U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry once again discovered on Tuesday that his relationship with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi is not, and probably never will be, anything like the relationship Washington had with his predecessor Hosni Mubarak.
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Under Mubarak, the term “diplomacy of winks” was coined to describe the trilateral relationship among Jerusalem, Washington and Cairo. Today, Sissi’s dealings with the United States could better be described as diplomacy by brass knuckles.
On Monday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri announced that he saw no reason to make any changes to his country’s cease-fire proposal.
Over the previous few days, Kerry’s advance team had tried to discuss alterations in the proposal’s wording, but was met with an aggressive Egyptian refusal. Cairo doesn’t intend to give Hamas any discounts — at least not at this stage.
The only flexibility Egypt has been willing to display was its statement that any change in the proposal’s wording would require the agreement of “all sides.”
This term includes Egypt, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and, of course, Israel. In this way, Sissi is dividing responsibility for the cease-fire, or lack thereof, between Hamas and the other Palestinian organizations in the Gaza Strip on one hand, and Israel, Abbas and Egypt on the other. Every party thus has the power to veto a cease-fire.
This formulation also reveals the close cooperation and coordination between Israel and Egypt. That doesn’t mean everything Israel agrees to will be acceptable to Egypt, but for now, it seems Sissi isn’t too upset over the prospect of Israel continuing its military operation in Gaza.
It could be he thinks Israel is capable of hitting Hamas harder and bringing it to its knees. Another possibility is that he has drawn a connection between Saturday night’s deadly attack on Egypt’s western border, in which 22 Egyptian soldiers were killed, and the war in Gaza, and doesn’t want to be seen making concessions to Hamas, which Egypt views as a terrorist organization, at the same time he is announcing a sweeping counterterrorism campaign.
Meanwhile Sissi, who undoubtedly holds the main keys to reaching a cease-fire, is continuing his test of strength against the other would-be mediators, especially Qatar and Turkey. But he is also gradually imprisoning himself in the prestige trap he himself created. For now, it isn’t just his intra-Arab and international diplomacy that’s being put to the test, but also his ability to “stand firm” on the principles he formulated.
At a time when the public discourse in Egypt has turned against Hamas with unprecedented harshness, Sissi would be hard-put to explain to the public why he granted Hamas concessions that “will come at the expense of Egypt’s national interest,” as one Egyptian pundit put it.
For now, it seems Sissi can afford to wait patiently, since even the two main militant groups in Gaza, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, are at odds over the Egyptian proposal.
Islamic Jihad and its leader, Ramadan Shallah, want Egypt to be both the mediator of and a party to the agreement. Hamas, meanwhile, is still insisting that Qatar, and to a lesser extent Turkey, be part of the solution.
On Sunday, during Abbas’ lengthy meeting in Doha with the head of Hamas’ political bureau, Khaled Meshal, it seemed for a moment as if the atmosphere were improving and it would be possible to find a formula both could accept.
Abbas was already preparing to fly to Saudi Arabia to report to the Saudi leadership on the revised proposal. But then Hamas, and apparently Qatar as well, dug in its heels, so he canceled the trip and returned to Ramallah.
Abbas, who is representing Egypt’s positions in his talks with Hamas and the other militant organizations, is also trapped, between his desire to obtain a cease-fire and his understanding that any deviation from the Egyptian proposal is liable to lead to a clash with Egypt. Abbas holds two valuable cards: He can release Hamas prisoners from PA prisons and authorize PA banks to transfer money for salary payments to employees of Gaza’s Hamas-led government. And he proposed starting to implement both these steps. But Hamas, which had posed more moderate demands when the war began, has now upped them in order to justify large number of victims the fighting has claimed.
Its principal demand is to end the siege of the Gaza Strip. That means reopening the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, fully opening the crossings with Israel and ending Israel’s naval blockade.
Egypt, Israel and the PA are currently discussing the proper interpretation of this demand. Hamas bases it in part on Egypt’s promise to reopen Rafah once a Palestinian unity government was formed, but Egypt denies having made any such promise.
Egypt says it will reopen Rafah only if control of the crossing is transferred from Hamas to Abbas’ presidential guard. Hamas says the Palestinian unity government should appoint “mutually acceptable” inspectors who will include people from Hamas.
Israel, meanwhile, is insisting that Rafah be reopened only under the terms stipulated in an Israeli-Palestinian agreement from 2005, shortly after Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip. But Egypt never signed that agreement, and therefore isn’t bound by it.
It seems doubtful that Kerry will be able to resolve all these disputes in the next few days, especially given Egypt’s adamant positions. Thus for now, an end to the war doesn’t depend only on Israel and Hamas. Any solution must also take Cairo’s agenda into account.