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Egypt: Why key US ally in Mideast peace is weaker

While Egypt’s pressure on Hamas has backed the Islamist movement into a corner, it has also inflamed Palestinian anger by doing so – and thus weakened Egypt’s power as a regional negotiator.

By Sarah A. TopolContributor / January 19, 2010



Cairo

With renewed promises of revitalizing Middle East peace negotiations, US envoy George Mitchell is due in Beirut today – the first stop of his inaugural 2010 regional tour. But a key ally in his efforts, Egypt, has gotten off to a bad start in the New Year, further complicating American interests.

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The US has long hoped that Egypt would prove a key intermediary in bringing about Israeli-Palestinian peace. But Egypt has a poor relationship with Hamas, the Palestinian organization that controls the Gaza strip, and its recent effort to beef up its border fence with Gaza has backed Hamas into a corner and inflamed wider Palestinian anger against Egypt.

As a consequence, many Palestinians see Egypt as an ally of the US and Israel. The country's ability to act as an honest broker has been weakened as a consequence.

The problem is that Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most popular and powerful opposition movement. The regime of President Hosni Mubarak has been almost as eager as Israel for the Islamist movement to fail in Gaza, for fear it could encourage more Egyptians to support the brothers. But Egypt remains eager to hang on to its role as a perceived potential peace-maker since that inflates its importance to the US, which provides it with $2 billion in aid each year.

“The only paper or card which the Egyptian foreign [policymakers] can take to Americans and say that we are very important in any process in the region is the ‘Palestinian card’.... It’s the only card with which we can play,” says Emad Gad at the Al-Ahram Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank funded by the Egyptian government .

Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics, says that Egypt has more directly thrown its lot in with Washington in recent years, particularly in its efforts to weaken Hamas.

“The way it’s seen is that Egypt has renounced its traditional leadership role in the region.... Egypt now serves the ‘interests’ of Washington and Jerusalem,” says Professor Gerges. “This is Egypt’s predicament: the more it appeals to Washington [and] the more it improves its (political) capital, the graver the threat to its regional leadership in the Middle East.”

Gerges thinks that in openly threatening Hamas, the Egyptian regime has calculated a strategic trade-off: Less regional popularity but a greater likelihood that Washington will approve of Egypt's next leader. President Mubarak, now 81, has yet to name a political successor but is grooming his son Gamal to replace him.

“The leadership believes that the only way the political transition will succeed is by getting Washington’s consent,” Gerges says.

Shutting down Hamas

In the first few weeks of the New Year, simmering hostilities between Hamas and Egypt have already boiled over – chiefly over a new wall on Gaza’s border that’s seen as part of Israel’s effort to seal off the coastal territory.

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