Traditional Egyptian Influence Begins to Decline

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, 20 January 2007. (MaanImages/POOL/PPO)

CAIRO, Feb 27 (IPS) - The Mecca Agreement was hailed throughout the Arab world earlier this month for putting an end to Palestinian infighting, which had claimed scores of lives. But some local analysts see the deal — which was sponsored by Egypt’s diplomatic rival Saudi Arabia — as an indication of Cairo’s waning influence as the principal mediator in inter-Palestinian disputes.

“Egypt’s diplomatic role has declined and has turned into that of a spectator,” Abdel-Halim Kandil, editor-in-chief of opposition weekly al-Karama told IPS. “It now boasts the diplomatic weight of a tiny island-nation like Comoros.”

On Feb. 8, leaders of the two Palestinian movements met in the Saudi Arabian city Mecca, where they signed an agreement renouncing all forms of internecine violence. The pact also spelt out the parameters of a proposed national unity government, according to which Hamas will appoint seven ministers and Fatah six. Nine other ministerial portfolios will be distributed among other political factions and independents.

The contentious post of interior minister will be filled by a by a Hamas-appointed independent candidate, pending the approval of Fatah. The foreign minister will be a Fatah-appointed independent approved by Hamas.

“This agreement proscribes the spilling of Palestinian blood … and confirms the importance of national unity as the basis for opposition to the (Israeli) occupation and the realisation of our national goals,” Nabil Amr, advisor to Fatah-affiliated Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said at the signing ceremony.

Although the event was hosted by Saudi Arabia and presided over by Saudi monarch Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz, leaders of both Palestinian factions were quick to express appreciation of Egypt’s substantial contributions to arbitration efforts.

After a meeting with President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo Feb. 11, Abbas voiced “Palestinian gratitude for Egypt’s role and for what Egypt has done for the Palestinian cause in recent days and years.”

The following day, Hamas-affiliated Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, transiting through Egypt’s al-Arish Airport on the way to Gaza, also expressed appreciation of Egypt’s role as mediator.

“Egypt played a major part in the success of the Mecca Conference,” Heniya was quoted as saying in the Feb. 13 edition of government daily al-Gomhouriya. “The Egyptian security delegation (in Gaza) achieved a degree of calm between the factions, which paved the way for inter-Palestinian dialogue.”

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit, for his part, hailed the deal, which he said represented “a major step in the direction towards reconciliation and putting an end to the Palestinian crisis.”

Aboul-Gheit added: “Egypt has always been deeply concerned with realising Palestinian reconciliation and stabilising the situation in the Palestinian territories, and has spared no effort on this account.”

Although the agreement was officially sponsored by Saudi Arabia, Egyptian involvement in mediation efforts has been ongoing. Since inter-Palestinian violence began in early January, an Egyptian security delegation in Gaza has helped broker five ceasefire deals between the two factions, the last of which was in early February.

The Egyptian delegation was first established in Gaza on a temporary basis in late 2005 as part of new security arrangements accompanying the Israeli withdrawal from the territory earlier that year. The recent advent of inter-Palestinian violence, however, led to a decision to make the security mission a permanent fixture.

But while Egypt’s contribution to the agreement’s success was substantial, some local observers say the deal represented a setback of sorts to Egypt’s diplomatic standing.

“In order to play an international role, a nation must boast a certain amount of political or financial clout, or at least take positions that distinguish it from others,” said Kandil. “Egypt doesn’t meet these criteria.”

He added: “Qatar’s role in Palestine is now bigger than Egypt’s.”

According to Gamal Zahran, head of the political science department at Suez Canal University and speaker for the independent bloc in parliament, Saudi diplomatic initiative finished what Egyptian mediation efforts began.

“Egypt made tremendous efforts to bridge the differences between the parties and find common ground, which the Saudis built on,” Zahran told IPS. “The Saudi role served to complete Egypt’s role — not replace it.”

However, Zahran went on to suggest that a perceived bias by Cairo against Hamas — itself an offshoot of Egypt’s own Muslim Brotherhood — cost Egypt credibility on the Palestinian street.

“Egypt couldn’t offer anything like the Mecca agreement because it was initially partial to the interests of Fatah and against Hamas,” Zahran told IPS. “By the time it had realised its error, Cairo had already lost a degree of credibility.”

In the Feb. 18 edition of al-Ahram, widely read editorialist Salaama Ahmed Salaama suggested that Cairo’s close strategic relationship with the United States had limited its foreign policy options.

“There’s a general feeling that Egypt’s diplomatic role is declining on several fronts and seldom consists of anything other than talk,” he wrote. “This is especially the case when it comes up against American policy, which leaves Cairo little room to manoeuvre.”

At a Feb. 14 meeting in Cairo, however, Nabil Shaath, member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and prominent Fatah member, attempted to counter this perception.

“Saudi Arabia and Jordan have not taken the place of Egypt in terms of solving the Palestinian problem,” he was quoted as saying in the state press. “What Egypt has done to help solve the Palestinian issue, internally and externally, cannot be overestimated.”

Shaath added: “We are continuing to consult Egypt on issues great and small.”

But according to Mohamed Abu al-Hadid, political analyst and chairman of state-owned print-house Dar al-Tahrir (which publishes government daily al-Gomhouriya), the chances for inter-Palestinian reconciliation are slim — agreement or not — unless the conflict’s root causes are addressed.

“The real reason for the inter-Palestinian violence stems from an unwillingness to acknowledge results of the 2005 Palestinian legislative elections, which Hamas won by a landslide,” Abu al-Hadid told IPS shortly before the agreement was signed in Mecca.

“Any deal reached — either by Egyptian or Saudi mediation — can’t last long,” he added, “because the notion of a national unity government ignores the source of the power struggle between Hamas and Fatah.”

Sure enough, the prevailing calm in Gaza was shattered Feb. 12 when a Fatah leader was abducted by unknown assailants in the first reported act of violence since the agreement. On Feb. 22, armed clashes between the rival factions in the northern Gaza Strip reportedly left at least eight dead, according to news reports.

All rights reserved, IPS – Inter Press Service (2007). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.