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Analysis

Sissi eyes Gaza rebuilding to enhance Egypt’s regional clout

Egyptian leader seeks to capitalize on the international praise he garnered for helping broker last month’s ceasefire between Israel, Hamas

A Hamas police officer stands guards at the main square in front of large portraits of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, while Hamas leaders meet with Egypt's intelligence chief Abbas Kamel, unseen, in Gaza City, May 31, 2021. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)
A Hamas police officer stands guards at the main square in front of large portraits of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, while Hamas leaders meet with Egypt's intelligence chief Abbas Kamel, unseen, in Gaza City, May 31, 2021. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

CAIRO — Egypt is banking on a $500-million Gaza reconstruction project to shore up its influence in the Middle East, capitalizing on clout it garnered by brokering a ceasefire between Israel and the Hamas.

President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi pledged the cash injection to rebuild the Gaza Strip after an 11-day conflict last month in which Hamas and other Gaza terror groups battered southern and central Israel with thousands of rockets and Israel responded with hundreds of airstrikes at Gaza targets.

Sissi was widely praised for playing a pivotal role in negotiating an end to the deadly hostilities on May 21, including by US President Joe Biden.

The aid package is in the form of construction undertaken by Egyptian firms — a playbook that Sissi has used to great effect domestically since taking power in 2014.

A convoy of trucks loaded with construction equipment provided by Egypt arrives at the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, on June 4, 2021. (Said Khatib/AFP)

Sissi has employed the military’s engineering arm for large-scale infrastructure projects such as the construction of a new administrative capital, as well as dozens of flyovers and highways nationwide.

“Sissi no doubt sees this reconstruction aid as an investment in exchange for political influence — both on Egypt’s border in Gaza and at the international level,” Sarah Smierciak, a Middle East political economist, told AFP.

Palestinians wait in line to have their documents checked before crossing the Rafah border with Egypt, southern Gaza Strip, June 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

Egypt’s heavily secured Rafah crossing is Gaza’s only passage to the outside world not controlled by Israel, which has blockaded the enclave since 2007 to prevent arms from reaching Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist organizations in the Strip.

In a rare move, Cairo opened the crossing during intense fighting to allow wounded Palestinians to be treated in Egyptian hospitals.

“This pledge will make Egypt’s voice heard among Palestinian ranks,” said Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid, a Cairo University professor of political science.

“It (the reconstruction) is definitely a part of Egypt regaining its regional role,” he added.

Wider thaw

The move is part of a wider thaw this year in Egypt’s relations with foes such as Qatar and Turkey, which back Hamas — while Cairo regards it with suspicion.

Cairo also considers Hamas an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood, which it outlawed in 2013 after the Sissi-led military’s ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi.

Egypt “changed its outlook towards Hamas,” Sayyid said, after the group renounced its ties with the Brotherhood in 2017.

It has also overseen a tentative national reconciliation between Hamas and its political rival Fatah, which runs the Palestinian Authority from Ramallah in the West Bank.

“The reconstruction aid could make Egypt an acceptable partner for Hamas… and soon we could see Hamas helping Egypt in securing the border,” he added.

Cairo for years has accused Hamas of smuggling weapons to insurgents in its restive province of North Sinai through cross-border tunnels.

Yahya Sinwar (R), Hamas’ political chief in Gaza, embraces General Abbas Kamel (L), Egypt’s intelligence chief, as the latter arrives for a meeting with leaders of Hamas in Gaza City on May 31, 2021. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

But Smierciak said Egypt could leverage the sizeable aid package to sideline Hamas which it “views as a threat” to the country’s national security.

Last week, Egypt said it sent an aid convoy to Gaza with cranes, diggers and trucks to “prepare the ground for reconstruction” of the enclave.

But so far no public information has been given on the companies assigned to rebuild the densely populated territory.

“The president’s office hasn’t announced which Egyptian companies will be tapped to implement the reconstruction, but military-owned firms will almost certainly play a central role,” Smierciak said.

However, a Gaza reconstruction forum is to take place in Cairo in coming days, bringing together politicians and entrepreneurs from the region.

Who’ll ‘pocket the money’?

Mohamed Samy, head of the Egyptian Federation for Construction and Building Contractors, said “work won’t start until the security situation is stable in Gaza.”

“Gaza has a massive labor force, so I don’t think they (Gazans) will stay in their homes and let others from the outside do the work,” he added.

Samy explained that for the construction industry the mammoth project would be an “extension of the national projects in terms of the production and export of building materials as well as providing jobs.”

For some Egyptians, who bore the brunt of harsh austerity measures implemented by the government since 2016, Sissi’s Gaza aid package has been met with skepticism.

“It’s better not giving so much aid away. We deserve it more given our limited wealth and large… population,” wrote one Twitter user.

Palestinian boys cycle past a convoy of bulldozers provided by Egypt arriving at the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Palestinian Gaza Strip enclave on June 4, 2021 (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Another social media user saw the upside.

“Allocating $500 million for the reconstruction of Gaza is a wonderful step… The important thing is that the money remains under Egypt’s control so that Egyptian companies, labor and products are used,” they wrote on Facebook.

Smierciak was also cautious in her assessment of the much-feted reconstruction.

“We have to understand why it makes sense economically. We have to see who will ‘win’ the multi-million-dollar contracts — that is, who will actually pocket the money,” she said.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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