Egyptians in Cairo protest against their government’s role in the ongoing siege of the Gaza Strip. (Hossam el-Hamalawy)
CAIRO, Egypt (IPS) - More than 250,000 classified US diplomatic cables released by online whistle-blower WikiLeaks include statements made behind closed doors that could prove embarrassing for Egypt’s government, say analysts.
The embassy missives lift the veil on Egypt’s advice to US administration officials concerning the growing political influence of Iran, military strategy in Iraq, and Cairo’s pledge to isolate Hamas. More provocatively, they suggest Egypt’s complicity in Israel’s devastating military assault on Gaza in late 2008.
“The release of these documents has put Egypt in an uncomfortable position,” says Emad Gad, political analyst at the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “They contradict Egypt’s public stance on many issues … and damage its credibility.”
Egypt, a long-time ally of the United States, receives about $2 billion a year in US military and economic aid. Several leaked cables speak of the moderate Arab state’s crucial role in intelligence gathering and as a mediator in regional affairs. Others reveal tensions between Washington and Cairo, and provide an unflattering assessment of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his regime.
One US diplomat described Egypt as a “stubborn and recalcitrant ally” that constantly needs its ego stroked.
Analysts suspect Cairo is less worried about the criticism of itself than the public airing of what it privately thinks of its regional neighbors.
The trove of classified diplomatic correspondence details the extent to which Egypt and other Sunni-ruled Arab countries fear the growing regional influence of Shia Iran. They reveal tacit support among Arab leaders for sanctions and US-led military action against Iran.
Mubarak, in particular, shows deep contempt for Iran, which he accuses of sponsoring terrorism and says is not to be trusted, according to leaked cables.
“Mubarak has a visceral hatred for the Islamic Republic, referring repeatedly to Iranians as ‘liars,’ and denouncing them for seeking to destabilize Egypt and the region. He also sees the Syrians and Qataris as sycophants to Tehran and liars themselves,” US ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey wrote in a memo dated 9 February 2009.
“Relations between Egypt and these countries were already bad before the release of these documents,” says Gad. “I doubt they could get worse, but the [insults] could hurt efforts to mend relations with certain Arab states.”
On Iraq, leaked documents reveal how Egypt’s fear of Iran’s growing political strength shaped its advice to US officials concerning exit strategies. In May 2008, Mubarak reportedly told a visiting US congressional delegation that a benevolent dictator in Iraq was preferable to a power vacuum that would leave Iran in control of the country.
“Strengthen the [Iraqi] armed forces, relax your hold, and then you will have a coup. Then we will have a dictator, but a fair one. Forget democracy, the Iraqis are by their nature too tough,” Mubarak was quoted as saying.
More potentially embarrassing for Egypt, given Arab sensitivity to Palestinian affairs, is a cable from the US embassy in Tel Aviv in June 2009 that reports on a meeting between Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak and US congressional leaders. At the meeting, Barak is said to confirm that Israel consulted both Egypt and the Palestinian Authority’s Fatah leadership prior to launching a military assault on Gaza in December 2008.
“He [Barak] explained that the GOI [Government of Israel] consulted with Egypt and Fatah prior to Operation Cast Lead, asking if they were willing to assume control of Gaza once Israel defeated Hamas. Not surprisingly, Barak said, the GOI received negative answers from both,” a US diplomat wrote.
More than 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed during the three-week military assault. Thirteen Israelis also died during campaign, which aimed ostensibly at halting Hamas rocket attacks against Israel.
While the allegation that Israel consulted Egypt ahead of its planned attack on Gaza is not new, Gad says the WikiLeaks release could disgrace Egyptian officials, who previously denied having any prior knowledge of the military operation.
Political analyst Abdel Aleem Mohamed argues that being informed of Israel’s military intentions does not necessarily constitute complicity, though the Arab street will certainly see it that way.
“There is a tradition in politics that you notify concerned countries before any big battle,” he explains. “This doesn’t mean Egypt collaborated with Israel. On the contrary, Egypt warned Hamas that it expected Israel to attack and advised Hamas leaders to accept the ceasefire deal [that might have averted] the war.”
The leaked documents nonetheless show Egypt’s commitment to isolate Hamas despite dire consequences to the Palestinian people. A leaked missive from US ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton points out that it was Egypt, not Israel, which enforced the blockade of Gaza during Operation Cast Lead.
“Even during the height of the December fighting, the Egyptians only sent medicine and medical supplies through the Rafah border; all other humanitarian goods went through the Israeli crossing at Kerem Shalom,” Scobey wrote in February 2009.
Scobey advised Clinton ahead of her visit to Egypt that Mubarak regarded Hamas as a dangerous political threat, and that Cairo was sharing intelligence with Israel to prevent members of the Islamist organization from crossing the Gaza border. She added that Egypt was well apprised of joint US-Israeli efforts to combat arms smuggling in Gaza, but wanted to distance itself from the issue.
“Egypt will not take any action that could be perceived as collaboration in Israel’s siege of Gaza,” Scobey wrote. “The Egyptians do not want to be stuck holding the Gaza bag, and must be able to point the finger of blame at Israel for the plight of the Palestinians.”
Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to comment on the newly released WikiLeaks cables. Analysts believe the government is still studying the situation to determine a course of action. With over 250,000 leaked documents, it may be “waiting to see which issues get press play” before formulating a response, suggests Gad.
He concludes that while the confidentiality breach is unlikely to force a shift in strategy, it will prompt a change in diplomacy. Arab leaders will be more guarded in their conversations with US officials knowing their dirty linen could end up being aired in public.
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