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Egypt's new role in the future of Palestine

Former Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa ( Issam Rimawi - Anadolu Agency )

Recently, millions of Egyptians crowded round TV sets in Cairo to watch two presidential candidates debate their country's future. For citizens more used to having a political system imposed on them than joining in the discussion, they seem to have adapted quickly. Cheers and applause broke out as the candidates each exploited their opponent's weaknesses. Interviews with spectators were forthcoming, something unthinkable under the ousted Mubarak.

It was the first televised political debate the country had ever seen, pitting two of thirteen candidates against each other. The choice of participants was controversial: Arab League Chief Amr Moussa, who served as foreign minister under Mubarak for ten years; and Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, an ex-member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

They are two parties with very different ideologies, but they came together on the issue of Palestine; both candidates have said they will re-evaluate the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. Abol Fotouh described Israel as an "enemy" whilst Moussa called for a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. No stranger to the cause, Moussa has long been popular for his anti-Israel sentiment.

Changing Egypt's contentious foreign policy was a key demand of the revolution. During his 29-year rule Mubarak was criticized for swapping the West's approval – through the 1979 peace deal with Israel – for the interests of his own people. Since Mubarak was removed from power the Egyptians have been left to work with the aftermath of their historic revolution. They are finding their feet and searching for a political system that suits them, the people, not the agenda of a dictator.

It is, therefore, interesting that a recent poll from the Pew Research Centre on Egyptian attitudes reveals that 61 per cent of the population want to end the peace agreement with Israel. Whoever comes to power in Egypt must thus find a way to address the needs and desires of Egyptian citizens who have proven that if their rights are not given to them, they will take them. This could include their opinion on the complex relationship between Egypt, Israel and Palestine.

It is hard to tell what the Palestinian-Egyptian political landscape will really look like after the elections. Moussa suggested that he would be harsher on Israel than Abol Fotouh when he referred to Israel as an "adversary" rather than Abol Fotouh's "enemy" in the televised debates. Or that he was better at whipping up fear and sensational rhetoric designed to attract more voters. Abol Fotouh is, after all, at the liberal end of Islamism and in December it was Islamist parties whom the majority of Egyptians voted for, not the liberals.

It would seem to be no coincidence then that Abol Fotouh, who was generally considered to have performed best in the debate, dropped in the popularity polls afterwards. Fear and apprehension can attract votes, despite real intentions. How the two front-running candidates' policies will unfold remains to be seen. It is likely that Palestine will take second place after Egypt tries to repair its economy and dismantle – or appease – the deeply entrenched security service and army officers.

Perhaps the view of post-election Palestine that stands out the most comes from Mohammed Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate who despite not taking part in the televised debate cannot be ruled out as a front-runner. He sees the future of Palestine as a huge Arab state with Jerusalem as the capital. Paradoxically, he claims that if elected to the Egyptian presidency he would honour the peace treaty with Israel.

Even if the candidates are genuine about wanting to review the peace treaty, it could be an ideological idea that will be crushed under the weight of the system. Egypt is a key ally of the United States and its strategic importance could outweigh any intentions candidates have. Is it possible for a country which has pandered to US interests for so long to simply turn its back on Israel and the $1.3 billion dollars it receives in foreign aid from Washington every year?

On the other hand, promises of change could be more than election rhetoric. This week, Egypt mediated a deal between Israel and Palestinians to end the hunger strike by 2,000 prisoners. In exchange, Israel offered a number of measures including an improvement in prison conditions and the release of prisoners held without charge. It was the latest of a number of occasions where Egypt has played a crucial and constructive role in negotiations in the region, with solid evidence of an outcome. In 2011, the Egyptians brokered a deal between Israel and Hamas which saw more than 1,400 Palestinian prisoners released in exchange for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shilat.

Beyond what leaders can negotiate, important moments in history like the Palestinian hunger strike and the Egyptian revolution show what a grassroots movement can really achieve. The knowledge that you have changed the world around you is very liberating. Many Egyptians are tired of the way that Arabs are being treated in Palestine and as an empowered nation they may no longer be content to accept what they are told by politicians. A more self-confident Egyptian population could end up being a great ally of the Palestinians.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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