The negotiations in Cairo on cease-fire arrangements between Israel and the Palestinian factions, primarily Hamas, could provide an opening for numerous regional changes, chief among them the return of Egypt as an influential diplomatic and strategic player on the Middle Eastern stage. Other substantive adjustments seemingly in the offing are liable to be decisive for the Palestinian factions as well.
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The tactics used by Egypt during the crisis with Hamas were not aimed merely at embarrassing the group or punishing it for taking the side of the Muslim Brotherhood. It points to a trend of neutralizing certain centers of power in Hamas, including its political echelons, while strengthening the position of others.
Senior Palestinian officials who were involved in putting together the Palestinian delegation to Cairo said the Egyptians vetoed the participation of some of Hamas’ most prominent figures, including the head of its political bureau, Khaled Meshal, and Ismail Haniyeh, the former Gaza prime minister. Nor would it allow the heads of Hamas’ military wing to come.
Egypt sees Hamas’ military wing – and perhaps even Haniyeh himself – as partners in the terror attacks against Egyptian policemen and soldiers in Rafah. Egypt also claims that Meshal was always looking out first and foremost for Qatari and Turkish interests, which are not congruent with what Egypt wants in the era of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi.
Egypt did, however, welcome the involvement of Meshal’s deputy, Moussa Abu Marzouk, the only Hamas leader who lives in Cairo, who maintains a close relationship with the Egyptian authorities. During the last month, Abu Marzouk was the only official in contact with both Egypt and the Hamas leadership. Unlike Meshal, Abu Marzouk maintains a low profile and limits his public appearances.
According to one Palestinian version of events, Abu Marzouk was well aware of the Egyptian initiative and of the Palestine Liberation Organization announcement of a unilateral cease-fire that was almost immediately rejected by Hamas leaders in Gaza early on during last month’s fighting. Egyptian sources close to the state’s decision-makers say Cairo has marked Abu Marzouk as a key figure, a pleasant and pragmatic man with whom Egypt can deal while still protecting Egyptian interests. If the negotiations in Cairo go well, there seems little doubt that the Egyptians will maintain their ties with Abu Marzouk and push Meshal and Haniyeh to the sidelines.
Still, the talks have only begun, and Hamas needs a great deal of money, which Egypt doesn’t have, while Qatar does. It looks as if the diplomatic boxing match in Cairo between Israel and the Palestinian factions will be accompanied by some tense and fascinating power struggles.