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Egypt walks a dangerous tightrope over Gaza Add to ...

When Mohammed Abu Treika scored a key goal against Sudan in an African Cup match last week, he endeared himself to millions of fans in this soccer-mad country. But it was what he did next that made him a true national hero.

As banks of television cameras zoomed in on him, Mr. Abu Treika celebrated his goal by pulling his red Egyptian national team sweater over his head. Underneath was a plain white T-shirt emblazoned with a simple slogan, written in English and Arabic: "Sympathize with Gaza," it read.

Mr. Abu Treika's gesture earned him a yellow card for unsportsmanlike conduct, but his picture was on the front page of every Egyptian newspaper the next day. Some preachers dedicated their Friday sermons to the soccer star's public declaration of a sentiment that many Egyptians silently share.

"A courageous Abu Treika did what Arab political leaders could not do: help Gaza while under Israeli siege," Sheik Abdul Rahman Ahmed told followers at his mosque in the southern Egyptian city of Qena.

The public reaction to Mr. Abu Treika's act underscored an uncomfortable new truth for the government of President Hosni Mubarak: About three decades after Egypt refused an Israeli offer to hand back the troubled coastal territory that was once ruled by Cairo, Egypt is once more embroiled in the Gaza Strip.

Since Jan. 23, when Hamas militants destroyed the iron fence that demarcated Gaza's border with Egypt, Mr. Mubarak's government has been walking a dangerous tightrope. Under pressure from the United States and Israel, which offered to return Gaza to Egypt during negotiation of the 1979 peace treaty between the two countries, Egypt is desperately trying to stem the reported flow of fighters and weapons between Gaza and the Sinai peninsula. But the pro-Palestinian sentiment on the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities means Mr. Mubarak can't be seen treating the Gazans harshly.

After a brief calm during which Hamas helped Egyptian forces reseal the border this week, there have been near-daily demonstrations by Palestinians eager to travel to Egypt via the Rafah crossing at the south of the strip. Under a crippling blockade that Israel says was imposed in response to continuing rocket fire by Hamas and other militant groups, Gaza's other land borders have been closed by Israel, which also controls the airspace and coastal waters.

Several of the protests at Rafah have turned violent, and at least two Palestinians have been killed this week by Egyptian fire. Meanwhile, dozens of Palestinians and Egyptian soldiers have been injured. The situation appears to once more be coming to a boil.

Egypt said yesterday that it would deploy extra troops to the border area after Hamas allegedly threatened to kidnap Egyptian soldiers in response to the arrest of 15 Hamas members in Sinai. A Hamas spokesman said no such threat existed.

"[Egypt]cannot kill Palestinians every day to defend Israel," said Zvi Mazel, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt. "If it does, it will be condemned by the Arab countries and by its own population." But if Egypt doesn't take action to close the border, he said, Israel could itself intervene and deploy its military in the south of the Gaza Strip.

Complicating matters even more are the thick links between Hamas and Egypt's own Islamist opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, which Mr. Mubarak's regime views as an existential threat. While Egyptian soldiers have been engaged in tense standoffs with Hamas militants, the Brotherhood has organized dozens of pro-Palestinian protests around the country, drawing tens of thousands of people into the streets. During the crisis, Khaled Meshaal, the Damascus-based political leader of Hamas, and Mohammed Mahdi Akef, the supreme guide of the Brotherhood, have reportedly co-ordinated their actions by telephone.

The Egyptian media has also reported that even as hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were flooding out of Gaza while the border was open, about 2,000 Egyptians entered the territory, some of them seeking to train and fight alongside Hamas. It's unclear whether they want to fight Israel, or return to Egypt, which in the last decade has been struck by a series of bombing and shooting attacks targeting its tourist sites.

After initially showing sympathy for the Palestinians - Mr. Mubarak initially said the Gazans would be allowed to enter Egypt and stock up on supplies so they wouldn't "starve" under Israel's harsh blockade - the Egyptian regime's patience for Hamas appears to be rapidly running out.

After days of blaming Israel for the situation in Gaza, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit changed his tone this week and harshly criticized Hamas and other groups for firing rockets at Israeli towns when such attacks do little damage and draw heavy retribution from Israel. In a clear warning to Hamas, he said that anyone who tried to violate Egypt's border again "will get their legs broken."

While Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, it maintains a separate leadership structure. Nonetheless Egypt's state-controlled media increasingly refers to the two groups as a single organization that poses a threat to the country's security. Such talk, Brotherhood members say, likely presages a coming crackdown on their members.

The Brotherhood, which seeks the non-violent creation of an Islamic state in Egypt, says 240 of its members were detained late last month for taking part in demonstrations in Cairo calling for the Gaza blockade to be lifted. Most were swiftly released, but Mr. Mubarak's regime has shown little tolerance for the group in the past and there's an expectation that more arrests are coming.

"There's a big push by the government to stigmatize the Brotherhood as a group that doesn't care about Egyptian nationalism or the security of Egypt," said Khaled Salam, editor of the Brotherhood's website, ikhwanweb.com. "Because they're afraid of our increasing popularity, they're using Hamas and its reputation as a terrorist group to scare people."

For a government increasingly at odds with its own people, cracking down both at Rafah and on the streets of Cairo may be the only tool Mr. Mubarak's regime has. "Egypt is now trapped because Hamas decided to escape [the Israeli blockade]by embroiling Egypt," columnist Taruq al-Homayad wrote in the pan-Arab as-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper. "Today, the whole world is more concerned about the crisis of the Rafah crossing and Egypt than about the [Israeli]siege on Gaza."

Orly Halpern is a freelance writer based in Jerusalem

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

 

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