Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Egypt
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Engaged to disengage

Egypt is again trying to contain the turbulence on its eastern border

Click to view caption
Mubarak with Abbas during talks in Sharm El-Sheikh

Cairo may not really have a particular formula to contain the blistering situation in the Palestinian territories, Syria and Lebanon. After all, as Egyptian and other Arab diplomats agree, inducing stability in the region is no longer the prerogative of the Arab world. It is, they say, the ultimate decision of the US and other international players.

However, in the view of Egyptian diplomacy, it is necessary for Cairo to remain engaged in the administration of these hot spots to make sure things do not get out of hand irreversibly. As part of this "keep-engaged" diplomacy, Cairo has been busy offering the parties concerned some short-term solutions for the crises they are encountering. The crux of these solutions seems to be based on a formula by which national and international interests are safely mixed in the same pot.

During the past week, in talks conducted by President Hosni Mubarak in Sharm El-Sheikh with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Syrian Vice President Farouk Al-Sharaa and Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Al-Seniyoura, Egyptian advise of accommodation was given in abundance.

On the Palestinian front, primarily perceived in Cairo as a relationship between Hamas and the Fatah movement of President Mahmoud Abbas rather than the usual Palestinian-Israeli ties, Cairo sees the need for patience to be exercised over the expected desire of Hamas to show some authority provided it does not compromise the basic rules of the Palestinian relationship with Israel and the West. Egypt indicated that its intelligence chief Omar Suleiman will be sent to the Palestinian territories and Israel after the dust of Tuesday's Israeli election has settled down. Meanwhile, Cairo is contemplating promoting a division of labour scheme that Abbas is willing to adhere to.

According to one well-informed Palestinian diplomat, given that the temporary Palestinian constitution designates the chairman of the Palestinian Authority the ultimate foreign policy decision-maker, it would be absurd for new Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud Al-Zahhar to try to reverse Palestinian foreign policy. "There are areas of agreement between Abbas and Hamas on foreign policy. These are related to the need to expand and solidify Palestinian relations with the Arab and Muslim world," the diplomat said. Abbas is willing, and is encouraged by Egypt, to allow Hamas to administer this aspect of Palestinian foreign policy.

Meanwhile, Egypt is supporting Abbas and is trying to persuade Hamas that it should be Abbas and his immediate Fatah aides to handle the more crucial relationship with the US, the EU and Israel.

"We need to keep the door open for peace talks and we must also show respect for the will of the Palestinian people as has been demonstrated in the election of Hamas," Mubarak said in press statements accorded this week to the Sudanese news agency. Mubarak added that efforts should be equally exerted to encourage Hamas to formulate a reasonable stance on the peace process in light of the Arab peace initiative adopted by the Arab summit in Beirut 2002. "This initiative is still on the table and it offers a comprehensive framework for Arab- Israeli relations on the basis of international legitimacy, including the land-for-peace principle."

According to Egyptian sources, while Cairo is sensing signs of comforting realism on the part of Hamas when it comes to handling relations with Israel and the West, it cannot support any plan that would sideline Abbas. It might, however, tolerate a subtle reformulation of stances -- since it is parametres rather than negotiations that are being discussed now -- in relation to issues of sensitivity to Hamas including refugees and the geographic definition of East Jerusalem.

Prior to his meeting with Mubarak in Sharm El-Sheikh on Sunday, Abbas declared he would not hesitate to use his authority to dissolve the government if he deems this necessary to protect Palestinian national interests. "Topping these interests is the hard-earned success in securing an international recognition of Palestinian legitimate rights," said the Palestinian diplomat. He added, "We need the wise intervention of Egypt to make sure that Hamas will not act in a way to be used by Israel to turn the world against us."

Cairo is aware that to successfully negotiate the two ends of the Palestinian equation, it would need to use its diplomatic links with the US, Israel and the European Union to persuade them to "give Abbas something to use in defending his stance" before the Palestinian people who are frustrated with the outcome of over a decade of negotiations, even in terms of the basic demands for a decent standard of living.

Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit has been sending many messages to all concerned parties to support Cairo's efforts on these fronts, especially by maintaining a decent flow of financial aid to the Palestinians. Cairo has not yet received clear- cut commitments in this respect. But according to one source, "at least the Europeans seem to understand where we are coming from."

This level of understanding between Cairo and its European friends (the US seems to be out of touch) is still lacking however when it comes to the administration of the Syrian- Lebanese problem. According to Egyptian, Syrian and Lebanese sources, there is agreement between regional players, especially Cairo and Riyadh, and international players, especially Washington and Paris, that toppling the Syrian regime is a red line and that the investigation in the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri is another line.

In his press statements to the Sudanese news agency, Mubarak stressed that Egypt is encouraging Syria to further pursue its cooperation with the international committee investigating Al-Hariri's killing.

Agreement is still lacking however on matters including the fate of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud who has so far been resilient to the wish of the majority of the Lebanese opposition to force him out of the presidential palace. Cairo has sent all concerned Lebanese powers a message that it has no intention of getting its fingers burnt by engaging too much in an internal Lebanese power-play, especially when it comes to toppling a head of state who is supported by Syria, a country Egypt still perceives as an Arab ally of sorts.

"Egypt actually encouraged the Lebanese prime minister not to boycott the delegation of his country to the Arab summit in Khartoum," a source said. Al-Seniyoura has been reluctant to join the delegation in view of the Lebanese opposition to Lahoud's chairmanship of the delegation to the summit.

Agreement is also lacking between Egypt and the Europeans on the steps and pace to be taken towards the exchange of diplomatic missions between Beirut and Damascus and the demarcation of Lebanese-Syrian borders, although Cairo is contemplating a Lebanese proposal presented by Al-Seniyoura during the recent Sharm El-Sheikh talks for a joint Syrian-Lebanese motion at the UN to serve this purpose, primarily by gaining international recognition of the Shebaa farms as Lebanese territory.

Following his talks with Mubarak in Sharm El-Sheikh over the weekend, Al-Sharaa said Syria recognise, as it has previously stated, that Shebaa is Lebanese territory. The Syrian vice president, however, declined to indicate his country's intentions to take any concrete moves towards securing an international official stamp on this matter. Egyptian sources say that encouraging Damascus to take the UN path cannot be taken for granted. "Syria has to get something in return," said one source.

On Saturday, Mubarak received a phone call from Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. According to official statements made in Cairo and Damascus, Mubarak and Al-Assad discussed efforts to promote stability in the region.

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