Egypt, I like your style

Issandr El Amrani   في الخميس 12 مايو 2011


The Fatah-Hamas reconciliation that was inked in Cairo on 4 May is important mainly for Palestinian reasons: For the first time since 2006, an opportunity exists to form a united Palestinian position to address the impasse of the peace process. But the deal also reflects a new style of Egyptian foreign policy and, with time, perhaps a new direction too.

Ever since Omar Suleiman began to broker Palestinian reconciliation talks in 2006, Egypt’s official policy was to support unity. Talks were held in Cairo and elsewhere with multiple factions over the years, and every now and then rumors circulated of an impending deal — often when politically convenient for one of the parties involved. Yet they never amounted to anything concrete. Fatah and Hamas share a good part of the blame: Neither faction was truly satisfied with reconciliation, which threatened to endanger their grip on the respective territories they controlled. Despite the fact that Palestinians clamored for reconciliation, faction leaders prioritized their self-interests and the alliances they forged with regional powers. No doubt the threat of a third Palestinian intifada planned to begin on 15 May — this time against the Palestinian leadership as well as Israel — motivated them to break the deadlock.

Part of the obstacle to reconciliation was Egypt’s policy, though. For several years, Egypt tried to impose a white paper on Hamas that the Islamist group clearly found unsatisfactory and biased towards Fatah. Much like the United States is a biased broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Egypt systematically took a one-sided approach to the inter-Palestinian conflict. Officials would readily acknowledge this in private, giving various reasons. At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, diplomats argued that Palestinian reconciliation at the wrong time would jeopardize the entire peace process, since the United States would be unlikely to back a Palestinian national unity government that included Hamas members. In reality, Mubarak’s diplomats cared most about salvaging a peace process that was going nowhere because it at least maintained the myth of Egypt’s centrality in regional politics.

The people who really handled the Palestinian file during the last decade — in General Intelligence and the presidency — had their own reasons to oppose Palestinian unity. Omar Suleiman would regularly tell foreign dignitaries that he intended to crush Hamas, and that Egypt saw the group to be as much of a threat as did Israel. But for all his bluster Suleiman could never actually deliver. While he tried to keep tabs on Hamas through Egyptian spies operating in Gaza, Suleiman was caught off-guard by the Islamist group's takeover of the strip in June 2006. This despite the high likelihood that he was plotting with Fatah strongman Muhammad Dahlan (and Israeli and US intelligence) against Hamas. In other words, Egypt’s foreign policy under the late Mubarak era was not just morally abject and unpopular, it was also bumbling and incompetent.

Compare this with the quiet way Egypt moved ahead on Palestinian reconciliation in recent weeks. The deal came as a surprise (no doubt causing some discomfort among Israeli and US officials) and was announced without great fanfare. Officials from countries that have supported Palestinian reconciliation, including ones such as Turkey and Qatar that Mubarak had viewed as rivals rather than potential partners, were invited to the signing ceremony. So were EU officials who now have the chance to break with the moribund Middle East quartet demands — for instance that Hamas recognize “Israel’s right to exist”, even though Israel has never recognized Palestine’s right to exist.

There will be a push-back against Palestinian reconciliation, to be sure. Benjamin Netanyahu may protest that he cannot negotiate with a Palestinian side that includes Hamas. But the truth is that he was never serious about negotiating anyway, and neither are other Israeli leaders who are likely to follow him, such as Tzipi Livni. What Palestinians, hopefully more united, must now plan for are the alternatives to the dead-end Oslo process and its current “roadmap” iteration. Egypt is likely to play a role in this too, perhaps by supporting the Palestinian Authority’s endeavor to have Palestine recognized as an independent state by the United Nations.

It's too early to tell how far of a shift from previous positions Cairo will take, and whether foreign policy will continue to be run by intelligence personnel or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where Nabil al-Arabi, an internationally respected jurist, has shown principle and determination. But the manner in which the Palestinian reconciliation deal was conducted, with quiet resolve, is a dignified new beginning far from the hysterics and defensiveness of the late Mubarak era

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