Tuesday, June 29, 2010

El Alamein's new desert battle as mine victims search for justice

As luxury resorts spring up along Egypt's northern coast, many still living with the legacy of the second world war feel betrayed

-Taken from the Guardian
-El Alamein - June 2010

-Original photography by Jason Larkin

Along Egypt's white-sand Mediterranean coastline, an enormous metal advertising hoarding is being hauled into place by the roadside. "Blissful indulgence, natural splendour," it declares in huge letters above a picture of a child snorkelling in azure blue waters. "Marassi: It's where you've always belonged.
Behind the sign lies a messy scrub of beach and desert, pockmarked with a few half-built houses on stilts. Across the highway is Egypt's Western Desert – and somewhere beneath the ever-shifting sands lie 16m pieces of unexploded second world war ordnance.
Eventually, this patch of land will become a 6.25m sq metre gated holiday resort incorporating luxury villas, artificial lagoons and an 18-hole golf course. To Egypt's government, Marassi is a symbol of regeneration in a beautiful region; to many locals, it represents marginalisation and betrayal.
"This sort of development does nothing for us," said Eissa Murgan, a 37-year-old Bedouin who used to work as a shepherd before his leg was blown off by a landmine. "There are no benefits here for those that truly need them."
Battles over El Alamein's future are nothing new; the town and its surrounding shores have long been contested by rival armies, most notably in 1942 when axis and allied forces met in a confrontation that changed the tide of the second world war.
Now a new struggle is taking place over how best to confront the legacy of that conflict: the buried ordnance that is estimated to have killed and maimed thousands of Egyptians over the past seven decades and has condemned the region to economic stagnation. Victims such as Murgan find themselves fighting for justice on two fronts: from their own authorities, whom they believe are more interested in extracting profits than in promoting sustainable development; and from the British and other European governments, whom they hold responsible for the carnage left behind.

Egypt's ministry of international co-operation has unveiled a $10bn (£6.6bn) plan which aims to bring 400,000 jobs to the area and expand the population from 300,000 to more than 1.5 million, easing the pressure on Egypt's overcrowded Nile Valley in the process.
"This is an area immensely blessed in natural resources," said Fathi El-Shazly, the official responsible for transforming its fortunes. "We're looking at highly significant oil and gas reserves under the ground, plus 3m acres of fertile land and a staggering potential for tourism. But all of these assets are difficult to access, at least until de-mining takes place."
The question of de-mining has brought the government into conflict with the Bedouin, who believe that the limited mine clearance implemented by the Egyptian army has been targeted at meeting the needs of the oil companies and resort developers seeking to exploit the region's riches, few of which are trickling down to those most affected by the munitions.
Last year a unit of specially trained soldiers cleared around 130 sq km of land but, with an estimated 2,800 sq km (more than 1,000 sq miles) of desert still infested with explosives, their efforts were a drop in the ocean. Officials say that with limited funding, they are trying to strike a balance between mine-clearing areas for commercial development and addressing humanitarian concerns, such as clearing access to farmland. "The north-west coast is completely free of any tension between the government and the local community," insisted El-Shazly.
Ahmed Kassim disagreed. In 1981, his two brothers and a cousin, aged 10, 11 and 12, were grazing sheep near the regional capital of Marsa Matruh when they spotted something shiny on the ground. Ignorant of what it was, they began to throw stones at it. "The explosion that killed them was so large that when I ran to the scene, I initially couldn't see anything," recalled Kassim, who was 18 at the time. "All that was left was small pieces of their bodies, no bigger than a cellphone."
Now Kassim, who has two young sons, is demanding to know why the mines around his home – the exact locations are unknown – have still not been cleared. "My family got nothing from the Egyptian authorities; there has been no compensation and no de-mining happening anywhere near us," he said. The 43-year-old works as a maintenance director for an Italian-Egyptian oil firm 209 miles away in the desert; the company's plant and access roads were all de-mined long ago. "It's very upsetting; they clear the mines for the sake of private profits, but not for the sake of our children," he said.

