Egypt's peace role – and its influence – under fire

As one of the few parties to speak to both Israel and Hamas, Cairo sees itself as a natural mediator. But now Turkey has called into question its effectiveness.

By , Correspondent

Since the historic 1979 Camp David Accords with Israel, Egypt has used its regional clout to broker peace in the Middle East – and curry favor with the West.

With ties to both Israel and Hamas, Cairo sees a natural role for itself in helping to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a just solution. But its neutrality, motives, and, more recently, its political influence, have been challenged by other countries, calling into question its effectiveness as a peacemaker.

For the past two years, Cairo has hosted reconciliation talks between secular Fatah and Islamist Hamas, giving the Palestinians a unified front in negotiations with Israel. The deadline for final-round talks has been twice extended after the two feuding Palestinian factions failed to produce a deal by early July, and is now set for Aug. 25.

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On Thursday, the pan-Arab news network Al Jazeera reported that Turkey called for Cairo to step down as mediator of the reconciliation talks.

But Egyptian officials, who say their country's history as a Mideast power makes it a natural peacemaker, are unlikely to relinquish Cairo's role voluntarily. Many see its mediation as a political tool used to preserve a steady flow of donor aid from the US and prop up Egypt's flagging regional influence.

'Most favored nation' – with $1.3 billion in US aid

Once an unparalleled regional leader, Egypt today is "decaying," says Samer Shehata, a professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University in Washington. "There is competition over who will be the leading regional power," he adds, between countries such as Egypt, Turkey, and Iran, which backs Hamas.

Cairo hopes its close ties with the US will tip the scales in its favor.

Its role as a pro-Western peacemaker has been institutionalized since the 1979 Camp David peace treaty with Israel, says Issandr El Amrani, a Cairo-based independent analyst. According to the US State Department, Egypt receives more than $1.3 billion of US military aid each year, in addition to significant economic and development assistance.

Mr. Amrani says there is "quite an explicit understanding" that Egypt's share of US foreign aid is tied to its peacemaking role and its standing "as a US ally in the region in general."

Joshua Stacher, a political scientist at Kent State University in Ohio, says that Egypt has been America's "most favored nation" among Arab countries since Camp David.

By mediating on behalf of the US, Egypt exerts outsize influence on "the direction [the talks] go in and what outcomes are eventually reached," says Dr. Stacher.

Egypt is one of the few countries to speak to both Israel and Hamas, which does not recognize Israel's right to exist – and "Egypt has no choice but to bet a lot on negotiations like these," says Samer Shehata, a professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University.

Gaza under Hamas rule is a national security problem for Egypt: inherently unstable, conflict-prone, and isolated from the international community.

"The Egyptian government does not want to see this conflict manifest itself on Egyptian territory," says Dr. Shehata. "It does not want to see bombs go off in Sinai or to be lambasted by the US and Israel for [allowing] weapons smuggling into Gaza."

Mediator role: Natural and neutral?

Hossam Zaki, a spokesperson for Egypt's Foreign Ministry, says it does "not go out of its way" to mediate the talks. Rather, its place at the table is "natural."

He says Egypt has the right approach to solving the conflict, calling it "balanced, realistic, yet principled."

But analysts say that approach is deeply influenced by Cairo's ties with the US and Israel, which contribute to a pro-Fatah bias. Fatah has long dominated the Palestinian Authority, recognized Israel, and worked with the Jewish state on the Oslo peace process in the 1990s.

There are domestic political considerations as well. Hamas is ideologically related to Cairo's own banned Islamic opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Forced to choose between an alumnus of the Oslo process and an Islamic ministate aligned with the Brotherhood, Cairo's choice is clear.

"Egypt is concerned with Hamas's relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB)," says Amrani. "They are concerned with MB-affiliated movements coming to power anywhere in the Arab world that could set an example for Egyptians to follow."

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