Behind Egypt’s role in the prisoner swap

Egypt’s role in brokering a prisoner exchange deal might signal a return to cosy Mubarak-era relations with Israel.

Israel’s refusal to apologise for the deaths of six Egyptian security officers lead to outrage in September [AFP]

Egypt’s apparently crucial role in orchestrating the Palestinian prisoner swap with Israel leaves those who have observed the cooling relations between the two countries wondering what more the deal signals.

After all, the once-firm alliance under deposed president Hosni Mubarak remained on shaky ground as protesters tore down barriers outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo in August, calling for the expulsion of of the country’s ambassador. Egypt, meanwhile, recalled its own ambassador from Israel in response to a series of cross-border attacks that left several members of Egyptian security personnel dead.

Again in September, major violence broke out at the Israeli embassy, this time, prompting the Israeli ambassador, his family and the bulk of embassy staff to leave the country.

Omar Ashour, the director of Middle East Studies at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter told Al Jazeera that, while many Egyptians view their government’s involvement in the deal with pride, there was also a sense of “bitterness and frustration”.

“Israel thanked the SCAF (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) following the deal, reflecting a cosy relationship. That won’t be regarded positively in any way, especially after the murder of the Egyptian soldiers in Sinai,” said Ashour.

Deals like this, he said, spell “continuity rather than change in foreign policy” – due in part to SCAF’s interest in maintaining the status quo.

“This is not necessarily a bad thing but it depends on the results. Mubarak was generally seen as giving Israelis cheap gas, intelligence information, and exerting pressures on Palestinians and Arabs in exchange for his own interest, not [that of] the country’s,” said Ashour.

“This policy got [former Egyptian president Anwar] Sadat assassinated and placed Mubarak and his cronies in jail. The SCAF would not like to repeat those mistakes.”

Deals don’t dispel concerns

Habiba Mohsen, Egyptian activist and researcher at the Arab Forum for Alternatives, a Giza-based think tank, said that Egypt’s role in the prisoner swap was “a surprise in the terms of the performance of the Egyptian ‘diplomacy’ and the other ‘sovereign state institutions’, such as SCAF”.  

The real question for Mohsen is why the deal was finally concluded at this point in time.

“In my opinion, this is a definite sign of the failure of the Egyptian policies under the previous regime; or – as some other people would see it – a sign of how Mubarak’s regime was conspiring against the interests of the Palestinian people for the sake of Israel, bearing in mind the strong feeling of solidarity the Egyptians, generally, have for the Palestinians and the Palestinian cause,” said Mohsen.

She added that the deal is being seen as a SCAF public relations offensive – an attempt to net good will among the Egyptian public, especially after the Maspero incident, when military police killed 27 and injured scores more when a protest march turned into a violent confrontation earlier this month. 

Still, despite the fact that the Egyptian public is “not cool with Israel” and might never be, Mohsen said she does not anticipate another outbreak of protests against outside its embassy.

“Seeing another incident like the one by the Israeli embassy is highly unlikely now, since everyone has the Maspero incident in mind, and everyone is also busy with the upcoming parliamentary elections,” said Mohsen.

“Unless Israel does another violation against Egypt – [like] killing the six Egyptian soldiers on the borders, or holding a massive military campaign against Gaza or anything similar … things will stay in a ‘freezer’ for a while.”

Another bargaining chip?

But the Egyptian military still might have another ace up its sleeve – there are reports of another prisoner swap – this time, involving Israeli-American Ilan Grapel, who might be freed in exchange for 81 Egyptian prisoners held in Israel.

Grapel was arrested in June, accused of being a Mossad operative in Cairo. At the time, the Egyptian public prosecutor released a statement saying that Grapel had been arrested while “trying to gather information and data and to monitor the events of the January 25 revolution”.

By that point, Egypt was already involved in negotiating the prisoner exchange deal that would ultimately lead to the release of 25-year-old Gilad Shalit, who had been held in the Gaza Strip since 2006, after a Hamas-led raid that is believed to have lead to his capture.

Still, unlike the ability to keep Shalit in captivity, having Grapel in custody has not been a source of pride for Egyptians (for whom Mohsen said some believe that a large “bribe” – or, as Israeli daily Haaretz reported, “economic incentive” – was offered). Rather, it has been a “humiliating” experience.

“So I believe the prisoners’ swap between Egypt and Israel will be a much better solution for SCAF and the government to maintain their image.”

But the issue of prisoner exchanges remains a touchy subject. 

“It was a sensitive issue even during Mubarak’s time,” said Ashour. But it’s a new day in Egypt, with new pressures on SCAF.

“And in any case, [an] Egyptian prisoner exchange is a win-win game for them.”

A message to the West

What seems clear is that, no matter how Egypt’s role in the negotiations is seen in by Arab countries, helping broker such a major deal scores Egypt diplomatic points with the US and Israel at a delicate time.

The country’s economy is in a mess, outbursts of violence – most recently, again, against the country’s Coptic Christians – continue and upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections that are sure to among the most complex political processes to ever be carried out in the region’s history combine to show a country in the throes of painful – if exciting – change. And this amount of change is not always welcome when it comes to maintaining something as tenuous as the terms of the Camp David Accords, meant to achieve peace in the Middle East.

And given the amount of aid Egypt gets from the US – roughly $2bn in economic and military aid annually – its relationship with the US is one worth protecting.

“At the same time it has sent a message to Israel and the West, that is to say: ‘Despite what’s going on, we’re still committed to the Camp David treaty and playing an intermediating role between Israel and Palestinians,” Blake Hounshell, managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, told Al Jazeera.

He also said that it was clear that the Egyptian military was eager to show that it had accomplished something with brokering this deal.

“I would say that, given how the Egyptian military was so keen for the Egyptian state TV to interview Shalit, that the SCAF was eager to show that it had accomplished something here,” said Hounshell – adding that it was “strange” that Shalit was the first major interview linked to the prisoner swap and not a high-profile Palestinian prisoner.

Hounshell sees a generational division when it comes to support for maintaining the status quo with Egypt. The older generation, he said, who remember wars with Israel, are more likely to want to stick the parameters laid out in the Camp David Accords, whereas the younger generation are “probably more hotheaded – they’re more likely to denounce the Camp David treaty as an abomination, and as something that is part and parcel of an American-backed security order in the region.”

But neither scrapping the treaty entirely nor renegotiating its terms seem likely at this point.

“Both the SCAF and Israel would be reluctant to open that can of worms – the security cooperation is ongoing and neither side wants to jeopardise it.”

Follow D. Parvaz on Twitter: @Dparvaz

Source: Al Jazeera

More from Features
Most Read