On May 21, 2021, a cease-fire agreement was reached between Israel and Hamas after an 11-day military confrontation. Egypt played a vital role in securing the cease-fire, after intensive talks and negotiations leveraged with regional and international stakeholders, one that will yield certain political gains for Cairo. Egypt’s mediation bolsters the country’s regional standing, restores its influence on the Palestinian issue, and, most importantly, improves the relationship between Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and the Biden Administration. It is noteworthy that these geopolitical advances will be achieved despite Egypt’s continuing human rights violations and poor democratic record.
A Different Approach
From the beginning of Israel’s latest devastating war on Gaza, Egypt adopted a different approach compared to its position during the 2014 war. Over the last few years, particularly since Sisi took power in 2014, Egypt has aligned with Israel while maintaining a cold and inimical relationship with Palestinian factions, particularly Hamas. However, this time Egypt’s position on the conflict between Israel and Hamas shifted noticeably and evinced increased engagement in mediation efforts. On May 7, the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a strongly worded statement condemning Israeli authorities after they stormed Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque and attacked locals and worshipers. The statement also called on Israel to stop any practices that violate the sanctity of the Al-Aqsa Mosque or the Islamic and Christian identity of Jerusalem. Ahmed Hafez, spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, asserted1 “Egypt’s complete rejection of any illegal practices aimed at undermining the legitimate and inalienable rights of the brotherly Palestinian people.”
Moreover, on May 9, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry summoned the Israeli ambassador, Amira Oron, to Cairo to protest violations by the Israeli authorities in Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque. Two days later, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry delivered a powerful speech2 during an emergency Arab League meeting, describing violations of Palestinian rights in Jerusalem because of “Israeli attacks targeting their rights to the land of their birth.” Further, Shoukry noted that Egypt has asked the Israeli authorities to stop “practices that violate the sanctity of the Al-Aqsa Mosque … or target the Arab identity of Jerusalem and its holy sites, or seek to displace its people, especially in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.”
The most noticeable aspect of Egypt’s new position was the sudden change in mainstream Egyptian media regarding the events in Gaza.
However, the most noticeable aspect of Egypt’s new position was the sudden change in mainstream Egyptian media regarding the events in Gaza. In recent years, the vast majority of state-controlled media had been denigrating Palestinian factions, particularly Hamas, accusing them of colluding in terrorist activities in Sinai and interfering in Egyptian affairs. Surprisingly, during the latest crisis, the Egyptian media praised the performance of the Palestinian resistance in Gaza and urged the Egyptian public to support it. The media’s open coverage of the events in Gaza was unprecedented. The most notable rhetorical change came from the preeminent newspaper Al-Ahram, which described Israel as “the occupation” and qualified Hamas as “the resistance.” Other institutions such as Al-Azhar followed suit, with Sheikh Ahmed Omar Hashem, a member of the Council of Senior Scholars, delivering a passionate Friday sermon3 at the Al-Azhar mosque. He urged listeners to help in the defense of Jerusalem, calling for halting settlement construction and for the establishment of an “Islamic deterrent force” to restore Palestinian rights. The most surprising development remains President’s Sisi’s pledge of $500 million toward the reconstruction of Gaza. The Rafah crossing point was also opened to receive those injured from Israeli attacks.
Egypt’s Regional Repositioning
Historically, Egypt has played the role of mediator between Israelis and Palestinians, particularly since the days of the Oslo process in the early 1990s. Egypt’s role gained more importance after the Fatah and Hamas rift in 2007 and the latter’s takeover of the Gaza Strip. Cairo has attempted numerous times, unsuccessfully, to launch a reconciliation process between the rival factions and to remedy the long-standing dispute between them. In fact, the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation process has been on the Egyptian agenda for many years, and especially during the last decade of former President Hosni Mubarak’s rule.
Egypt is a key stakeholder in mediating between Israel and Palestinian factions partly because of its bilateral ties with both Israel and Hamas. This was clearly demonstrated during previous Israeli attacks on Gaza in 2008, 2012, and 2014. However, since the July 3, 2013 coup in Egypt and the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohamed Morsi, the diplomatic relationship between Egypt and Hamas has been strained. The uneasy tension was accentuated after Egypt accused Hamas of alleged involvement in the uprising in Egypt of January 2011. Egyptian media also claimed that Hamas supported terrorist groups and militias in the Sinai Peninsula. Tensions further swelled after Sisi came to power in 2014, with the late President Morsi accused of spying for Hamas.
The Egyptian stance during recent events thus seems different and at odds with the foreign policy that has been pursued in previous years. The explanation for this shift derives from several reasons. Perhaps the first and most important involves the regional geostrategic changes that have taken place over the last months, which have led to the repositioning of regional actors, including Egypt. These developments include the end of the political rift between Gulf states, with the reconciliation of Qatar and Saudi Arabia in January 2021 and the consequent improvement of relations between Cairo and Doha, which was evident through the Qatari role in the cease-fire negotiations between Israel and Hamas. Egyptian and Turkish rapprochement also played a role in recent events. These geopolitical transformations prompted Egypt to reposition itself regionally in order to protect its national interests.
