Friday,16 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)
Friday,16 November, 2018
Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Setting new agendas

The Palestinian file has fallen behind Libya, Syria and IS in Cairo’s list of priorities

Setting new agendas
Setting new agendas

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi is preparing for his first visit to the White House since coming to office three years ago. The trip is scheduled for 3 April. Al-Sisi, who will have participated in the Arab Summit in Amman just a few days earlier, is hoping to win the support of US President Donald Trump for Cairo’s positions on Libya, Syria, the Islamic State (IS) and the Palestinian file.

Trump has already met a number of Arab leaders, including the highly influential Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohamed bin Salman and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi. On 5 April he will also be meeting with the King Abdullah of Jordan. The two men already had a brief encounter in Washington a few weeks ago.

“Clearly Trump is still trying to formulate ideas about the region and we want to have our input there. Much is going on in the region and obviously we have our priorities, our assessment of what needs to happen first,” says an informed Egyptian official.

Security, stability and combating terrorism “are a top priority for us as they are for the US and will be part of the discussions President Al-Sisi will have with Trump,” adds the official. “We will be discussing military, intelligence and political cooperation across a range of issues of joint interest.”

According to another official, Al-Sisi’s list of priorities in Washington, and during the Arab Summit later this month in Amman, will be dominated by Libya. The reason is obvious, he says: Libya is a security nightmare with a very long border with Egypt. It is a source not just of arms that often end at the hands of the IS militants in troubled North Sinai, but of operatives too.

Egypt has invested heavily in managing the situation in Libya since Al-Sisi came to power. Its top priority, says a security source, is the “stabilisation of the eastern part of Libya which is just across the border”.

Egypt has been pushing to initiate a political process that could help bring a semblance of stability to its neighbour. Cairo has no illusions about the magnitude of the task as it attempts to tailor a process that will minimise any Islamist influence on the direction its Western neighbour takes.   

Al-Sisi is not expecting an easy ride in Amman when it comes to Libya. Algeria, Tunisia and Qatar have made it clear they think it irrational “to force the Egyptian model on Libya” by giving a leading role to contested Libyan military leader Khalifa Haftar. But Egyptian diplomats expect Al-Sisi and Trump’s meeting in Washington to conclude in agreement over the potential role of Haftar. After all, they say, what counts most for Trump is to have a strongman in control and halt the waves of illegal migrants and refugees. The same diplomatic sources say Al-Sisi is confident the White House will support moves to lift the embargo on arming the Hafter-led Libyan army.

The Al-Sisi-Trump talks on Libya are likely to be less straightforward, however, when it comes to the Egypt input to any operation stabilising Libya, especially on the military front.

Chief-of-Staff Mahmoud Hegazi met with Martin Kobler, the UN envoy on Libya, earlier this week in Cairo. According to Al-Ahram Weekly’s sources, the meeting was arranged to put more pressure on the parties in Libya to move ahead with discussions of Cairo’s tentative scheme for power sharing.

On Monday Kobler issued a statement warning of an increase in military confrontations in Libya and warned things are likely to get out of hand if the escalation is not stopped.

Syria will come next to Libya in the Al-Sisi-Trump talks, according to officials and diplomats in Cairo. Trump is not expected to disagree much with his visitor over the need to keep Bashar Al-Assad in office, at least until another strongman is found to head the country.

A European diplomat in Washington said that during Mohamed bin Salman’s recent talks in Washington the deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia offered support for cooperation to stabilise Syria provided the role of Al-Assad does not extend for long.

“This is not an issue over which Egypt and Saudi Arabia agree, a fact both countries know they have to accept,” says an Egyptian diplomat.

Inter-Arab disagreements over the future of Syria have surfaced in the lead up to the Amman summit with some Arab capitals questioning whether Syria needs to be brought back to the Arab League. In the heydays of the Arab Spring in 2011 the Arab League suspended Damascus because of the “atrocious crimes” the Syrian regime had committed against its people.

“This was at the beginning of Syria’s peaceful revolution, before it evolved into an armed conflict which has claimed thousands of victims and created hundreds of thousands of refugees,” says an Arab League diplomat. “The Saudis and the Qataris are firm about not having Al-Assad back at the Arab League and blocked a cautious Egyptian-Algerian attempt to raise the matter.”

The situation in Lebanon, an inevitable part of any discussion of developments in Syria, is high on the Arab Summit’s agenda, according to the same Arab League source, given growing concerns about a confrontation between Israel and Hizbullah.

Israel, he said, is clearly unhappy about the growing regional influence Hizbullah is enjoying under the protection of Russia and Iran in Syria.

Ways to reduce the role of Hizbullah and pre-empt any military confrontation between Hizbullah and Israel was seen as the key issue in talks in Cairo on Tuesday between Al-Sisi and the visiting Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri.

Following Libya and Syria — and maybe also trailing Yemen and Iraq — comes the Palestinian file.

“This has been the case since the Arab Spring, a situation that, if anything, has been exacerbated by the new preoccupation with Iran and IS,” says the Arab League diplomat.

A joint Egyptian-Jordanian scheme to jump-start high-level meetings between the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships by pushing the Palestinians into abandoning the demand for a suspension to illegal Israeli settlement construction before talks begin is unlikely to gain any traction with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas.

In Cairo for talks with Al-Sisi on Monday, Abbas reasserted what he could and could not accept. Abbas, according to the Palestinian Ambassador to Egypt Gamal Al-Shobaki, insisted the Arab Peace Initiative remains the only way forward.

It is a position, he added, that will be reflected in the resolutions adopted by the Arab Summit and “we are confident it will be reflected in the talks President Al-Sisi will have in the US.”

Adopted in 2002, the Arab Peace Initiative opened the door to full normalisation with Israel in return for the establishment of a Palestinian state within the June 1967 borders.

Egyptian officials say Cairo finds Abbas’ position unrealistic.

In a statement issued following the Al-Sisi-Abbas meeting the president’s office said the Palestinian file remains a “top priority” for Egypt and the “central Arab cause”.

A Gaza-based Palestinian commentator said the statement was hyperbole “and this is something of which Abbas is well aware”.

He argues there is “not really any clear vision on the Palestinian file” and that this is unlikely to change anytime soon given the priorities of Arab capitals.

Western diplomats in Cairo say the Trump administration has made it clear it will not pressure Israel to pursue a two-state solution and the peace process is far from being a priority.

“I think that the US State Department is trying to get something done there, if only to prevent a major crisis, but we are not expecting any serious long-term engagement,” says a Cairo-based European diplomat. “The Trump administration must be aware Palestine is not the big story in the Arab world now, and especially not for Egypt.”

According to political scientist and commentator Mustafa Kamel Al-Sayed, Egypt has less interest in the Palestinian cause now than at any time before. “The concept of Arabism, and of Egypt as the leading country of the Arab world, does not inform the political discourse or pragmatic policy choices of President Al-Sisi.”

Egypt’s two priorities today are security — hence the engagement in Libya and to a lesser extent in Syria — and financial aid, reflected in efforts to consolidate relations with Saudi Arabia despite major disagreements, says Al-Sayed.

Egyptian officials have made it clear Al-Sisi is hoping to have a series of meetings with Gulf leaders, including the Saudi Monarch Salman bin Abdel-Aziz, on the sideline of the Amman summit, and that security and aid are “basically the top issues” for Al-Sisi in the US with Cairo expected to request more economic and military aid.

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