As the first Israeli missile landed on the besieged Gaza Strip, marking the start of an 11-day military offensive, Egypt saw a “tremendous opportunity” to assert itself politically in the region and, as many analysts say, to prove itself to the new US administration.
US President Joe Biden thanked Egypt for “its successful diplomacy” in brokering a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, the group that governs Gaza.
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“The Egyptian regime wishes to illustrate to the Biden administration that they can still handle the ‘Palestinian file’, and that they are willing to follow the US guidance in this regard,” Alaa Tartir, policy adviser at Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, told Al Jazeera.
Washington’s reliance on Egypt comes as it is one of the few countries in the region that engages with both Israel and Hamas.
Egyptian diplomats were engaged in a flurry of diplomatic visits that eventually helped secure a ceasefire after the Israeli bombardment campaign killed 253 Palestinians, bolstering its regional role. The Gulf state of Qatar also played a role in the ceasefire.
Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry received his Israeli counterpart in Cairo on Sunday to build on a more “permanent ceasefire”. Later, the country’s intelligence chief Abbas Kamel visited Israel and then travelled to Gaza to meet Hamas leaders – the first visit since 2017.
Egypt’s efforts came as a surprise to some, considering that the country – which allies itself with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – has spent much of the last eight years seeking closer ties with Israel.
Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty following the 1967 war, and share the same contempt for Hamas, whom Cairo accused of being a Muslim Brotherhood proxy. Cairo considers the Palestinian group as a threat to Egypt’s security and stability.
Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power after overthrowing Egypt’s first democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in a military coup in 2013.
‘Tremendous opportunity for el-Sisi’
Egypt shut the Gaza border crossing with the Palestinian territory in 2007 when Hamas took control of it after elections. But despite the complex relationship between Egypt and Hamas, Cairo is now trying to leverage on its relationship with the group to “improve its standing in Washington”, Mouin Rabbani, co-editor of Jadaliyya, told Al Jazeera.
“That also means that Egypt is now actively engaged in efforts to prevent a renewed confrontation, conclude a prisoner exchange, and play a central role in further associated arrangements,” Rabbani said.
Apart from restoring ties with Washington, brokering peace between Israel and Hamas was a “tremendous opportunity for el-Sisi” to present a distraction from other regional issues.
“At once, he was able to distract from his mishandling of the Ethiopian Nile River crisis, and elevate himself to a status of regional importance,” Mohamed Elmasry, associate professor of media and cultural studies at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, told Al Jazeera.
During the latest Israeli assault on Gaza, Biden came under heavy fire from Republicans and Democrats alike for stating that Israel had a “right to self-defence” and for later calling on “both sides” to cease hostilities.
In the face of growing opposition, the Biden administration needed to “sub-contract” the brokering of the latest ceasefire to a “regional actor”, Tartir said.
“Egypt accepted the task of pleasing the Biden administration,” he added. “The US instructed, and Egypt implemented.”
It also worked out as such for the US as it “refuses to communicate or otherwise engage with the government or Palestinian organisations in the Gaza Strip”, Rabbani noted.
The US, along with the European Union, has designated Hamas as a “terror” organisation.
Thus, Egypt was “delegated to liaise with them [Israel] to reach a ceasefire”, Rabbani from the Jadaliyya said.
In the wake of the ceasefire, the new US administration is ready to deal with el-Sisi, whom former US President Donald Trump called his “favourite dictator”. Biden had previously said there would be “no more blank cheques” for el-Sisi, whom he had snubbed since taking over as president in January.
Biden dispatched his top diplomat Antony Blinken to Egypt, during which the US secretary of state called Egypt an “effective partner” in dealing with the latest escalation.
This, however, is “hardly an unprecedented development”, Rabbani noted.
Under el-Sisi, Egypt has played similar roles, such as the 2014 Israeli onslaught on Gaza. It has also acted as a mediator on various other occasions in the past.
Sarah Yerkes, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Egypt is the most “natural broker of a ceasefire” between Israel and Hamas.
Though Egypt is trying to assert its role in the regions, it is also making itself “indispensable in this way as the only country that can successfully broker a ceasefire”, Yerkes told Al Jazeera.
Truce ‘doomed to fail’
Israel’s bombardment destroyed 1,500 residential, forcing tens of thousands of Palestinians to take shelter in United Nations-run schools.
Some 74 public buildings, including local municipalities, were also destroyed, according to figures released by the information ministry run by Hamas rulers.
Palestinian officials have put reconstruction costs from Israeli attacks in Gaza at tens of millions of dollars.
Like several other countries who have promised to pour in millions of dollars in aid, el-Sisi pledged $500m for the reconstruction of Gaza. His government sent an aid convoy stocked with aid supplies and reopened the Rafah border crossing.
Blinken also pledged his country’s help in rebuilding Gaza but stressed that the aid must not benefit Hamas. His comments led Yahya Sinwar, the head of Hamas’s political wing, to promise the group would not touch “a single cent”.
But the pledge to help reconstruct Gaza is merely a “card” being played, Tartir from the Al-Shabaka said.
“The Gaza reconstruction card will be instrumentalised again in an attempt to contain and silence Hamas by offering them economic and financial incentives,” he said, referring to the demand to cease the 12-year-old Israeli sea, land and air blockade of the territory.
The UN has dubbed the territory of nearly two million people an “open-air prison”.
Tartir perceives the “US-Israeli-Egyptian” plan as a short-sighted strategy that is “doomed to fail”.
“Neither regional nor global actors seem to be interested in learning from their mistakes over the past three decades of decoupling economics and politics.”
Egypt aided Israel’s ongoing siege on Gaza
Egypt has long aided Israel’s ongoing air, land and sea blockade. The only pedestrian border crossing it shares with the strip does not allow the entry of basic necessities such as fuel, or materials needed to rebuild much of the enclave’s ravaged infrastructure in the previous Israeli assaults.
The country’s military has also targeted and bombed the majority of Gaza’s underground tunnels that were used to smuggle much-needed aid and medical supplies.
Moreover, the blockade, which denies Palestinians in Gaza the freedom of movement, is sustained by Egypt even after ties with Hamas improved in 2017.
At the time, the Gaza-based group amended its charter to further distance itself from the Muslim Brotherhood, maintaining that it has no organisational ties to the latter.
Rabbani noted that the Gaza dossier is “within the Egyptian power structure the purview of the security establishment”, and therefore remains as “a security rather than political file”.
Meanwhile, Hamas is taking the same pragmatic approach, according to Rabbani from Jadaliyya.
“Hamas and el-Sisi deal with each other because if either party chose to liaise with a different counterpart … it would be impossible to achieve anything or have any influence on policy,” he said, adding that the relationship “has its limits”.
Tartir also noted that the current framework will never achieve long-term stability.
“They will only deal with the symptoms of the issue, but not with the issue itself.”