Kassim reserves his greatest wrath for the UK government, which has so far refused to compensate those injured by British munitions or offer any large-scale contributions to the clear-up. "Your war is over, yet ours continues every day," he said. "You have no idea what it's like to live always under threat, to never feel safe on your own land. We are innocent people: this was your war, not ours, and yet we are the ones dying."
It is a sentiment shared by the Egyptian government, which points out that Egypt is the most heavily mined country in the world, more so than trouble spots such as Angola, Afghanistan and Bosnia.
Officials have spent years lobbying their British, German and Italian counterparts for more funding to tackle the problem, largely without success. Although all three countries laid mines, most Egyptians identify Britain as the primary culprit. Egypt was effectively still under British colonial occupation, and many Egyptians believe Britain has a moral responsibility for bringing conflict to Egypt's shores. The other countries have also been quicker to offer financial help on the issue.
The Foreign Office said that it channels £10m a year globally to clear mines, but does not wish to enter any bilateral agreements with Egypt, while the latter refuses to sign up to the Ottowa treaty, which prohibits the use of anti-personnel landmines by national armies.
Trapped in the middle of a diplomatic row, the Bedouin community on Egypt's north coast has grown tired of waiting for answers. Last year a group of victims under the leadership of a local tribal mayor formed a non-governmental organisation which is planning to force the British government into the dock at the European court of human rights in an effort to win compensation for their injuries. They have already been in contact with lawyers in Cairo and London and aim to prosecute the British ambassador to Egypt through the Egyptian courts.
Such a move is unprecedented and its chances of victory are slim but those behind the legal challenge believe it could be the first step towards forcing Britain into offering a full financial settlement to those who have suffered at the hands of its army, along the lines of Italy's economic partnership with Libya.
"We have a local proverb here that we trust," said Omda Abdel Rahman, whose tribal lands witness the construction of more high-end private resorts every day. "It goes, 'No right can be lost as long as there are people still demanding it'. This compensation is our right, as is the de-mining of this area – de-mining for the benefit of those who live there. So we will fight for those things. Until then, we remain paralysed."

Last Stand
By July 1942, the allies were on the back foot in north Africa as General Rommel pushed his forces eastwards towards the Suez canal and the Arabian oilfields beyond.
With German U-boats sapping Britain's naval strength in the Atlantic, and axis forces taking control of most of western Europe and Russia, El Alamein was seen as a last stand for Britain if it was to avoid a rapid and potentially devastating loss of military momentum.
On the night of 23 October, Field Marshall Montgomery ordered his engineers into the Devil's Garden, the heavily mined stretch of land lying between the two forces, and clear a way for the tanks of the Eighth Army to approach Rommel's Afrika Korps.
After 10 days of fighting which claimed a total of 43,000 casualties, Rommel ordered a retreat.
Winston Churchill said of the battle: "Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein, we never had a defeat."
Today, those who lost their lives at the battle of El Alamein are commemorated at a number of European war cemeteries in the north African town.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Battle for the Nile: Egypt puts river at heart of its security

Threatened by a cut in Nile water supply, Egypt sees its leading regional role draining away and its desert farms running dry

-Taken from the Guardian
-Aswan - June 2010

-Part of a Guardian package on the Nile, including Xan Rice in Uganda, John Vidal in London and an online interactive guide to the river.

-Original photography below by Ayman Farag


There’s only one way to appreciate the scale of Egypt’s monumental Aswan High Dam, and that’s by standing directly on top of it. Beneath your feet lies 43 million cubic metres of granite rock, construction material which took ten years and a billion dollars to assemble. To your south more than 5000 square kilometres of water stretch out towards the Sudanese border, forming Lake Nasser, one of the largest reservoirs on earth. And to your north, gurgling out quietly from deep within the bowels of the barrage, is the Nile – now tamed, steady, and ready for use by 80 million dependents downstream.

In terms of sheer technical ambition, not to mention its impact on Egypt’s economic fortunes, political might and cultural identity, nothing has rivalled the High Dam since the pyramids.

