Alarm bells in Gaza
Cairo is flexing its diplomatic muscles to secure stability in Gaza and beyond following Hamas's rise to power, reports Dina Ezzat
Egyptian officials have been very assertive in their statements over Cairo's continued commitment to lend support to the Palestinians and to work closely with the new Palestinian government that is most likely to be formed by Hamas or a coalition of Hamas and Fatah. In a series of statements made this week, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit and Presidential Spokesman Suleiman Awaad consecutively said that the Egyptian role in relation to the Palestinian file -- with its inter-Palestinian and Palestinian- Israeli components -- will continue to be active and that President Hosni Mubarak himself will continue to be personally involved in conducting all necessary consultations with all concerned parties.
The Hamas victory, senior Egyptian officials say, will not undermine Cairo's commitment to provide direct and continuous help to the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations that should eventually lead to the implementation of the two-state solution.
"The victory of Hamas is a new development that has been contemplated and discussed. Any future mediations [by Egypt between ruling Hamas and Israel] will be decided as the Palestinian government is formed," Abul-Gheit said on Sunday. Following talks with his Israeli counterpart in Cairo yesterday, Abul-Gheit emphasised that he relayed a clear message to his interlocutor about the need for all parties to act wisely and exercise restraint so as to serve the best interest of the peoples of the region.
Egyptian sources stress that Egypt is still pondering its next move. This will come on the heels of continuous consultations including a visit by Foreign Minister Abul-Gheit to Israel next month and an upcoming meeting between President Mubarak and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Cairo. Egypt is also sounding out the views of key partners including the US and the EU.
But whatever Cairo does in the future, for now it is giving maximum priority to preserve Palestinian unity and to prevent undue Palestinian- Israeli political, and certainly military, confrontations. As sources stress Egypt is obviously keen to prevent any confrontations between Palestinians, led by Hamas, and some world capitals, especially Washington, that have indicated serious concern about the implications of the Hamas victory.
To serve these objectives and the interests of the Palestinian people, Awaad said, Mubarak has convinced Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to abandon all plans to resign from office. "Abbas agreed to continue his term in office until 2009," Awaad said. And in statements he made yesterday Chief of Intelligence Omar Suleiman indicated that Cairo is advising the exercise of patience by all parties before taking a stance on how to deal with Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Suleiman suggested that Hamas needs around six months to evolve its approach to power.
Moreover, following talks with Abbas in Cairo yesterday, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa indicated that his organisation would act as a mediator between all Palestinian parties to secure a coordinated and unified Palestinian stance.
Yesterday, during talks with Palestinian leader Abbas and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Mubarak advised both visitors to apply maximum caution when planning current and future policies towards one another.
"Egypt is particularly opposed to subjecting the Palestinians to any sanctions. Democracy cannot be preached and punished at the same time," Awaad said.
Moreover, both the Palestinian and Israeli interlocutors were warned by their host against attempts to tamper with the fragile but precious state of quiet -- even if it is sometimes violated.
Egypt has been keeping a very close watch on the durability of the state of truce -- that has been violated occasionally. Today, Egypt is gearing up all efforts to make sure that the many armed Palestinian factions will not violate this truce at a time of worldwide apprehension of the consequences of the electoral victory of the Islamist militant resistance movement Hamas.
For Egypt, as for Israel and certainly -- even if to a lesser degree -- the Palestinian Authority chaired by Abbas, the overwhelming victory achieved by Hamas in the Palestinian legislative elections means that a totally different situation has been created on the ground. This is not just about the Palestinian-Israeli talks but most importantly about the security situation in Gaza, Egypt's immediate and most sensitive neighbour.
While welcoming the wise statements made by Hamas leaders, Egyptian officials are still concerned about a sudden state of open confrontations in Gaza and its spill-over consequences across the Egyptian borders. A major source of concern, officials admit, are the close and increasing ties between Hamas and Iran and the possible wish of Tehran to harness these ties as part of its encounter with the West over its nuclear programme. "We told the West that if they denied Palestinians aid then they may get it from Iran," Suleiman stated.
Egyptian and Palestinian officials agree that the few coming days and weeks are probably much easier than whatever might follow. For now, the situation in Gaza is relatively flowing smoothly, more or less without serious Fatah-Hamas or inter-Fatah, not to mention Palestinian-Israeli, military confrontations. Moreover, Hamas is trying to dispel the political and security concerns by outsiders, those of Egypt included.
However, officials and commentators agree it is only a matter of time before all of this changes. And despite the expectations of many senior Egyptian and Arab officials, who argue that Hamas will apply realism and sensibility when in power, there is no guarantee as such that the situation on the ground in Gaza will be under control.
Egypt is working on keeping this state of affairs in the coming weeks leading to the Israeli elections -- due on 28 March -- in the hope that the mood of the Israeli public will not lean further to the right. Getting an Israeli hard-line right-wing government in office next March would mean that the peace process would be all but dead.
Achieving these goals requires serious coordination not just with the Palestinians and Israelis but with other influential parties including the US, the EU and both Syria and Iran that are close supporters of Hamas.
This week, Abul-Gheit conducted a round of telephone conversations with senior Palestinian and European officials. And, next week, Suleiman is planning a round of contacts with the Palestinians, Israelis and Syrians.