Israel said Wednesday it would not block aid to Gaza from Egypt, and there were already long lines of trucks parked in Egypt, at the Rafah border crossing, waiting to carry food, water and fuel to the enclave.

Israel has insisted that all trucks be checked to ensure they are carrying only aid and that the aid reaches civilians, not Hamas fighters. Egypt has supported humanitarian aid to Gaza, but has not yet said if or when it will allow the border crossing to open.

Egypt’s foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, said Tuesday in an interview with CNN that the crossing had been seriously damaged by recent Israeli airstrikes and that it wanted Israel to guarantee safe passage for aid convoys before it would let the trucks through.

Opening the Rafah crossing to aid, and keeping it open, will be fraught because of the high level of mistrust between Israel, Hamas and Egypt, and the ever-present potential for violent flare-ups.

But aid is there, and more is on the way. The European Union paid for a cargo planeload that arrived at the small airport of El Arish on the northeastern coast of Egypt, near the Rafah crossing, on Tuesday. Another plane with E.U.-funded aid will depart Copenhagen for the same airport on Thursday.

But European and U.S. officials said the Egyptian authorities have not allowed their diplomats to access the area, not even to inspect the aid their governments have sent. The lack of access reflects Egypt’s desire for tight control of the region, which is in a province where Egypt has fought militants for years. Egypt fears the Gaza conflict could spill over, sparking unrest and perhaps more militant activity within its own borders.

In the meantime, 106 trucks loaded with aid from local charities have been lined up outside the gate at Rafah, awaiting the opening of the crossing. An additional 58 trucks with aid were delivered to the Egyptian Red Crescent in the city of Arish early Wednesday.

Storage facilities of the Egyptian Red Crescent were overflowing with humanitarian aid supplies, and the El Arish football stadium, which is storing aid sent from other countries and international humanitarian organizations, has also reached maximum capacity, a senior member of the Egyptian Red Crescent said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Shortly after President Biden announced, and Israel confirmed, on Tuesday that aid into Gaza would not be blocked, the convoys still sat silent and there were no signs of activity.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has hosted United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Cairo where they discussed the ongoing crisis in the occupied Palestinian territory and Israel.

El-Sisi reiterated on Sunday his country’s stance that Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip had “exceeded the right to self-defence” and amounted to collective punishment.

He added that Egypt’s priority was to end the violence and provide humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians trapped in Gaza.

Small moves in Sinai, demonstrations in Cairo

Egypt has opened up its airport in El Arish to receive international assistance for the besieged people of Gaza, with planes arriving from Jordan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, among others.

Combined with donations from Egypt, they have been loaded into more than 100 trucks, which are lined up in the northern Sinai Peninsula and ready to enter Gaza through the Rafah crossing. A blood donation campaign was initiated by the Egyptian government, with donation centres set up in all governorates.

After negotiations with the US and others, Egypt agreed to an exchange, whereby it would allow the exit of dual-national Palestinians trapped in the blockaded enclave into Egyptian territory in return for Israel allowing safe passage for the humanitarian aid.

Palestinians flee their houses heading toward the southern part of Gaza Strip
Palestinians flee their homes heading towards the southern part of the Gaza Strip after Israel’s evacuation order, on October 13, 2023 [Ahmed Zakot/Reuters]

However, no movement on either side of the border has taken place as on Saturday, Egypt was informed that Israel had rejected safe passage for the aid trucks.

In response, Egypt refused entry to its territory for Gaza’s dual-nationality citizens, making it clear that their exit from the Strip was contingent on Israel allowing the passage of the aid convoy into the enclave.

The exact number of Palestinian dual-nationals stuck in Rafah is not clear. According to the US government, between 500 and 600 US passport holders are thought to be trapped in Gaza.

French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna will be visiting Cairo on Monday and is expected to discuss allowing dual nationals to leave Gaza as there are several French citizens there.

As the impasse wore on, images on social media appeared to show Egyptian workers erecting concrete blocks along their side of the Rafah crossing on Saturday.

Observers have noted Egyptian wariness about the Rafah crossing and on Tuesday, news outlet Al Ahram Online quoted knowledgeable sources as saying there were plans by “some parties and forces” to forcibly displace Palestinians from their land and resettle them in Sinai.

