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Wed. April 17, 2024
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Mubarak’s Awkward Posture
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President Mubarak has more to worry about than the rising price of bread. By Rafael Broch The US has been courting Egypt as a stabilising influence throughout the fragile negotiations that have followed the Annapolis summit. It is also an important ally for America’s other Middle Eastern project. If Egypt were persuaded to open diplomatic relations with Iraq it would bring valuable legitimisation of the US’s endeavours there. Egypt seems to have plenty to gain by the alliance too as the second biggest recipient of US aid – in the region of $2bn a year. Given this kind of support, Egypt may appear to be the obvious arbitrator to the deadlock between Israel and Hamas-ruled Gaza as the US administrations seeks a late success. Of course Egypt has its own proximate interests in a ceasefire. The January border breach demonstrated the connectedness between unrest in Gaza and stability in Egypt. By brokering a long-term ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, President Mubarak could be spared the embarrassment of a second episode of rounding up Palestinians and escorting them back to their depravity in Gaza were the border to explode again. And there would be benefits at other levels: international commendation, greater regional influence and strengthened US support. A more grounded analysis of Egypt’s domestic politics however suggests an awkward picture. Egypt’s role in arbitrating with Israel is so questionable because it is so desperately unpopular with most Egyptians. Last week as Mubarak privately celebrated Condoleeza Rice’s waiving of another $100m of aid that had been frozen by the US Congress, Egypt’s opposition grew more popular through public calls to expel the Israeli ambassador and halt energy exports to the north-eastern neighbour. Some politicians discussed making an official re-assessment of the 1979 peace treaty. This disconnect between leadership and populace has become so acute that members of the Egyptian parliament have been staging sit-ins protesting Mubarak’s response to the Gaza crises. "Arab regimes are merely following the dictates of U.S. policy in the region, while the Arab people want to see the liberation of Palestine", remarked one MP recently. To many Egyptian eyes, Israel’s recent operations in Gaza amount to massacre, but their anger is directed through Cairo for two reasons: Mubarak’s hesitancy to make unqualified condemnations of Israel and his enforcing of the border re-closure on February 3rd. To the remote majority of Egyptians this was seen as their chance to throw a lifeline to besieged Palestinians, and the prospect of diplomatic whispering with Israeli officials is regarded as an unprincipled disgrace. No less curious is Egypt’s position when considering that the other party to the dispute is Hamas. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, from whom Hamas grew under Sheikh Yassin’s leadership as a local Gaza branch during the 1970s, have been Mubarak’s principle opponents for decades. Muhammad Habib, deputy head of the Muslim Brotherhood, recently estimated that more than 25,000 brothers have been arrested in Egypt since 1995. At least 1000 are presently in detention and tens more are arrested daily as the April 8th local elections approach. Insofar as Egypt’s brotherhood and Hamas are ideologically aligned, Mubarak’s officials are negotiating with a very hostile agent and there are parties on all sides who will question the meaningfulness of any commitments. Yet commitments are reportedly being made. Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman met again yesterday with Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, a seasoned Israeli defence ministry advisor, probably to discuss lifting Israel’s restrictions on Gaza, ending the rocket firing, and a prisoner exchange. The only tangible benefit Hamas have from dealings with Egypt is temporary respite from Israeli offensives, and that will not be enough to incentivize any lasting restraint. Suleiman is due in Israel for more talks, but whether or not any firm agreements will be reached, Gilad will be privately sceptical. “They all explode in the end”, he said of Israeli-Palestinian ceasefires in 2003. Scepticism of this sort isn’t helpful in peace-brokering, but a spirit of caution is appropriate. Egypt is not well positioned to negotiate commitments from Israel or from Hamas, and the US should think carefully about the contortions that their Arab ally is engaged in before the next aid deal is signed. Egypt acts on more comfortable ground by managing its resources wisely – as evidenced in yesterday’s agreement to replace Israel as the Gaza Strip's sole electricity provider. Ironically, President Mubarak predicted many of today’s problems in an interview with Le Monde in 2004 while describing the chaos that will ensue if Israel should withdraw from Gaza unilaterally. Four years later, caught between Egypt’s obligations to the US and a furious electorate, Mubarak’s posture grows increasingly uncomfortable in the evening of his reign. Rafael Broch is a London-based writer and researcher. He can be reached at raf@london.com

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