Egypt confronts a double problem on its northeastern borders – both Palestinian and Israeli. The two problems are intertwined and have interacted over the past six decades or so. However, they are also different, or at least require different sets of policies. While the Israeli question is geopolitical in nature and is defined most of the time in balance-of-power terms, the Palestinian issue has involved the much more complex question of Egyptian national identity and connectivity to the rest of the Arab world.
The Israeli question requires policies of deterrence and containment and involves issues of war and peace. But the Palestinian problem has demanded of Egypt much more complex policies that in many ways involve its domestic politics as well. The rise of Hamas in Palestinian politics complicated the Egyptian posture toward the Palestinians and the Palestinian question. For four decades, the Egyptian leadership had worked with the Palestinian national movement.
It was in Cairo that the Palestinian Liberation Organization was born in 1964, and it was there also in 1968 that Fatah was integrated into that organization when Yasser Arafat replaced Ahmed Shukairy. In many ways, Palestinian national politics was not unlike politics in many Arab countries.
And when President Hosni Mubarak led Arafat by the hand to the Egypt-Gaza border in 1994, this was, from an Egyptian perspective, mission accomplished. It was as if all Egyptian national dreams had finally come true: Egypt had peace with its powerful neighbor Israel while the Palestinians were going to get their independent state, starting with the Gaza Strip and Jericho. Until then, Hamas was no more than one of those Palestinian factions that come and go or, like many, remain in the margins of Palestinian politics that were dominated by the PLO, Fatah and of course Arafat. But in regional politics, dreams more often than not turn into nightmares.
Over time the PLO vanished, Fatah failed and Arafat died. Hamas became the leader of the Palestinian national movement and introduced into it new Islamic and fundamentalist features. The Arab-Israel conflict was redefined from a conflict between two visions of the land into one between two understandings of God’s promise. Thus did the election of Hamas in January 2006 create a new reality for Egyptians to deal with – and in new terms no one was accustomed to in Cairo. For one thing, the 14 km of the Egyptian-Palestinian border along the Gaza Strip have become a geo-strategic problem. Smuggling, tunnels, and population pressures have required amendments even in the sacred Egyptian-Israeli security arrangements. Sinai, the new crown of Egyptian development, suffered from terrorists, some of whom were trained in the chaotic environment of Gaza. Egypt’s efforts to complete its mission of peace in the region have come to a halt. To be sure, there were Israeli and global reasons for the paralysis in the peace process.
But the Palestinian failure to put into place a functioning and effective government has made it impossible to get the Israelis or any other party to the bargaining table. Even more frustrating to Egyptian diplomacy has been the inability to get both Hamas and Fatah to maintain a ceasefire. But for Egypt, Hamas is much more problematic than its mere capacity to complicate or even hinder the peace process. After all, Hamas came to power in the post Sept. 11, 2001, world, with connections to a no-less-fundamentalist Iran and a no-less-radical Syria, and at a time when the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has gained a serious foothold in the Egyptian Parliament. Once again, the Palestinian question is much more than the sum total of its geopolitical or geo-strategic realities: it is part of the regional balance of power and global politics. In the midst of it all, Egypt and Hamas have had to find ways to deal with one another. They have found an uneasy way to keep the relationship going, but it has never been fruitful. Egypt for many reasons needs to calm the situation in Gaza and maintain its influence over Palestinian politics; while Hamas needs Egypt as its only gateway to the outside world. Hamas also has an interest in Egypt’s legitimizing role and recognizes Egypt’s “red line :
There should be no interference in Egyptian domestic politics beyond “routine and traditional connections with the Muslim Brotherhood. In many ways this is not a promising relationship, but rather one of necessity, pregnant with doubts and contradictions. Most likely it will be redefined by the Palestinian people themselves when they vote in future elections or when they take sides in the Fatah-Hamas relationship. Regional alliances will take their toll as well: Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia will all influence the direction of Egypt-Hamas interaction. Above all, the promise or the demise of a viable peace process will affect the tender balance in this fragile relationship.
Abdel Monem Said Aly is the director of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter publishing contending views of regional and Islamic issues.