The Palestinian cause has long enjoyed widespread support in Egypt, leading to official nervousness over the reaction and making it into the content of the sermons after Friday prayers.

According to the independent media outlet Mada Masr, the government had feared “chaos” that may have resulted from overzealous Friday sermons, especially from Al-Azhar, Egypt’s theological authority and the most famous mosque in Cairo.

Beyond Friday prayers, Egypt witnessed a number of rallies in support of Palestine throughout the week. A conference is expected to be held tomorrow by the Egyptian journalists’ syndicate to launch a weekly report on crimes committed by the Israeli army against journalists, with 10 Palestinian and one Lebanese journalist killed so far.

The lawyers’ syndicate has a support rally planned for Monday as well.

Egypt’s national security ‘red line’

For some observers, this was evidence of Egyptian concerns over a significant influx of Palestinian refugees into Sinai. However,  according to local sources, Egypt was not so much concerned with blocking traffic but securing the border, which had been damaged by recent Israeli bombings.

In an interview with CNN on Sunday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said that “the crossing point on the Palestinian side is inoperable due to recent bombings” and that Egypt would evacuate the foreign citizens “in coordination with the embassies” concerned, once the infrastructure is repaired.

Egypt's President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi speaks
El-Sisi told US Secretary of State Blinken that Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip had ‘exceeded the right to self-defence’ in Cairo, Egypt on October 15, 2023 [Jacquelyn Martin/Pool via Reuters]

The country is also awaiting an agreement with Israel to transport the humanitarian aid.

However, regardless of Egypt’s intent, as more Palestinians move towards the Egyptian border, the concentration of people near the Rafah crossing may lead to increased tensions.

There have been calls from within Egypt for the government to open the crossing with Gaza after Israel’s order for more than a million of its inhabitants to move to the south near the border. But Cairo has been cautious.

“Egypt’s national security is my first responsibility and I will not neglect it under any circumstances,” el-Sisi said on Wednesday.

El-Sisi, who views himself as the natural mediator, has publicly doubted that, should any mass displacement to Egypt take place, the hundreds of thousands of ejected Palestinians would be allowed to return, as has been the case in previous conflicts.

Egypt’s National Security Council echoed these sentiments in its meeting on Sunday, where it reaffirmed that its priority is Egypt’s national security, saying anything that affected it is a “red line”.

The government has also clearly stated its “rejection and denunciation of any displacement or liquidation of the Palestinian cause at the expense of neighbouring countries” and proposed a regional summit on “the development and future of the Palestinian cause”.

Egyptian authorities say an electrical short circuit sparked a blaze on a scuba diving boat carrying 15 tourists and 12 crew members near Marsa Alam.

Three British nationals are missing after a scuba diving boat they were cruising in caught fire off Egypt’s Red Sea coastline.

In a short statement on Sunday, Egypt’s Red Sea Governorate said 12 crew members and 12 British tourists were rescued when a medium-sized scuba diving boat, christened “Hurricane”, went up in flames off the southern Red Sea resort town of Marsa Alam.

A search party was launched to find the remaining three British tourists, whose identities were not revealed.

Following an initial examination of the vessel, Egyptian authorities said, “An electrical short circuit in the boat’s engine room sparked the blaze”.

The boat was on a six-day cruise and due back on Sunday when the blaze broke out while it was about 25km (16 miles) north of Marsa Alam.

Britain’s Foreign Office said it was in contact with the Egyptian authorities and is “supporting the British nationals involved”.

Uncommon in Egypt

Images posted on social media showed a white motor yacht with the same name on fire at sea, with thick smoke billowing into the sky.

“We saw smoke from the boat, it was around 9km [6 miles] from the beach,” said Ahmed Maher, a diving manager in Marsa Shagra village. “A nearby boat rescued them and dropped them off.”

Fatal boat accidents are uncommon in Egypt. In 2021, a boat capsized in a lake near Egypt’s Mediterranean city of Alexandria, leaving at least five people dead, including three children.

In 1991, an Egyptian ferry named Salem Express – sailing from Saudi Arabia to Egypt – sank, killing as many as 471 people, mostly Muslim pilgrims.

Egypt’s Red Sea resorts harbour some of the country’s most renowned beach destinations and are popular with European holiday goers. The area has cemented its reputation as a dive destination with easy access to coral reefs from shores and dive sites offering diverse marine life.

