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Feb. 13, 2009: Egypt’s Star Rising in Regional Politics February 14, 2009

Posted by Helena Cobban in Uncategorized.
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Analysis by Helena Cobban*


CAIRO, Feb 13 (IPS) – Back in mid-December, many Middle Easterners were daring to hope that, with the imminent end of George Bush’s presidency, their own deeply U.S.-influenced region might see a new day of peacemaking and inclusiveness in place of the recent years of war, confrontation, discrimination and distrust.

Since then, two major developments have occurred that have almost overshadowed the excitement of Barack Obama’s inauguration as U.S. president: Israel’s 23-day war on Gaza and the ascendancy of rightwing parties in Israel’s Feb. 10 election.

Participants in the ever-shifting system of Middle East politics – and it does act as a system, however complex – are still figuring out, and adjusting to, the political fallout from the Gaza war. Now, they’re starting to do that for the Israeli elections, too, and some main trends already seem clear. One of these is a noticeable strengthening of Egypt’s role in regional politics.

Egypt, with its 80 million people and millennia-long history of unified state administration, has always been a key fulcrum of the Arab world, and emerged as one during the recent Gaza crisis. Its role as the one Arab state that has a shared (though short) border with the Gaza Strip kept a keen spotlight on the actions of the country’s 81-year-old president, Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power since 1981.

Right after the Israeli assault started on Dec. 27, Hamas and its allies started vociferously criticising Egypt for keeping its border with Gaza closed and thus, even during the war, continuing to partner Israel in the tight siege it has maintained around Gaza since Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary election of 2006.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, both called on Egypt to open its crossing-point to Gaza. Nasrallah even called on Egyptians to “join the jihad” in Gaza.

At first, pro-Hamas sentiments like those found much resonance within Egypt, where the main opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), was a parent organisation for Hamas. The MB still has many political ties with Hamas, though for 25 years now it has maintained a commitment to act within Egypt only through legal, nonviolent means.

Egypt’s powerful – though nowadays far from monopolistic – state media hit back energetically against the regime’s critics, arguing that Egyptians should look to their own interests first, rather than those of Gazans. For the past 30 years Egypt has been closely allied to U.S. power. Under the terms of its U.S.-sponsored, 1979 peace treaty with Israel it is prohibited from doing anything to help Israel’s enemies.

Inside Egypt, the country’s millennia-old economic inequalities remain stark. But the rise of a huge entrepreneurial middle class and the proliferation of vast tracts of upscale housing in parts of the country show that it has moved far from its Nasserist, Arab-nationalist past.

The arguments the state media made that Egypt should put its own interests first and do nothing that might drag it into a new war with Israel fell on many receptive ears. As the war progressed, the size of the pro-Hamas demonstrations held around the country started to dwindle.

Ten days or so into the war the Hamas leaders – who had been dissatisfied with some of their earlier encounters with Egypt’s diplomacy – concluded that if they wanted a ceasefire with Israel, as they did, then working through Egypt was still their best option. (Some sources here say the Israelis had expressed their own interest in a ceasefire somewhat earlier.)

The tandem ceasefires that emerged Jan. 18 were, in the end, not negotiated by anyone. They were declared separately by both Hamas and Israel. Those ceasefires remain very fragile, and Israel’s outgoing government has maintained a stiflingly tight siege on Gaza despite the desperate need of its 1.5 million people for even the most basic reconstruction materials.

In the month since Jan. 18, Egypt has been the main actor working with both Israel and Hamas to secure a more durable, negotiated Gaza ceasefire – as well as the reconciliation between Hamas and the pro-U.S. Palestinian movement, Fatah, that is judged necessary if Israel’s crossings into Gaza are to be opened.

If, as all the polls indicate, U.S. ally Fatah was weakened politically by the Gaza war, by contrast Mubarak’s Egypt seems to have emerged from the war with its political position in the region stronger than before. In one sign of that, Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit was in Washington Feb. 12, where after a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton he announced that his U.S. hosts “know they will have to exert pressure on all sides to achieve the objective of peace… They say that they understand the problem of [Israel’s] settlement activities and it has to come to an end.”

Clinton is expected to be in Egypt on Mar. 2 to participate in an international conference on reconstructing Gaza. Before then, on Feb. 22, Egypt will be hosting delegates from Hamas and Fatah at a gathering to negotiate, if not a full-fledged political reconciliation, then at least a working arrangement between the two that will persuade Israel and the U.S. to allow Gaza’s crossings to open.

The Obama administration’s special envoy for Israeli-Arab peacemaking, former Senate majority leader George Mitchell, will also be in Egypt – and elsewhere in the region – on the second round of his peace-brokering mission, which he promised he would undertake before the end of February.

Mubarak’s government owes its newly strengthened role in regional politics to the fact that it is one of the few powers able and inclined to deal with both Israel and a Hamas movement that proved once again during the recent war that it cannot be eliminated from the scene. (Turkey also plays this mediating role, but it has less backing from the U.S. for its efforts.)

Some of the analysts and former officials interviewed here said that Egypt could well become even more important to the U.S. plans for the region after the victory of Israel’s rightwing parties in the Feb. 10 election. “If the U.S. wants an ally in the region that talks to all sides and is strongly committed to a two-state outcome between Israel and Palestine, they will find that here, but not in Israel,” one former minister said.

That said, few here believe that Cairo’s relations with a purely rightwing government in Israel would be easy. Abdel-Moneim Said Aly, who heads the semi-official Al-Ahram Centre for Strategic Studies, warned that if Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu emerged as prime minister, “The chemistry of Egyptian-Israeli relations will change… If we have Netanyahu and [Yisrael Beitenu head Avigdor] Lieberman heading the coalition there, it would be very bad.”

He recalled that Netanyahu had been “arrogant and unhelpful” towards Egypt’s efforts at peacemaking during his earlier premiership, 1996-99.

Said Aly warned that a purely rightwing government might want to launch renewed attacks against Gaza, “which could be disastrous.” He and others here urged the Obama administration to work energetically to avert any renewed descent into war and to take the opportunity that seems offered to secure a durable Israeli-Palestinian peace -“even if that needs to be imposed on all the parties at this point.”

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*Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author. She blogs at http://www.JustWorldNews.org.

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