Saturday, 9 August 2014

Egypt reclaims role with Gaza talks

  • Egypt takes a central role in the cease-fire talks to end the latest Gaza conflict
  • Egypt’s President is determined to resist the spread of Islamist militancy
  • Egyptian mediation is not without risks
  • Egyptian diplomacy will be tested reconciling Israel’s and the Palestinians’ demands
(CNN) — President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt is on a mission — to return his country to its rightful place as the “indispensable” Arab state after what he saw as the dangerous chaos of Muslim Brotherhood rule under his predecessor, Mohamed Morsy.

He also is determined to resist the spread of Islamist militancy, now entrenched in Sinai and spilling into Egypt from Libya. Since leading the ouster of Morsy a year ago, el-Sisi has hounded the Muslim Brotherhood underground; hundreds of its members have been arrested and many sentenced to death. Morsy himself languishes in jail and is on trial for inciting murder and other offenses.
El-Sisi is not the first Egyptian leader to fear Islamist militancy. In fact all but Morsy have suppressed it and one — Anwar Sadat — ultimately was its victim. And not coincidentally all but Morsy– stretching back to Gamal Abdel Nasser — were military men before becoming President.
Egypt playing key role as truce-brokerMap: Middle East regionMap: Middle East region
These two imperatives — a sense of Egypt’s historic role and the traditional animosity of the Egyptian military toward Islamist radicalism — have propelled Egypt to take a central role in the on-off cease-fire talks to end the latest Gaza conflict.
It helps that Egypt’s intelligence service has deep experience of dealing with the Palestinian factions and Israel.
Egypt’s central role also is dictated by geography. It is the only Arab state to share a border with Gaza. If that border is to be reopened, Egypt will have to agree to any international monitoring mission to prevent banned goods — the sort that would allow Hamas to re-arm — from entering Gaza.
But el-Sisi’s government does not see itself as an “honest broker” between Israel and Hamas. El-Sisi shares the Israelis’ loathing of Hamas, which itself sprang from the Muslim Brotherhood back in 1987 and which was recently labeled a terrorist organization by an Egyptian court.
Egypt and Israel vs. Hamas
The Egyptian government is not directly negotiating with Hamas, but with a Palestinian delegation of which Hamas and Islamic Jihad are a small part. Any concessions won by the Palestinians will be claimed by the Palestinian Authority as much as Hamas.
In Israel and Gaza, a war against peaceDoes this video prove Hamas strategy?
While Morsy embraced Hamas and warned Israel that it would “pay a heavy price if it continues its aggression,” Egypt and Israel are now in lockstep against a shared adversary.
The last thing el-Sisi wants is any sort of Hamas victory, imagined or otherwise, that would appeal to the Arab street. One Israeli minister described the close cooperation with Cairo as “an odd but very welcome moment” after the hostility of the Morsy government.
Who’s who in Hamas?
Perhaps that is why the first Egyptian cease-fire proposal was so readily accepted by Israel.
In the words of one diplomat in the region, “The Israelis knew Hamas would reject it, so they could accept it and look good, knowing that in a few hours they’d be able to resume the demilitarization of Gaza.”
El-Sisi wants to see Gaza demilitarized as much as Israel does, not just because of Hamas but because of other actors there such as Islamic Jihad.
Egypt faces a host of its own security problems that would only be aggravated by a strong militant presence in Gaza. Jihadist cells — which Cairo claims have been aided by Hamas — are now entrenched in the Sinai, a vast area that borders Gaza and whose lawlessness has challenged successive Egyptian governments.
Islamist militant groups are also sprouting up along the western border with Libya. Last month, more than 20 Egyptian soldiers were killed when gunmen crossed the desert border and attacked a checkpoint at Wadi el-Gedid.
El-Sisi responded by promising that “terrorism will be uprooted from every part of Egypt.”
But the attacks have continued. A gun battle Tuesday between security forces and suspected militants in the region of Matruh on the Mediterranean left nine dead, according to the Egyptian Interior Ministry. El-Sisi blames the Muslim Brotherhood for opening Egypt to an influx of jihadists.
Despite its obvious motivations, Egyptian mediation is not without risk.
CNN Exclusive: Inside the mind of Hamas’ political leader
Goal of independent Palestine ingrained
The government’s control of local media may have muffled sympathetic coverage of Gaza’s plight and Hamas’ resistance to Israel. One talk-show host, Mazhar Shahin, declared the Egyptian people were “not ready to sacrifice even a single hair from the eyebrow” in defense of Hamas.