In recent years, Egypt has gone to great lengths to bolster its tourism industry, hurt by years of political instability, COVID-19, and the negative economic effect of the war in Ukraine.

Egypt’s tourism sector employs two million people and generates more than 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

On Thursday, a Russian tourist was killed by a shark in the waters off the Egyptian Red Sea city of Hurghada.

Egypt plans to sell shares in 32 state-owned businesses, including three banks. Credit: Hisham Allam/IPS
  • by Hisham Allam (cairo)
  • Inter Press Service

That also follows the government’s December USD 3 billion deal with the IMF to resume privatization initiatives.

The IMF approved the USD 3 billion loan to strengthen the private sector and reduce the state’s footprint in the economy.

Egypt planned to sell 23 state-owned enterprises in 2018, but the plan was postponed due to the worldwide crisis.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has put pressure on the Egyptian economy and currency, making the proposal more urgent.

According to Rashad Abdo, head of the Egyptian Forum for Economic Studies, Egypt had already received sovereign loans from many donors, including international institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund and Gulf countries, and these parties either set harsh lending conditions or would be reluctant to lend due to increased risks.

The State Ownership Policy Plan, adopted by President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi in December, outlines how the government would participate in the economy and how it would increase private sector involvement in public investments. Egypt wants to increase the contribution of the private sector to the nation’s economic activity from 30 percent to 65 percent within the next three years. One-quarter of these enterprises will be listed by the government within six months.

Egypt announced the offering of these companies, intending to sell them to strategic investors, specifically Gulf sovereign funds. Egypt is expected to sell enterprises worth USD 40 billion within three years, including those held by the army.

Attracting foreign investment requires strengthening the investment climate, lowering inflation rates, and expanding anti-corruption efforts, Abdo told IPS.

The State Ownership document states that 32 Egyptian state companies will be listed on the Egypt Exchange (EGX) or sold to strategic investors within a year, beginning with the current quarter and ending in the first quarter of 2024. Stakes in three significant banks, Banco du Caire, United Bank of Egypt, and Arab African International Bank, are among the scheduled transactions. Insurance, electricity, and energy companies, as well as hotels and industrial and agricultural concerns, will also be on the market. Prime Minister Moustafa Madbouly announced that the first stakes would be offered in March and a quarter by June, and more businesses could be added over the next year.

Abdo pointed out that the Monetary Fund affirmed the Egyptian government’s commitment to implementing the State Ownership Document when it agreed to grant it this loan and the Egyptian government saw it as a favorable opportunity to implement the terms of the document set by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Mohamed Al-Kilani, professor of economics and member of the Egyptian Society for Political Economy, said the privatization effort seeks to eliminate the dollar gap in Egypt and thus provide indirect compensation in the form of services and benefits from the International Monetary Fund’s debt.

The state would also send a message to foreign investors that it responds to the private sector and is willing to withdraw from certain sectors to benefit the private sector.

“The state is attempting to exploit this proposal to stimulate and revitalize the Egyptian Stock Exchange while taking into account the fair valuation of these companies in comparison to the global market. However, the state was unclear about the details of this offering and whether it is a long-term or short-term investment, and it has not clarified the size of employment or the percentages offered in terms of ownership and management,” Al-Kilani told IPS.

“The state is trying to create new types of foreign investment to attract foreign currency due to the fluctuation in exchange rates and high-interest rates,” Al-Kilani added.

According to external debt data published on the central bank’s website in mid-February, Egypt’s external debt fell by USD 728 million to USD 154.9 billion at the end of last September, but its foreign exchange reserves remain low, prompting renewed demand for state assets. The Russia-Ukraine conflict has further pressured the economy and local currency, prompting the proposal for new urgency.

Despite its relatively modest improvement in the latest data from the central bank at the beginning of February (USD 34.2 billion), it lost about 20 percent of the level of USD 41 billion at the end of February last year.

Last January, the IMF suggested that the volume of the financing gap in Egypt would reach about USD 17 billion over the next 46 months in light of its decline in foreign exchange resources and the high cost of its imports as one of the largest countries in the world to import its food and the first importer of wheat in the world.

IPS UN Bureau Report

Follow IPS News UN Bureau on Instagram

© Inter Press Service (2023) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

Pin It