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As Israel Pounds Gaza, Egyptians Get Angry At Their Own Government

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SHEIKH ZOWAYED, Egypt -- In north Sinai, Egyptians angrily watched a scorching air offensive by the Israeli Air Force against Hamas, as well as ordinary Palestinians, in the Gaza strip.

As Israel continued to slam strategic Hamas military positions and the labyrinth of smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza, many Egyptians spoke sharply about their government's close cooperation with Israel and the United States. This development must be troubling for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The current conflict highlights a long simmering tension between the Mubarak government's deep ties with the U.S. and its traditional role as leader of the Arab world.

In Sheikh Zowayed, seven miles west of Rafah and the Gaza border, a brigade of ambulances plowed through vast roadside puddles shuttling the wounded from Gaza to the town of El Arish for medical attention.

That Egypt has even opened the border to receive the wounded is evidence of the government's ongoing internal conflict. The Egyptian government has continuously reevaluated its border policy, sometimes accepting and other times rejecting those injured in the bombing raids.

While Israel and the U.S. would prefer that Egypt permanently close the border with its Palestinian neighbors, Arab countries have cried foul over Cairo's seeming refusal to relieve the tension in Gaza, which is among the world's most densely populated territories.

The Arab press has carried a barrage of reports charging that the Mubarak government has not been tough enough with the Israelis.

Angry mobs in Lebanon and Yemen in the past week have stormed Egyptian embassies to protest the country's Gaza policy. Even in ordinarily calm Egypt, a spate of demonstrations has broken out in recent days to protest not only Israel, but also the policies of the Egyptian government.

There are signs, though, that the government of President Hosni Mubarak, typically tolerant of peaceful protests, has grown wary of mounting public discontent. In Cairo Wednesday, as well as in El Arish, scheduled protests were quickly dispersed by riot police.

Though the Mubarak government has officially condemned Israel for using excessive force, few in Egypt are convinced that their government is prepared to get tough with Israel. Mubarak's meeting last week with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has spawned a host of popular conspiracy theories here over Egypt's complicity with the Israelis.

Though skepticism over Egypt's stance on Gaza has exposed a nerve in Cairo, anti-government anger is much more explicit in towns close to the Gaza border such as Sheikh Zowayed, population 27,000.

The streets in town were full of life as 2008 drew to a close Wednesday, but a subdued air cast a pall over people's comings and goings. Everyone knew that if Israel attempted another evening raid Wednesday their walls and windows would shake violently with the reminder of a war close at hand.

"People are worried that (if the conflict continues) the Palestinians will tear down the wall and flood into these towns," said Mostafa Singer, a Sheikh Zowayed resident and writer for independent newspaper Al Badeel. In January 2008, Hamas destroyed portions of the barrier wall between Gaza and Egypt, allowing Gazans to flood border towns to buy goods denied them by the Israeli blockade.

While noting his own opposition to Hamas, Singer admitted that in this part of the country he is in the minority. Rounds of violence between Israel and Gaza have radicalized neighboring Egyptian towns, and Hamas has become a local favorite.

In Cairo, by contrast, primary public opinion tends to be against Israel rather than in favor of Hamas.

With $1.4 billion in aid to Egypt annually, the U.S. can be sure, at least for the time being, of the Egyptian government's cooperation.

But as the government has leaned more heavily towards the West, its citizens have turned toward the Arab world. The anger against Mubarak in Sheikh Zowayed and elsewhere could rise from a simmer to a steady boil as the Gaza conflict continues.

GlobalPost.com launches January 12, 2009.