It’s obvious from the nationalist symbols plastered all over a nearby celebratory monument and from the spectacle of heavily-armed soldiers silently patrolling the dam’s walkways – the site is reportedly protected by an anti-missile system as extensive as the one that protects the seat of government in Cairo – that this vast structure means as much to Egypt today as it did when it was finally completed forty years ago. From its inception the dam was intended to stand as a symbol of the country’s historical mastery over the world’s longest river, control of which has determined the fate of every Egyptian ruler in history, from the earliest pharaoh to Gamal Abdel Nasser.

It’s also marks the spot where, should upstream African countries have their way, surrender of that control will first become visible.

The consequences of any reduction to Egypt’s share of the Nile’s flow will be felt across the whole length of the country, not least on the brackish fields of the Nile Delta some 800 km away where farmers are already struggling to find the freshwater needed to fight off underground intrusion from the Mediterranean. But one doesn’t have to travel far from the dam’s soaring concrete slopes to witness first hand just how important the Nile is to Egypt, which relies on the river for 90% of its water supplies.

Omar lives on the west bank of the nearby city of Aswan, on a narrow slither of verdant land that extends no more than 600 metres from the river at its widest point before quickly giving way to rocky desert. Temperatures here can reach up to 45°c in the summer but a network of irrigation canals and oxen-powered water pumps keeps Nile water streaming in all year round, allowing Omar and his fellow farmers to produce grapes, figs, watermelons and a wealth of other crops for export to the big food markets in Cairo.

“The Nile is everything to us, it’s liquid gold,” explained the 25 year old as he oversaw the day’s mango harvest. “Without it the land would die, the crops would die, the animals would die, and then we would die. We’re like fish here: take us from the water and we’ll perish.”

As with most of the predominantly Nubian communities in this area, discussions about Nile water politics have dominated conversation in Omar’s village recently. “It’s been all over the news channels,” he says. “Everyone’s talking about it, and everyone’s afraid. My family were one of those relocated when the High Dam was built and Lake Nasser flooded our homeland; now we fear our livelihoods will be taken away again if the water level drops and farming comes to an end.”

In the fishing and agricultural districts of Upper Egypt there is little sympathy to be found for the plight of upstream countries threatening to unilaterally increase their allocation of the Nile’s resources. It’s an uncompromising stance echoed by technical experts in Cairo, who claim that Egypt’s share of the overall water in the region is already dangerously small.

“Nile basin countries as a whole receive 7000 bcm [billion cubic metres] per year of rainfall,” says Khaled Abu Zeid, a regional water resources program manager at the environmental organisation CEDARE. “In the Nile basin itself, you’re looking at 1660 bcm of annual rainfall. And then from all this, you have Egypt taking 55.5 bcm a year from the Nile, our only source of fresh, renewable water. So we have to ask ourselves exactly what we’re talking about when terms like ‘water-sharing’ are used. Egypt is a desert environment, whereas some of the upstream countries could not get any greener.”

Given the already precarious state of Egypt’s water security, which is set to degenerate further as population growth accelerates, it’s little surprise that successive political leaders have described any possible alterations to the current distribution of the Nile as an existential threat to the nation. President Sadat famously declared himself ready to go to war over any attempt to limit Egypt’s dominance of the river; recently columnists in Egyptian newspapers have characterised the actions of upstream states as a ‘genocidal war’ against Egyptians and an attack on the country’s ‘history, future and existence.’

Some have suggested that Egypt’s strident rhetoric has hampered the spirit of cooperation between Nile states, all of whom are set to be hit by seismic demographic and climate changes over the next few decades.“Egypt sincerely wants to work with upstream countries, and I hope that those countries don’t look negatively upon these statements about the Nile being a ‘red line’ for Egypt,” counters Abu Zeid. “But regardless of what language you choose to employ, the fact is that the Nile is a national security issue for Egypt, it really is.”

As an indication of how seriously the Egyptian government is taking the present crisis, responsibility for the Nile Basin dispute was removed from the Water and Foreign Affairs ministries last month and instead put in the hands of Egypt’s powerful intelligence and security chief, Omar Suleiman.

