Egypt plays second fiddle to Qatar on Hamas mediation

Cairo credit: Nora_n_0_ra Shutterstock
Cairo credit: Nora_n_0_ra Shutterstock

"Globes" examines why Egypt is taking a back seat in Israel-Hamas talks and its determination not to accept Gazan refugees.

In previous rounds of fighting between Israel and Hamas, there was a kind of constant competition between Egypt and Qatar on successful mediation, demonstrating their importance in the Arab world and their ability to sway Israel for the benefit of Gazans and the Palestinians. Sometimes Egypt would prevail and other times Qatar, especially when large investment in the Gaza Strip was required. In the conflicts that preceded the atrocities of October 7, Egypt and Qatar, ideological rivals from different blocs, cooperated to bring about agreements.

In the current war Egypt's involvement has been minor. While Qatar leads the talks in terms of practicalities and its image, Egypt only participates in them, and helps the deal to be implemented on the ground. This was the case with the release of the Israeli hostages Yocheved Lifshitz and Nurit Cooper on October 23, which was implemented by transporting them by ambulance to the Egyptian side, examining them by doctors on the spot and only then transferring them to Israel. The same is true according to the reports that are now emerging regarding the current deal, which will involve the International Red Cross and Egypt, but was brokered by Qatar.

Tel Aviv University Department of Arabic and Middle Eastern Affairs Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) senior researcher and lecturer Dr. Ofir Winter, an expert on Egypt, says, "Egypt is involved in mediation efforts with Hamas but this time, unlike in the past, it is not leading them by itself but doing it with Qatar, with each of the countries fulfilling a complementary role."

He explains that there are several factors for this dynamic. "Firstly, unlike in previous rounds of fighting between Israel and Hamas, the US is deeply involved in the current war and has major leverage pressures on Qatar, and the motivation to use them so that the latter will assist in the mediation process and the release of hostages, some of whom have US citizenship. "Secondly, following the October 7 massacre, Qatar found itself under severe international criticism for hosting the Hamas leadership and funding the movement, and it is possible that for this reason it has an interest in expanding its involvement in the mediation process, to improve its damaged image, and this is happening somewhat at Egypt's expense. Thirdly, it is possible that Hamas, which this time came to the negotiations with Israel from a position of strength, with many hostages in its hands, was able to force a deeper Qatari involvement in the mediation process and push aside Egypt somewhat."

Dr. Winter explains, "While Israel prefers the mediation of Egypt, which is hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood and acts with suspicion towards its Hamas proxy, Hamas prefers its Qatari patron. Qatar is perceived in Hamas's eyes as a more convenient and reliable mediator than Egypt, and is expected to assist in its survival.

Egypt in a difficult economic situation

Egypt is in a difficult economic situation, and some experts believe that the situation is critical. Prices in the country have jumped by dozens of percent in the last 18 months, and the consumer price index in October rose 38%. The Egyptian pound lost has depreciated by 50% against the US dollar, the debt-to-product ratio has reached 100%, and there is no economic relief in sight. Egypt receives grants of tens of billions of dollars from Saudi Arabia and rich Gulf states, if only to maintain the regional stability it promises. No one except for perhaps Hamas in Gaza, Qatar and Turkey, wants to see the return to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which would include control over the Suez Canal. The commitment in the West to maintaining the rule of Abdel Fattah El-Sisi runs very deep.

Dr. Winter says, "Due to its economic distress, Egypt has developed an increasing dependence on the Gulf countries, including Qatar, and it is forced to consider their positions more than before," But he adds that Egypt still has "A great ability to navigate the mediation process during the war and influence the reality that will be created." This is, among other things, due to "its ties both with the internal leadership of Hamas in the Gaza Strip and with Israel and the levers of pressure resulting from its control of the border crossings to the Strip. The crossings are used for the movement of people, the wounded, humanitarian aid, fuel and goods, and make Egypt the oxygen pipeline to Gaza and the person who is 'at the helm' and coordinates the flow of regional and international aid that reaches the Strip."

As part of this activity, Egypt convened an aid conference for Gaza residents two weeks after the start of the war. The conference was not attended by Israel or the US, but mostly by Arab countries as well as European representatives. At the conference and in statements after it, the Egyptians made it clear unequivocally that they would not be ready to accept even one refugee from the Gaza Strip, and El-Sisi even promised that "millions in Egypt will rise up" if a plan would be promoted.

Will the crisis move to its territory?

"It is worth paying heed to the words of Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly this week, at a parliamentary session on the subject of 'Government measures against the attempts to carry out forced migration of the Palestinians from the Gaza Strip,'" says Dr. Winter. "He stressed that Egypt sees such Israeli measures as a red line and a threat to Egyptian sovereignty. He warned that an Israeli attempt to deport Palestinians to Egypt would lead to a decisive response and hinted that such a move could be perceived as a violation of the peace agreement. Even if it is not an explicit threat of war, it is a sensitive issue that could cause serious damage to peaceful relations. The issue has become part of President El-Sisi's campaign ahead of the elections in December, through which he positions himself and the Egyptian army as those who protect the borders of the homeland against external plots." Israeli plans published in the media by ministers and MKs for forced migration of Gaza residents, do not help soothe Egypt's concerns.

Dr. Winter adds, "The prevailing international and Arab position at this stage backs Egypt and its opposition to accepting Gazan refugees or displaced persons in its territories, especially if they are forcibly deported by Israel. Hamas also has an interest in leaving Gaza densely populated with civilians, and so far it has not demanded that Egypt accept displaced persons or refugees, with the exception of treating the wounded and humanitarian cases."

In the current socially and economically sensitive situation in Egypt, criticism of Israel has become more acute. "The public atmosphere in Egypt towards Israel is very hostile. It is not just a matter of letting off steam that the regime allows expressions of identification with the Palestinians. Even before the war, there was a distance from the leadership, which was accompanied by Egyptian criticism of the current Israeli government's policy on the Palestinians. In addition, in the eyes of many Egyptians, damaging Hamas does not justify harming what they perceive as innocent Palestinian citizens."

In this situation, Dr. Winter continues, "The Egyptian fear of deportation of Gaza residents to Egypt adds fuel to the fire. This scenario, which Israel's Prime Minister has not ruled out, is seen by the Egyptian authorities and public as an attempt to export the crisis to its territory and carry out a 'second Nakba,' and eliminate the Palestinian problem at its expense."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - - on November 23, 2023.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2023.

Cairo credit: Nora_n_0_ra Shutterstock
Cairo credit: Nora_n_0_ra Shutterstock
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