The Egyptian strategy on the Palestinian issue: An opportunity for aligning security and political standpoints
By Dr. Moshe Albo | June, 2021
|Photo: U.S. Secretary of Defense | CC BY 2.0|
Operation Guardian of the Walls established Cairo's worth in the U.S. administration's eyes, and the understanding that it is the only element in the complex regional system that is capable of mediating between the parties and bringing about a lasting ceasefire. As a result, President Biden spoke to el-Sisi for the first time since he entered office, and formally thanked him for leading the parties to declare a ceasefire.
In the Egyptian-Palestinian-Israeli triangle, Operation Guardian of the Walls expressed the desire to return to Egypt's traditional mediator policy from the times of Mubarak. During Operation Protective Edge, which broke out soon after el-Sisi began his term as Egypt's president, there was no authentic Egyptian motivation to advance effective mediation efforts in view of the Muslim Brotherhood's concrete threat to the regime's stability and the understanding that there was a vast collaboration between Hamas and the "Sinai District of the Islamic State", jeopardizing Egyptian governance in Sinai. Egypt sought to weaken Hamas because it realized that the group's victory would impact the security situation in Sinai and provide a tailwind for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
During Operation Guardian of the Walls, the Egyptian standpoint had changed in view of el-Sisi's stabilizing regime and the changes rendered in the overall strategic context. The Muslim Brotherhood ceased to pose a significant threat to the regime's stability as a movement, and the terror challenge of the "Sinai District" had been contained. Thus, Egypt had used the opportunity provided by the campaign in Gaza to establish its regional status as the one exclusively holding the mediation ticket over other actors in the regional arena (Qatar, Turkey). Cairo leveraged its position to fortify its regional status and improve its relations with Washington.
Yet Egypt's standpoint vis à vis Hamas has not changed fundamentally. Cairo continues to perceive the Palestinian organization as a threat to its security and political interests, fearing the possibility that it would "assume ownership" over Jerusalem in the Palestinian and Arab public while taking over the Palestinian political system on the morning after Abu Mazen departed from political life. Egypt's interest is to strengthen the position of the Palestinian Authority as part of the truce negotiations in the Gaza Strip and to set the wheels of the peace process in motion with the PA at the helm, and create the conditions that would enable the PA to lead the Palestinian political system as a dominant force.
At the same time, Cairo has accepted that the feasibility of internal Palestinian reconciliation, and the Palestinian Authority's regaining of control over the Gaza Strip, is low. Therefore, Egypt has renewed its talks with Hamas through the General Intelligence channel (as opposed to that of the Foreign Ministry, which would have been seen as political recognition of Hamas) to establish the ceasefire and advance negotiations towards understandings. Cairo has even announced that it will invest 500 million USD in the rehabilitation of Gaza, thereby manifesting its unprecedented willingness to deepen its long-range involvement in the Gaza Strip, even if it remains unclear whether the funds will indeed end up being Egyptian. However, there are no indications at present that Egypt will change its policies concerning the crossings or sea blockade it has been imposing over Gaza since 2007.
In the strategic context, Egypt is underscoring its centrality to maintaining regional stability and attempting to leverage it to increase American involvement in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam crisis and the political crisis in Libya. By contrast, Cairo is trying to reduce American impact on all matters concerning internal policy (the human rights situation) and avoid a crisis in U.S.-Egyptian relations in light of its close military ties with Russia. If Egypt were to lead the renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace process while establishing a long-term truce between Israel and the Gaza Strip, its status in Washington would be bolstered from the Egyptian perspective. It would win points that could be useful in future crises.
On the public Israeli-Egyptian relations level, the operation has led to the exacerbation of anti-Israel rhetoric to the point of incitement and delegitimization. The Egyptian media and religious establishment, both of which are subject to the regime's influence, have led vicious attacks against Israel in recent weeks. Sheikh el-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmad el-Tayyeb, representing one of the prominent voices in the Islamic world, expressed this notion by saying:
"The world remains disgracefully silent towards callous Zionist terrorism and the violations committed against Al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy sites of Islam in Occupied Palestine".
How can the gap between the lewd incitement against Israel and the tight security and state collaboration between the two states be reconciled? Cairo aims to have the cake and eat it too: the regime allows extreme voices from the media and religious-political establishment to be heard in both the conventional and social media, thereby controlling the critical discourse against Israel and ensuring that it does not affect the regime, nor turn into broad public protests. At the same time, Cairo spearheads the mediation effort and brazenly hosts the Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs openly in Cairo while sending the Director of the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate, Abbas Kamel, to Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Gaza Strip. The regime is attempting to find the "high road" between strategic considerations (national security interests) and the "emotional" aspect (religious and national sentiments) in such a way as to serve its domestic interests without damaging its strategic relations with both Israel and the United States.
"The older sister" has managed to leverage the role of mediator to position itself as the only actor maintaining contact with all other actors from a powerful standpoint while protecting its security interests in light of the simple realization that there are no other alternatives in the role of mediation that are acceptable to all parties. Thus, unlike Turkey and Qatar who were not able to lead effective moves in neither the regional nor international arena, Cairo had skillfully utilized the Gaza campaign to strengthen its status, "assume ownership" of the negotiations for truce, and spearhead the Israeli-Palestinian peace process revival with U.S. support.
Egypt still perceives ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Iran as the key strategic threats to its national security while viewing its security and economic cooperation with Israel as an asset to its interests in the region as well as to its relations with Washington. Operation Guardian of the Walls did not alter this perception, nor the perceived threat posed by Hamas to Cairo's strategic interest.
The negotiations for a lasting truce, serve as an opportunity for strategic standpoint aligning on the Jerusalem-Cairo axis, as well as for leveraging the operative accomplishments of Operation Guardian of the Walls to establish political and security achievements, and weaken Hamas. Israel should also demand that Egypt reduce its unbridled incitement against it in the media and by the religious establishment, given the two countries shared long-term strategic interests.
 Wafa News, May 10, 2021.
Authored by Dr. Moshe Albo, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
If you wish to receive the weekly brief regularly, please follow the link to register.