Egypt: No longer a Gaza power broker?

ANALYSIS: Cairo's global image as a regional hegemon would be weakened by a non-Egyptian brokered ceasefire

Eman El-Shenawi

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Geographically and historically, Egypt is sitting in a good position to act as the intermediary between the Israelis and the Palestinians – but could this all soon be about to change?

Last week, Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas rejected Egypt’s proposal to end fighting in the Gaza Strip, which has claimed more than 600 Palestinian lives, mostly civilian.

Then, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas political chief Khaled Meshaal agreed to meet in Qatar to discuss the ceasefire. According to reports, both sides agreed on the need for a rapid cease-fire, recognizing that Egyptian mediation would have to play a role.

But as the traditional deal-maker, Egypt and particularly President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s global image as a regional hegemon would be weakened by a non-Egyptian brokered ceasefire.

One of Hamas's principal demands is the opening of crossings to Gaza. Egypt might agree to open the Rafah crossing in the south with a Palestinian Authority (PA) security presence to police the Gaza side.

Israel also wants to see the return of PA forces in Gaza. Hamas will find this harder to object to since it ratified a reconciliation deal with its opponents Fatah, which dominates the PA, several months ago.

During the last major outbreak of violence between Israel and Hamas - in November 2012 – Egypt, under the control of Islamist President Mohammad Mursi - played its traditional role as mediator.

But Egypt is now led by the former head of the Egyptian military, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who having labeled the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) a terrorist organization is now fighting is own domestic “war on terror.”

Hamas, whose is an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood, now views the current Egyptian regime as illegitimate, analysts suggest this is why Hamas rejects the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire proposal.

“Egypt is still a potential powerbroker albeit with a limited ability to influence Hamas politically,” Dr. Max Reibman, an analyst specializing in Modern Middle East History told Al Arabiya News.

“Militarily, and from the security standpoint, Egypt under Sisi has squeezed Hamas by shutting down the border with Gaza and cooperating with the Israelis in destroying tunnels. But this also means that there is a lack of trust between Hamas and the Sisi government. A powerbroker by definition either has the trust of both parties or can pressure the sides equally. Egypt at the moment can do neither,” Reibman said.

Meanwhile, militant operations in the restive Sinai peninsula have also been a concern for Cairo.

“While Israel and Egypt are not coordinating their operations, Cairo does see militancy in the Sinai as being aided and abetted by Hamas and its operatives,” Justin Dargin, a geopolitical analyst at Oxford University, told Al Arabiya News.

Given the decades of failure of peacemaking efforts between the Israelis and Palestinians, there is not likely to be many states willing to put themselves forward as peace brokers.

Qatar’s role as mediator

The Egyptian leadership was unlikely to be fond of the idea of pro-Muslim Brotherhood Doha arriving in Cairo to broker a ceasefire but in all likelihood, it accepts that Hamas will not sign a Cairo-brokered deal without its endorsement.

But Qatar, along with Iran and Turkey, are now seen as being part of the Islamist-leaning axis of power in the Middle East, held in stark contrast to the pro-Western axis of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.

“Being a backer of Hamas, Qatar would be a logical choice and Hamas would likely demand that it be involved in any ultimate ceasefire and further negotiations,” Dargin said, adding that the Arab League has been mostly ineffectual in trying to broker any solution, as has the U.N.

“It is likely that along with Egypt, Qatar and the U.S. will be the major parties working to bring about some resolution to the current conflict,” Dargin added.

In affirming its own diplomatic weight, the role of Qatar has also bared the fault-lines and hostilities that have spread across the Middle East in recent years.

The Gulf state has differed with Egypt in regard to the political legitimacy of the Muslim Brotherhood, and, correspondingly, Hamas.

Turkish intervention?

As a backer of the Brotherhood and resolutely anti-Israeli, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also expressed his want to act as an interlocutor between Hamas and Israel.

But Turkey’s track record doesn’t bode well.

“Turkey tried to broker a Syrian-Israeli peace as long ago as George W. Bush's second term. It failed in that effort because the U.S. did not support the initiative and Israel did not want a peace agreement with Syria than involved surrendering the Golan Heights,” Joel Beinin, a U.S.-based professor of Middle East history, told Al Arabiya News.

“Erdogan does not appear to have great diplomatic skills (neither does Sisi). Turkey can act in Iraq and perhaps even Iran. It has less capacity on Arab-Israeli matters.”

And in a clear display of Turkey’s anger at Cairo, Erdogan criticized Sisi on Friday, calling him a “tyrant” because of Egypt’s position regarding the Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip. He even accused the North African country of conniving with Israel to exclude Hamas from a peace deal.

Iran and the Palestinian cause

Meanwhile, Iran has always had an interest in the Palestinian cause, mostly since the Iranian revolution. In recent years, the Islamic Republic has also reportedly facilitated Hamas with the delivery of Fajr-5 missiles, which gave Gaza a newfound strategic advantage, as the Islamist group could strike Israeli cities, including Tel-Aviv, within 75km of the Strip.

“It has assisted various Palestinian resistance groups for decades and is part of what is known as the ‘Rejectionist Front,’ composed of countries in the region that have a strong anti-Western and anti-Zionist orientation,” said Dargin.

“However, seeing that Iran is currently attempting to forge a lasting solution to its uranium enrichment program, while having the crippling sanctions regime lifted, as well as assisting with the Assad war effort, it is unlikely that Iran would offer much more assistance than verbal support,” he added.

Cairo back in the picture

Amid reports that Egypt may tweak its truce deal to accommodate both Israel and Hamas’ terms, Cairo’s proposal may gain traction once more.

Now, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flew into Tel Aviv from Cairo on Wednesday -- despite U.S. warnings over airline safety after a Hamas rocket landed near Ben Gurion airport – some progress has been cited in the ceasefire talks with Cairo’s inclusion.

But this could also indicate that Egypt has a limited capacity to play an independent role, only serving as a “transmission belt for terms already agreed upon by Israel and the United States,” noted Beinin.

Aside from Hamas’ conditions demanding the lifting of the Israeli and Egyptian blockade on Gaza, the group also demands the release of several hundred Palestinians arrested by Israel last month during its search for three Jewish teenagers abducted in the occupied West Bank.

“One thing Egypt can do is to provide political cover to either side when and if it decides to fold. For example, the Israelis might hold their offensive and justify it as a gesture of good faith towards Egypt, which has essentially facilitated the Israeli campaign since the start of the conflict,” said Reibman.

But Dargin believes something may be done sooner by Egypt to save face.

“Sisi will try to bring some accord as his prestige hinges on him being able to exercise some visible measure of influence in the region,” he said.

Thomas Wolstencroft contributed to this report