Cairo brokered the handover by Palestinian fighters of the remains of six Israeli soldiers. This halted an Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip that had already killed some 38 Palestinians.
The reprieve, however, was temporary. On Saturday, Israeli occupation forces bulldozed some 90 homes in Rafah, rendering about 200 families homeless, justifying the action by saying it destroyed houses belonging to Palestinian fighters.
But with this kind of continued violence, a more aggressive Egyptian role is needed.
“A stronger will from the Egyptian leadership is required,” says Hasan Nafa, head of the political science department at Cairo University. “Much is expected from Egypt and a lot can be done with stronger political will.”
During and after his visit to the US in April, Egyptian President Husni Mubarak launched an attack on the Bush administration’s policy towards the Middle East.
President Mubarak has been
He referred to the “great turmoil” across the region and warned of a further escalation of violence due to the US’s pro-Israeli policies. He later told Le Monde newspaper that the US had never been so detested in the Arab world as now.
Mubarak’s comments, a criticism of the US administration by a key US ally, were a response to the unconditional support by President George Bush of the Israeli position not to withdraw to the pre-1967 borders and to denying the Palestinian refugees the right of return.
Analysts argue that the reason behind the Egyptian fury was that the US support of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s situation, which also included a unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, has dealt a massive blow to Egypt’s peace efforts.
For a long time, Egypt has played a key pro-Palestinian role in the prolonged conflict with Israel. It sponsored peace talks and tried to patch differences among various Palestinian factions to allow the resumption of peace negotiations.
But the continuous biased, unilateral and high-handed US policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has left Egypt with little to do, says Hani al-Husayni, a politburo member of the leftist Tajammu opposition party.
“Egypt is in a predicament,” he told Aljazeera.net. “It can’t stand alone against the United States now and Arabs are not anywhere near reaching a united stance to effectively support the Palestinians.”
“Now, our actions are mainly reactions … Egypt’s diplomacy is more concerned now with dealing with crises rather than taking initiatives to prevent them”
Wahid Abd al-Majid,
In early May, Bush further fanned the flames of Egypt’s anger by telling al-Ahram newspaper that the establishment of a Palestinian state by 2005 was “unrealistic”, thus distancing himself from the so-called road map, which was also backed by Cairo.
“This is totally unacceptable, and Egypt will not abide by this,” says Muhammad Basyuni, a senior official in the ruling National Democratic party.
“In order for this conflict to end, the main peace-broker cannot be so biased towards Israel,” Basyuni, Egypt’s former ambassador to Israel, told Aljazeera.net.
Wahid Abd al-Majid, a political analyst at the al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, criticised the Egyptian response as late, saying Cairo had failed to read the omens before the US policy shift.
“Now, our actions are mainly reactions. We could have done something to prevent this from happening had we taken into consideration reports clearly indicating that the United States is edging more and more towards Israel,” he said.
Hazim Munir, correspondent for the London-based al-Hayat newspaper, echoes similar sentiments.
“Egypt’s diplomacy is more concerned now with dealing with crises rather than taking initiatives to prevent them,” he said.
This, Munir argues, along with several other impasses between both countries, has left Egypt able only to “stand against America and stop further escalations, but without being able to pressure Washington to take a more even-handed approach in the Palestinian issue”.
One issue is the economic tie between the two countries. Egypt receives annually $2 billion in US aid – the second-largest recipient after Israel.
“It is also interested in attracting more American investments and in signing a mutual trade agreement,” Munir said.
“If there is any reason for the resistance then it’s the Israeli occupation. And for this resistance to stop, the occupation must end”
Another is the US pressure to spread political reform in the Arab world. Egypt has openly criticised the US Greater Middle East Initiative saying that reform should come from within and not be imposed by an outside force.
Moreover, Washington is displeased with Egyptian support of Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat and what it sees as the inability to stop military resistance by Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Basyuni, however, says that Egyptian influence over Palestinian groups helped bring about a 51-day ceasefire that was “broken by Israel”.
“If there is any reason for the resistance then it’s the Israeli occupation. And for this resistance to stop, the occupation must end,” he explained.
The differences between Egypt and the US on these issues, argues leading al-Ahram columnist Salama Ahmad Salama, has prompted Washington to take the matter in to its own hands by attempting to limit Egypt’s role and allow other Arabs states to move in as major partners in the peace process.
That belief was all but confirmed in Cairo when Bush sent a private letter to Jordanian King Abd Allah saying that the US would oppose “any developments in the region that might endanger your interests”.
The letter was sent at Jordan’s request due to fears that the US endorsement of the Israeli position would lead to more Palestinian refugees crossing the borders to Jordan.
Salama, however, said it was “insufficient, as it did not tackle the refugees’ situation or the illegal Israeli settlement”.
“Egypt does not and will never agree to this. This is one reason why Bush sent it to Jordan,” he said.
Nafa sees the US approach towards Jordan as part of its “divide and rule” policy.
“America is trying to give greater rules to marginal states to weaken major powerhouses like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria,” he told Aljazeera.net.
Arab countries are as limited by
Al-Husayni, a Tajammu party official, agrees.
“Egyptian diplomacy was further weakened by the aggressive American policy towards confrontational states that are now unable to take effective unified actions,” he said, referring to Iraq, Syria and Jordan.
Although the Iraqi stance towards Israel during the Saddam Hussein era did not exceed heated rhetoric and a bunch of ineffective scud missiles, Egyptians fear that the result of the US occupation of Iraq will be a puppet-government that would take significant peaceful approaches with Israel.
Syria, al-Husayni says, “is busy grappling with the American sanctions”, while Jordan “is clear in putting its own agenda on top of everything and everybody else”.
Earlier this month, the Bush administration banned all American exports to Syria except for food and medicine. The US claimed the move came as a response to allegations that Syria was supporting Palestinian militants, and undermining American efforts in Iraq.
The way ahead
With the difficulty of an Arab response and the strained relations with Washington, one option Cairo appears determined to take is to keep supporting the Palestinian authorities and training its security apparatus to handle an expected Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.
It will also continue to support the Palestinian leadership, and try to find common ground among the various Palestinian factions, Basyuni said.
“We will continue our efforts until they reach a united position that can support the Palestinian Authority. We will also continue to try preventing the situation from escalating further,” he added.
But to what extent Egypt can be the US’s counterpart in the peace process remains unclear, especially with the country’s battling economy and the absence of a common Arab position to balance the situation.
Perhaps the situation can be put simply by al-Husayni’s comment. “It is the worst moment to be an Arab ally of the United States.”