Cairo Awakens

The map has changed. The roads to both Gaza and Ramallah now pass through Cairo

24ehud224 (Do not publish again) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
24ehud224 (Do not publish again)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
Article in Issue 24, March 16, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Egypt is waking up after long years in a diplomatic coma. Israel's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza has injected a new momentum into its calcified diplomatic arteries. In the absence of any alternative, an impressive process of recovery is under way, and President Hosni Mubarak's administration is beginning to regain its strength. Egypt lost its status as "big sister" among the Arab states long ago, but now it is trying to take that historical role back. "All the keys are in Cairo now," Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said happily as Israelis, Palestinians of all stripes, and many others resumed their pilgrimages to Egypt. This is no trivial matter. For the past quarter of a century, Egypt's importance as a regional power has been shrinking constantly. Its government sank steadily into the swamp of domestic troubles and economic woes. The regime's leaders grew older and failed to vacate any of the seats at the top for a younger generation. Cairo merely played a secondary role in the major crises that the Middle East has experienced, repeatedly demonstrating its lack of potency and vision, clinging to the same old conservative policies, lacking any nerve. In the great confrontations revolving around Iraq and Lebanon, and even the neighboring Sudan, the Egyptians were more spectators than actors. A measure of contempt and mockery crept into diplomatic chatter about Egypt's capabilities. It became politically acceptable to mutter about Egypt's impotence. Egypt has suffered from the demise of its power internally, too. The Sinai peninsula has become an open arena for smugglers and terrorist organizations, from Al-Qaeda to Hamas to the emissaries of Iran. Some of the Beduin tribes have practically become armed militias. The grandiose plans for the resettlement of five million people out of the overcrowded Nile Valley and into the Sinai and the transfer of irrigation water via the "Peace Canal " - plans that date back to the days of Anwar Sadat - were never carried out properly, despite huge investments. Within their own sovereign realm, the Egyptians have found themselves on the defensive, sometimes in danger of losing control. Israel's campaign in the Gaza Strip forced the Egyptians to take a deep breath and a long look out of their northeastern window. What they saw did not please them. First of all, they understood that the consolidation of Hamas rule in Gaza had brought the war to their doorstep, forcing them to confront some nasty dilemmas. They realized that by continuing to ignore the flow of military and financial aid from Iran to Hamas, they were enabling the establishment of an entity on their own border that would, sooner or later, join up with the outlawed domestic Egyptian opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood. They recognized that peace with Israel was in danger of cracking, due to Palestinian aggression. And, of course, it didn't take long for them to grasp the significance of the establishment of an Iranian-protected "emirate" in their own neighborhood. In brief, the Egyptians recognized that Hamas poses an inherent threat to their own national security, and they have even publicly defined it as such. Now, it won't take them very long to act. Without lingering over every detail of the plot, it is sufficient to point out that the Egyptians firmly obstructed all efforts by other would-be mediators between Israel and Hamas. They torpedoed the pro-Hamas summit in Qatar; they insisted on keeping the Rafah crossing point between Egypt and Gaza closed, refusing Hamas's demand; and they made it plain that they will not, at any price, become involved in fighting against Israel. Subsequently, they forced Hamas to come to terms with Egypt's role as the sole mediator with Israel, and they even made Hamas backtrack on its refusal to negotiate with Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas, and accept, in principle, the goal of an all-Palestinian "government of national consent," based on an Egyptian draft proposal. Hamas had no choice but to grit its teeth and bow down to Egyptian pressure. Hamas views Mubarak as an enemy, but he controls their only border with the Arab world. And thus, over the bent back of Hamas's leader-in-exile, Khaled Mashaal, who is still boycotted by Cairo, Egypt has returned to center-stage in the leading role. Further down the road, current developments will lead to a situation in which Egypt will serve as the guarantor of the truce between Israel and Hamas and quite possibly simultaneously also as the permanent best man at the wedding-of-sorts between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Or, in other words, Egypt is resuming its role as the sole Arab arbitrator in the Palestinian arena, and generating dependence, not only on the part of Abbas and Hamas, but on the part of Israel as well, since Israel requires Cairo's cooperation to prevent smuggling across the Philadelphi route. Iran and Syria can gnash their teeth, but for the moment they have no way of changing the situation. We must not forget: Egypt will play the cards that it has been dealt solely according to its own self-interests. It has no intention of fulfilling Benjamin Netanyahu's wishes and it won't hesitate to confront him in the diplomatic arena. But the map has changed: The roads to both Gaza and Ramallah now pass through Cairo. • Article in Issue 24, March 16, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.