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What is behind Egypt’s decision to join the South African ICJ case?


 A camp for internally displaced Palestinians near the border with Egypt, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip. Photo: IMAGO / APAimages

As Israel proceeded with its military operation in Rafah, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry suddenly announced on 12 May its “intention to officially intervene in support of South Africa’s genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice”. The move was described by some pundits as “unprecedented”, while Alon Liel, former director of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, labelled it “an unbelievable diplomatic blow to Israel”. Some were left wondering whether a military confrontation between the two states is now looming.

Hossam el-Hamalawy is an Egyptian journalist and socialist activist currently based in Berlin. His posts appear regularly on Substack and Twitter.

Is the Egyptian ICJ declaration a departure from its traditional post-1979 role as a peace mediator? Is Cairo preparing for a new war with Tel Aviv? The answer is simple: No. If anything, the declaration represents a desperate diplomatic move by a regime whose political relevance and regional power are steadily eroding.

The Phase of Approximation

Hostilities between Egypt and Israel ceased after former president Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty in 1979, moving his country away from the Soviet camp to forge new alliances with the US. Although hailed in the West as a peacemaker and forward thinker, in reality, Sadat was a dictator who pioneered neoliberal policies as early as 1974, triggering a national uprising against his austerity measures that nearly led to his downfall only three years later. Peace with Israel represented a desperate attempt to consolidate his regime and neutralize any threats from his own army. When he was assassinated by disgruntled officers affiliated with Islamic Jihad two years later, The Egyptian masses breathed a sigh of relief.

Sadat was succeeded by his Vice President Hosni Mubarak, a former Air Force commander. For three decades, Mubarak ruled Egypt with an iron fist and a widely feared security apparatus. He honoured Sadat’s treaties and positioned Egypt as a mediator between Israel and the Arabs. His General Intelligence Service (GIS) took on this job, led by notorious director Omar Suleiman. Egypt’s army became dependent on US military assistance, protected the border with Israel, safeguarded Suez Canal maritime traffic, and served as an auxiliary force in the 1991 Gulf War. Egyptian officers received regular training in the US, including the generals who later led the 2013 military coup. Egypt became the second-largest recipient of US foreign aid after Israel.

Mubarak’s relations with Israel were largely referred to as “cold peace”. After all, ruling over the most populous Arab nation, Mubarak was also well aware of the strong pro-Palestinian sentiments among Egyptians. In his capacity as president, he only visited Israel once to attend Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral and maintained a low profile on his connections with Tel Aviv. He left some room in the state-run press for criticism of Israel and the US, and allowed his foreign ministers to make fiery statements denouncing Israeli atrocities now and then. On the ground, however, it was business as usual.

The Arab Spring and After

Mubarak was toppled on 11 February 2011 following a nationwide uprising that lasted for 18 days and was succeeded by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. Although observers in the West often tried to paint the Egyptian Revolution as a purely domestic affair, among the catalysts for dissent had been popular anger towards Mubarak’s foreign policy, which was perceived as subservient to Israel and the US. Palestinian flags were regularly raised in Tahrir Square in almost all mobilizations. The Israeli embassy was stormed twice by protesters, amidst calls for severing ties with Tel Aviv.

The GIS continued its role as a mediator between the Israelis and Palestinians, while Cairo saw its soft power expand, emboldened by the uprising which became a model to follow in the region and elsewhere in the world. When the 2012 Gaza war broke out, the country’s democratically elected President Muhammad Morsi fully opened the Rafah Crossing, allowed aid to flow into the Palestinian enclave, and facilitated the evacuation of injured Gazans to Egyptian hospitals. He also helped broker a ceasefire, earning the praise of the US administration at the time as a force for regional stability.

The outbreak of the current war on 7 October 2023 laid bare how marginal Cairo has become under Sisi.

