The diplomatic round
Intense diplomatic efforts throughout 2010 heralded little beyond more of the same, writes Doaa El-Bey
On the Palestinian track direct peace talks not only came to a halt but showed symptoms of a possible total collapse as Israel continued to press hard to impose a solution on its own terms. On Egypt's southern borders Sudan faces imminent division into two states, a move that threatens to open the door to the disintegration of other Arab countries under the weight of ethnic, tribal and religious differences.
Regarding the Palestinian question Egypt held endless meetings with regional and international officials throughout the year in pursuit of two objectives: concluding a Palestinian-Israeli deal that would end 60 years of struggle and allow for the establishment of a Palestinian state, and ending the rift between the two biggest Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas.
It failed to achieve either. Tel Aviv refrained from renewing a freeze on settlement building while the Palestinian Authority insisted on a total halt to illegal construction as a precondition to restarting direct negotiations. The Palestinian national movement remains in disarray as Israel usurps more land in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Gaza is still controlled by Hamas and all efforts to bridge the differences between Fatah and Hamas were unsuccessful. The situation in Gaza is fragile and explosive: a senior Israeli army commander was quoted by the BBC this week saying that if Hamas stays in power it is only a question of time before there is another conflict while Palestinian negotiator Saeb Ereikat warned that tensions were escalating in the region and that any Israeli attack on Gaza could only complicate the situation and lead to further bloodshed.
Cairo's intense diplomatic efforts were aborted by many factors, not least Israeli intransigence and its refusal to accept an extension to the freeze on settlement construction, even for as little as three months.
Mohamed Shaker, head of the Council for External Affairs, told Al -Ahram Weekly that Israel had failed to show any genuine will for peace in the region.
"Washington's historic support of Israel will never change. That was made clear when the US administration announced this month that it had failed to get Israel to renew its settlement ban. The announcement was complete contradiction with Obama's pledges in his Cairo speech."
The failure to halt settlement building, says Shaker, placed Palestinian reconciliation further out of reach. "Yet unless the Palestinians unite the Israelis will always find a pretext for not holding negotiations with them on equal footing," he adds.
Another diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, placed the blame on a combination of Israeli procrastination and increasing Iranian influence in the region, especially on Hamas. Having signed a peace treaty with Israel, he added, Egypt was forced to stay neutral and refrain from taking any strong stand against Israel. As a result, it sometimes appeared biased towards Israel.
Some alternatives to negotiations were posited. Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit said that if Israel continued to build settlements in the West Bank, Egypt and other Arab countries might seek UN recognition of a Palestinian state. There were also suggestions that popular resistance be revived, that Washington be encouraged to recognise a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders and that moves should be made to place the Palestinian territories under international supervision until a peace agreement is reached.
Peace is still the best option, according to Shaker, especially if the Arab peace initiative launched in 2002 is implemented.
"Armed resistance would cause many casualties and is not likely to lead to peace, as we saw in Israel's attack on Gaza at the end of 2008. The other options are still available. The most important thing is to choose the right option at the right time," he says.
On Egypt's southern flank no one doubts that Sudan is about to split into two states. Initially Egypt tried to postpone the referendum on secession in order to allow time for pressing issues to be resolved and the referendum to be conducted with greater transparency and in a more relaxed atmosphere. When it became clear that the referendum would be held on time Egyptian diplomacy focussed on promoting cooperation with both the north and south of Sudan. President Hosni Mubarak's visit to Khartoum with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel-Aziz this month aimed to foster cooperation between the north and south on one hand, and between the north and south and its Arab neighbours on the other.
A joint statement issued after the visit, during which Mubarak met with Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir, and with southern Sudanese leader Silva Kiir, underlined the need for the leaders of north and south to work together to calmly execute the results of the referendum, avoid any post-referendum military conflicts and pursue close cooperation in the event of separation.
"The referendum, together with the subsequent split of Sudan, could have dangerous implications for Egypt. It clearly indicates the absence of an effective Egyptian role in Africa in general and in Sudan in particular," the diplomat added.
A more promising diplomatic development was the improvement in Egyptian-Qatari relations. Mubarak paid Qatar a rare visit in November, signalling an end to long years of tension between Cairo and Doha, not least because of Cairo's unease because of Qatari-owned Al-Jazeera satellite channel's coverage of Egyptian related news. The situation was aggravated by what Cairo perceived as unhelpful interventions by Qatar in the management of relations between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas and in negotiations between the Khartoum regime and the Darfur rebels.
During the past few months tension was contained as a result of compromises on both sides: Al-Jazeera toned down its coverage of developments in Egypt while Cairo accommodated Qatar's wish to expand its diplomatic input in regional affairs. Relations were given a further boost when Egypt celebrated Qatar's successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup. The defeat of the Egyptian national team by Qatar in a friendly game this month is not likely to impact on the newly thawed relations.
Despite a seeming deterioration in its regional role Egypt remains a crucial player in the Arab world. And given that the problems that emerged or became worse in 2010 are unlikely to disappear in 2011, fingers remain crossed in the hope patient diplomacy can promote acceptable resolutions.