Egypt’s Grand Comeback as the Middle East’s “Honest Broker”: Dream or Reality?

Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi has recently made a momentous comeback as a peace broker in the latest 11 day long conflict between Israel and Hamas helping reach a lasting cease-fire between the two parties on May 21.

The largest Arab country with 100 million citizens, had been largely missing from the diplomatic scene since the 2011 Arab uprisings, resurfaced in regional politics with the Libyan affair in June 2020, when President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi announced a ceasefire meant to pave the way for general elections in addition to peace talks in Geneva and the exit of all foreign fighters from the war-torn neighbouring country. However, the role Cairo played in mediating the last indirect talks between Hamas and Israel was unprecedented, multi-level, and particularly dynamic for an otherwise cautious country on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: an Egyptian delegation was immediately dispatched to Gaza amidst the ongoing war on May 13, visiting also Tel Aviv and Ramallah to consult with all involved parties, and on May 21st two different security delegations met again with Hamas officials to broker the final ceasefire. This unparalleled Egyptian overt and covert diplomatic activism signals a new willingness of the regime to act as an “honest broker” in the conflict, and possibly as the US diplomatic deputy in the region.

 

Multiple interests

Undoubtedly, Egypt has a genuine interest in brokering peace in the region: as former Egyptian Foreign Minister and Dean of the American University in Cairo’s School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, Nabil Fahmy claims (The Burn Bag, June 2), Egypt is called to act by mere reasons of geography. Cairo is not a neutral third-party negotiator which could have the privilege of walking away from the periodical skirmishes between the two parties – as other candidate brokers, such as -distant Qatar and Turkey or even the UAE could do – its geographical location means that it is automatically affected by each round of conflict.

In fact, at each new bout of violence, Palestinians pressure Egypt to open the Rafah crossing, the only land crossing the Strip shares with an Arab country, which is both a trade and pedestrian passage and the only way out for Gaza’s residents. Rafah should supposedly be regulated by the Agreement on Movement and Access (AMA) signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) as of November 2005, but it is de facto unilaterally managed by Egypt in close coordination with Israel and subjected to continuous ebbs and flows: for instance, it was drastically closed between 2014 (after the military coup) and 2018 due to the Sinai insurgency, only to be opened again in May 2018, regularly allowing for the movement of some 5,000 people entering Gaza and some 6,600 exiting it per month, to be ultimately shut down since February 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic’s outbreak (Gisha report, February 2013).

In addition, Egypt has domestic security issues at play at the Gaza crossing. In fact, the Strip borders on an overly sensitive and unsettled area in Egyptian politics – the Sinai Peninsula – which has been the target of sustained military operations since August 2012 and where the government’s efforts to claim back authority have so far met only with poor results. In November 2014, the Sinai came into the spotlight due to a deadly attack on security forces but particularly due to the Islamist group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis pledging allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), providing the government with a pretext for imposing a state of emergency, a curfew, and a buffer zone at the Sinai’s border with Gaza. However, as the NGO Human Rights Watch denounced, the Egyptian army had already begun demolishing buildings (at least 3,255) and razing farmlands (685 hectares of cultivated land) along the border since July 2013, immediately after the military coup (Human Rights Watch Report, 22/9/2015).

In fact, the regime looks at the local 300,000 Bedouins as a treacherous group, surviving at the margins of the Egyptian State, systematically disattending their compulsory military service and engaged in consistent illegal smuggling activities over the borders with Gaza. Bedouins, indeed, are culturally closer to the Gazan people than to the Egyptian Delta: that comes as no surprise, as Bedouin chiefs themselves acknowledge that, “lying some 40 kms away from Rafah and 200 from Cairo, their language and traditions are much closer to the former” (Interview in el-Arish by Nicolas Pelham, Chatham House, September 2012). Moreover, some 25% of the residents in el-Arish (and around 40,000 in the overall Peninsula) are Palestinians of Gazan descent, stripped of legal rights in Egypt but still considering a life over the border far better than that offered by the Strip.