The 2013 military coup, led by then-Defence Minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, ushered in a new era in the country’s foreign policy, which saw its regional power steadily erode. Although Sisi initially enjoyed popular support, his botched economic policies and severe political repression left the regime with no broad class base of support in society outside a small constituency of army generals. Sisi’s rise to power was enabled by a long list of regional and international powers who saw the Egyptian revolution as a threat to their interests, most notably the Arab Gulf states and Israel.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia poured billions into Egypt to consolidate Sisi’s regime, while Israel provided diplomatic and military support. Egyptian media, which fell under GIS control after the coup, regularly incited against Palestinians, and the 2014 Gaza war saw Cairo become complicit in Israel’s onslaught. The Rafah Crossing was closed for prolonged periods, deepening the suffering of Palestinian civilians.

Relations between Cairo and Gaza’s Islamist rulers slightly improved in 2017, after Sisi’s disastrous counterinsurgency campaign forced the Egyptian military to seek help from Hamas to police the border and cut the flow of Salafi Jihadis into Sinai. Later, the GIS tried to resume its previous role as a mediator between the Palestinians and Israel, in a bid to prove Cairo was still politically relevant and an asset to Biden’s new administration.

The outbreak of the current war on 7 October 2023 laid bare how marginal Cairo has become under Sisi. Egypt tried to mediate several futile ceasefire deals, yielding no success. Qatar, on the other hand, seemed to play a more prominent role in securing the only temporary truce and hostage deal to materialize. Unlike in previous wars, Egypt could not exercise its sovereignty over the Rafah Crossing. Currently, aid can only get into Gaza with Israel’s permission. The names of Gazans leaving for Egypt have to be cleared with Israel first. Relief airdrop operations over Gaza cannot proceed without Israel’s permission. In the words of one pundit, “Egypt has been missing in action during Israel’s war on Gaza.”

Although Cairo has regularly reiterated since the outset of the war that an Israeli takeover of the Philadelphi Corridor would constitute a breach of the 1979 peace treaty, Israel nevertheless stormed Rafah on 8 May, took over the Palestinian side of the Rafah Crossing, and raised the Israeli flag on it. Egypt watched on helplessly. The Foreign Ministry issued a statement later in the day denouncing the operation, yet fell short of mentioning a breach of the treaty. To add insult to injury, Israel sent a “mid-level” — rather than senior — delegation to Cairo on the same day to assess Hamas’s ceasefire proposal.

While the war of words will certainly escalate in the coming days, it will remain confined to just that: words.

Infuriated by Israel’s Rafah offensive, which threatens to drive Palestinians into the Sinai, Egypt decided to escalate the war of words. Anti-Israel rhetoric increased in the GIS-run media, and the state mobilized small protests “in support of Palestine and Sisi” in Cairo and some provinces following prayers last Friday. The GIS-run media channels covered the farcical mobilizations, the aim of which was to send a message to the world that there was some anger on the Egyptian street, albeit sanitized and in support of the regime.

Egypt has refused to coordinate with Israel on the entry of aid into Gaza from the Rafah Crossing due to Israel’s “unacceptable escalation”, the GIS-run Alqahera News satellite TV channel reported on Saturday, citing a senior official.

Business as Usual

On the following day, Egypt announced its intention to officially intervene in support of South Africa’s genocide case against Israel at the ICJ. Alongside Turkey and Colombia, Egypt will now formally request to join the case. Yet, make no mistake:  at the time of writing, this is only an “intention”. It is also unclear what “intervention” means. Is Egypt going to submit an advisory opinion? Will Egypt be a party to the case? The Egyptian Foreign Ministry has left these points purposefully vague.

While the war of words will certainly escalate in the coming days, it will remain confined to just that: words, without any threat of military action or annulling the peace treaty. In fact, Israel has already permitted the Egyptian military to bolster its troop numbers along the border area, in a clear signal that it sees no real danger in Egypt’s military. Indeed, videos surfaced on social media showing Egyptian soldiers brutalizing Gazan youth who desperately fled across the border. In Cairo and elsewhere, the Egyptian security services have been busy arresting and raiding the homes of student activists involved in the Palestine solidarity movement.

Moreover, economic ties remain unaffected, and in fact even deepened. Egypt is dependent on Israeli gas imports, the volume of which is only increasing. Five months into the war, Egypt signed a new deal to double those gas imports in 2025. Beneath the feigned outrage and bluster, it seems, things remain unchanged. Rather than upsetting the status quo, Cairo’s move is really a desperate attempt to maintain it.