A Palestinian man looks out over destruction in the al-Tufah neighborhood of Gaza City, Gaza, on Wednesday, August 6, as a fragile 72-hour cease-fire between Israel and Hamas entered its second day. Israel launched a ground operation in Gaza on July 17 after a 10-day campaign of airstrikes had failed to halt relentless Hamas rocket fire on Israeli cities.After the cease-fire came into effect, displaced Palestinians carry their belongings as they leave a United Nations school in Beit Lahiya, Gaza, to return to their homes Tuesday, August 5.The body of Avrohom Wallis is carried during his funeral in Jerusalem on Monday, August 4. Wallis was killed in what Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld called a “terror attack,” when a man drove an earthmover into a bus in Jerusalem.Israeli soldiers fire a mortar shell toward Gaza from the Israeli side of the border on August 4.Palestinians remove rubble from a house hit by an airstrike in the al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City on August 4.An Israeli drone circles over Gaza City on Sunday, August 3.A Palestinian man sits in a hospital in Rafah, Gaza, on August 3.An honor guard caries the coffin of Israeli Lt. Hadar Goldin during his funeral in Kfar-saba, Israel, on August 3. Goldin was thought to have been captured during fighting in Gaza but was later declared killed in action by the Israel Defense Forces.A Palestinian boy looks for belongings after an airstrike in Rafah on Saturday, August 2.Israeli soldiers walk to their tank at a staging area near the border with Gaza on August 2.A young Palestinian carries damaged copies of the Quran from the rubble of the Imam Al Shafaey mosque in Gaza City on August 2.Palestinians displaced from their houses return to check their homes in Gaza City on Friday, August 1. An Israeli soldier carries a shell as he prepares a tank along the Israel-Gaza border on Thursday, July 31. Israel called up 16,000 additional reservists, bolstering forces for its fight against Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza. Smoke rises from a building after an airstrike in Rafah on July 31.The parents and a sister of Israeli soldier Guy Algranati mourn during his funeral in Tel Aviv, Israel, on July 31.U.N. workers remove a donkey injured at a U.N.-run school in Gaza on Wednesday, July 30.Palestinians walk under the collapsed minaret of a destroyed mosque in Gaza City on July 30.Palestinians gather leaflets that fell from an Israeli plane on July 30. The leaflets warned residents of airstrikes in Gaza City.Israelis take cover from a Palestinian rocket attack from Gaza during the funeral of Israeli soldier Meidan Maymon Biton, which was held at a cemetery in Netivot, Israel, on Tuesday, July 29.Smoke and fire rise above Gaza City after an Israeli airstrike on July 29.An Israeli soldier prays on the Israeli side of the border with Gaza on July 29 as smoke billows from the only power plant supplying electricity to Gaza.Near the rubble of their home in Rafah, Palestinian men mourn July 29 for people killed during an airstrike.A Palestinian man places a portrait of Hamas leader Ismail Haniya on the rubble of Haniya’s Gaza City home July 29 after it was hit by an overnight airstrike.Flares from Israeli forces light up the night sky of Gaza City on July 29.Israeli soldiers carry the coffin of 2nd Lt. Roy Peles, an infantry officer who was killed in combat, during his funeral in Tel Aviv on Sunday, July 27.During a 12-hour cease-fire in Gaza City’s Shijaiyah neighborhood on Saturday, July 26, a Palestinian man sits atop a car filled with belongings that were salvaged from a destroyed home.Israeli soldiers watch a bomb explode along the border with Gaza before the 12-hour cease-fire on July 26.As her brother-in-law Mazen Keferna weeps on the ground, Manal Keferna cries upon discovering her family home destroyed by airstrikes in Beit Hanoun, Gaza, on July 26.Palestinians dig a body out of the rubble of a destroyed house in Gaza during the cease-fire on July 26.An Israeli soldier mourns at the grave of reserve Master Sgt. Yair Ashkenazy during his funeral at the military cemetery in Rehovot, Israel, on Friday, July 25. Ashkenazy was killed during operations in northern Gaza, the Israel Defense Forces reported.A Palestinian man cries after bringing a child to the Kamal Adwan hospital in Beit Lahiya on Thursday, July 24. The child was wounded in a strike on a school that was serving as a shelter for families in Gaza. It’s unclear who was behind the strike. The Israeli military said it was “reviewing” the incident, telling CNN that a rocket fired from Gaza could have been responsible.Israeli soldiers carry a wounded soldier to a helicopter near the Israel-Gaza border on July 24. Israeli soldiers patrol the Israel-Gaza border on July 24.A trail of blood is seen in the courtyard of the school that was hit July 24 in the Beit Hanoun district of Gaza.An Israeli tank fires toward Gaza from a position near Israel’s border on July 24.A photograph tweeted by astronaut Alexander Gerst on Wednesday, July 23, shows major cities of Israel and Gaza. Gerst said in his tweet: “My saddest photo yet. From #ISS we can actually see explosions and rockets flying over #Gaza & #Israel.”A woman in Philadelphia passes by a departure board that shows US Airways Flight 796, scheduled to fly to Tel Aviv, has been canceled on Tuesday, July 22. The Federal Aviation Administration told U.S. airlines they were temporarily prohibited from flying to the Tel Aviv airport after a Hamas rocket exploded nearby. Smoke and fire from the explosion of an Israeli strike rise over Gaza City on July 22. A relative of Israeli soldier Jordan Ben-Simon mourns over his coffin during his funeral in Ashkelon, Israel, on July 22. Palestinians