indicate that the project comes at the behest of the United States. One newspaper even said that the Army Corps of Engineers is involved in the wall’s construction. At the same time, the US pressures Egypt to maintain the blockade in order to help achieve Israeli policy goals. With Egypt receiving about over a billion dollars in aid from the United States every year (the second largest recipient after Israel) it doesn’t have much choice but to comply.

The Egyptian government’s decision to ban the Gaza Freedom March, on the other hand, is a little less simple.

The Gaza Freedom March is a non-violent protest scheduled to begin on December 27 in Egypt and culminate in the Gaza Strip on January 1. The aim of the march, which comes on the one-year anniversary of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, is to draw attention to the plight of Gaza’s population. The omnipresent, pink-shirted, anti-war group CODEPINK is one of the major sponsors, but a number of other organizations are also involved. An 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, Britain’s uber-solidarity MP George Galloway, and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd will all be attending, in addition to 1,300 others. They are hoping to go through the Egypt-Gaza border crossing, presumably walking right past-or on top of-the tunnels and the wall.

Yesterday Egypt announced that it was banning the Gaza Freedom March. The reason given by the Egyptian government was the “sensitive situation on the border area.” The government is warning that “any attempts to violate the law or public order by any group whether local or foreign on Egyptian soil will be dealt with in conformity with the law.”

The situation is not much more sensitive now than it was a month ago, when plans for the march were proceeding apace. The only thing that has changed the status quo is construction of the underground wall. Hamas supporters have launched protests at the main border crossing with Egypt. A member of the Palestinian Legislative Council said that the wall is “a sign of an impending attack on Gaza by Israel.”

Egypt doesn’t want the solidarity protesters to enter Gaza through the Egyptian border simply because it draws attention to the border’s existence. Cairo was once the focal point of Arab nationalism and Egyptians still celebrate their almost-victory against Israel in 1973. Israel is widely despised throughout Egypt and the rest of the Arab world. That the Egyptian government is perceived as a collaborator in the Israeli siege of Gaza puts it in an uncomfortable position. That Egypt has no choice but to collaborate because of what America dictates makes for an even more uncomfortable position.

Egypt’s solution has been to deflect attention from the Gaza border as much as possible. State security forces regularly break up pro-Gaza protests. At least two foreigners who attended such pro-Gaza events have been deported. The Gaza Freedom March and the new underground wall draw attention to one of Egypt’s most embarrassing issues.

If they could make the border disappear, they surely would.

Photo courtesy of Flickr User piersonr, used through a Creative Commons license. This is actually a photo of a portion of the above-ground wall, which was breached a few weeks after the end of Operation Cast lead last year.

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