The future of Egyptian diplomacy in Palestine: A regional balancing act

On 1 March, Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that  has ruled Egypt since 11 February, sent a letter to Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, in which he stressed “the deep ties and relations on all levels between Palestine and Egypt and the need to keep and preserve these ties,” according to the Palestinian news agency Wafa.

This first exchange came after Abbas had showed public support to toppled President Hosni Mubarak during the revolution.

Following the revolution, several experts believe Egyptian diplomacy in Palestine could shift slightly toward a more balanced approach than the traditional backing of the Palestinian Authority (PA) as opposed to Hamas.

Sayyed Amin Shalaby, executive director of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Relations, is convinced that “Egyptian diplomacy will be more assertive and supportive of the rights of Palestinian people.” He affirmed that “Egypt will be working more for the reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. In the new regime, when a democratic government will be elected, the tension with Hamas will decrease.”

Mubarak had often been accused of supporting the Gaza blockade. Since 2005 when Israel withdrew from Gaza, Egypt has been in charge of the Rafah border with the Gaza Strip. The former regime was extremely reluctant to open the border since Hamas took power in the Gaza Strip in 2007 and Israel implemented its blockade.

The moment Mubarak's regime was deposed on 11 February, the Maan press agency reported a call from the Islamic movement to lift the blockade and open the border crossing.

For Manuel Musallam, a member of the revolutionary council of Fatah who lived in Gaza for 15 years until 2009, Egypt must open the Rafah border. “It would be the first step to prove Egypt’s real determination to change its approach to the Palestinian issue… We will see if the new regime will open the border with Gaza,” he said.

But a Western diplomat in Cairo said the Egyptian military is not keen on complying with Hamas’ demand to open the Rafah border: “The Military is extremely concerned by the security in Sinai, especially after the explosion of the gas pipeline on 5 February. It won’t be keen on opening the border”.

With Mubarak gone, the situation grows more tenuous for Abbas, who has lost one of his strongest backers. Since Hamas’ takeover of Gaza, Egypt has been involved in negotiations between Fatah and Hamas. But Cairo had been strongly criticized in the Arab World for what was deemed to be its unconditional support of Fatah against Hamas.

During the revolution, while Palestinian parties were endorsing the Egyptian pro-democracy movement, only Fatah and the PA remained on Mubarak’s side.

The PA’s unease with the post-Mubarak situation is perhaps exemplified by the crackdown on solidarity protests.

“At the beginning of the revolution, when people went to protest in front on the Egyptian Embassy in Ramallah, they were roughly cracked down on by the Palestinian Authority,” said a student of politics from Birzeit University who wished to remain unnamed.

“The day Mubarak stepped down, everybody at university was chanting congratulations… but many people were embarrassed within the PA, I mean, senior civil servants, ministers etc.,” he added.

Some signs of change are already occurring in Egypt's diplomatic relations with regimes long considered foes and close to Hamas. On 22 February, Egypt authorized two Iranian ships to cross the Suez Canal.

“One month ago, before Mubarak stepped down, I think he would not have allowed them to go through,” said Mostafa al-Labbad, a political analyst. “Everybody interpreted it as Iran testing the new regime, but the message was also from Egypt, which was well aware of the message it was sending: we are no longer a satellite state.”

Iran supports Hamas and is at loggerheads with Egypt over several critical issues in the region. Iran’s defiant position towards the West and Israel, its suspected nuclear program and its support for Hezbollah and Hamas were the main points of contention between the countries.

The Egyptian military also sent another signal when when Tantawi vowed to restore friendly ties with Syria. Cairo and Damascus have long been engaged in a diplomatic tug-of-war on Palestinian issues and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is the main Arab backer of Hamas.

Despite several seemingly small yet significant diplomatic offerings to its neighbors, Egypt is not expected to radically change its alliances, meaning it will remain close to the United States and respect the peace treaty with Israel.

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