De-escalation first: Solving the Middle East's conflicts

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 21 Nov 2018

Cairo is hoping 2019 will be the year when political and economic deals come to fruition

File Photo: Palestinians protesting near the border between Gaza and Israel (AFP)

Senior Hamas and Fatah sources, speaking from Gaza and Ramallah, say their latest meetings with the mediation team sent by Cairo have raised the possibility of a deal being signed before the end of the year.

The basis of the deal Hamas and Fatah have tentatively agreed is built on the reconciliation paper Cairo first proposed in October 2017.

Delegations from both groups are expected to arrive soon in Cairo for follow-up talks with Egyptian officials.

One informed Egyptian source refused to be drawn on precisely when the deal is expected to be signed, though he noted there is “a positive attitude” from both Hamas and Fatah which “has not been there until quite recently”.

He said Cairo had briefed Washington, and that “by late this year or early next year — shortly after the end of the international holiday season” the Palestinians would be in a relatively unified position.

“This is an important development given that the word coming from Washington is that [US President Donald] Trump is planning to announce his peace proposals before the beginning of the holiday season or right after — the latter being the most likely.”

According to the same source, Egypt has been in touch with Jordan, a key partner in managing the Palestinian file.

Containing Palestinian rifts and reducing the tensions between Gaza and Israel are a top priority for Cairo which is hoping to play a central role in — possibly hosting — any peace held between the Palestinians and Israelis once the Trump deal is offered.

“I don’t think anyone can be sure how things will develop but I can safely say that a deal will be offered and talks will take place, some of them in Egypt,” said the source.

Egypt’s effort to promote peace on the Palestinian-Israeli front is part of a wider diplomatic drive by Cairo that includes the promotion of a possible “basic deal” for Libya.

In the course of talks UN Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salamé held with Egyptian officials during his visit to Egypt two weeks ago Cairo promised to intensify its efforts to assemble a unified Libyan army, under the direct supervision of Khalifa Haftar, as Salamé attempts to set the stage for possible elections in Libya in May 2019.

According to a source in Rome, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi told his Italian interlocutors during the Libyan conference held last week in Palermo that a unified Libyan army was achievable in the first few weeks of the new year.

“We will do our part and we are hoping that Ghassan Salamé will be able to manage the political process in a way that sets the tone for elections,” said an Egyptian source.

“The situation in Libya might improve, even in the absence of an immediate stabilising deal.”

“We are talking about setting the basic terms of a reconciliation agreement between east and west Libya. The troubled south is another story,” he said.

On yet another parallel track, Egypt could soon play host to meetings of Syrian political figures as a precursor to forming a committee to draft a new constitution for the troubled country.

“It is still only an idea,” said the Egyptian source. “But we have hosted meetings before to bring together Syrian players who could work together and with the Syrian regime.”

The source added that Egypt “is keen to help out on the Syrian front.

“Cairo is clearly uncomfortable with so many signs of foreign intervention in a country that is key to Egypt’s strategic interests.”

Egypt is particularly discomfited with the Iranian/Turkish presence in “an important Arab country”.

Cairo is also keen to help Syria return to the Arab League and is making no secret of its wish to consolidate Bashar Al-Assad’s regime as a possible ally.

“We have already tested the water a couple of times and will try again,” said the Egyptian source.

Cairo’s objective is to ensure any new Syrian constitution does not open the door to a “sudden shift in the balance of political power in Syria” — a euphemism for keeping Islamists, especially groups allied with Qatar and Turkey, out.

Egypt has counted on its allies the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) to push for this balance in Syria and the growing rift between Riyadh and Ankara, and the isolation of Qatar within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), could well lend further impetus to Cairo’s aims.

“The issue has been thoroughly discussed with Russia,” the same Egyptian source said, and “it is also being discussed with our friends in the Gulf.”

Syria was a top issue on the agenda of this week’s talks between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Valdimir Putin when the two leaders met on Monday during celebrations to mark the completion of the offshore phase of the gas pipeline beneath the Black Sea.

It will, however, be fairly low on the priorities of the GCC summit due to take place during the first week of December, with a dedicated Kuwaiti mediation that aims to end the rift among the member states of the grouping,

Yet Cairo remains hopeful that the Putin-Erdogan meeting and the GCC summit will allow for the consolidation of the sensible power balance it has been targeting for Syria.

Egypt is also keeping its fingers crossed that the GCC summit in Kuwait will give a push to a political deal to end a four-year war in Yemen.

“This has been a very consuming war and we have offered our help to end it many times. Finally, there seems to be sufficient international and regional interest to push for a political agreement that takes into consideration legitimate Saudi concerns over Iranian infiltration while simultaneously allowing all Yemeni people groups, including the Houthis, a fair share in power-sharing,” the Egyptian source said.

By the end of the first week of December Martin Griffiths, the UN envoy to Yemen, is scheduled to host inter-factional Yemeni talks in Stockholm. Griffiths, who has already held talks on a possible peace deal in Saudi Arabia, is due to head to Yemen next week to meet with opposing factions ahead of the Stockholm talks.

Cairo has sounded a cautious note, though it hopes that the latest moves on Yemen could at least consolidate the recently secured ceasefire and perhaps lead to a temporary peace deal.

Egypt is well aware the conflicts that have dogged the region for years will not be resolved in a few weeks. Yet it remains hopeful the trend towards political and military de-escalation could serve its plans for economic growth which are based on two pillars.

The first is to establish itself as a natural gas regional hub — the initial plan includes Israel and, later, Greece and Cyprus as well as some Arab countries. The second is to develop tourism and industrialisation across Sinai, in the north and south of the peninsula.

“There is considerable economic potential and we are discussing clear plans with our partners in and out of the region. We are hopeful that next year will see the beginning of the launch of these projects though for this to happen we need to push for de-escalation as hard as possible,” the Egyptian source said.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: De-escalation first

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