(photo credit: AP [file])
Egypt has traditionally played a role in the Gaza Strip, and this role has increased following Israel's pullout from Gaza in 2005.
The recent outbreak of violence between Hamas and Fatah compels a reexamination of what the Egyptian government can realistically accomplish in the territory and why it is there in the first place.
Egypt seeks to maintain a presence in Gaza in order to be able to monitor military events there, and the power balance in the Strip has an impact on Egyptian domestic concerns. We should ask ourselves why a large country with international clout and a vested interest in the outcome, like Egypt, has not succeeded in calming the Hamas-Fatah factional tensions.
A big part of the answer can be found in the growth of radical Islam in the Middle East over the last decade and what it has meant for world politics. Egypt is a powerful player in the Arab world and in the Arab League. Cairo has proved itself adept at political negotiation on a global scale.
Groups like Hamas, the Islamic Brotherhood and Hizbullah, however, are not traditional political participants and do not respond in a conventional manner. These groups operate according to a few basic tenets of Islam and assign little legitimacy to the Egyptian regime. Because of this, Cairo will not be able to change the general attitude or goals of Hamas.
The situation is also complicated by Egypt's domestic situation. Hamas is an outgrowth of Egypt's increasingly powerful Muslim Brotherhood movement. As Egypt works for a compromise between Hamas and Fatah, it battles the Brotherhood's political influence at home, creating what appears to be a contradiction in ideology. Either radical Islam is to be negotiated with and accepted as a party at the table, or it is not. A strong stand against Hamas would play out badly at home, while catering to the Islamist party's demands would prompt questions about Cairo's domestic policies toward such groups.
Egypt is an Arab country and has every reason to continue working for a resolution between the Palestinian factions. The mediators are doing the best they can under difficult circumstances. It must not be forgotten, however, that at the end of the day there is a big gap between the way an organized country with international standing approaches a problem and how a radical group, with unknown ideological divisions, responds.
While Egypt appears to be doing all it can to conciliate the warring parties, albeit with little success, it has conspicuously failed to stop the smuggling of weapons, money and terrorists into the Gaza Strip via tunnels starting on its territory. Egypt is still not ready to use force on the required scale because it does not want an open conflict with the Palestinians it is defending in every Arab and international forum in the name of Arab solidarity.
Ultimately, Hamas and Fatah will have to hammer out an agreement they both can accept. Egypt's role is a tricky one, with no clear path to follow. Until then, Hamas and Fatah will suffer the consequences. Palestinian civilians will suffer. Israelis will suffer. And the conflict will continue to take a toll on the Middle East.
Zvi Mazel is a former ambassador to Egypt. (Molly Nixon contributed to this article.)