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Egypt's role as war continues in the Gaza Strip

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

While the world watches the ongoing war in the Gaza Strip, leaders in Egypt see great danger to their own country since they're right next door. Egypt is a sometimes contentious U.S. ally and will be key in getting aid to Palestinians or ending the war. But first, leaders in Egypt want to make sure that the country won't be drawn into the fighting or that the war won't unleash unrest in Cairo. We're joined now by NPR's Aya Batrawy in Jerusalem. Aya, it's good to have you with us.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Hi, Asma.

KHALID: So there are aid convoys lined up in Egypt at the border with Gaza. And there are also American citizens in Gaza who want to get out. And President Biden said earlier today that those first aid trucks should be able to cross the border in the next 24 to 48 hours. Can you explain? What has been the holdup?

BATRAWY: Well, the roads inside Gaza leading to that border crossing are still being repaired after Israeli airstrikes hit there. And there are still some security concerns. Israel shelled near the border again today. But Egypt's position is very clear that border has to open for aid to get in, and it says Israel is holding that up. Now, it's unclear exactly when that crossing will open, like you mentioned. But the U.S. secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, was at the Rafah Crossing. He said aid getting in is a matter of life and death. There are also Americans trapped in Gaza that desperately want to leave. Producer Nina Kravinsky talked with a Palestinian American. Her name's Wafaa Abuzayda. She is stuck in Gaza. She says an airstrike hit their neighbor's house yesterday while her baby was sleeping next to the window.

WAFAA ABUZAYDA: The window broke, and I pulled him immediately. And I hugged him. He was, like, freaking out. He was looking at me. He doesn't know what's going on.

BATRAWY: And that buzzing sound in the background while she was talking is an Israeli drone overhead.

KHALID: Oh, wow. So if foreigners like U.S. citizens may be able to leave Gaza, why is Egypt saying that Palestinians who are trying to flee will not be let into the country?

BATRAWY: Egypt is worried that if they let them in, they'll never be allowed to return. And that has happened repeatedly to Palestinians for generations. Egyptians and Palestinians are worried it's happening again. And let me break down what Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi laid out bluntly this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISI: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: He said there is an idea to displace Palestinians and push them into Egyptian territory. And he said the aim of the siege on Gaza is to push them into Egypt. He said, if that happens, this could also lead to a push to move Palestinians from the West Bank into Jordan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EL-SISI: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: El-Sisi also said that if Palestinians are moved into Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, their resistance against Israel would move with them, basically moving their struggle from Gaza to Egypt. And that would lead to Israel striking the Sinai, drawing Egypt and Israel into direct conflict.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EL-SISI: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: He said, "if there is insistence on displacing Palestinians, why don't they just be relocated to the Negev desert in Israel instead?"

KHALID: So what has been the reaction of Egyptians to all of this?

BATRAWY: Well, first of all, Egypt's president did something pretty shocking. He called on Egyptians to protest in support of Palestinians and against their displacement. Now, in the first days of this war, his government was quietly giving directives to media outlets and to mosques to tone down their rhetoric for fear of exactly that happening. But now government loyalists have sprung into action. One lawmaker tore up a copy of the Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel in Parliament. Thousands of people were bussed in for protests in Cairo today, but there was also a protest that wasn't state backed, and it ended up in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the Arab Spring uprisings over a decade ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in non-English language).

BATRAWY: Police pushed and shoved the crowd out, but not before they could chant, (non-English language spoken) - oh, Palestine, we're sorry, but we too are occupied.

KHALID: So what are the risks there, Aya, of these kinds of protests for Egypt and for the Egyptian government?

BATRAWY: Well, there's already growing discontent. Egypt is in the middle of an economic crisis. I spoke with Hossam al-Hamalawy. He's a longtime Egyptian activist who now lives in exile in Europe. He says that, calling for these protests, what Sisi is doing is riding on the growing wave of Egyptian anger at the carnage in Gaza.

HOSSAM AL-HAMALAWY: But it's a gamble because, again, he is normalizing the scenes of protests. And once you start tasting freedom, it's very difficult to forget. You know how sweet this tastes.

BATRAWY: So bottom line - Egypt's president and its military leadership see this as a risk worth taking. And there's already a troop buildup at Egypt's border with Gaza, something we haven't seen in years.

KHALID: NPR's Aya Batrawy in Jerusalem. Thanks so much.

BATRAWY: Thanks, Asma. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.