In the Middle East, where trusted mediators are hard to find, Egypt has received high praise for negotiating a truce Thursday between Israel and Hamas, ending 11 days of war that took the lives of hundreds of civilians.
Germany said Cairo was a “very, very important quantity” in the cease-fire. France said it was “absolutely key.” The United Nations commended Egypt, while President Joe Biden, who had been giving a cold shoulder to Egypt’s authoritarian ruler, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, finally called him Thursday. One U.S. official described Egypt as “the main game in town.”
Unlike neutral brokers such as those from the U.N., Egypt’s mediation between Israelis and Palestinians is driven largely by its own need for calm. It borders both Gaza and Israel and cannot afford spillover effects from the frequent wars between them. Egypt also needs good ties with Israel to continue massive financial aid from the U.S., and it wants to contain Gaza’s rulers, Hamas, who are allies of the Muslim Brotherhood, a political Islamic movement banned in Egypt.
Despite this self-interest, Egypt has over time developed better mediation skills, perhaps accounting for a shorter war between Israel and Hamas this time than the last one in 2014, which lasted seven weeks. Cairo has begun to mediate in other regional conflicts. Its envoys recently helped calm Libya’s conflict and have sought a role in Syria’s ongoing war. And it remains a mediator between the two main Palestinian factions: Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza.
As the world’s oldest country, Egypt has tried to make peace between Israel, which was created in 1948, and Palestine, a country that does not exist as a normal state. But it has been unable to bridge the ideological divide between them.
For all its faults in suppressing dissent at home, the Sisi regime in Cairo is one of the few governments in the region playing peacemaker. Oman and Iraq often play a similar role. Leaders in all three have adopted the mediator’s touch – listen first and then find common ground. Sometimes that results only in a truce, perhaps a temporary one, as with Israel and Hamas. But calm can be a good start for peace.