Egypt’s bigger problem

Welcome Mr Netanyahu!

Binyamin Netanyahu, left, is in Egypt to discuss US-backed efforts to relaunch peace talks [AFP]

The ongoing tragicomedy on the Gaza Egypt borders will not have a happy ending.
A year after Israel’s war left Gaza in ruins, Egypt is hampering international aid convoys from entering this impoverished refuge camp of 1.5 million and is erecting an ‘iron wall’ under the guise of preserving its national security and sovereignty.

But it could be doing the opposite.
As Egypt distances itself from the problems of Gaza as if it were a strategic liability, instead of championing the humanitarian and political cause of occupied Gaza, it is arguably missing an opportunity to regain its long lost regional leverage.
Over the last several years, Egypt has seen its role greatly diminished. The regime’s preoccupation with its own stability and succession and the rise of regional powers, like Iran and Turkey, against the backdrop of unprecedented foreign military intervention in the region, have all shoved Egypt to the sidelines.
Changing direction

Once a regional powerhouse, Egypt’s regional decline began at the end of the 1970s when Cairo gave up its pan Arab leadership in return for a separate peace agreement with Israel, alliance with the US and $2bn annual assistance.
However, Israel’s aggressive behaviour throughout the 1980s left Egypt humiliated and alienated from its friends and foes alike.

Israel’s annexation of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, 1981 bombardment of Iraqi nuclear facilities, 1982 invasion of Lebanon, crackdown on Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and assassination of their leaders, culminating in the 1987 popular Intifada (Uprising), have all embarrassed Egypt that proved incapable of restraining let alone confronting Israel. 
With peace partners like that, Egyptians wondered, who needs enemies!

A triple handshake seals the signing of the peace treaty in 1979 [FILE: GALLO/GETTY]

Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union and US victory in the Cold War to give Cairo new hope for regional ascendency under Washington’s patronage.

Unprecedented US military intervention in the Gulf following the Iraq invasion of Kuwait strengthened Egyptian relations with ‘the world’s only superpower’ and paved the way towards the Middle East ‘peace process’. Cairo even recovered the headquarters of the Arab League from Tunisia where it moved following the Camp David Accords with Israel.
However, Egypt’s reinvigorated role at the helm of so called “moderate” Arab regimes was short lived. Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries rejected a direct Egyptian role in their region, Iran and Syria established an alternative block to Egypt, and the ‘peace process’ faltered after the assassination of Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin.
Meanwhile, America’s failed military intervention in Somalia and the West’s preoccupation with Eastern Europe in the mid 1990s left Egypt in limbo.
From then on, Cairo’s influence began to dwindle in Africa, the Maghreb, Libya, and Sudan as Egypt lost its role as mediator or America’s intermediary to these countries.
After 9/11

The 9/11 attacks only made things worse for Egypt and its fellow conservative Arab regimes.


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The Bush doctrine attempts to transform the ‘Greater Middle East’ took aim at these undemocratic regimes and led the way to two devastating wars in the Islamic world (Afghanistan 2001, Iraq 2003), leaving Egypt with little or no leverage in Washington nor in the region.
Likewise, President Mubarak’s attempts with France’s President Sarkozy in 2008 to build a new Mediterranean partnership failed utterly after Europe turned its back on it.
Egypt was left with Gaza as the last place where it could exercise influence after Israel withdrew its settlers and army. However Hamas’ 2006 electoral victory and Israel’s disastrous wars on Lebanon and Gaza, in 2006 and 2007 respectively, left Egypt with a new humanitarian and political quagmire on its northern borders.
Cairo’s failed attempts to reconcile between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority or between Fatah and Hamas magnified Egypt’s lack of leverage.

President Obama’s incapacity or unwillingness to force Israel into a complete settlement freeze to pave the way for negotiations as he implied in his Cairo speech, added insult to injury.
Most Egyptians seem to recognise their country’s humiliation by Israel, widening disparities with other regional powers and its deepening domestic inequalities and tensions. But Egypt’s greatest problem is a leadership that seems oblivious to it all.
Paradoxically, Cairo’s last desperate act to erect an ‘iron wall’ on its borders with the Gaza Strip to isolate Hamas controlled Gaza, and distance itself from Israel’s own responsibility for Gaza, could instead close the last window of opportunity for the Egyptian regime to play an effective role in the region beyond the theatrics and slogan of reviving a deadlocked ‘peace process’.
Welcome Mr Netanyahu.

Source: Al Jazeera


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