Egypt scores important points brokering the Gaza ceasefire - analysis

Cairo, again, proved itself indispensable in ending fighting between Gaza-based terrorist organizations and Israel.

 A view of houses that were damaged during Israel-Gaza fighting, as ceasefire holds, in Gaza City August 8, 2022. (photo credit: REUTERS/SUHAIB SALEM)
A view of houses that were damaged during Israel-Gaza fighting, as ceasefire holds, in Gaza City August 8, 2022.
(photo credit: REUTERS/SUHAIB SALEM)

After all military campaigns, lists are drawn up of the victors and the vanquished, the winners and the losers.

Operation Breaking Dawn, which ended with a ceasefire Sunday night, is no exception. No sooner had the rockets stopped flying, than politicians and pundits began weighing in on who won and who lost.

Unlike previous rounds of Gaza fighting, however, the scorecard this time seemed fairly obvious. Israel was the big winner, needing just 54 hours to knock out Islamic Jihad’s top military brass, significantly degrade its military capacity and make clear that it would not be deterred from carrying out preventive arrests in the West Bank.

And the big loser? Islamic Jihad. Its military hierarchy is now in shambles, its capacities have been significantly downgraded and it had nothing at all to show for firing off more than 1,000 rockets at Israel. In addition, the campaign demonstrated that the organization really has no friends, as neither Hamas, Hezbollah, nor Palestinians in the West Bank stood by the terrorist organization.

Both Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz were also declared winners, at least in the Israeli media, with the operation’s success under their baton showing that the military can do just fine under any prime minister, even – for the first time in 13 years – one not named Benjamin Netanyahu.

 IDF strikes Gaza during Operation Breaking Dawn, August 2022 (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT) IDF strikes Gaza during Operation Breaking Dawn, August 2022 (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)

Some also put Hamas on the winner’s side of the ledger.  

By staying out of the fighting, Hamas spared itself yet another drubbing at the hands of the IDF, was able to see the weakening of a rival who does not follow Hamas’s directives, and, in an ironic twist, was now in the position of demanding a “reward payment” from Israel in the form of increased worker permits for Gazans and the lifting of additional restrictions on the coastal strip.

Egypt's big win 

Another actor that should definitely be listed among the victors is Egypt.

Cairo, again, proved itself indispensable in ending fighting between Gaza-based terrorist organizations and Israel. In addition, this time it also played a key role in keeping Hamas out of the fighting. Its efforts were publicly recognized and praised by everyone from US President Joe Biden, to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, to Lapid, Gantz and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

As a headline on the Egypt Today website had it on Monday: “Int’l reactions welcoming Gaza ceasefire, hailing Egyptian diplomatic role.”

This appreciation could stand Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in good stead as his country continues to come under criticism from many quarters in the US and in Europe for human rights abuses, as Egypt has irritated much of the West by sitting on the fence in the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, and as it suffers an economic crisis made only worse by the war in Ukraine.

Egypt is going to need help, and one way to convince others to lend a helping hand – especially when the Egyptians don’t have that much tangible to offer in return – is to prove indispensable elsewhere.

What cards does Egypt have up its sleeve?

There are two areas where Egypt can do this: One area, many years in the future, is to increase its gas production capacity and become a supplier to Europe, desperate to diversify its energy sources and reduce dependence on Russia.

And the second area where it can highlight its importance is to be the go-to address whenever there are flare-ups around Gaza. Playing that role is critical for Egypt. 

Egypt’s role in ending this crisis was a reprise of a similar role it played in brokering a ceasefire that led to the end of Operation Guardian of the Walls last May. But while back then Egypt competed with Qatar for the role of chief mediator, this time, according to various reports, the two countries worked together.

Egypt's past diplomatic successes 

Last year, Egypt’s role in ending the fighting placed its relationship with the Biden administration on a much better trajectory.

During his 2020 presidential campaign, Biden – stressing the importance of human rights in US foreign policy – took issue with his predecessor Donald Trump’s chummy relationship with Sisi, whom Trump once referred to as his “favorite dictator.”

In a tweet during the campaign following Egypt’s release of a dissident, Biden tweeted, in reference to Sisi, “No more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator.’"

To follow up on this pledge, Biden pointedly did not have a phone conversation with Sisi for months after the US president’s January 2021 inauguration, and the US in January blocked $130 million in annual security assistance to Egypt due to human rights concerns.

Contrast that tweet with this tweet that Biden posted after meeting Sisi for the first time at the Jeddah Security and Development Summit in July during Biden’s Mideast visit: “Earlier today [Saturday], I sat down with President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi to reaffirm our shared commitment to the U.S.-Egypt strategic partnership, and to discuss regional and global challenges.”

Realpolitik, and the importance of Egypt for regional stability, had intervened. 

And that was before Egypt proved instrumental in both keeping the recent fighting from spiraling out of control, and brokering an end to it. Sisi has increased Egypt’s involvement in the reconstruction of Gaza, controls the Rafah entry point into the coastal strip and, by doing so, has made himself an actor Hamas cannot ignore.

The Egyptians will, obviously, expect payback for their efforts, and not only in more muted criticism of their human rights record.

Sisi’s success in Gaza came just days after he returned from a diplomatic tour to Germany, France and Serbia where he was looking, among other things, for European assistance in securing a $3 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund – negotiations that have gone on for months. Egypt’s role in ending the fighting in Gaza won’t hurt those efforts.

Another area where the Egyptians may try to “cash in” on their constructive role in brokering a Gaza ceasefire is in its long-simmering dispute with Ethiopia over the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

While Ethiopia deems the dam it is constructing as key to its development, the Egyptians fear it will reduce the flow of the Nile River and pose an existential threat to the country, which is dependent on the Nile.

Negotiations over the dam have gone nowhere, and the Egyptians – keen on getting US support for their position in negotiations that have so far led nowhere – may try to use the centrality of their role in containing the situation in Gaza into getting US support for their position regarding the dam.

The Egyptian media on Tuesday reported that Lapid, in a phone call Monday night thanking Sisi for his efforts, said Egypt served as a “cornerstone of stability” in the Middle East. 

Egypt will certainly try to cash in on that role, which is why it, too, was one of the “victors” – if only indirectly – of the latest round of Gaza fighting. For Egypt, the path today to better relations with Washington leads through containing the fires in Gaza.