Egypt caught between the West and a hard place over Palestinian conflict
Cairo’s failure to broker a ceasefire is not surprising given its difficult position
Arab League secretary general Nabil al-Arabi (left) with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Cairo on Wednesday. Abbas is widely criticised by Palestinians for not condemning Israel’s offensive in Gaza. Photograph: Khaled Elfiqi/EPA
Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukri yesterday denounced Israel’s ground offensive in Gaza and demanded that Palestinians and Israelis accept Cairo’s ceasefire proposal “immediately and unconditionally.” But he also accused Hamas, Qatar and Turkey of undermining his country’s effort to secure a truce and blamed Israel’s ground offensive on Hamas’s refusal to halt hostilities.
Egypt’s effort to broker a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel has been unsuccessful largely because the Palestinian movement’s relations with Cairo have always been problematic and especially so since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007 and expelled rival Fatah from the Strip.
Cairo’s longstanding antipathy toward Hamas was demonstrated when the Egyptians failed to consult Hamas as well as Israel on the ceasefire, prompting the movement to angrily reject the proposal. Hamas also demanded that the truce be conditional on an end to the Israeli and Egyptian siege and blockade of Gaza and the release of Palestinian prisoners, terms rejected by Egypt and Israel.
Relations between Cairo and Hamas are difficult because Hamas is an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the chief antagonist of the secular Egyptian military and political establishment. Furthermore, Hamas emerged as an armed resistance movement in neighbouring Gaza in 1987, eight years after Egypt signed its controversial peace treaty with Israel.
Aligned with WestEgypt had hoped for peace and quiet in Gaza but has faced two Palestinian uprisings, repeated Israeli air and ground offensives, and constant tension. Cairo had also aligned itself with the West, which considers Hamas a “terrorist” organisation and the Egyptian military forged close ties with the US, Israel’s closest ally.
President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, a former army chief, attended staff training courses in both the UK and US.
In recent years, Egypt’s military has destroyed hundreds of cross-border tunnels used for smuggling goods and weapons from Egypt into blockaded Gaza and maintained tight controls on Palestinians leaving and entering Gaza via Egypt’s Rafah crossing. This policy remained in place during the year Brotherhood veteran Mohamed Morsi was president although he had promised to open the border and build close relations with Gaza.
During this time Egyptian officials and state media blamed Gaza for petrol shortages in Egypt, claiming the country’s cheap petrol was being smuggled through the tunnels into Gaza. Hamas and other Gaza-based Palestinian militant groups were also accused of using the tunnels to smuggle arms and men into Egypt to stage attacks on Israeli and foreign tourists in Egyptian resorts, as well as Egyptian police and troops.
During the 2011 uprising, Hamas was said to have mounted the jailbreak that freed senior Egyptian Brotherhood figures, including Morsi. Outlawed last year following his ousting, the Brotherhood has been demonised by means of a well-orchestrated campaign which has also turned the Egyptian public against Hamas and Gaza. Opinion could, however, shift back to supporting the Palestinians if Israel’s offensive continues and Palestinian deaths mount.
While Egypt spent several frustrating years trying to facilitate reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, this did not take place until last month, after the collapse of the US peace initiative and just before the latest flare-up in Gaza. And tensions between Hamas and Fatah remain. The unity government contains no Hamas members and salaries of Gazan civil servants appointed by Hamas have not been paid by the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which co-ordinates policy closely with Cairo.
‘Traitor’Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas is criticised by Palestinians for not condemning Israel’s offensive and failing to consult with Hamas during the first week of conflict. He is deemed a “traitor” by many in Gaza and has lost credibility in the West Bank.
Hamas’s relations with Egypt are also complicated by divisions within the movement and regional power play involving Qatar and Turkey.
The two leading figures in Hamas’s politburo, Khaled Meshaal and Moussa Abu Marzouk, are based in Qatar which, along with Turkey, supports Morsi’s claim to the presidency, thereby challenging Sisi’s legitimacy.
The politburo is at odds with the Gaza-based political leadership, headed by Ismail Haniya, which has its differences with the movement’s military wing, Izzedin al-Qassam. The politicians were, reportedly, prepared to accept the ceasefire but the military command was not.