With Sisi in power, will Egypt hold sway over the Gaza flare-up?

Egypt’s stance on Gaza has been shrouded in increasing uncertainty

Sonia Farid

Published: Updated:

Following two major uprisings and the regime changes they brought about, along with the death of late intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s stance on Gaza has been shrouded in increasing uncertainty.

The remarkable policy discrepancies between former President Hosni Mubarak and former Islamist President Mohammad Mursi has left the third regime to follow, that of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in a precarious position and have given rise to speculations as to which path the newly-elected president is more likely to take amid the current Israeli attacks on Gaza.

Another important factor that has made the Gaza issue more complicated now is the absence of one of the most important players, if not the most important— Omar Suleiman, who for years had been in charge of this file and is still seen to have been the most familiar with its minutest of classified details and the most able to handle its ordeals.

“Sisi reassured [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas that Egypt is keen on protecting the Palestinian people in Gaza and stopping the aggression and will exert its utmost effort to reach a ceasefire as soon as possible,” reported the Palestinian news agency WAFA in reference to a phone call that took place on July 8 between the presidents and in which the Abbas asked for Sisi’s mediation to stop Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip after updating him on the latest escalations in the offensive known as Operation Protective Edge.

A statement with the same content was issued by President Abbas’s office. According to the statement and press reports on the call, Abbas praised Egypt’s “historic role” in defending the right of the Palestinian people.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri had also made an earlier statement about Egypt’s involvement in the mediation of a truce even though he gave no details. “There are contacts between Hamas and Egyptian officials concerning the Israeli escalation in the Gaza Strip,” he said. “We clarified and reiterated our position that we are not interested in escalation and the occupation is responsible.” Several Israeli press reports read Abu Zuhri’s statement as an expression of Hamas’s inclination towards a truce.

“Hamas has communicated to Cairo its desire to end the current round of fighting in the south,” said the Jerusalem Post. The Egyptian presidency also issued a statement stressing that Cairo is holding intensive negotiations with all parties involved “in order to spare the Palestinian people the grave consequences of Israeli military operations and to hold Israel, as an occupying power, responsible for the safety of Palestinian civilians in accordance with the Geneva Convention and international law.” This made speculations rife about when and if an Egyptian-brokered truce would materialize and how far such mediation would determine the new regime’s approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Testing the waters

The assault on Gaza is seen by many experts as Israel’s way of testing the waters with Egypt’s new regime as far as its policies on Israel are concerned.

For Mokhtar Ghobashi, deputy director of the Arab Center for Political and Strategic Studies, the reaction of Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, to the aggression on Gaza would determine Cairo’s take on the Palestinian cause. “Egypt’s foreign policies are not clear yet,” he said in a press interview. “Will Egypt mediate between both parties and broker a cease fire? Or will it declare its absolute support for the Palestinian cause and embark on a set of measures that would put pressure on Israel to stop the attacks?” Ghobashi added that immediate intervention to end the aggression is the only way to show that Egypt is not willing to give up its regional role, yet noted that the political and economic conditions in the country are likely to play a major role in determining the regime’s next step.

In his article “Sisi faces first test with Israel,” journalist Mohamed al-Beheiri argued that the Israeli aggression on Gaza placed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on top of the president’s foreign policy agenda. “In fact, the Palestinian people are looking to him for rescue, especially that he said in his inauguration speech that the Palestinian cause would be one of his topmost priorities,” he wrote. The situation, however, is more complicated than it seems, Beheiri adds, for while it is in Egypt’s best interest to maintain calm on its eastern borders, its current relationship with Hamas, which grew sour since the group declared its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, would make mediation a tough task. “Add to this the already unstable situation on the domestic level and the economy that is struggling to stay afloat,” he explained. “Not to mention the general regional chaos whether in Syria or Iraq.”

Leaning towards Israel

What complicates the matter even more is a series of reports that imply Egypt’s inclination towards cooperating with Israel. Several Egyptian media outlets have been circulating news of the visit Egyptian Intelligence Chief Mohammad al-Tohami paid to Israel a few days before the start of the attacks. Emphasis was especially laid on reports by the national Israeli radio about meetings Tohami held with Israeli military and security officials over “the latest escalation between Israel and Hamas.”

Israel National Radio also reported that mediation efforts have been reduced to the minimum on the part of Egyptian authorities owing to Tohami’s failure to reach an agreement with Hamas “because Hamas did not respond to Egypt’s request that it stops the violence,” according to some reports, or “because Egypt rejected a list of demands Hamas presented in return for stopping the firing of rockets.” According to the Israeli military intelligence website DEBKAfile, approving Hamas’s demands would come at a high cost for Egypt. “Egypt would have to retract all the military measures it had taken in the past half year along the border with Gaza and which basically aimed at undermining Hamas’s military power,” the website reported.

