Egypt’s bias in Palestinian negotiations
Mel Frykberg

Analysis: Egypt’s bias in Palestinian negotiations
Mel Frykberg
Middle East Times
May 29, 2007

CAIRO --  As Gaza clashes between Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah continue to claim the lives of hundreds of fighters from both sides, as well as those of civilians trapped in the crossfire, Hamas political bureau deputy head Moussa Abu Marzouk confirmed that a delegation from the Islamist movement would hold mediation talks with the Egyptian government in Cairo over the next few days.

But is Egypt - poised to negotiate yet another settlement between the two warring Palestinian factions, as well as between the Palestinians and Israelis - to be regarded as a fair and impartial peace broker, or is it heavily biased in favor of Fatah?

Numerous reliable media sources and reports have alleged that convoys of weapons, destined for Mahmoud Abbas` Fatah movement, have crossed the border from the Sinai into Rafah in the south of the Gaza Strip.

In addition, the Americans, the Israelis, and, indeed, even the Egyptians have made no secret of their desire to see Fatah emerge the victor as the two Palestinian factions battle for political supremacy. The US has organized training camps for Fatah in addition to supplying it with arms, while Egypt recently hosted a training course for officers from the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) in Cairo.

Commenting on factors likely to drive mediation to end the Fatah-Hamas strife, Emad Gad, a political analyst at Cairo`s Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told the Middle East Times that `fairness and impartiality doesn`t even come into the equation. We are not talking about ethics and principles here.`

He added that: `We are talking about pragmatism and realpolitik. Egypt is looking after its own security interests in the region and there are two agendas at hand here. One consists of Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia who are trying to reach a peaceful, non-military settlement to the problems of the region. They are very close to the United States and the Americans.

`The other agenda consists of a military solution to regional conflicts and is supported by Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas; although the latter is a Sunni movement, its ideology is an Islamic fundamentalist one, as is Iran`s, and, in fact, Iran has supported the Palestinians financially and militarily,` explained Gad.

Further press reports and analysts have claimed that the predominantly Sunni Cairo, Riyadh, Beirut, and Amman governments are worried about what they see as a Shiite crescent`s desire to establish regional hegemony. This crescent comprises Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria - while the majority of Syrians are Sunni, the ruling Alawite elite of President Bashar Al Assad`s government, belongs to a sect of Shiite Islam.

Meanwhile, the Arab world`s Sunni regimes continue to battle their own homegrown Islamic fundamentalists who have garnered much local support due to widespread dissatisfaction with what is seen as the autocratic leaderships` desire to remain in power taking priority over the needs and political aspirations of their people.

Elaborating further on the region`s competing interests, Gad explained that: `We are speaking about two fronts even if we exclude the involvement of the US. There is a regional competition between Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah on the one hand, and Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia on the other hand. And Iran and the US are enemies who support the competing agendas of their proxies.`

He went on to stress that Egypt was deeply concerned about resolving both the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the fighting between Fatah and Hamas because both were also Egyptian issues.

Indeed, Israel`s dispute with the Palestinians had an impact on Egypt`s borders as the country battled to contain the threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood to President Hosni Mubarak`s regime, explained Gad.

`The concern for the plight of the Palestinians and the so-called Islamic threat posed by Hamas, which the Egyptians consider a branch of the Brotherhood, is also a convenient ruse to avoid dealing with the Egyptian public`s dissatisfaction with Mubarak`s regime and the threat democracy poses to the ruling National Democratic Party [NDP],` he noted.

The NDP `also uses its involvement in these conflicts as a way to curry favor with the US government, which has invested a lot of time, effort, and money in trying to settle the Israeli-Palestinian issue,` he said, adding that `Egypt is afraid that if Hamas succeeds in consolidating its rule in the occupied Palestinian territories... that could encourage the Brotherhood here to take power.”

He stressed that the NDP is not unbiased: `So, no, Hosni Mubarak`s ruling National Democratic Party is not an impartial mediator and they actively try to create the impression that [a] Hamas [-led Palestinian National Authority] would be no less corrupt than [a Fatah-led] PNA and that there is a wide chasm between Hamas` rhetoric and the reality, should they continue to rule.` 

But, Gad added, `Mubarak`s government is totally honest in wanting to resolve regional differences peacefully.`

He went on to explain: `The million-dollar question should be whether Egypt is a capable arbiter and the answer is, undoubtedly, `yes.` Our experience with the conflicting parties is extensive and goes back decades, and our record backs this up.”

Gad drew a parallel between Egypt’s role in Palestinian affairs with the role played by Washington in negotiating the Camp David accords:

”The US was never an impartial mediator during the Camp David Accords…  which ushered in a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, [but] it was the only power that could deliver. The Egyptians knew that the US was biased towards Israel, but were sufficiently pragmatic to realize they had no choice but to deal with the Americans.`

Equally, said Gad, Hamas had no choice but to accept invitations to attend Egyptian peace-brokering negotiations.

The political analyst also pointed out that another reason for Hamas to take Cairo seriously was the Islamist movement’s current bad relations with Jordan`s King Abdullah, because of Jordanian accusations against Hamas of arms smuggling, as well as major ideological differences. In addition, the main border for Palestinians` regional and international travel remains Rafah, on the the Gaza-Egypt frontier, and given that many Gazans needed to enter Egypt regularly for medical and educational reasons, Hamas cannot afford to completely alienate the Egyptians.

Nonetheless, irrespective of efforts to halt the internecine Palestinian bloodshed, according to Gad the near future could bring even more violence to the region.

`It will largely depend on the next American government voted in. This government will need to take a very active role in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, unlike the Bush administration which has focused its attention on the Iraq debacle. If the next administration doesn`t focus on resolving the Middle East`s conflagrations, then a complete meltdown in the region is highly possible,` he concluded.