Paul Pillar

Egyptian Repression and the Gaza Strip

The Egyptian military regime's quashing of opposition ought to be of concern on several counts. It is, first and most obviously, a setback for democracy. Michele Dunne and Thomas Carothers aptly note that it is misnomer to talk about “Egypt's transition to democracy” because there is no such transition taking place right now.

Then there is the upsurge in extremist violence that naturally results whenever peaceful channels for pursuing political interests are closed. It was easy to predict that the opposition-quashing policies of the Egyptian junta would mean a subsequent increase in terrorism. We have been seeing lately not just an increase in terrorism but what would qualify as a wave of it. Such terrorism has implications beyond Egypt's borders. We should recall that the current leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, won his terrorist spurs as a leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad attempting to overthrow the government of Hosni Mubarak.

There is another, more specific, respect in which internal repression in Egypt is having malevolent effects outside Egypt. Within Egypt the generals are clearly obsessed with attempting to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood as a political force, however unsuccessful that attempt may ultimately prove to be. Next door in the Gaza Strip the dominant political element is Hamas. Hamas began as the Palestinian version of the Muslim Brotherhood. As such, it has also become a target of the Egyptian generals' wrath. The result has been Egypt's closing of its border with Gaza, including the underground tunnels that have been an economic lifeline for the Strip. This means returning to more stringent implementation of the Israeli-instigated policy of trying to strangle Hamas by turning the Gaza Strip into a blockaded open-air prison.

That is a bad development in several respects. It is, first of all, simply wrong to subject an entire population to hardship in order to try to undermine a particular party or movement. It is doubly wrong when, as years of experience with the Israeli policy (tacitly supported for a long time by the Mubarak government) demonstrate, the attempt to strangle Hamas to death is unlikely to succeed.

There also is, again, an encouragement of extremist violence. A Hamas under pressure is less, not more, likely to contain such violence. Hamas still evidently sees advantages in maintaining a cease fire between itself and Israel, but it apparently it is now making less effort than before to check the activities of more extreme groups such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. That in turn has implications for Israelis suffering casualties, the danger of a bigger eruption of Israeli-Palestinian hostilities, and further diminution of the chances of success for the U.S.-sponsored peace effort.

Democratization is sometimes thought of as being in tension with other interests that require cooperation with an existing undemocratic regime. Egypt has often been thought of this way, with reference to such interests as military access and preferred passage through the Suez Canal. But that is the wrong way to look at what is going on today in Egypt. Damage to democracy there is also damaging other U.S. equities. As Dunne and Carothers observe, “Unlike in some countries where U.S. interests pull in conflicting directions, the achievement of democracy in Egypt would advance the critical U.S. security interest in longer-term stability as well as peace with Israel and would help to contain violent extremism.”