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What's new in Egypt's policy towards the Palestinians?

President Morsi has established good relations with Hamas and welcomed its leader to Cairo. However, an inter-Palestinian reconciliation should be based on a balanced relationship with both Hamas and Fatah

Hicham Mourad , Monday 8 Apr 2013
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Egypt is soon to revive its mediation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. This, among other things, was one of the reasons for the recent visit to Cairo of Khaled Meshaal, head of Hamas’ political bureau, and Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip.

Egyptian efforts come after the recent call by the Arab summit in Doha (26-27 March) for a resumption of inter-Palestinian talks, interrupted in February, on the implementation of the reconciliation agreement signed in Cairo in May 2011.

The interest of post-revolution Egypt, especially since the election of a president who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, in unifying Palestinian ranks shows the new path it has set for itself vis-à-vis the Palestinian question.

Egypt under Mubarak also supported inter-Palestinian reconciliation, as the divisions, especially between President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah and Hamas, undermined any chance of resuming peace talks with Israel.

But Egypt at the time had clearly given its preferences to the moderate Abbas rather than the Islamist Meshaal. Former president Hosni Mubarak, who fought Islamists in Egypt,  the main threat to his power, had no interest in putting Islamists from Gaza on an equal footing with Fatah. Instead, he sought to politically isolate them and participated silently in Israel's policy to strangle Hamas, which has controlled the Gaza Strip since June 2007 after chasing out Fatah troops by force, by keeping the Rafah border crossing tightly closed.

Today, the opposite is taking place. Since the overthrow of the Mubarak regime, Hamas leaders are welcomed in Cairo at the political level and not only, as before, by intelligence officials. The election of Mohamed Morsi in June 2012 marked a new stage in the consecration of the Islamic resistance movement. Its leaders were greeted with much fanfare in late July by President Morsi, who promised to reduce the effects of the Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip.

But if the rapprochement between Cairo and Hamas irritates the Palestinian president, who used to be the Egyptian authorities' favourite, the Palestinian Islamist movement did not get a blank check from Egypt. Instead, Hamas complains bitterly of the closing of smuggling tunnels, the only way to circumvent the Israeli blockade, actively pursued by the Egyptian army in Sinai in recent months. Egypt under Morsi has also so far refused to open a Hamas office in Cairo and to accede to its requests to allow the transit of goods through the Rafah border crossing or to create a free trade zone.

Egypt, however, greatly reduced the restrictions on people’s movement at the Rafah terminal, encouraged the delivery of humanitarian aid and allowed the entry of many domestic and foreign delegations to express their solidarity with Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Egypt seeks clearly to maintain some balance between Hamas and Fatah, to keep its credibility as a mediator between the factions and mentor of the Palestinian question. Despite being weak and on the decline, Fatah, supported by the United States, Europe and Saudi Arabia, is essential for inter-Palestinian reconciliation.

Egypt under Morsi focuses on Palestinian reconciliation and avoids talking about the peace process or a possible resumption of negotiations with Israel. Indeed, the chances of such a resumption are almost non-existent, especially with the recent formation of an extremist Israeli government. But the Muslim Brotherhood leans more towards the logic of Hamas, which does not believe in negotiations with Israel and prefers resistance, including armed resistance.

On the other hand, Egyptian mediation for a resumption of negotiations requires a commitment at the highest political level. However, President Morsi is avoiding carefully any contact with Israeli officials.

The Brotherhood built much of its credit with the public thanks to its hostile discourse against Israel. And it would be difficult, at least in the short term, to alter the anti-Zionist rhetoric, even if this discourse was greatly watered down in the political programme of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, before the parliamentary elections of late 2011. The most virulent terms against Israel in the FJP programme were removed and some sections devoted to Palestine were deleted to keep the door open to future changes.

Of course, Egypt conducted mediation last November between Hamas and Israel to put an end to the Israeli offensive against the Gaza Strip. But this intervention was primarily made through the intelligence service and the president avoided direct contact with the Israelis.

Far from aiming to resume the moribund peace process, the intervention sought to save the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip from the devastating effects of the Israeli attack and come to the aid of Hamas, but also to avoid the negative impact of prolonged Israeli offensive on the fragile security of the neighbouring Sinai. The mediation of Egypt was intended to extinguish the fire at its borders, to manage the crisis and not to engage in any political action towards Israel.

Thus, despite the signs of change that are unmistakable, continuity prevails in the foundations of Egyptian policy towards the Palestinian question and Israel: respect for the peace treaty of 1979, despite requests to amend certain security provisions related to Sinai; continuing the role of mentor through mediating between factions to achieve an inter-Palestinian reconciliation. And despite the new government's penchant for Hamas because of their ideological affinities, Cairo is to maintain a balance between it and Fatah.

In this regard, Egypt must also take into account the positions of regional and international powers, especially Saudi Arabia, the United States and Europe, which support the Palestinian Authority. These powers have a crucial role in providing financial support, which is in great need for the Egyptian economy.
 

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