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Egypt returns to centre stage

By Claude Smadja
November 29, 2012 09:55 IST
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Events around the Gaza flare-up reveal that Iran is ceding space to a resurgent Egypt under President Morsi, says Claude Smadja

The latest flare-up between Hamas and the Israelis provides an interesting glimpse of the emerging geopolitical landscape in West Asia. The first observation is that Egypt has now regained its central player position in the Arab world. The last years of the Mubarak era, marked by the sclerosis of the regime, had seen Cairo pushed to the sidelines while Saudi Arabia seemed able to assert itself as a key shaper of events in the region. This role is reverting to Egypt, where the fate of the Muslim Brotherhood's experience in exercising power will have a defining impact on the region's political trajectory.

The second observation is that, for all the rhetoric of President Morsi during this last bout of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Egypt's mediation of the ceasefire between the two parties has shown that realpolitik considerations dominate the thinking of the leadership in Cairo. The Islamists in power know that their only chance to succeed depends on the maintenance of the peace treaty with Israel and avoiding any distraction from the imperative of restoring social order and of reactivating the Egyptian economy.

With foreign reserves, tourism and investment in free fall since the revolution, unemployment has kept rising -- and with it widespread social frustration. There will be no economic support from the US or Europe without the preservation of the peace with Israel. The civil unrest generated by President Morsi's decree that made his decisions immune from any appeal to the courts could not have come at a worse moment, as a long-awaited agreement on a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund -- conditional on difficult reforms to be undertaken -- had just been reached.

All of this allays the concerns often expressed about the future of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. In that respect it is worth noting that it is the Egyptian military (more specifically, people from military intelligence), and not the Islamist civilians around President Morsi, who played the key role in mediating the ceasefire between the Israelis and Hamas. And, in fact, the Egyptian army has as great an interest as Israel has in curbing the activities of extremist Islamists in the Sinai Peninsula.

The third observation to be made is that although Teheran boasted about supplying Hamas with medium-range Fajr missiles -- or the technology to build them -- the Gaza flare-up comes in a context of Iran's clout and influence being increasingly challenged. With its main ally, the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, fighting for its survival, Tehran is suffering a major weakening of its position in the region; in addition to that, Hamas -- another of its key allies -- has ended its alliance with Mr Assad and is now actively being courted and pressured by Qatar and Saudi Arabia to sever its links with Iran and to get into Egypt's orbit. So, from three solid allies and beachheads in the region -- Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah – Tehran is today left with Hezbollah (still solid, with its full nuisance capability intact) and Hamas, whose loyalty might be more divided in the future.

The fourth observation is that the US remains the indispensable player in the region. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would not have agreed to a ceasefire without Washington's assurances of new additional support to expand the capabilities of its "Iron Drome" anti-missile system, which has proved to be remarkably efficient. However, beyond intervening to broker jointly a ceasefire with the Egyptians, there is no indication that the Obama administration is ready to try to resuscitate a now dead peace process.

This leads to a fifth observation: past experience has proved that ceasefires have a more or less prolonged life span, depending mostly on the evolution of domestic political conditions on the Palestinian side. For the present ceasefire to last long enough to serve as a background for a new peace initiative, four factors or conditions will have to be met:

First, we will have to see what the results are of Israel's next parliamentary elections on January 22, 2013.

If Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Likud party are re-elected, it will be important to assess the mood of the Israeli public as expressed in the polls, and how this translates into the margin of manoeuvre that Mr Netanyahu will have.

The second factor lies with the political schedule in Washington. While some analysts have speculated about Hilary Clinton's possible hopes of achieving a West Asia breakthrough that would cap her tenure at the State Department, it is doubtful that anything significant could happen before an "Obama 2" administration, with a new secretary of state and a new secretary of defence in place.

The third factor is linked to what will happen inside Hamas, where a battle for power and influence is taking place between those who have been running Gaza "from the inside" -- the Khaled Meshal group -- and the group around Ismail Haniyeh, who was until recently based in Damascus before breaking up with the Assad regime and being expelled. While both have vowed to fight until Israel's destruction, the question remains whether, depending on how the competition between the two groups evolve, Hamas could be brought to a more moderate position -- under the cumulative influence of Qatar and Egypt.

The fourth factor is the competition between Hamas and the Palestinian National Authority of Mahmoud Abbas, which has limited civilian jurisdiction in the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority, under the control of Fatah, has been recently losing ground to Hamas in the West Bank. By engineering a vote of the United Nations Assembly General to grant the Palestinian National Authority non-member observer status -- and thus greater international recognition -- Mr Abbas is trying to reclaim political ground Fatah has lost to Hamas. While there have been repeated talks to open negotiations to reunify the Palestinian camp, these negotiations will not materialise before the two groups can come to terms with the fact that none will be able to prevail on the other, and before they can achieve some form of compromise between Hamas' rejection of any recognition of Israel and the Palestinian Authority of Mr Abbas having long accepted the two-state solution.

So the present ceasefire between Hamas and Israel will remain just a ceasefire. And this until the dust settles and we can see whether the political deadlines in Israel and in Washington and the outcomes of the various contests for power inside the Palestinian camp have created a new opening for diplomacy. This will be -- at best -- a long shot.

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Claude Smadja
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