Therefore, Egypt has multiple strategic interests in carefully monitoring the situation on the ground at the border with Gaza, among which stands the aim of containing the movement of goods and people at the Rafah crossing (including its own Bedouin people trading with fellow Palestinians), but also that of containing Hamas, a former Muslim Brotherhood-inspired movement ideologically at odds with Cairo and in power since 2007. Cairo has been actively engaged in mediating unity talks between Hamas and Fatah since 2011: It did so on several occasions, as in 2014 and in 2017 after al-Sisi came to power, thus upholding the long-term Egyptian national interest in advancing Palestinian unity regardless of distinct political make-ups. Finally, in February 2021, Cairo hosted all Palestinian factions again in a bid to agree on the rules of the scheduled Palestinian elections, later unilaterally called off by al-Fatah.

 

Carpe diem

Once the elections were indefinitely postponed, Egypt immediately seized the opportunity to act as the only reliable, legitimate, and effective broker in the ceasefire that put an end to the Israeli military operation “Guardians of the Walls”: It took a morally unbiased stance, condemning both Israeli violence at al-Aqsa Mosque (even summoning the Ambassador Amira Oron on May 9) and the killing of civilians in the Strip, as well as Hamas’ missile attacks on Jewish towns and villages. Moreover, it took the lead in outlining a comprehensive solution in close cooperation with Israel, the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO) and the United States, whose President Biden called al-Sisi twice (on May 20th and 24th) during the flare-up after keeping him at distance for six months since his election. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Cairo immediately afterwards. Indeed, the US-Egyptian rapprochement came as a direct result of al-Sisi’s ability to re-market his country as an indispensable Arab regional military ally willing and able to pursue US interests in brokering an urgent ceasefire, while relieving the Biden Administration of the burden to take direct action in the conflict.

Egypt thus sketched a framework solution that comprised of most of the US priorities already listed in the Brookings Institution’s comprehensive report on Gaza as of 2018, entailing, among others, the main goals of stabilizing the status quo by addressing the dire humanitarian and economic conditions of the Strip to avoid future conflicts with Israel, but also resuming a dialogue between Palestinian factions to revive the two-State solution. Egypt thus mentioned in its ceasefire consolidation strategy the renewal of intra-Palestinian talks in view of reaching a steady arrangement, the loosening of the blockade of the Strip by Israel, the return of the two Israeli prisoners and the two soldiers’ bodies held by Hamas in exchange for the provision of additional services to Gaza, such as electricity and the admission of building material from Egypt.

Indeed, Egypt fully signed on the idea of updating the 2014 Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM) that is the temporary mechanism regulating the entry of materials potentially considered ‘dual-use’ into Gaza, and is willing to be assigned the main role in ensuring both Israeli security and the donors’ main interest in bypassing Hamas in the reconstruction process to profit Egyptian firms. In fact, confronted with a major international “donor fatigue” after the last round of war – as the EU, the US, and the Gulf countries no longer believe in the opportunity of rebuilding Gaza until the next demolition by the IDF – Egypt ventured first, pledging 500 million dollars for the reconstruction of some 3,000 demolished houses and 17,000 heavily damaged ones (to be added to the 10,000 houses still awaiting reconstruction since 2014), including 6 hospitals and 11 clinics. Qatar followed suit and Saudi Arabia supported the Egyptian move by portraying Cairo as the single responsible actor simultaneously able to cater aid to the Palestinians and isolating Hamas and its Shia’ allies.

 

The right pedigree

Western countries’ choice also fell naturally on Egypt. In fact, both the US and the EU willingly enjoy limited leverage on Hamas, holding no overt diplomatic contact with the party, while other regional Arab players, such Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have fairly poor relations with Muslim Brotherhood-issued groups. Other Islamic actors – such as Qatar and Turkey – hold greater influence over Hamas, but do not share a territorial border with the Strip, thus depending on agreements with either Israel or Egypt to materially access the area:  thus, Qatar and Turkey’s at times tense relations with Egypt could reduce their respective ability to play a central role in resolving the crisis.

