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Egypt's crucial role is not just determined by geography

The Palestinians' refusal to accept the ceasefire initiative based on terms set by Israel is probably the first time that they have said no to Egyptian officials. Although all of the factions except Fatah rejected the proposal, its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, demanded that all of the resistance groups' demands should be met. His insistence is not in line with the policies of Egypt's president, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.

In order to understand Egypt's tenacious reaction and reluctance to change the principles of the initiative one must take a closer look at the nature of the historic Palestinian-Egyptian relationship, especially Egypt's role as an intermediary. In doing so, one will see that the Egyptians are not used to the idea of any refusal from the Palestinians.

Generally speaking, Palestinian governments have dealt with Egypt in a way that shows that they regard it as the most significant country in the region; this has been the case since the beginning of Palestinian resistance against the Zionist project. As such, Palestinian leaders have often worked hard to please the Egyptian side. Sometimes willingly and other times unwillingly, they have often made many concessions for Egypt's sake because they know that they have to have strong ties with a country of Egypt's size, location and proximity to Palestine. Hence, Palestinian leaders have often made it their goal to build strong ties with Egypt despite whatever their true feelings towards the country may be.

Fatah has often maintained this sort of stance towards Egypt, even during tense diplomatic times and moments of serious disagreement with Cairo. It is for this reason that Yasser Arafat felt impelled to visit Egypt when he left Tripoli in 1983, despite the fact that Egypt was suffering from an Arab boycott at the time following Anwar Sadat's decision to sign the Camp David Accords with Israel.

Post-Oslo, Cairo has often served as the primary location for conferences and agreements relating to the Palestinian cause, as Arafat often preferred to coordinate with officials in Cairo rather than any other Arab city. He knew that Egypt played a pivotal role in the region.

The situation has been no different for Fatah, which is well aware of what some call the "dictatorship of geography". It's because of Egypt that Fatah and Hamas were forced to cooperate to a certain degree, especially after Hamas gained control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. The two rivals had to coordinate despite their ideological differences and in spite of Egypt's obvious bias in favour of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, which has been engaged in an open conflict with Hamas since 2006.

Although it is true that the relationship between Hamas and Egypt has been restricted to matters of intelligence and security, this was enough to manage the Palestinian portfolio pertaining to the Gaza Strip. Egypt preferred to deal with Gaza as an intelligence issue and Hamas accepted this even though it would have preferred a government-style relationship between the two.

Egypt's national security is generally tied to Palestine through the Gaza Strip. It has been Gaza's only window to the outside world since Israeli occupation forces and settlers pulled out of the enclave in 2005. This role complicates elements of Israel's siege of Gaza, which has been in effect since Hamas won the Palestinian elections in 2006.

The terms of the Camp David Accord give Egypt very little actual control over the Sinai Peninsula, so Gaza could pose a security threat to Egypt should the situation there begin to spiral out of control. For this reason, Egypt has often tried to prevent the reaction to the siege from reaching boiling point. Although it more or less succeeded in containing any potential threats, there was a period when the Egyptian authorities tightened their grip in an effort to put pressure on Hamas. These changes pushed the Palestinians to tear down the Rafah border barrier in January 2008.

Nevertheless, the Palestinian issue is Egypt's most important card that allows it to exercise its soft power in the Middle East. The government in Cairo has gained many privileges, including its ability to play a significant role in the region's hot topics as well as being the recipient of massive aid from the United States, which dictates Egypt's position and policies towards Israel and the Palestinians. All of these factors are even more significant given the reduction of Egypt's role in the African Union.

Just as Palestinian leaders have acknowledged the significance of Egypt's role in their historical trajectory, the Egyptians have also acknowledged that internal politics and geographic location are not enough when trying to be indispensable players in the region. Cairo will not risk jeopardising its historical relationship regardless of whether the government agrees with Palestinian factions or not.

However, even in the worst of political circumstance, Egypt cannot risk losing its sense of balance over the Palestinian issue if it wants to maintain its crucial regional role. It is for this reason that Egypt tried to appear unbiased when it came to the internal Palestinian conflict between Hamas and Fatah, although it is clear that the Egyptian authorities are much closer to Fatah politically than they are to Hamas. Cairo has played a similar role in its involvement in the Palestine-Israel conflict; it tries to hold the middle ground by, for example, opening the Rafah crossing at times and closing it at other times.

When Israel began its offensive against Gaza in 2008, Egypt tried to be a fair intermediary in pushing for a ceasefire agreement. However, it was later revealed that Egyptian officials had been engaged in closed meetings and that they had tried to pressure Palestinian resistance factions to make more concessions to the Israelis.

The Egyptian authorities at this time gave permission for wounded Palestinians to enter Egypt for treatment and for humanitarian aid and supplies to pass through the border to Gaza. To a certain extent they also allowed pro-Palestinian demonstrations to take place in Egypt as a sign of solidarity with the people of Gaza. All of these decisions were calculated as part of the Egyptian authorities' carefully thought-out political game.

Of course, I would rather see Egypt being a source of continued support for the Palestinians as they face Israeli aggression. At the very least, though, the Egyptian authorities were relatively lenient in 2008/9 in easing the siege on Gaza although they would have liked nothing more than to see Hamas fall and for the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority return to the territory. The Palestinian policy of the Mubarak regime now appears to have been much more favourable than that of the current regime, which threatens Egypt's role in the region as much as it threatens Palestine and Hamas.

It appears that the post-coup regime in Cairo is unaware of what it is needed to preserve Egypt's regional significance; as though it is under the impression that its geographic location and its ability to dictate how Palestinians live are enough to protect its historic role with regards to the Palestinian issue. For this reason, the Al-Sisi regime lacks even the bare minimum of balance that was exhibited during the Mubarak era. Should Egypt want to preserve its regional significance then the Al-Sisi government must at least play the role of a well-intentioned intermediary between the Palestinians and the Israelis, although it has failed to do so thus far.

Egypt has confirmed its failures with the announcement of the ceasefire initiative that is in line with Israeli interests, for the government in Cairo has failed to live up to its responsibility to be an unbiased intermediary. An honest broker should, in principle, consider the demands of both sides equally in working towards an agreement. According to an article in Haaretz, which outlines the proposed Israeli and Egyptian conditions for a ceasefire, when an Israeli official asked his Egyptian counterpart what Hamas's reaction to the initiative would be, he replied by saying that it does not matter whether the movement agrees or not; Hamas acceptance of the terms is "guaranteed".

In announcing the terms of the ceasefire without first seeking the approval of Palestinian resistance factions, the Egyptians demonstrated their belief that the Palestinians cannot reject or go beyond Egypt's role in the issue. The attitude displayed their confidence that the Palestinians are bound to accept the Egyptian initiative in much the same manner that a younger sibling takes the advice of its much older and bigger sibling. Egypt's confidence is further magnified by the fact that it is the Gaza Strip's only gateway to the outside world.

In any case, the escalation of events in the Gaza Strip coupled with the Palestinian resistance factions' categorical rejection of Egypt's initiative, along with public comments by Hamas leaders, show that a ceasefire agreement does not depend solely on the conditions set by an Egyptian intermediary. The rejection highlighted the fact that the Egyptian regime failed in its assumption that its political significance is guaranteed due to its geographic location and size. Such factors need the support of diplomatic policies that are well thought out and balanced if Cairo wants to secure Egypt's regional significance. The current post-coup regime has failed signally to realise this and act accordingly.

Translated from Al Jazeera net 25 July 2014

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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AfricaArticleEgyptIsraelMiddle EastOpinionPalestine
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