Helena Cobban writes:
The moment that Hosni Mubarak stood down from the Egyptian presidency and it was apparent that his hastily appointed vice-president, the long-time intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, would not be succeeding him, it was clear that much would be changing in Middle Eastern politics — including for Palestinians.
Easily the most populous Arab state, and one with a central location abutting Israel/Palestine, Egypt has always had the potential to play a huge role on the Palestinian issue. That role was lessened after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat split with the PLO leaders after the 1978 Camp David accords. But in recent years, Mubarak had become a linchpin in U.S. and Israeli efforts to steer Palestinian politics in a direction amenable to them.
Mubarak and Suleiman had two major ways to exert direct influence over Palestinian politics. First, Egypt has the only land border with the Gaza Strip other than the Strip’s much longer border with Israel. The sole legal crossing point on that border, at Rafah, years ago became the only way that most Gaza Palestinians could ever hope to travel between the Strip and the outside world. (Goods, by contrast, are not allowed through Rafah. Under the 1994 Paris Agreement between Israel and the PLO, all goods going into or out of Gaza must go through crossings that go to Israel.) Cairo’s control over Rafah has given it a huge ability to put pressure on Gaza’s 1.6 million people and the elected Hamas mini-government that administers the Strip.
In addition, in recent years, Egypt got the full backing of the United States and Israel to play the role of primary interlocutor in all efforts to heal the rift between Hamas and its main rivals in Mahmoud Abbas’s Fateh. But as Suleiman and Mubarak had long been firmly in Abbas’s camp, it surprised no one to see the reconciliation efforts that Suleiman periodically launched come to nothing — and Fateh and Hamas remained deeply divided.
So the departure of Mubarak and Suleiman from power in Cairo was huge for the Palestinians — especially those trapped for many years inside Gaza, which has been described by many as an open-air prison.