Egypt and the Palestinian question

The Mubarak regime has been a tool with which Israel and the US have pressured Palestinians.

There is a widespread view in Egypt that the Mubarak regime has served the interests of the West [GALLO/GETTY]

Along with the laundry list of domestic grievances expressed by Egyptian protesters calling for an end to the regime of Hosni Mubarak, the popular perception of Egypt’s foreign policy has also been a focal point of the demonstrations.

Signs and chants have called on Mubarak to seek refuge in Tel Aviv, while his hastily appointed vice-president, Omar Suleiman, has been disparaged as a puppet of the US. Egypt’s widely publicised sale of natural gas to Israel at rock bottom prices has featured in many refrains emanating from the crowds.

The widespread view among Egyptians that the regime has served the interests of the West has not been helped by Israel’s call for world leaders to support Mubarak, or the apparent unwillingness by American officials to give the protests their full backing.

Plummeting status

In the shadow of the current cries to topple the Egyptian regime, the Mubarak government has had a tough time keeping its role in international affairs out of public view.

In the area where Egypt’s foreign policy apparatus has served US interests most directly, Israel’s security, the Mubarak regime’s complicity in the failure to establish a Palestinian state has become widely publicised in recent years. Its role in placing the stranglehold on the people of Gaza, in conjunction with Israel, has seen Egypt’s status in the region plummet to a level it has not reached in decades.

The Palestine Papers, the leaked internal documents of the Palestinian Authority (PA) that were recently exposed by Al Jazeera, provide further confirmation of Egypt’s role in the impasse between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.

While much of the coverage of the Palestine Papers has focused on the unprecedented concessions offered by Palestinian negotiators, and how swiftly they were spurned by Israeli and American representatives, Egypt’s role as an instrument for added pressure stands out from the internal records.

As the peace process broke down over the past decade, Egypt was a party to many of the discussions and central to the security arrangements made between the PA and Israel.

Egyptian duplicity

Throughout the documents, Suleiman in particular is singled out as the point person whom Israeli and American officials could count on to execute their agenda of dividing the Palestinian factions or pressing the PA for greater concessions.

Barely a few months after the January 2006 Palestinian elections that resulted in a Hamas victory, PA leaders were already appealing for assistance in fending off their political opponents. At a meeting between leading Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and US General Keith Dayton, the latter assured the Palestinians that the American administration is committed to reinforcing the PA’s Presidential Guard to maintain Mahmoud Abbas’ authority in the face of the newly elected Hamas government.

In support of his pledge, Dayton referred to discussions with Suleiman, who committed Egypt, along with Jordan, to providing training and equipment, “even at their own expense”.

Later in the year, as the Palestinian factions were engaged in negotiations over the formation of a unity government, a European diplomat told Erekat that the American position on unifying the Palestinians was “prematurely negative”. Erekat agreed, adding that Suleiman had also been discouraging of those efforts, saying that they would not work.

In early 2007, as the siege on Gaza had crippling consequences on the lives of Palestinians, negotiators complained that Egyptian leaders were duplicitous, speaking publicly in support of allowing goods into Gaza, but in reality, “it remains blocked on the ground …. This is a general problem with the Egyptians”.

An internal report from April 2007 confirms these suspicions. The Agreement on Movement and Access states: “Although there has been political agreement by Omar Suleiman and President Mubarak on allowing exports through, this agreement has never been translated into operational reality.”

Conditions in Gaza only worsened in the months ahead, thanks in large part to the stranglehold imposed by Israel and Egypt. As Hamas assumed sole control of Gaza by preventing a coup attempt by US-backed PA forces, Egypt determined to seal off the border.

In a February 2008 meeting between Ahmed Qurei, a high-ranking PA official, and Tzipi Livni, the then Israeli foreign minister, Qurei relayed the Egyptian position conveyed to him by their leader. “President Mubarak said they’ll close down the borders after Sunday and whoever is caught on Egyptian territories will be considered illegal.”

