El-Sisi Brokers Gaza Deal in Egypt's Push for Relevance

11 Oct 2017

From high above a street corner, the smiling face of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi gazes out over passersby, the air of paternal authority captured by an accompanying legend: “Long live Egypt.”

But this isn’t Cairo, it’s Gaza, a destitute strip of Palestinian territory to the northeast. The poster is testament to El-Sisi’s so far successful efforts to broker a reconciliation between long-feuding Palestinian factions, with critical talks due to resume in Egypt’s capital on Tuesday.

He wants a deal to permanently halt the movement of militants between Gaza and Sinai, where an Islamic State affiliate has damaged Egypt’s tourist industry as well as the broader recovery El-Sisi wants to portray. Ending the rift in Palestinian ranks could also ease Gaza’s suffering and bolster their hand in future peace talks with Israel. Put together, they point to an assertive Egypt looking to reclaim its role as a regional powerhouse.

There’s the “sense of wanting to re-establish Egyptian leadership and foreign policy activism -- putting Egypt back in its rightful place,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in Washington.

Arab Spring

From the early 1970s, autocratic Egyptian leaders predominantly allied with the U.S., receiving billions of dollars in economic and military assistance, and breaking with most of the Middle East to strike a historic peace treaty with Israel. Yet as the 2011 Arab Spring uprising led to three changes in leadership in as many years and economic decline, Egypt’s focus turned inward.

Former military chief El-Sisi was elected president in 2014, a year after he led the ouster of his Islamist predecessor. He secured financial help from Gulf benefactors who shared his distaste for political Islam and clinched a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. A crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood left hundreds dead and thousands imprisoned, and was later widened to include other dissenters. El-Sisi shrugged off criticism from international rights groups, telling Egyptians and the world that stability carried a price.

Egypt’s economic plight and the struggle to put an end to the violence -- which critics say has been fanned by El-Sisi’s rule -- drove the shift in foreign policy, especially when it comes to neighbors whose internal chaos threatens to undercut Egypt’s stability bid.

Egypt joined Russia in aiding Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar as the best hope for ending that country’s violent fracturing even as he competes with a United Nations-backed government in Tripoli that Egyptian officials have publicly backed. And it sided with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, its biggest Gulf financial backers, as they accused Qatar of maintaining close links with extremists and Shiite power Iran. Now El-Sisi’s wading into the thorny issue of reconciling the main Palestinian faction of President Mahmoud Abbas and the Islamist Hamas movement.

All Winners?

Hamas, which has controlled the Gaza Strip for over a decade, last week handed over administrative control to the internationally-recognized Palestinian Authority under an Egyptian-brokered deal.

In return for help in stemming the flow of militants and weapons through underground tunnels that extended into Gaza, Egypt has loosened controls over the Rafah crossing, and dangled the prospect of a permanent opening of a border that serves as one of Gaza’s few lifelines to the outside world.

For the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, a full and lasting reconciliation with Hamas would revive its role as the sole representative of the Palestinians in any talks with Israel.

“All sides have an interest in making this a success. There are joint interests at stake,” said Tarek Fahmy, assistant director of the Cairo-based National Center for Middle East Studies.

A final deal is still some way off, though, and the vexed question of what will happen to Hamas’ armed wing could yet scupper Egyptian efforts.

Pressure on Hamas

“The Egyptians have certainly put a lot of pressure on Hamas, but they’re under no illusions about the possibility of this agreement’s early demise,” Eran Lerman, a lecturer at Shalem College in Jerusalem and a former member of Israel’s National Security Council, said.

None of this means El-Sisi has broken with Egypt’s historical benefactor. He was the first world leader to officially congratulate U.S. President Donald Trump on winning the presidency, and has visited the White House and the U.S. on at least two occasions, with the two leaders united in their focus on fighting Islamist militancy.

But there have been difficulties, too. Egypt issued a rebuke after the U.S. withheld $300 million in aid in August to prod Cairo to improve its human rights record. And Trump hasn’t followed up on early signals he might designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.

El-Sisi has also edged closer to Russia, which is helping Egypt build a nuclear plant, and to China, whose companies are winning business contracts.

“Relations with the U.S. haven’t changed, but the international order has and Egyptian foreign policy needs to reflect that,” said Hussein Haridy, a former assistant foreign minister.

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