inspect destroyed buildings and collect usable items after an Israeli air assault on July 22. Israeli soldiers weep at the grave of Israeli Sgt. Adar Barsano during his funeral Sunday, July 20, in Nahariya, Israel.Palestinian medics carry a body in Gaza’s Shaja’ia district on July 20.Israeli soldiers give medical care to soldiers who were wounded during an offensive in Gaza on July 20.A Palestinian boy injured during an Israeli airstrike is taken to the hospital by his father in Gaza City on July 20.Palestinians flee their homes as Israeli troops focus their firepower on the Gaza town of Shaja’ia on Sunday, July 20. The shelling and bombing killed at least 60 people and wounded 300, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.Smoke rises after an Israeli missile hit Shaja’ia on July 20. A Palestinian child walks on debris from a destroyed house following an overnight Israeli strike in Beit Lahiya on Saturday, July 19.An explosion rocks a street in Gaza City on Friday, July 18.Israeli ground forces move to the Gaza border on July 18.Israeli soldiers patrol near the Israel-Gaza border on July 18.A relative mourns July 18 during the funeral of Rani Abu Tawila, a Palestinian who was killed in an Israeli attack on Gaza City. A Palestinian demonstrator, protesting Israel’s military operation in Gaza, runs through smoke July 18 during clashes with Israeli soldiers at the entrance of the Ofer prison in the West Bank village of Betunia.This image, made from video shot through a night-vision scope, was released by the Israeli military on July 18. It shows troops moving through a wall opening during the early hours of the ground offensive in Gaza. Children stare as Palestinians flee Khan Yunis, Gaza, to safe areas July 18.An Israeli tank fires a shell into Gaza on July 18.A Palestinian carries a gas cylinder salvaged from the rubble of an apartment building after it was hit by Israeli fire on July 18.An Israeli reservist prays July 18 near the Gaza border by Sderot, Israel.Flare smoke rises into the Gaza City sky on Thursday, July 17. Israel-Gaza crisis Voices of the Gaza conflictObama: ‘I have no sympathy for Hamas’
But Egyptians see the pan-Arab news channels, they see the destruction and suffering in Gaza, and even if there are no polls to prove it, they likely expect their government to lead the way in relieving it.
For decades, pursuing the goal of an independent Palestine has been ingrained in Egypt’s foreign policy.
El-Sisi himself subscribes to that goal — but with little urgency. He said last Saturday: “We have a real opportunity to end this conflict for once and for all but we must give the Palestinian people real hope in a Palestinian state and its capital Eastern Jerusalem.” Then he added as a caveat: “It might sound too early to talk about this but it must be our final goal.”
Even so, Egypt cannot assume that the Palestinian Authority (PA) will be pliable negotiators.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas is all too aware of the support in the West Bank for Hamas, whose flags have been hoisted by the hundreds at recent protests.
The longer the conflict went on, the more the PA tilted toward Hamas’ demands — and especially its insistence on the immediate lifting of the blockade of Gaza as the price for a permanent cease-fire.
What is Hamas’ endgame in Gaza?
The only game in town
Egyptian diplomacy will be tested to the full in reconciling Israel’s insistence on the demilitarization of Gaza as the first step and the Palestinians’ demand that borders — land and maritime — be reopened immediately and demilitarization form part of later negotiations.
What is Israel’s endgame in Gaza?
But ultimately Hamas knows — as do the other Palestinian factions — that Egypt’s is the only game in town.
Hamas won’t negotiate with the Israelis directly (the feeling is mutual). Nor will the Israelis have anything to do with Hamas’ chief backers — Qatar and Turkey.
Israel wants el-Sisi to succeed. He’s the sort of Egyptian leader with whom it can do business. And he’s now a critical figure in an alliance that includes the Gulf monarchies (Qatar excepted) and the United States in seeking to stem the tide of Islamist militancy.
But Israeli officials — and many other observers — believe there is another reason that el-Sisi aims to make himself the “indispensable” partner: to use that role to win much-needed international aid and credit for an economy on life-support.
El-Sisi inherited a mess, with fuel subsidies alone costing the state nearly $20 billion a year, tourism collapsing and foreign exchange reserves dwindling. In overthrowing the Muslim Brotherhood, he quickly won financial backing from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, worth $12 billion according to some estimates.
IMF in the future?
If the el-Sisi government can introduce much-needed reforms to cut bureaucracy and begin to reduce subsidies, it may be able to negotiate the $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund that the Morsy government failed to secure.
But it will need help fast: a sharp reduction in fuel subsidies last month generated scattered street protests. And yet subsidies still eat up one-third of the national budget, while education consumes less than six per cent.
Exactly a year ago, el-Sisi gave an interview to the Washington Post, just after ousting Morsy.
“The pains and suffering of the people are too many. A lot of people don’t know about the suffering. I am the most aware of the size of the problems in Egypt,” he told the Post’s Lally Weymouth.
“That is why I am asking: where is your support? The title of the article should be ‘Hey America: Where is your support for Egypt?’”
He may now feel it is more deserved than ever.
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