Egypt's foreign policy and Palestinian reconciliation

I have a new Masri al-Youm column on Egypt's foreign policy and its recent midwifing of Palestinian reconciliation here. I argue that the deal is not enough to talk about a new foreign policy just yet, but we're seeing signs of a move in the right direction.

The Fatah-Hamas reconciliation that was inked in Cairo on 4 May is important mainly for Palestinian reasons: For the first time since 2006, an opportunity exists to form a united Palestinian position to address the impasse of the peace process. But the deal also reflects a new style of Egyptian foreign policy and, with time, perhaps a new direction too.

Ever since Omar Suleiman began to broker Palestinian reconciliation talks in 2006, Egypt’s official policy was to support unity. Talks were held in Cairo and elsewhere with multiple factions over the years, and every now and then rumors circulated of an impending deal — often when politically convenient for one of the parties involved. Yet they never amounted to anything concrete. Fatah and Hamas share a good part of the blame: Neither faction was truly satisfied with reconciliation, which threatened to endanger their grip on the respective territories they controlled. Despite the fact that Palestinians clamored for reconciliation, faction leaders prioritized their self-interests and the alliances they forged with regional powers. No doubt the threat of a third Palestinian intifada planned to begin on 15 May — this time against the Palestinian leadership as well as Israel — motivated them to break the deadlock.

Part of the obstacle to reconciliation was Egypt’s policy, though. For several years, Egypt tried to impose a white paper on Hamas that the Islamist group clearly found unsatisfactory and biased towards Fatah. Much like the United States is a biased broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Egypt systematically took a one-sided approach to the inter-Palestinian conflict. Officials would readily acknowledge this in private, giving various reasons. At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, diplomats argued that Palestinian reconciliation at the wrong time would jeopardize the entire peace process, since the United States would be unlikely to back a Palestinian national unity government that included Hamas members. In reality, Mubarak’s diplomats cared most about salvaging a peace process that was going nowhere because it at least maintained the myth of Egypt’s centrality in regional politics.

More important for now is the style in which it was accomplished: with discretion and humility, a far cry from the bombast and hysterics of the Mubarak era. I don't necessarily agree that the regional order is being overturned just yet (that link was Asia Times, see also NYT for the same take, just less enthusiastic.) That the Zionists are appalled by the reconciliation is more proof that it's a positive step — notice how suddenly they believe that negotiations were going to happen.

I heartily welcome Palestinian reconciliation, even though this deal is just a first tentative step in achieving it. (Ali Abunimah has a critique of the deal here, and here's the text of the agreement.) As Adam Shatz writes:

The Cairo agreement is not a revolution; it is a settlement between ruling parties keen to hold onto power in their respective realms of influence. Fatah and Hamas will set up an interim government, before elections are held in roughly eight months. Implementing the agreement will not be easy, as both parties seem to understand, which is why they haven’t tried to set up a unified security force. This should avert potential clashes in the short term but could lead to problems further down the line: there couldn’t be separate Fatah and Hamas security forces in an independent Palestinian state. Nevertheless, the agreement is a major step, as there’s no hope of a struggle for independence, much less a state, without national unity.

Both Fatah and Hamas know that the popular mood is running against them. Palestinians are frustrated by the lack of progress towards statehood, a result not only of Israeli intransigence but also of factional strife; and there is a widespread perception that both leaderships are less interested in pursuing independence than in preserving their own power. The regional balance of forces, moreover, has shifted in favour of Palestinian unity: Egypt, which brokered the accord, is no longer trying to undermine Hamas, as it did when Omar Suleiman was intelligence chief; under its new, plainspoken foreign minister, Nabil al-Arabi, Egypt’s transitional government has moved to open the Rafah crossing and to restore full diplomatic relations with Iran. Hamas’s allies in Egypt, the Muslim Brothers, are no longer banned, and they will help to shape Egyptian policy on Israel-Palestine. Hamas, for its part, is said to be anxious about the unrest in Syria, its home-in-exile, and may be looking for a new base of operations in the Arab world.

The Guardian had an excellent editorial the other day on the stupidity of Israel and the US' reaction:

Israel's politicians reacted darkly to the news of reconciliation. From right to left, they shared an assumption which is out of date. It is that they retain the ability – and the right – to dictate what sort of state Palestinians will build on their borders. Having spent years fashioning the environment, the penny has yet to drop that a future environment composed of free Egyptians, Jordanians and even possibly Syrians could well fashion Israel's borders. Even after Mubarak fell, the consensus was that Cairo was so preoccupied with internal problems that it lacked the energy to make foreign policy.

Not so. Yesterday foreign minister Nabil al-Arabi announced that Egypt would shortly be lifting the siege of Gaza. These events pose a direct challenge to the status quo that Israel, the US and the EU have fashioned. Do they now subvert the will of the Egyptians they claim to champion? Does the US do what it did the last time Fatah and Hamas reconciled at Mecca, and pull the plug on the unity government? Do the Quartet threaten to withdraw the PA's funds, because, as is very likely, Salam Fayyad will no longer be there to disburse them? The US could twist Fatah's arm, but Fatah might just sign on the dotted line all the same.

The next step to watch for will be Egypt's position on Palestinian attempts to gain UN recognition in September, which thus far Cairo is backing (how much noise will they make over it though?)

Update: Forgot to include this link to the WaPo's interview with Nabil ElAraby, in which the interviewer embarrasses herself with her bias and focus on Israel. And here are a few more links: