Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi is making early moves to help end Israel’s pounding of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, even as he maintains a crackdown on Islamist groups at home.
“Egypt is making diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the crisis” in Gaza, the president’s office said yesterday, without giving details. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said they’ve spoken with El-Sisi, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman wouldn’t comment on any contacts with Egypt.
Egypt under former presidents Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Mursi played a part in brokering cease-fire deals that ended Israeli operations in Gaza in 2009 and 2012. A similar role in the current conflict would require El-Sisi to balance Egypt’s aspirations as a regional leader and public sympathy for Palestinians with domestic efforts to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is an offshoot.
“It’s a juggling act,” Anthony Skinner, director for Middle East and North Africa at the U.K.-based consultancy Maplecroft, said by phone. Egypt “doesn’t want Hamas to register a PR victory in this struggle, for pure security reasons,” he said. On the other hand, “it does have an interest in at least giving the impression to Palestinians and their Egyptian supporters that it is doing as much as it can to limit Palestinian civilian casualties.”
Former army chief El-Sisi toppled Mursi, an elected Islamist leader, a year ago. Since then Egypt has outlawed the Brotherhood as a terrorist group, blaming it for a wave of attacks on security forces, many of them in the Sinai peninsula. The group denies the allegation and says it’s committed to peaceful protests.
If El-Sisi gets involved in mediation, he may make tougher demands on Hamas than his predecessor, who viewed the group more sympathetically, said former Israeli Ambassador to Cairo Eli Shaked.
“Egypt would likely demand Hamas really put an end to the rocket fire and attacks on Israel, to end its relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, to cut all contacts with the jihadist groups acting in Sinai and even help in the fight against these elements,” Shaked said.
So far, there’s no sign of a willingness to negotiate on either side. In the past week, Israel has carried out air strikes that killed at least 90 Palestinians, while signaling it may be readying a ground invasion. Militants in Gaza have barraged Israel with hundreds of rockets. Abbas said yesterday that Egypt’s initial efforts for a truce have borne no fruit.
It may take time for a mediating role to evolve, said Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to both Israel and Egypt.
“I would expect Egypt to play the role of an intermediary when the time is right,” he said. “But the Egyptians aren’t going to jump in too early because they don’t want to run the risk of a diplomatic failure.”
The escalation in violence between Israel and Gaza-based militants is the worst since November 2012. It follows the collapse of U.S.-sponsored peace talks in April and the killing of teenagers on both sides of the conflict, which triggered almost a month of rocket fire and air strikes.
For Egypt’s new president, misgivings about Hamas will be outweighed by the risk of losing its mediator role, according to Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City.
“While the Egyptians may be reluctant to intervene because they have such a bad relationship with Hamas they can’t ignore this role,” Abusada said. “If they do, other countries such as Turkey or Qatar would step in, diminishing their regional aura.”
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has sought a peacemaking role in the past, has held talks with Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, NTV reported yesterday.
Hamas has already scored a tactical victory by forcing Egypt to reopen the Rafah border crossing into Sinai, to allow Palestinian casualties to be treated, according to Abusada. “One of the reasons Hamas went into this war is because it was being choked by both the Israelis and Egypt and wanted to open a new line of communications with the Egyptians, which seems to be happening right now,” he said.