Egypt Regains Its Role as a Middle East Power Broker
Egypt played a critical role in brokering a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza during the flare-up of violence in May. In this QandA, the Editor asks our Senior Associate Fellow, H A Hellyer, about the significance of this event.
Jonathan Eyal: Do you think that the government in Cairo stepped in because there was a void in handling the crisis with other powers being either absent or unwilling to take the lead, or was there a positive element of encouragement from countries such as the US and Israel who were looking for mediators?
H A Hellyer: When it comes to the Israeli presence in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Cairo has historically been often involved as a mediator between the Israelis and the Palestinians, particularly over the past couple of decades. On this occasion, it was not the Americans or the Israelis who were pushing Cairo to get involved; it was more Cairo recognising that there was an opportunity to use its own contacts to create a communications line between the Israelis and Hamas, and that this might bring about a ceasefire. There are not many in the region that have high-level contacts with both the Israelis and most Palestinian factions.
J Eyal: The government in Cairo is not known for its friendship with Hamas. Do you think this tense relationship has changed as a result of Egypt's involvement in brokering the ceasefire?
H A Hellyer: Cairo is not particularly positive towards Hamas; the default is to recognise it as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Cairo proscribed as a terrorist organisation in 2013, following a widespread crackdown against the group domestically in Egypt. However, Cairo has shown a level of pragmatism vis-à-vis Hamas, which currently governs the Gaza Strip in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and once the latter publicly disassociated itself from the Brotherhood in 2017, relations improved further. Cairo knows Hamas is in a difficult position; with the Israeli occupation and siege of Gaza seeing no signs of abating, bad relations with Cairo make a hard position for Hamas and Gaza much worse. The past few months have seen signs of improving the relationship even further, but it remains to be seen how far that will go in terms of dividends from the relationship.
J Eyal: Do you see the Gaza episode in May as a one-off Egyptian involvement, or as part of a broader calibration of Cairo's stance and future activities on the Palestinian question?
H A Hellyer: Cairo does not view the engagement on the Palestine question as a one-off, but the continuation of a longstanding commitment, and an affirmation of the importance of its regional role; I would presume Cairo will continue to be involved at least at this level. Of course, the region has changed a lot in the past couple of decades, and there are other actors that are competing for influence. Nevertheless, the recent Gaza ceasefire showed a reliance on Cairo that could not have been easily replaced by other capitals.
J Eyal: Is there a particular Egyptian position on the question of the continued Israeli blockade of Gaza, or the question of Qatari financial transfers to Gaza?
H A Hellyer: As it stands at present, Egyptian construction companies are involved in removing the debris due to the Israeli bombardment of buildings in Gaza. There have been suggestions of a lot more involvement in terms of rebuilding, but this has not yet materialised, though this might change, according to different reports. On the political level, it is clear Cairo’s role in securing the ceasefire has, as I noted earlier, reaffirmed it as a player that the US administration is likely to engage with. There are also reports that Cairo is also engaged on mediating how the cash transfers, as well as the pledged monies to Gaza, are to reach Gaza. But there does not seem to be much movement on this, apart from the US$30 million per month that the Israelis have appeared to accept can go to Gaza via the UN office in Jerusalem.
J Eyal: Cairo was not expected to have a close relationship with Washington under a Joe Biden administration. Yet during the May crisis, Egypt's significance to the US became obvious. Could this be a prelude to more cooperative US–Egyptian relations?
H A Hellyer: American–Egyptian political relations depend on two main institutions: the White House; and Congress. In the White House, there is an administration that has a significant component of former officials from the Barack Obama administration, who would have been in office in 2013, including President Biden himself, when relations between Cairo and Washington deteriorated significantly. Even the most positive elements in the Biden administration (positive due to recognising Egypt’s significance on the Palestinian–Israeli file) are not keen for a warming of the relationship, comparable, for example, to the Donald Trump administration.
As for Congress, the situation is much more negative for Cairo; there are increasing numbers of voices who are deeply critical of Cairo on account of widespread concerns surrounding human rights in Egypt, and that will likely result in further difficulties for the relationship. It is important to note that the administration may find itself in a much more restricted position in the future, due to laws passed by Congress, arising from a lack of movement on the human rights file.
J Eyal: Finally, are relations with Turkey on the mend?
H A Hellyer: Turkey began public overtures towards Egypt in March of this year, following more private conversations; my RUSI colleague, Ziya Meral, and I wrote a short research paper analysing the prospects in that regard at that time. Contacts are continuing, and last month, there were reports of an impending exchange of ambassadors, which would mark an official re-establishment of at least partially normal political relations for the first time since 2013. However, at the moment, it seems progress is slowing; Cairo is rather cool to any suggestion that it should move quickly to full normalisation, without Ankara shifting more substantially closer to its own position particularly on Libya (where Turkey still has military forces, which Egypt wants to see the departure of) and Eastern Mediterranean energy and maritime issues.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Have an idea for a Commentary you’d like to write for us? Send a short pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get back to you if it fits into our research interests. Full guidelines for contributors can be found here.
Latest News from
The Experience of Women in the UK’s Armed Forces: An Injustice to One is a Threat Made to All30/07/2021 14:25:00
A parliamentary report has highlighted the woefully inadequate condition of women in the UK armed forces. The problems are wider, and deeply rooted. Either way, they require urgent responses.
RUSI Taskforce Urges the US and UK to put ‘houses in order’ on illicit finance30/07/2021 12:33:00
In its first meeting, RUSI’s ‘Taskforce on a Transatlantic Response to Illicit Finance’ (TARIF) focused on domestic policy actions – with international implications – that will serve as an essential first step in leading the global fight against illicit finance.
Poland and Biden's European Diplomacy30/07/2021 10:33:00
President Biden's European diplomacy is underestimated in Poland, and the Polish government is ill-equipped to affect a meaningful engagement with the current US administration.
Elections in Libya: Dim Prospects for Stability29/07/2021 14:25:00
While elections in Libya are long overdue, the chances of carrying off a successful electoral process in December remain low.
Ethiopia: Averting Wider Conflict27/07/2021 14:25:00
Prime Minister Abiy’s electoral victory is a pyrrhic one; the task of keeping his country together is far from over.
The British Army’s Greek Tragedy26/07/2021 14:25:00
The British Army has spent £3.2 billion on its Ajax family of vehicles, but as major problems beset the programme and its role in the force remains poorly defined, the Army faces a stark choice between doubling down or moving on.
The Aftermath of the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict26/07/2021 12:33:00
Eight months after the latest war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, a new status quo has emerged.
The Coming Naval Arms Race in the Eastern Mediterranean26/07/2021 10:33:00
The clouds of conflict are gathering over the Eastern Mediterranean.