CAIRO — Egypt's position regarding the management of the Gaza crisis has quickly changed, whereby it endeavored to reopen channels of communication with Hamas and bring Hamas back into the fold. This is the first such attempt since the Muslim Brotherhood’s administration was ousted and former President Mohammed Morsi removed. It also came at a time when Hamas rejected the Egyptian proposal for a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, which coincided with the announcement of a visit by President Mahmoud Abbas to Turkey.
A high-ranking government source revealed to Al-Monitor that Cairo was quick to make its initiative public to head off other parties striving to replace Egypt in embracing the Palestinian cause, but in so doing it exposed the decline of Egypt’s role in the region. The source added, “The initiative was proposed after informing the Palestinian Authority and Israeli government of its content. However, it was not presented to Hamas for review because they are but one of the many Palestinian factions. They were aware of the initiative and its terms in the framework of its current post-reconciliation agreement with the Palestinian Authority.”
On the other hand, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry’s official position was somewhat confused concerning the crisis caused by Hamas’ rejection of the initiative. The spokesman for the ministry, Ambassador Badr Abdel Atti, affirmed in a telephone interview with Al-Monitor, “The Egyptian Foreign Ministry was moving forward with significant international backing and support.” However, he refused to address Hamas’ rejection because it was but one faction among many. Also, Egypt only deals directly with the Palestinian Authority.
Yet, that position changed a few hours later, following the arrival of Abbas to Cairo for a meeting with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, which coincided with a visit by the envoy of the international Quartet on the Middle East, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Thus, Cairo, after refusing to directly negotiate with the leadership of Hamas, announced via its foreign minister in a news conference with Blair that it had initiated dialogue with Hamas to convince it of the need to accept the cease-fire proposal.
The Palestinian president’s visit to Cairo came in the context of coordinating on the cease-fire initiative. It had been assumed none of the parties would object to or reject the initiative, which would put an end to Palestinian bloodshed and thus be a positive development. A member of the Revolutionary Council in Fatah, Ambassador Hazem Abu Shanab, affirmed as much in an interview with Al-Monitor.
Abu Shanab said, “The aim of the meeting between the Palestinian and Egyptian presidents was to urgently discuss the developments pertaining to the Egyptian initiative and work to begin implementing it.” He affirmed that all Palestinian factions agreed to the Egyptian proposal except Hamas, for reasons of its own.
He added, “The meeting between Turkish Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and the Palestinian president, following the latter’s visit to Cairo, was to take advantage of Turkish efforts and relations with the Hamas leaders, as well as to reach a unified Palestinian position in favor of the Egyptian initiative to put an end to Israeli aggression, as well as exploit Turkey’s efforts within the Organization of the Islamic Conference, in addition to regional and international countries.”
Concerning Egyptian fears that Turkey’s role might grow to replace that of Cairo if it were to propose another initiative following Hamas’ rejection of the Egyptian one, Abu Shanab said, “We in Palestine, particularly in the Fatah and national movements, reject any role by anyone, save that of Egypt, as mediator and sponsor of national Palestinian reconciliation or in the political process relating to the Palestinian cause.”
In response to a question about the conditions laid down by Hamas for accepting the Egyptian initiative, he added, “These demands, whether the opening of the Rafah crossing and a port, as well as the release of prisoners, fall in the context of the Cairo reconciliation agreement entered into by Hamas and all other factions. If Hamas has other requests and not conditions in that regard, they may be discussed. But no one will ever accept that it imposes conditions.”
An Arab League source told Al-Monitor, “Presidents Sisi and [Abbas]’ meeting in Cairo on Thursday came to discuss Hamas’ conditions to accept the Egyptian initiative and determine which of those conditions can be accommodated, then present them to the Israeli side prior to [Abbas]’ meeting with Erdogan. In this regard, the Palestinian president proposed to Cairo that Turkey play the role of indirect mediator between Cairo and Hamas, as that was a wish of Hamas, in light of talk about international guarantees for the initiative and Turkey’s ability to influence Hamas leaders.”
The source continued, “The Palestinian president will inform Erdogan of the results of the Cairo talks, remaining points of contention and the need to persuade Hamas to take steps to work toward stopping the aggression on Gaza as soon as possible.”
The same Arab League source said that talk about a Turkish initiative to replace that of Cairo is not cause for concern to the Egyptians because they are confident that neither the Palestinian Authority, represented by Fatah, nor Israel will accept any alternative mediation at the present time. “Hamas’ conditions are well known and [Abbas] carried those conditions to Cairo even before Hamas officially announced them. They are the same demands relating to the release of the two batches of prisoners as agreed to in the Egyptian-sponsored Gilad Shalit deal entered into with Israel in 2012, in addition to the opening of the border crossings with Gaza, compelling Egypt to keep the Rafah crossing open around the clock, agreeing to a maritime corridor to Gaza and permitting Gaza residents to pray in Al-Aqsa Mosque.”
The head of the Republic Center for Strategic Studies, Sameh Seif El Yazal, said, "The international organization of the Muslim Brotherhood is behind Hamas’ rejection of the Egyptian initiative, as evidenced by Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal leaving Doha for Istanbul mere hours after the initiative was made public. He held a series of meetings with members of the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood who had fled from Egypt, as well as with other members of the international organization.”
In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor, Yazal explained that following the initiation of Israeli operations against the Gaza Strip, Egypt was accused of forsaking the Palestinian cause. But Egypt had begun mediation efforts between the two sides to end the killing of innocent people. Both sides accepted Egypt’s mediation, subsequent to which Cairo announced the terms of the agreement within a predetermined time frame. But the move fell contrary to the interests of the international Muslim Brotherhood, whose aim was to find a role for Qatari or Turkish mediation between Israel and Hamas.
He added that, for obvious reasons, Egypt’s regional role can never be affected by such actions, for Cairo knows that Israel would never accept any of the conditions demanded by the Muslim Brotherhood and because Israel is convinced that Egypt is the only country qualified to play a mediator role.
In a joint statement, a number of Egyptian political factions and parties considered the Egyptian initiative not sufficient to build a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip. The parties, namely the Constitution Party, the Strong Egypt Party, the Social Democratic Party, the Karama (Dignity) Party, the Egyptian Alliance Party, the Freedom Party, the Bread and Freedom Party and the Road of the Revolutionary Front rejected the adoption of a neutral stance with Israel regarding the Palestinian cause. Instead, they demanded that Egyptian authorities refrain from clamping down on activists who collect donations for the Gaza Strip. The statement added that the Palestinian cause, an Egyptian national security issue, should never be affected by political disagreements with Hamas.
Cairo is working to see its cease-fire mediation initiative succeed in the Gaza Strip. Toward that end, and so as not to lose its regional role, it's relying on the international support given to that initiative; a fact that Hamas understands well and is trying to exploit by imposing conditions on Egypt and Israel.