Moderating a volatile region

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 26 Sep 2018

Egypt’s delegation to the United Nations General Assembly has been busy promoting Cairo’s vision on resolving a host of regional issues

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York, US, September 25, 2018 (Photo: Reuters)

On Wednesday afternoon (East Coast Time) President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi was scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The meeting offers an opportunity to follow up on regional developments that are the subject of regular consultations between Cairo and Tel Aviv.

One issue high on the agenda of both Al-Sisi and Netanyahu, say informed sources, are Cairo’s ongoing attempts to foster Palestinian reconciliation and mediate a long-term truce between Hamas in Gaza and Israel.

Egypt has managed to establish — though “only in principle”, as one Middle East diplomat put it — a “ceasefire” between Israel and Hamas.

The fragile understanding was reached against a backdrop of skirmishes that Cairo feared could ignite a new round of Israeli hostilities against the impoverished Strip along Egypt’s volatile North Sinai border.

The deal could not be translated into a fully-fledged ceasefire partly because of Israeli demands which Hamas was loath to concede immediately, and partly because of what Western diplomats describe as US dislike of the deal.

 “Cairo tried to convince Washington but it didn’t work. The Americans say they are planning to announce a comprehensive plan for the whole Israeli-Palestinian problem in the coming weeks and they did not want any partial deals ahead of their offer,” said one European diplomat.

An exchange of Egyptian-American views on the issue took place late Monday between Al-Sisi and US President Donald Trump. Ahead of the meeting, an Egyptian diplomat said US ideas for Palestinian-Israeli peace, and possible diplomatic interventions by Egypt, were to be discussed.

“The Americans have been working on restructuring the initial draft of their plan and have been consulting with us and other regional players. The Saudis requested some changes but we don’t know exactly how much of the plan that was shared with us was changed and when and how the US is planning to unveil it,” said the Egyptian diplomat.

“Clearly, Egypt will be a central player in any peace initiative when — or maybe I should say if — it is offered. We already are working to pave the way for possible peace moves but we are not sure how things will develop.”

Before arriving in New York late Saturday afternoon (ECT) Al-Sisi was briefed by aides on the latest round of mediation between Hamas and Fatah which included changes to the reconciliation plan Egypt has already drafted in an attempt to bring Fatah on board.

The initial plan was accepted by Hamas but rejected by the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority in Ramallah which said it could create a de facto long-term separation between Gaza and Ramallah.

Cairo is not expecting immediate progress on its plans given Hamas has not been forthcoming about accommodating the changes Cairo introduced to placate Fatah.

Cairo remains hopeful it will win support for its mediation efforts during the talks Al-Sisi is holding with Netanyahu, Trump and European leaders whose countries have a direct interest in and influence on the Middle East on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York.

“The US president is consumed with domestic affairs but would still like to secure a foreign affairs success. If Egypt can help secure progress to allow the US to introduce its peace plan later this year it would go a long way to consolidating the ties between Cairo and Washington. Egypt, always very keen on its ties with the US, is perhaps especially so now,” said a Cairo-based European diplomat.

In brief statements upon their meeting, both Al-Sisi and Trump affirmed their commitment to work on issues of common interest. Although the Palestinian file was not openly mentioned in the statements, a source in New York following the meeting told Al-Ahram Weekly, “but, of course, it was discussed.”

Government sources in Cairo said last week that the serious efforts Egypt has been making on the Palestinian front were “part of the argument Egypt’s friends in the US administration” used to lift the suspension placed on $195 million of military aid.

Egyptian sources say they hope to see “more support” from the White House despite sporadic Congressional nagging about governance issues and democracy from some US legislators.

After his meeting with Al-Sisi on the fringe of the UNGA, Trump said the relationship between the US and Egypt “has never been stronger” and that both countries would continue to work on “military and trade and whatever else we could work on”.

However, the same Egyptian sources say Cairo is not seeking to win more generous support from the Oval Office and has no intention of offering to play a military role in the management of the situation in Syria or in Yemen as a bargaining chip to this end.

“We could still offer expertise and send experts but I know of no change in plans that would involve sending troops overseas,” said an informed government source commenting on the outcome of the military meeting that brought together representatives from Egypt, Jordan and the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council earlier this month.

According to the source, the meeting addressed the kinds of security cooperation needed to counter terrorism more effectively.

The necessity of eliminating “all” terrorist organisations is something Al-Sisi has been promoting since he first attended the UNGA in the autumn of 2014.

In his address this year too, the president said, “There is no doubt that the Arab region is one of the most vulnerable to the dangers of nation state disintegration, and the ensuing creation of a fertile environment for terrorism and exacerbation of sectarian conflicts.”

Al-Sisi expressed Egypt’s support to UN Secretary-General António Guterras’ initiative to hold a UN-sponsored conference on combating terrorism.

“There needs to be an international approach and mechanism to combat terrorism,” the president said in his statement before the UNGA on Tuesday afternoon (ECT).

The importance Cairo attaches to blocking channels for the promotion of political Islam, especially in its more radical versions, underwrites Egypt’s support of Khalifa Haftar in Libya.

They are arguments that Al-Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri were expected to reiterate in meetings at the UNGA that were designed to address the continued conflict in Libya.

Cairo has made no secret of its scepticism over the French diplomatic initiative launched in the spring of this year, or its dismay at the priorities of Ghassan Salamé, the UN envoy to Libya.

Al-Sisi reminded the UNGA attendees that a year after the adoption of the UN initiative on Libya, hardly any progress had been made.

Cairo will also be pushing diplomatic plans to forge an alliance of non-Islamist Syrian opposition groups that could then form an “assembly” capable of coexisting with the government of Bashar Al-Assad until a new constitution can be drafted and presidential elections held.

“Egypt has some very concrete ideas on Libya and on the Palestinian issue and less concrete ideas on Syria. It is not, however, offering much on the management of the worsening situation in Yemen. When all is said and done I guess the consensus is that Egypt’s regional views reflect a moderating diplomacy, unlike the impulsive views coming from other top regional players,” said a Cairo-based European ambassador.

“The regional role Egypt plays, not least on the issue of migration which is very important for Europe, encourages our governments to cooperate with Cairo on the economic and development fronts even though we have deep concerns about some of the regime’s domestic policies,” he added.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Moderating a volatile region   

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