Suleiman was in Uganda this week holding talks with the country's president about the Nile issue, as Egypt stepped up efforts to persuade other countries, such as Burundi, not to sign the rival River Nile basin co-operative framework agreement threatening Egypt's hegemony.

Egypt makes much of its water recycling and desalination programmes, arguing that the country’s barren environs have forced it to be far more proactive than more profligate upstream countries at finding ways to use slender water resources efficiently. But critics dispute these claims, pointing to the outskirts of big cities like Cairo where the dizzying growth of luxury residential developments has seen a rash of water-intensive landscaped gardens and luxury golf courses spring up out of the desert sand. Some analysts argue that decades of outdated grids and flawed domestic water policies are playing a bigger role in water scarcity in Egypt than any potential decrease in supply.

There are many though who believe that Egypt’s current Nile predicament reveals something far deeper as well: a long-term political malaise which has seen the country’s status as the preeminent regional power slowly drain away. “In the 1950s and ‘60s relations with African states were never better,” says Nabil Abdel Fattah, a research director at the Al-Ahram Centre. “President Nasser cultivated a sense of post-colonial solidarity with upstream states based around the Non-Aligned Movement, yet under the regimes of his successors Africa has been neglected.”

Both Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak went on to yoke Cairo’s foreign policy more firmly with the USA’s, precipitating a decline in Egyptian influence in sub-Saharan African and leaving other countries like China and Israel free to fill the void.

“Since Nasser we have seen a marginalisation of the African Affairs institutes at universities, a marginalisation of African news on our TV screens,” contends Abdel Fattah. “The problem here is ethnic politics and the perception we have of Egyptian identity. Our politicians see Africa as a backwater and its countries as underdeveloped, and this has been one of the primary mistakes in our foreign policy – to lose our standing in Africa just when we needed it most. Egypt is trying to escape from its black skin, and this secession from our ethnic heritage is coming back to haunt us over the Nile.”

Back in his mango groves, Omar could not agree more. “This would never have happened under Nasser; if he were still with us nobody would dare try and come and take our water.” As a diplomatic war of words over the Nile continues to echo across the capitals of north-east Africa, it’s those stuck in the middle like Omar who are watching closest – and fearing the worst.

Friday, June 25, 2010

ElBaradei joins huge protests over Egyptian police death

Opposition figurehead and former head of nuclear watchdog uses police brutality case to launch his most direct challenge to President Hosni Mubarak yet

-Taken from the Guardian
-Cairo - June 2010

Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the UN nuclear watchdog, joined about 4,000 Egyptians at a rare large-scale street protest today, in his most direct challenge to President Hosni Mubarak since returning to the country earlier this year.

The Nobel laureate turned opposition figurehead joined the sit-in in Alexandria over the case of a man allegedly killed by plain-clothes policemen.

Numerous witnesses say Khaled Said, 28, died after being kicked and punched by the officers before eventually smashing his head against a marble shelf in an internet cafe on 6 June. Security officials claim Said died of asphyxiation after he swallowed a packet of narcotics hidden under his tongue.

The officers dragged Said into their car and drove off, before returning to dump his body on the street in front of the cafe, the witnesses said.

ElBaradei, who has said he will consider challenging Mubarak for the presidency next year if conditions are free and fair, called the incident an "egregious humanitarian violation" which revealed a "lack of sanctity of human life".

Human rights organisations have condemned the attacks and the botched investigation that followed it. According to Human Rights Watch, which is calling for the individuals involved to be prosecuted, this has so far involved two highly-flawed autopsies, a lack of proper evidence-gathering and a series of misleading statements from the Interior Ministry accusing the victim of being a wanted criminal, an accusation which Said’s family deny. Meanwhile the two officers responsible for the incident remain on active duty.

“Even if Khaled Said had been wanted in connection with some earlier offense, that does not give license to police to attack and murder him in cold blood,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director for the organisation. “The Interior Ministry statement is grossly irresponsible, implicitly condoning police brutality.”

Graphic photos of Said’s mangled face have spread quickly across the internet, prompting a series of protests in Cairo and Alexandria which have themselves been forcibly broken up by police violence. Today's protest was the largest so far.

