While Egypt's pressure on Hamas has backed the Islamist movement
into a corner, it has also inflamed Palestinian anger by doing so -
and thus weakened Egypt's power as a regional negotiator.
With renewed promises of revitalizing Middle East peace
negotiations, US envoy George Mitchell is due in Beirut today - the
first stop of his inaugural 2010 regional tour. But a key ally in
his efforts, Egypt, has gotten off to a bad start in the New Year,
further complicating American interests.
The US has long hoped that Egypt would prove a key intermediary
in bringing about Israeli-Palestinian peace. But Egypt has a poor
relationship with Hamas, the Palestinian organization that controls
the Gaza strip, and its recent effort to beef up its border fence
with Gaza has backed Hamas into a corner and inflamed wider
Palestinian anger against Egypt.
As a consequence, many Palestinians see Egypt as an ally of the
US and Israel. The country's ability to act as an honest broker has
been weakened as a consequence.
The problem is that Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim
Brotherhood, Egypt's most popular and powerful opposition movement.
The regime of President Hosni Mubarak has been almost as eager as
Israel for the Islamist movement to fail in Gaza, for fear it could
encourage more Egyptians to support the brothers. But Egypt remains
eager to hang on to its role as a perceived potential peace-maker
since that inflates its importance to the US, which provides it with
$2 billion in aid each year.
"The only paper or card which the Egyptian foreign [policymakers]
can take to Americans and say that we are very important in any
process in the region is the 'Palestinian card'.... It's the only
card with which we can play," says Emad Gad at the Al-Ahram Centre
for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank funded by the
Egyptian government .
Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London
School of Economics, says that Egypt has more directly thrown its
lot in with Washington in recent years, particularly in its efforts
to weaken Hamas.
"The way it's seen is that Egypt has renounced its traditional
leadership role in the region.... Egypt now serves the 'interests'
of Washington and Jerusalem," says Professor Gerges. "This is
Egypt's predicament: the more it appeals to Washington [and] the
more it improves its (political) capital, the graver the threat to
its regional leadership in the Middle East."
Gerges thinks that in openly threatening Hamas, the Egyptian
regime has calculated a strategic trade-off: Less regional
popularity but a greater likelihood that Washington will approve of
Egypt's next leader. President Mubarak, now 81, has yet to name a
political successor but is grooming his son Gamal to replace him.
"The leadership believes that the only way the political
transition will succeed is by getting Washington's consent," Gerges
Shutting down Hamas
In the first few weeks of the New Year, simmering hostilities
between Hamas and Egypt have already boiled over - chiefly over a
new wall on Gaza's border that's seen as part of Israel's effort to
seal off the coastal territory.
"For Hamas this is not just about a political game, it's about an
ideological, political, and theological existence and Hamas will
basically do everything in its power to resist any kind of dictate
by Egypt and the United States," says Gerges. …