Egypt has sought to regain its leading position regionally with respect to the Palestine issue, especially after the wave of normalization agreements in summer 2020 between Israel and other Arab states.
On the other hand, Egypt has sought to regain its leading position regionally with respect to the Palestine issue, especially after the wave of normalization agreements in summer 2020 between Israel and other Arab states—the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. Recent events in Gaza demonstrated that Egypt’s role is indispensable since, unlike its Arab neighbors, it enjoys good relations with Israelis and Palestinians, making it central to any negotiations between the two parties.
Cairo’s recent active role came amid a sense of threat from some Arab countries seeking to substitute Egypt’s role and relations with those of Israel. Some point to the UAE’s attempt to do so, as evident in the increasing economic, trade, and geostrategic cooperation with Tel Aviv. This is where speculation emerges about the Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline, which aims to transport oil from the Arabian Gulf to Europe through Israel, and therefore to replace the pivotal function of the Suez Canal—a development that would constitute a major threat to Egypt’s national and strategic security. The Ashkelon oil facility that benefited from a proposed $700-800 million UAE investment was targeted during the recent confrontation between Israel and Hamas.
Finally, Egypt is trying to capitalize on the recent events in Palestine to draw attention and garner international support for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) dispute with Ethiopia. Cairo’s need for international support is manifested through its complex relationship with Addis Ababa, which refuses to reach an agreement with Egypt and Sudan before the start of the second dam filling in July. Cairo therefore hopes to benefit from its role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to improve its negotiating position in the GERD file and assert itself as an important regional power.
The Biden Factor
One important explanation behind Egypt’s diplomatic activity in reaching a cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas is the Sisi regime’s relentless pursuit of impressing the Biden Administration. Since Joe Biden took office, there has been a breakdown in his relationship with Sisi over the horrific human rights violations in Egypt, which Biden criticized during his campaign when he tweeted “no more blank checks” to “Trump’s favorite dictator,” meaning Sisi.
Over the past four months, Cairo has tried to reach out to the Biden Administration and to avert criticism for human rights violations by releasing some journalists and political activists. But that was not enough to gain the White House’s attention. These conciliation efforts continued until the last round of escalation between Israel and Hamas, in which Cairo saw an opportunity to improve its image and reinvigorate its relations with the Biden Administration by presenting itself as Washington’s loyal ally that can end the ongoing crisis. For the first time since he took office, President Biden called President Sisi twice in a week to thank him for his sincere efforts to reach a cease-fire agreement. Biden’s first contact with Sisi was on May 20, when they discussed cease-fire efforts and cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hamas. They also agreed to carry on with open communication channels between their teams. Biden’s second contact came on May 24, in which he thanked his Egyptian counterpart for his successful diplomacy and coordination with the United States to end the violence.
For the first time since he took office, President Biden called President Sisi twice in a week to thank him for his sincere efforts to reach a cease-fire agreement.
This recent U.S-Egyptian rapprochement is striking because of the breadth of the issues tackled during the calls. They included the disagreements surrounding GERD; the Libyan elections scheduled for December; and concerted work to support Iraq’s efforts to restore its sovereignty and full independence (perhaps as a hint at Iranian intervention there). Secretary of State Antony Blinken also visited Cairo and met with President Sisi for the first time. Blinken thanked his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry for his country’s continued efforts to forge a cease-fire in Gaza.
All this indicates that relations between Egypt and the United States have returned to normal in terms of emphasizing the strategic alliance between the two countries, regardless of the issue of democracy and human rights. Undermining human rights and democracy for the sake of strategic cooperation was the same formula during the Mubarak era. This “equilibrium” was a key goal for Sisi, who clearly succeeded in re-marketing himself to the Biden Administration as Washington’s indispensable regional ally. Sisi was thus able to restore the administration’s confidence in Egypt’s regional role. He will therefore work hard to ensure that the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas is sustained. Egypt has sent two security delegations to Israel and Gaza to ascertain that there are no clashes between the two sides and to prepare for a truce. Egyptian Foreign Minister Shoukry also met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on May 24 in order to reinforce the cease-fire in the Gaza Strip and to consult on Gaza reconstruction efforts.
Sisi has succeeded, at least so far, in trading off the issue of freedoms and human rights for Egypt’s regional role, particularly in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The status of democracy in Egypt is not expected to be a priority on the agenda of bilateral US-Egyptian relations. The most likely outcome is Washington’s expression of its usual “concern” about human rights violations but without putting any real pressure on the Sisi regime to improve its record or to release thousands of political prisoners. The irony of the past is that while Sisi claims his support for the Palestinian cause, he imprisons a number of activists who defend Palestinian rights, such as Ramy Shaath, one of the pillars of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement in Egypt. He has also detained some citizens who have tried to express solidarity with the Palestinians. These actions neatly sum up the nature of Sisi’s opportunistic attitude toward Palestine.
Arguably, Sisi is the key winner in the latest round of violence between Israel and Hamas: he succeeded in marketing himself anew, both domestically and internationally, as an indispensable leader and mediator. However, his ability to maintain the trust of the conflicting parties and to protect Egypt’s national interests remains dependent on future developments in Israeli-Hamas and American-Egyptian relations.