“These pictures are a rare, first-hand glimpse of the routine use of brutal force by the Egyptian security forces, who expect to operate in a climate of impunity, with no questions asked," said Amnesty International in a statement. "“The Egyptian authorities must reign in their security forces. [They] should know that the eyes of the world are increasingly on them, and the pictures online mean that they cannot avoid conducting a thorough investigation with another whitewash.”

Street demonstrations in Egypt are not uncommon, with regular protests over food prices and low wages, but most of them remain very small and are quickly broken up by riot police. The size and scale of today's events in Alexandria, a stronghold of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood movement, suggest that Said's death has struck a chord.

ElBaradei and a group of other prominent opposition figureheads – including former presidential candidate Ayman Nour, who was jailed after his unsuccessful attempt to unseat Mubarak in 2005 – arrived in Alexandria earlier to visit Said's tomb and meet his family. After Friday prayers, the protesters congregated at a mosque where they were met by a huge contingent of riot police.

Egypt has been under a state of emergency law for 29 years, offering effective immunity to many elements of the police and security services.

The death of Said, who has become known as the "emergency law martyr", is viewed by many as a potential turning point for the growing opposition movement.

ElBaradei is believed to have left the protest early after hundreds began chanting anti-Mubarak slogans. The 68 year old was keen to avoid accusations that he was exploiting Said's death for political gain and had called for the protest to be a silent one - but his wishes were ignored as public anger at the authorities boiled over.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Can Mubarak weather a perfect storm?

Anger over support for Israel in addition to political stagnation and economic instability could undermine Egypt's president

-Taken from the Guardian's 'Comment is Free'
-Cairo - June 2010

Holed up under the belle époque domes of his presidential palace this week, ailing Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak would not have heard the crowds chanting his name on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Fayoum and other major cities across the country.

Which is just as well, as their words were enough to send a chill down the spine of any Arab autocrat fighting to maintain his grip over a nation increasingly reluctant to afford those at the top of the political tree any kind of credibility. "Ya Mubarak, Ya Sahyoni" ("Mubarak the Zionist") sang the protesters, as anger over Israel's deadly assault on the Gaza aid flotilla gathered momentum. "Down with the siege, down with Mubarak."

Only last month the Israeli newspaper Haaretz was describing the relationship between Mubarak and Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu as a "wonderful friendship" and claiming that Bibi felt closer to the 82-year-old Egyptian than to any other world statesman.

Well, friends can sometimes cause each other headaches, and Israel's bout of gung-ho piracy on Monday has just handed Mubarak a head-splitting migraine right at the moment when he needed to be at the top of his game.

Domestically, Egypt's role as an accomplice in Israel's crippling siege of Gaza has long been Mubarak's biggest political vulnerability. As well as keeping the border at Rafah largely sealed and regularly gassing the underground tunnels that the Palestinian territory relies upon for economic survival (not to mention the construction of a 18m deep underground steel wall intended to cut them off altogether), Egypt has also consistently blocked aid convoys from entering the Gaza Strip and played a hefty part in the failure of rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah to reconcile their differences.

The rewards reaped by Egypt's ruling elite for facilitating an illegal blockade against a fellow Arab community are two-fold. First, Cairo gets to contain and cripple Hamas, whom it identifies as a threat to its own national and regional hegemony – not least due to the Islamist party's links with the semi-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood opposition movement back home. Second, it brings Egypt firmly into the fold of the comically titled "moderate" grouping of Middle Eastern autocracies that enjoy American support.

Making nice with Israel opens the door to billions of dollars worth of aid from Washington, money on which Mubarak's clique depend to fund the security apparatus that sustains them in power. It also helps ensure that the west turns a blind eye to the flagrant transgressions of democratic principles and human rights that emanate out of this volatile corner of North Africa with awkward regularity - from the torture practiced by state security officers on political dissidents to the planned regal succession of power from father Hosni down to his son Gamal.

