There are concerns that public anger against Israel’s regular bombardment of the Gaza Strip, which is home to 2.3 million residents, is serving to, in the words of the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, “reignite grievances and reanimate alliances” in the Middle East and North Africa, where another Arab Spring uprising can’t be ruled out.
“We have a significant worry that we could slide into a religious conflict and an expansion of the confrontation,” Arab League chief and former Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said on Saturday at a peace summit in Cairo convened by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Nine leaders and five premiers from Arab and European countries, along with high-level representatives from the United Nations, European Union, and African Union, attended the summit.
Security analysts point to the 2011 uprising in Libya, which led to the NATO-backed removal of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi and a proliferation of weapons as well as Islamist terrorism across the Sahel, as an example of the unpredictable ramifications of such instability.
Mass pro-Palestine protests have been held across the Middle East, including in Egypt, Morocco, Libya, and Tunisia. Egypt in particular is at risk of destabilization given its shared border with Gaza and control over the Rafah crossing, the only non-Israeli-controlled border into the territory.
Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, Danny Ayalon, toldSky News that the “people of Gaza should evacuate” to “the Sinai border in Egypt … and Egypt will have to accept them.”
Sisi argued that this could cause Sinai to become “a base for terrorist operations against Israel” and proposed that refugees could instead be housed in Israel’s Negev desert. Arab nations fear an exodus of Palestinians from Gaza would allow Israel to reoccupy the territory and permanently displace the population. At the Saturday peace summit, Sisi reiterated that “the liquidation of the Palestinian cause without a just solution” would “never happen at the expense of Egypt.”
What’s more, many Egyptians are already disgruntled with Sisi over the economy as the country heads into an election in December, providing a volatile mix. Critics have accused Sisi of piggybacking off public anger over Gaza to improve his approval ratings. He called for nationwide protests in support of the Palestinian cause last Friday—a rarity given his yearslong clampdown on political activism.
Cairo’s Tahrir Square—the epicenter of the 2011 Arab Spring protests that ousted former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak—was not listed among sites at which people could demonstrate, and participants who gathered in the square were brutally removed by police. More than 100 people were arrested for being at the square or for demonstrating against Sisi.
Experts also fear the conflict could motivate Islamist militant groups in Africa to capitalize on public anger over the humanitarian crisis to garner support and legitimacy. In Somalia, for instance, the al Qaeda-affiliated group al-Shabab held pro-Palestine protests. As FP’s Lynne O’Donnell reported, “The broader impact of the Hamas attacks—even before a potentially escalating regional war—is the possibility that terrorist groups around the world will try to match the spectacular carnage that Hamas pulled off earlier this month.”
And as Ghaith al-Omari, a former Palestinian Authority official now at the Washington Institute, noted, “You can destroy all of [Hamas’s] physical infrastructure, but it’s very hard to destroy the idea.” As public anger extends toward Arab leaders, there is a fear that the war could spark new unrest.