What Egypt Stands to Win From the Gaza Conflict

Even if a second cease-fire proposal fails, Egypt’s reputation in the West is getting a much-needed boost.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry talk before a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Cairo on June 22, 2014.
National Journal
Kaveh Waddell
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Kaveh Waddell
July 24, 2014, 4:40 a.m.

After a con­duct­ing an openly un­fair elec­tion and com­mit­ting a rash of doc­u­mented hu­man-rights ab­uses, the new Egyp­tian gov­ern­ment is run­ning short on le­git­im­acy. But Pres­id­ent Ab­del Fat­tah el-Sisi now has his first chance to prove him­self to the world by ne­go­ti­at­ing a cease-fire between Hamas and Is­rael, put­ting a stop, however tem­por­ary, to an in­creas­ingly bloody con­flict in the Ga­za Strip.

Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry ar­rived in Cairo on Monday night, join­ing Sisi and U.N. Sec­ret­ary Gen­er­al Ban Ki-Moon in try­ing to de­vise a cease-fire agree­ment that both Is­rael and Hamas could agree to. As of Wed­nes­day, Kerry has been shut­tling between Is­rael and the West Bank to meet with lead­ers from both sides, but an agree­ment re­mains out of reach.

This is Egypt’s second stab at peace­mak­ing in this con­flict. Last week, it put for­ward a cease-fire pro­pos­al that won Is­rael’s ac­cept­ance but was re­jec­ted by Hamas. The re­jec­tion was pos­ted to the of­fi­cial web­site of Hamas’s mil­it­ary wing, the Qas­sam Bri­gades, which claimed it was nev­er con­sul­ted about the agree­ment. When it learned of its con­tents, the Qas­sam Bri­gades called the pro­pos­al an “ini­ti­at­ive of sub­mis­sion,” in­dic­at­ing that it was not in­ter­ested in “sur­render.”

As Egypt plays host to the push for a cease-fire, it is already see­ing pos­it­ive ef­fects on its glob­al im­age. “The United States is very grate­ful for Egypt’s lead­er­ship and we’re here today — I am here per­son­ally at the re­quest of Pres­id­ent Obama — to im­me­di­ately try to find a way to sup­port Egypt’s ini­ti­at­ive,” Kerry said after meet­ings in Cairo on Tues­day. And back in Wash­ing­ton, Pres­id­ent Sisi garnered a “round of ap­plause” at a pro-Is­rael event when the host men­tioned how many Hamas tun­nels he has shut down.

Egypt is sorely in need of the good West­ern press after a rash of polit­ic­al moves that earned it world­wide cen­sure over the last year. Sisi led what was ef­fect­ively a coup against the demo­crat­ic­ally elec­ted Muslim Broth­er­hood politi­cian Mo­hamed Mor­si in 2013, leav­ing his post as com­mand­er in chief of the mil­it­ary to take on the pres­id­ency. A pres­id­en­tial elec­tion in late May of this year to so­lid­i­fy his takeover saw Sisi walk away with al­most 97 per­cent of the Egyp­tian vote, amid wide­spread boy­cotts and al­leg­a­tions of a polit­ic­al land­scape pro­foundly skewed in the gen­er­al’s fa­vor.

Since the elec­tion, two sep­ar­ate mass death sen­tences were handed down to more than 800 dis­sid­ents ac­cused of ties to the Muslim Broth­er­hood, and three al-Jaz­eera journ­al­ists re­main in cap­tiv­ity after be­ing sen­tenced to sev­en- to 10-year pris­on terms for “falsi­fy­ing the truth” in their re­port­ing. The sen­tences drew the con­dem­na­tion of U.S. law­makers, who in June sug­ges­ted that U.S. aid to Egypt should be pulled as Egypt des­cen­ded “to­ward des­pot­ism.”

Des­pite all this, Egypt re­mains the last best hope for a cease-fire in Ga­za. Egypt’s strong ties to Is­rael put it in a good ne­go­ti­at­ing po­s­i­tion — these ties were af­firmed when Is­rael quickly ac­cep­ted Egypt’s earli­er cease-fire pro­pos­al. It is in a bet­ter po­s­i­tion than even the U.S., whose ef­forts have been ma­ligned by the Is­raeli side. A former Is­raeli am­bas­sad­or to the U.S., Mi­chael Oren, said that Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu had “not in­vited” Kerry to try to broker a cease-fire on Monday. Non­ethe­less, Kerry is play­ing a lead­ing role in the push for an agree­ment based on the “Egyp­tian frame­work.”

Egypt faces more of a hurdle in deal­ing with Hamas, a group that was close with the pre­vi­ous Mor­si ad­min­is­tra­tion in Cairo, but which has clashed with Sisi. But Egypt’s situ­ation right now is something of a polit­ic­al win-win for Sisi at home: if Hamas and Is­rael agree to its cease-fire pro­pos­al, he looks like a dip­lo­mat­ic hero; if not, then Is­raeli forces will con­tin­ue to chip away at an or­gan­iz­a­tion that Egypt is happy to see weakened. But the pres­id­ent must be care­ful: pop­u­lar sup­port for the Palestini­an cause with­in Egypt could make Sisi look out of touch if his dis­taste for Hamas gets in the way of ne­go­ti­at­ing for Ga­zans’ lives.

Even if the cease-fire agree­ment that comes out of this cur­rent dip­lo­mat­ic push falls short of what is ne­ces­sary, or if Kerry’s shuttle dip­lomacy is al­to­geth­er un­suc­cess­ful, Egypt is likely to come out ahead in the eyes of the West. The fact that the U.S. sec­ret­ary of State joined the U.N. sec­ret­ary gen­er­al in Cairo to re­group and be­gin the cam­paign for a dip­lo­mat­ic agree­ment af­forded Egypt’s gov­ern­ment some much-needed le­git­im­acy and bolstered its fad­ing im­age. By demon­strat­ing its es­sen­tial role in the Ga­za con­flict, Egypt and Sisi make it easy for the world to fo­cus on today’s real­ity in Cairo and be­gin to ig­nore the hu­man-rights vi­ol­a­tions and shady polit­ic­al deals.

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