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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Egypt's role in mediating between Israel and Hamas has so far been a present but quiet player involved in ending the Gaza standoff and bringing about the return of kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit.
But according to Egyptian and British experts, the Egyptian decision to keep a hand in the ongoing crisis is based on clearly vested interests: Its own political and economic security is at stake.
According to Yahia Said, a research fellow at the London School of Economics, Egypt has already invested a huge amount of political capital in mediating between Israel and the Palestinians. Many of the major ceasefires, he said, were brought about with some degree of Egyptian influence. They would continue to be involved in the latest round of negotiations if only because they have established a precedent for doing so.
Egypt's particular concern, Said said, depends on the administration being able to show to its own population and to the world that it can influence events in the region.
"A complete breakdown in the situation in Gaza is bound to reflect negatively on Egypt, locally and politically," he said. He also pointed out that Egypt would like to avoid any major refugee movements or spillover that a chaotic situation in Gaza could provoke.
Dr. Abdel Monem al-Mashat, director of the Center of Political Research and Studies at Cairo University, told The Jerusalem Post by telephone that as long as Egypt's economic realities were determined by peace and stability in the region, it would continue trying to act as a mediator.
Despite popular reactions in Egypt that Israel is acting harshly or sabotaging a negotiated settlement, what determines Egyptian policy, al-Mashat said, is a pragmatic recognition of how economic realities fit into the Egyptian national interest.
"We have a vested interest in maintaining and creating peace in the area," said el-Mashat. "Our foreign sources of income, including tourism and the Suez Canal, depend mainly on peace and stability in the region. The security of the resorts in Sinai, for example, is extremely important."
Three separate terrorist bombings hit tourist areas in the Egyptian resort city of Dahab in April of 2006, killing 23 and wounding 160. Most of the dead were Egyptians on a spring holiday.
This fact helps account for Egypt's willingness to act as a mediator between Israel and Hamas and, according to al-Mashat, is what will also keep Egypt involved in the long run. Any kind of negotiated settlement is an alternative to chaos in the region, which would wreak economic havoc on sectors that depend on a perception of safety.
Egypt acts as a particularly effective negotiator, given the pressures it could exert on the Palestinians.
"The Palestinians in Gaza, and particularly Hamas, are dependent on the goodwill of Egypt. This is their border, it's how they travel," Said said.
Israel and Egypt share a mutual interest in securing the border with Gaza. Egyptians felt betrayed, al-Mashat said, when it became clear that the bomb materials for the Dahab explosions had passed through Gaza.
The potential results if the Egyptian strategy fails, however, are not so simple. Egypt needs to avoid a breakdown of negotiations or an outbreak of violence between Israel and the Palestinians, but it will not likely be held responsible if those events occur.
"If negotiations break down, it will be everybody's responsibility, including Israel's," said Said. "The Egyptians can't say, for example, 'We give up because Khalid Mashaal is being too crazy or because we can't talk with the Israelis.' They will continue to engage because they have a lot at stake."
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