Indeed, Cairo’s ambitions can come true as the single Arab country able to play on multiple levels, that is openly coordinating its moves with Israel and the US while using its popularity (and that of the reconstruction process) among Palestinians of the Gaza Strip to reconquer the hearts and minds of Arab citizens. In addition, Egypt’s aspiration to restore its leadership role in the Palestinian issue could also settle some scores within the Arab States’ community, where Egypt had been side-lined by the unexpected UAE-Bahrain normalization agreements with Israel in 2020 and by the UAE’s bid to bypass Egyptian infrastructure, such as the Suez Canal, by increasing direct economic cooperation with Tel Aviv and investing hugely in the Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline.

 

Intractable context

However, some clouds hover on the horizon: first, as the Egyptian press highlights (Abdel Moneim Said, al-Ahram, 9 June 2021), Egypt will miss Netanyahu as a steady partner in Israeli politics, as the new “Change Government” will present multiple facets and look like a house divided into many political streams hardly united on the prospective future of Gaza. The lack of a unifying force in the government could easily lead Israel to tilt the scales differently, recalibrating its foreign policy in a substantive way (Tareq Osman, al-Ahram, 4/6/2021). In addition, the new Prime Minister Naftali Bennet is by no means a warmer supporter of the two-State solution than his predecessor, and he briefly mentioned the Palestinian issue in his inaugural speech only to remind his people that the conflict is there to stay (“this is not a dispute over territory, but over existence”, he claimed in his first Knesset speech, on June 13th). If Netanyahu’s foreign policy was mainly pragmatic and able to agree with Hamas on a long-term truce (7 years of hudna between 2014-2021), Bennet and Gantz’s new agenda could prove more reactive towards any kind of spontaneous provocation coming from the Strip. Therefore, Egypt’s main task will be to make a connection with the new patchy Israeli coalition to arrange the admission of building materials from Egypt to the Strip, but also to predict its plans for the Strip’s future.

Moreover, over the years Egypt has focused its efforts on reunifying the Palestinian factions within the PLO, but the impact of its actions so far have not reached expectations: the Palestinian parties duly and regularly convened at Cairo’s request, sometimes jointly, other times separately, and even agreed on multiple political frameworks, but they never followed up on them. It is thus questionable whether Egypt has the leverage to not only bring together the Palestinian parties, but also to monitor the execution of their commitments, particularly without US or Israeli direct pressure.

Last but not least, Egypt has warned Israel about the destructive long-term consequences of the storming of the al-Aqsa mosque on May 10th in terms of diplomatic relations with the Arab League, including with those countries with which it signed normalization agreements. However, Cairo might not be in a position to threaten Jerusalem on this particular point, given the low-profile kept by the UAE and other Arab countries during the last Gaza conflict and the prompt congratulations of those same Arab governments on Bennet’s swearing-in as the new PM.

Finally, Egypt could champion itself among the Arab world as the protector of the Gaza Strip, but Palestinian militants will not forget its systematic imprisonment of many pro-Palestinian activists, such as Ramy Shaath, the son of a prominent Palestinian politician, due to his participation in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, but also to his fierce criticism of Egypt’s participation in a US-led workshop in Bahrain in June 2019.  Hamas, may pretend not to, but can hardly digest the unrelenting death sentences by Egyptian courts of Muslim Brotherhood figures, such as the ones pronounced at the mass trial on June 14th for 12 more of its members for attending the 2013 demonstrations.. For all of these reasons, Cairo’s expectations could prove too high to be achieved.

 

Cover Photo: Egypt’s intelligence chief Abbas Kamel greets Hamas’ leader Yahya Sinwar ahead of a meeting in Gaza – May 31, 2021 (M. Hams / AFP).


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