The situation came to a stalemate in the months leading up to Israel’s December 2008 assault on Gaza that resulted in the deaths of 1,500 Palestinians, most of them civilians. As tensions were heightened, Erekat lamented to his Israeli counterpart that Suleiman was forced to cancel a meeting in the occupied territories. Amos Gilad, the director of Israeli military intelligence, speculated: “Regarding Omar Suleiman, maybe he delayed because he is afraid we will attack while he is here. It will hurt him. He will look like a collaborator.”

A tool to pressure Palestinians

The image of Egyptian officials as tools to pressure the Palestinians also emerges out of conversations between US and Palestinian officials. In late 2009, George Mitchell, Barack Obama’s envoy to the region, told Erekat that he had spoken with Suleiman and the two agreed that the PA could unilaterally declare new elections without any input from Hamas.

Furthermore, Mitchell and Suleiman agreed that any agreement would have to permanently eradicate any Hamas presence in the West Bank, while at the same time allowing the PA to resume control of Gaza, terms Hamas was sure to reject. But as Egypt was preparing a document on how the PA should proceed, Erekat assured Mitchell that: “Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] won’t say no to whatever the Egyptians present to him”.

Even when it appeared that the Egyptians were attempting to display some degree of autonomy, it became more evident in the documents that external pressure was never too far behind. Only a few weeks later, Erekat complained to US negotiators that Egypt’s latest efforts to reconcile the Palestinian factions were straying from the official line. Daniel Rubenstein, the US consul general and chief of mission in Jerusalem, responded: “I can tell you, we did put pressure on the Egyptians. I read the document. It was a disaster.”

As Erekat continued to grumble about the PA’s weakened position and Egypt’s lack of cooperation, General James Jones, the US special envoy for Middle East security, abruptly ended the meeting with his words: “It’s insulting. We’ll take care of this.”

Jones appeared to have lived up to his promise. Only three months later, in January 2010, US negotiator David Hale assured Erekat that in recent talks with Suleiman: “The Egyptians brought ideas similar to our thinking.”

In this instance, the US appeared to put pressure on the PA to accept the latest proposals by giving the impression that the US and its allies in the region were unified in their position. Hale further added of the Egyptians: “They talked with Netanyahu and think he is serious.”

‘Egypt’s number two’

Given the critical role that Suleiman has played in advancing US and Israeli objectives, it was no surprise that Mubarak chose to appoint him as vice-president on January 29, a move rejected by protesters, but reassuring to Egypt’s Western patrons. In the leaked documents, Israeli officials were already referring to Suleiman as “Egypt’s Number Two” at a time when most observers believed that Mubarak was grooming his son to be succeed him.

Among Western policymakers, it seems Suleiman remains a popular choice to replace Mubarak, as the candidate uniquely suited to maintaining Egypt’s current foreign policy, while also addressing domestic grievances expressed by protesters. That remains a distant prospect, given the unlikelihood that the Egyptian opposition would abandon its call to determine the nation’s role in regional affairs. But it also demonstrates that, unlike Tunisia, Egypt is far too critical to US objectives in the Middle East to be left to its own devices.

Whatever the outcome in Egypt, it is clear that the recent revelations will have a dramatic impact on the settlement of the Palestinian question. Already weakened by the scandal of the Palestine Papers, Erekat may now have to do without the support of an Egyptian regime he termed, “our ally, our backbone”.

In his first interview as vice-president, Suleiman decried as “unacceptable” what he called “foreign interference” in Egypt’s current turmoil. Coming from a regime whose ability to endure through the decades is owed largely to foreign interference, the irony of those words will not be lost on the Egyptian people.

Abdullah Al-Arian is a doctoral candidate in the department of history at Georgetown University.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


The former Egyptian intelligence chief’s appointment to the post of vice president seems driven by a desire to regain stability with an anti-Islamist, ex-military figure.

29 Jan 2011
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