Egypt's role

Egypt under Sisi wants a diplomatic agreement on Gaza that strengthens Abbas and weakens Hamas.

Egypt under Sisi wants a diplomatic agreement on Gaza that strengthens Abbas and weakens Hamas (photo credit: REUTERS)
Egypt under Sisi wants a diplomatic agreement on Gaza that strengthens Abbas and weakens Hamas
(photo credit: REUTERS)
IT IS now exactly a year since the Egyptian ar my overthrew Islamist president Mohammed Morsi. The dramatic move led by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was followed by an uncompromising crackdown on the Islamist Muslim Brothers and open hostility toward their allies outside Egypt – most prominently Hamas.
In Sisi’s view the battle against the Musli m Brotherhood is a fight for the survival of his regime. It is his highest priority an d sets the tone for both domestic and foreign policy. After a string of lethal terror attacks against soldiers and civilians, he declared the Muslim Brothers a terroris t organization. Thousands of its activists were arrested and severely punished.
Some were sentenced to death.
Ag ainst the background of Sisi’s protr acted no-holds-barred fight against the Is lamist organization, relations between Ca iro and Washington soured. The US, wh ich had supplied Egypt with generous ai d and support for three decades, was sharply critical of Morsi’s overthrow and the brutal suppression of the opposition by th e armed forces. The Obama Administration froze $250 million from an annual aid package of $1.3 billion and postponed th e transfer of fighter planes and attack he licopters. These limited steps were an at tempt to maneuver between the moral ob ligation to condemn Sisi’s actions and the fear that more severe steps might boomerang, undermining the interests of both co untries and possibly even triggering a grave Middle East crisis.
Th e new Egyptian regime rejected the American criticism out of hand. It argued th at Washington was misreading the big picture and failing to recognize the seriousness of the threat posed by the Brother hood to moderate regimes across the region.
Th e Sisi government’s crackdown on the Muslim Brothers and hostility toward Hamas, the Brothers’ Palestinian branch, sparked a major crisis in Cairo’s relations wi th Qatar and Turkey, the two main regional backers of the Sunni Islamist movements.
In contrast, the oil-rich Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf were quick to take Sisi’s side. Indeed, financial aid of around $20 billion from the Saudis and gulf emirates saved Egypt from economic collapse.
Th e unwritten alliance between Cairo and Riyadh is based on similar threat pe rceptions – a common fear of deeper Ir anian involvement in Syria and Iraq, and apprehension at the growing power of political and jihadist Islamism. This view is shared by Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Israel – whose representatives worked publicly and through quiet diploma tic channels to mitigate international criticism of the way Sisi came to power.
Th e Sisi regime’s policy toward the fighting between Israel and Hamas derives f rom this wider context of its struggle against radical Islam. During Morsi’s brief t erm in office, Hamas received unprecedented Egyptian support. These close ties aroused the ire of Egypt’s military leaders and security services. With the army takeover, Egypt-Hamas relations quickly deter iorated. Hamas was accused of interfering in Egypt’s internal affairs, and security officials pointed to its involvement in the activities of militant jihadi groups operating in the Sinai against the Egyptian army.
To sever these ties, the Egyptian military d estroyed hundreds of tunnels along the border with Gaza, and only allowed intermittent passage of goods and people from Gaza to Egypt through the Rafah border c rossing point. This tightened the siege o n Gaza and further aggravated civilian hardship.
E gypt initially blamed both Israel and Hamas for the current outbreak of hostilities, but very early on argued that it was Hamas’s rejection of the Egyptian ceasefire initiative that was mainly to blame for the continued suffering and bloodshed among the civilian population in Gaza.
Hamas leaders came under fierce attack in the Egyptian media, with some speakers openly calling for the success of the Israeli offensive.
For the Hamas leadership – and the Palestinian people as a whole – this unprecedented criticism of an Arab party fight-ing Israel came like a bolt out of the blue.
Egyptian opposition protests against the government line were limited in scope.
Muslim Brothers supporters held a few protest marches and the left-wing parties expressed solidarity with Palestinian suffering, castigated Israel and sharply criticized the feeble responses of the Arab regimes and the international community.
Similar attitudes proliferated on the social networks. But the limited scale of the protest enabled Egypt’s leaders to stick to their position.
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to recognize the dramatic change in Egyptian policy on Hamas and its advantages for Israel. From the initial stages of the military campaign, he defined coordination with Egypt as a key objective, which he continues to cultivate. The shared hostility toward Hamas provided fertile ground for significant political and security cooperation between Cairo and Jerusalem. According to Israeli politicians and ex-generals, the enmity between the Sisi administration and Hamas made it possible for Israel to hit the military infrastructure in Gaza more heavily.
Soon after the fighting erupted, Egypt announced a two-stage plan for ending hostilities. First there would be a ceasefire, and only after it took hold would negotiations on the parties’ demands begin.
Egypt rejected the Palestinian militia groups’ insistence that a cease-fire be declared only after they received international guarantees for lifting the siege on Gaza. The Egyptian document was drafted in close coordination with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, but without consulting the Hamas leadership.
Israel accepted the Egyptian cease-fire proposal almost immediately. The Palestinian militant groups rejected it out of hand, laying bare the lack of trust between Egypt and Hamas.
Hamas pinned its hopes on support from Qatar and Turkey, and tried to undermine the Egyptian initiative. At the height of diplomatic efforts to achieve a cease-fire, Khaled Mashaal, the Qatar-based head of the Hamas political wing, publicly censured Cairo. “We have no reservations about Egypt’s role, but we won’t allow anyone to interfere with our decisions or to impose anything on us,” he declared.
The mounting civilian toll in Gaza sparked widespread anger in Egypt against the Israeli offensive. While during the first few weeks of conflict Egyptian opposition censure had been limited, in the fourth week of fighting the protests took on a far more strident tone, with much of the criticism aimed at the Sisi government.
As a result, in its public diplomacy, Egypt condemned the suffering of the Palestinian civilian population in much stronger language. At the same time, the Sisi government continued to regard Hamas as inimical to Egyptian interests, and took steps designed to weaken its exclusive control of Gaza by increasing the involvement of the Palestinian Authority.
In early August, after its redeployment of forces in Gaza, it seemed that Israel favored ending Operation Protective Edge unilaterally, without an agreement like the one outlined in the Egyptian initiative.
Therefore, the armed conflict with the Palestinian militias is likely to continue and perhaps even escalate, at least in the short term.
The “day after” the latest round of fighting poses difficult challenges for all parties concerned, including Egypt. In the absence of an Israel-Gaza agreement, the Egyptian government is likely to encounter sharp domestic criticism and increasing domestic pressure to open the Rafah border crossing point on a regular basis and send in massive aid to help alleviate the looming humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.
The “honeymoon” between Jerusalem and Cairo during the Gaza fighting is liable to face a stern test, which could bring substantive differences to the fore. As Israel continues to advance on the military track, Egypt under Sisi wants a diplomatic agreement that strengthens Abbas and weakens Hamas.
Like Israel, the Sisi administration wants Gaza demilitarized. But Egypt believes this can only be achieved in the framework of a comprehensive peace deal in which Gaza and the West Bank together comprise the territory of a sovereign, independent Palestinian state. 
Prof. Yoram Meital is the Chairman of the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev