Matt Bradley
The National
February 6, 2009 - 1:00am

Representatives from more than half a dozen Arab nations may have met this week, but the fact that they all agreed to a plan drafted by Egyptians has not been lost on analysts here.

After years of watching Saudi Arabia take the lead in the Middle East peace process and after more than a month of facing the collective anger of the Muslim world for its refusal to open its border crossing with the Gaza Strip, Egypt, many here say, has once again taken its seat at the head of the Middle East’s diplomatic table.

“There’s been kind of a concentrated attack on Egypt’s role by Hizbollah, Syria and Iran. In a sense, I think that Egypt is trying to rescue its role as a mediator between the factions and the Arab moderates are supporting it,” said Nadim Shehadi, an associate fellow for the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. “Egypt relies on western support to survive. If Egypt loses that role and becomes irrelevant to the [Middle East] equation, then it will be a bitter blow to the regime.”

The Abu Dhabi agreement was in some ways the culminating point of Egypt’s gathering leadership clout among a bloc of moderate Arab nations whose agendas have focused primarily on fostering peace and security in the region by promoting the Palestinian Liberation Organisation as the only legitimate leader of the Palestinian people.

That common agenda draws as much from their collective ideology as from their shared sense of regional threats. The Egypt-led bloc, which includes Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the Palestinian Authority, was gathered in opposition to a competing group of nations that are seen to be closer to Iran. That bloc includes Qatar and Syria, which plays host to Hamas’s leader-in-exile, Khaled Meshaal.

Prof Shehadi calls the two new policy camps “an Arab Cold War”.

“If Syria manages to hijack the role of Egypt, then Syria will come out much stronger and Egypt will come out much weaker,” said Prof Shehadi. “If Hamas doesn’t want to play with Egypt, Egypt will lose a lot of its prestige and a lot of its role and it will become irrelevant. So one of [Egypt’s] main foreign policy goals is to continue the dialogue.”

But while Egypt hopes to become the steward of a successful peace negotiation, its leadership role comes with a fair amount of political risk. To be successful, Egypt must effectively straddle two sets of complementary negotiations: Talks between Israel and Hamas and talks between Hamas and the PLO. Maintaining the trust of all the parties involved has been a delicate game for Egypt.

“Egypt knows that for all reasons, particularly practical reasons, there must be some kind of agreement or accommodation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority,” said Abdel al Raouf al Reedy, a former Egyptian ambassador to the United States.

Mr al Reedy said that while Egypt has “dealt” with Hamas for decades, the question of distributing aid and reconstruction funding means “everybody is forced to recognise Hamas as the de facto authority in Gaza”.

That reality is awkward for Israel and the PLO. Israel has gone to great lengths to isolate Hamas. In addition, the Jewish state has stipulated that aid money and supplies can only be distributed through the PLO. Last week, Mr Meshaal, the leader of the Islamist group, said the PLO, which has been the Palestinians’ internationally recognised representative body since 1964, “does not represent anymore a point of reference for the Palestinians”. He called for a new, more inclusive representative body.

Such internecine fighting has divided the Palestinians geographically ever since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, leaving the larger West Bank under the control of the PLO.

But prestige is hardly Egypt’s only motive in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Egyptian leadership, said Prof Shehadi, is afraid that opening the border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip will provide an opportunity for the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition party and the organisation that founded Hamas in 1987.

During the fighting in late December and January, Egyptian police arrested more than 700 Brotherhood members during protests throughout the country over official refusals to open the border and provide relief for the besieged Gazans, said Mohamed Habib, the first deputy chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood. Dr Habib echoed Mr Meshaal’s views of the PLO and said the Egyptian government’s support for the West Bank-based organisation was misdirected.

“The PLO is just a dead image,” said Dr Habib. “Egypt has made it a condition that Hamas should stop fighting and give all of its support to Fatah. That’s why Egypt was so ineffective” as a peacemaker during the fighting last month in Gaza, he said.

Egypt, like some of the more moderate Hamas leaders in Gaza, would prefer to see Hamas share power with the Fatah party, which currently governs the Palestinian Authority, said Gamal Abdel Gawad, an analyst at the semi-official Al Aahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. Far from endangering a unity agreement among the two Palestinian factions, Cairo hopes to capitalise on Israel’s attacks to bring both sides to the negotiating table. The three weeks of bombing and ground attacks have weakened Hamas, he said, and may have also tempered their extremist ideology.

“The reading here in Egypt on the impact of the Gaza war was that it allowed a kind of shift in Hamas policy, more toward a kind of moderate policy,” said Mr Gawad. “A softening of Hamas’s position would allow for national reconciliation again.”

As evidence of a softer position, Mr Gawad cited Hamas continuing their negotiations even three weeks after the ceasefire in late January, as well as the Islamists’ consideration to allow Palestinian Authority guards to police Gaza’s border with Egypt. The anti-PLO statements by Mr Meshaal show divisions within Hamas’s ranks: Some members of Hamas’s leadership who actually suffered through Israel’s attacks have since disavowed their leader’s opinion of the PLO.


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