But the price the Egyptian government pays for this deal comes in the form of public legitimacy. Egypt may be formally at peace with Israel but the vast majority of the population remain steadfastly opposed to cultural normalisation with the Zionist state, never mind unequivocal political and logistical support for the economic and social strangulation of one-and-a-half million neighbouring Palestinians. The murder of flotilla activists has, predictably, fuelled a surge of anti-Israeli sentiment among many Egyptians. The challenge now for the fragmented anti-Mubarak opposition movement is to channel that sentiment towards condemnation of Egypt's own government as well.

Recent history is on their side. Over the past decade regional political crises have twice produced a sharp spike in the number of people demonstrating on the streets in Egypt, firstly at the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada in 2000 and subsequently during the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, when 40,000 people occupied Cairo's central Tahrir Square for a full 24 hours before riot police managed to disperse them.

On both occasions, protests relating to events taking place abroad quickly mushroomed into a powerful critique of local tyranny, with linkages drawn between injustices playing out beyond Egypt's borders and the oppression so pervasive within them.

The flotilla controversy already appears to be following suit. Egyptian protesters denouncing Israel this week extended their anti-siege slogans to cover their own immediate experience of being kettled-in by baton-wielding riot police; on Tuesday, the day of rigged elections to the upper house of Egypt's parliament, TV cameras filmed one veteran dissident likening Israel's actions in Gaza to the Egyptian government's "massacre" of people's votes.

Prominent political activist Hossam el-Hamalawy told me:

"Unanimously now, whenever protesters get together, you'll find their first chants are against Mubarak. Whenever anything happens with Palestine and Israel, the strongest impact is here in Egypt. It's very ironic: we have the most treacherous regime when it comes to the Palestinian cause – Mubarak is America's most senior thug in the region – and yet the people of Egypt are among the most sympathetic you can find in terms of the Palestinians, because they can understand the correlations between the Palestinian issue and their own situation."

It is wise not to exaggerate the potential of such protests; numerically they remain small and, as another long-term dissident, Ahmed Salah, explained to me recently, most Egyptians remain fearful of expressing public opposition to Mubarak for fear of the consequences. "The majority of people, if you ask them about getting on to the streets to show their anger, simply reply 'Mafish fayda' ('It's no use'). They don't want to sacrifice themselves in vain."

But that doesn't mean that Mubarak is off the hook. With economic standards declining, political stagnation entrenching and more (highly flawed) elections approaching just at the time when the president is widely perceived to be close to his last breath, Israel's bloodshed in the Mediterranean injects a new element of uncertainty into what amounts to a perfect storm for the octogenarian's regime.

Former UN weapons chief Mohamed ElBaradei, who has become a popular figurehead for some parts of the opposition movement, has lost no time in publicising Mubarak’s undeniable share of responsibility for the deaths at sea and the humanitarian nightmare that those who died were attempting to ease.

Even more worryingly for the Egyptian government, the very leverage it held in the Israel/Palestine arena may itself be draining away. "The situation is explosive and in the upper echelons of the state there's total confusion in terms of how to handle it," el-Hamalawy argues. "There’s been a terrible failure recently on the part of the regime in terms of fulfilling its obligations to its imperialist sponsors – he’s supposed to ensure no war, no clashes, no militancy. And he’s not succeeding."

Caught between his people and his paymasters, tough times lie ahead for one of the Middle East's oldest western stalwarts.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Rafah: Gaza's lifeline, Egypt's dilemma

President Hosni Mubarak caught between Arab solidarity and reliance on Israel, his country's neighbours

-Taken from the Guardian
-Rafah, on the Egypt-Gaza border - June 2010

-Follow the Guardian's live updates from the region here

From the sight of donkey carts trundling lazily down near-empty roads in the baking afternoon heat, you wouldn’t have thought this dusty patch of land lay at the centre of a vast diplomatic storm. Nor did the row of bored-looking customs officers sipping tea in the shade give any indication that their work was now commanding global attention. But the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza has long been a surreal place where rhetoric and reality rarely meet eye to eye.

Less than 24 hours after President Mubarak effectively promised to break Israel’s siege of Gaza by throwing open Rafah’s doors indefinitely, today’s developments were no exception.