The reduction of mediation efforts is, however, seen by many as a euphemism for failure. In his article, “Aggression on Gaza: Israel’s and Hamas’s bets on Sisi,” Islam Abul Ezz argues that the situation is different this time owing to the extreme intransigence of both parties. “Israeli intransigence stems from its need to vent its anger at the abduction of settlers and this will only be done through a strike on Gaza while Hamas’s intransigence stems from losing a major ally after the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood and the financial damage it sustained following the closure of cross-border tunnels which made it keen on proving it at least retains military prowess,” he wrote.

Sisi and Hamas

Sisi’s complicated relationship with Hamas since the June 30 protests that toppled Islamist President Mohammad Mursi, Abul Ezz added, might have also contributed to the failure of the talks. “It is true that the ice started breaking after Sisi’s election and it seemed Hamas was willing to turn a new leaf, yet Sisi still keeps Cairo’s contact with Hamas through the General Intelligence Agency as the regime has done for years,” he explained, in reference to the handling of the Gaza file by Mubarak’s late intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. On the other hand, Abul Ezz noted, Israel had higher expectations as far as Sisi’s stance on Hamas is concerned.

“Israel expected the deteriorating relation between Hamas and Sisi to be in its best interest and believed that Sisi would want to get back at Hamas for its support of the Muslim Brotherhood, but turns out Sisi has different priorities which focus more on security in the Sinai Peninsula than on the situation in Gaza,” he explained. According to Abul Ezz, the Egyptian regime is currently in a middle position between that of Mubarak, which sided more with Israel and closed the crossings to humanitarian aid, and that of Mursi, which allied with Hamas and made a media show of it, and it remains to be seen how this position will translation into actual action, if any, to get over this failure.

Egypt and Israel

Even though Sisi followed in Mubarak’s footsteps when he sent his intelligence chief to negotiate a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, the new man has so far been unable to match the success of his predecessor Omar Suleiman, who served in that position for 18 years.

Suleiman, known as Mubarak’s “black box,” was involved in several agreements between Israel and Hamas, the first known of which was the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in the famous 2011 prisoner swap deal in addition to several ceasefire agreements. Suleiman was generally regarded as a favorite of Israel especially after Wikileaks released cables that showed the Israeli government sees him as an alternative to Mubarak: “[Israeli Ministry of Defense Arab Affairs Advisor David] Hacham was full of praise for Soliman, however, and noted that a ‘hot line’ set up between the MOD and Egyptian General Intelligence Service is now in daily use.”

Hacham said he sometimes speaks to Soliman’s deputy Mohammad Ibrahim several times a day. Hacham noted that the Israelis believe Soliman is likely to serve as at least an interim President if Mubarak dies or is incapacitated. (Note: We defer to Embassy Cairo for analysis of Egyptian succession scenarios, but there is no question that Israel is most comfortable with the prospect of Omar Soliman).

In fact, former Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezaer said after Suleiman death that “he was the one who served Israel best.” Senior Hamas member Moussa Abu Marzouk argued that despite his close relationship with Israel, Suleiman was not out to destroy Hamas as he was commonly thought to. “When Hamas won the elections in 2006 and Gaza seceded from the Palestinian Authority, the U.S. and Israel wanted to attack Gaza and kill the leaders of Hamas but it was Suleiman who convinced them it was unwise to do so,” he said in a TV interview following Suleiman death.

“He warned Americans that Gaza is a gunpowder barrel that was bound to explode in their face and the face of their interests in the entire region.” Abu Marzouk also praised the role Suleiman played in ending the 2008 Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip and the pressure he put on Israel to lift the blockade. “It was his continuous lobbying that made Israelis sometimes allow the passing of humanitarian aid through the crossings,” he added. “He also used the natural gas Egypt exported to Israel as a bargaining chip.”

Egypt does not seem to have given up on the mediation process, though, and chances of a renewal of negotiations are still there. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he called Sisi recently and stressed that the latter assured him that Cairo is working on brokering a ceasefire. Cairo’s role is, obviously, not over yet. The questions is, will Sisi keep his “around the corner” promise, as activists call it, in reference to his pre-election pledge to intervene in case the security of any Arab country is threatened?

“If the security of any Arab country is threatened and we are called upon for him, we will respond immediately. It’s around the corner,” he once said. It’s crunch time and we will just have to wait and see.