In the end, the small trickle of Gazans who eventually made it out onto Egyptian soil spoke volumes about the dangerous predicament Egypt’s ailing leader finds himself in following Israel’s deadly assault on the Free Gaza flotilla earlier this week. Caught between the need to appease growing public anger at Israel’s actions on the one hand, and the necessity of maintaining his close relationship with the Jewish state on the other – a friendship which opens the door to more than $2 billion of annual American aid, money on which many analysts believe Mubarak’s unpopular regime depends upon for survival – the Egyptian government has found itself incapable of living up to its own hype.

“No one is optimistic that this will lead to any kind of permanent solution,” said one UN official making his way from Egypt to Gaza. “The border has been opened for political purposes alone. Such an opening is critical for humanitarian reasons, but it won’t last.”

Indeed at times the level of activity at Rafah terminal dropped so low that it was hard to discern whether the border had really been opened at all. Several aid trucks did make it into the Palestinian territory over the course of the morning, including a dispatch of power generators from the Egyptian Red Crescent, and hundreds of Gazans who had been staying in Egypt did successfully manage to return home. But traffic in the other direction, both human and cargo, remained barely visible.

Officials believe that no more than three busloads of passengers had made it across to Egypt by early evening, leaving an estimated three thousand Gazans waiting on the other side. Some pinned the blame on bureaucratic delays on the Gazan side, where Hamas officials were reportedly trying to implement a new system of prioritising who should be allowed to cross first. Others insisted that Egyptian intransigence was at fault.

Most of those who reached Egypt were in need of medical attention, but a smattering had more cheerful reasons for making the trip. One couple were en route to their daughter’s wedding in Dubai and were overjoyed at having navigated their way through a dizzying maze of officials and security checks. “There are many buses backed up on the other side filled with people who want to come through,” explained the father of the bride. “We were lucky to make it.”

The lucky were few and far between, however. Mostly the arrivals hall remained desolate, in stark contrast to the departures lounge which was periodically flooded with Gazans returning home from Egypt. Theoretically the Rafah terminal is already open two days a week to allow Gazan residents on the Egyptian side of the border to cross back over, but the buzz around today’s events fuelled a sharp rise in the numbers of those travelling. Many had taken the opportunity to stock up on supplies in preparation for their return to a space where items as innocuous as coriander and A4 paper are routinely blockaded by the Israelis.

Ramzi, a grocer from Jabalia, was clutching two brand new bicycles with him as he threaded his way through the crowds. “I was over in Egypt visiting my father who’s in hospital there, and I thought I’d pick up some presents,” he grinned sheepishly. Trolleys laden with mattresses, flat-screen TVs, air-conditioning units and even full size refrigerators all made their way towards buses waiting to ferry passengers across no man’s land and back onto Palestinian territory.

“Any product you can dream of, you’ll find it here,” confided one Egyptian customs officer, gesturing towards a queue of Gazans waiting to have their passports checked.

Not everyone could join the import bandwagon. Seham Mohammed Hamdani, a mother of two from Gaza who now lives in the Egyptian city of Ismailia, had rushed to the border this morning in the hope of seeing her son and daughter for the first time in 13 years; they live on the other side of the crossing and now both have children of their own. Due to apparent irregularities in her paperwork, Seham has been unable to travel back into her homeland for over a decade, whilst her children are not allowed to leave it. After hearing about Mubarak’s instructions to open the Rafah crossing yesterday, Seham believed she would finally be reunited with her family, but the Egyptian border guards once again turned her away. “It’s the end of hope,” she sighed on her way back. “It’s up to Mubarak now to resolve our plight.”

Seham is not the only one looking to the 81 year old for answers as the fallout from Israel’s naval attack continues. At a time when he is already fending off a wave of dissent over spiralling economic hardship and the consistent stalling of political reforms, and with presidential elections looming in 2011, this reminder of Egypt’s long-term role as an accomplice in Israel’s siege of Gaza could not have come at a worse time for Mubarak, one of the region’s most entrenched autocrats. Israel remains the president’s biggest political vulnerability; judging by the strange half-measures which constituted today’s Rafah border ‘opening’, extricating himself from this mess could prove to be one of his toughest challenges to date.