With Hamas’s strategy of using human shields and threatening journalists, the blame-the-Jews strain running as strong as ever around the world, and the undeniably atrocious behavior of John Kerry, Egypt has mostly avoided the world’s ire as the conflict in Gaza continues. But with Cairo hosting the repeatedly failed talks, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s luck was bound to run out. And now his government is being unfairly castigated for its role in the ceasefire negotiations.
The complaint centers on Egypt’s post-Morsi role in the region. When the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was in power in Cairo, its Palestinian offshoot Hamas had a powerful friend next door. When violence last flared up between Israel and Hamas, Cairo facilitated a ceasefire–a process which left Hamas mostly unscathed and able to replenish its arsenal for the next round of fighting. But Sisi heads a military government that deposed the Brotherhood’s men in a coup. As such, Sisi doesn’t want Hamas to be able to rearm at will and cause trouble indefinitely.
It’s a logical position, and one that should be echoed in the West. But not everyone’s happy with Sisi’s lack of urgency in ending the fighting. An example of this argument comes from Michele Dunne and Nathan Brown:
This subtle shift — from mediator with interests, to interested party that also mediates — has led to a longer and bloodier Gaza war than might otherwise have been the case. And while a strong Egypt-Israel alliance was supposed to cut Hamas down to size, this strategy has also backfired on the diplomatic front. However much it has bloodied Hamas — and particularly the population of Gaza — the war has actually led to a breaking of international taboos on dealing with Hamas, a former pariah.
Egypt has always brought its own long-standing national security interests to the table in previous Gaza mediation efforts. Cairo has never wanted militants or weapons to enter Egypt from Gaza, nor has it wanted to take over responsibility for humanitarian or security affairs there, having had the unhappy experience of occupying the Gaza Strip for almost 20 years following 1948. Egyptian intelligence officials have always taken the lead in dealing with Gaza — even during the yearlong presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi. While one might have thought that Morsi would have opened the floodgates to Hamas, the Brotherhood’s ideological bedfellow, in actuality Egypt kept the border with Gaza largely closed during his presidency and continued efforts to destroy tunnels. Whatever his personal sympathies, Morsi stayed within the lines of a policy designed to ensure that Egypt was not stuck holding the Gaza hot potato.
But after removing Morsi in a July 2013 coup, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, then defense minister and now president, transformed Egypt’s policy toward Gaza into part of his larger domestic and international political agenda. He is clearly using Gaza to prosecute his own relentless crackdown against the Brotherhood — an effort that also helps cement his alignment with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
There are a few problems with this argument.
First of all, Nunne and Brown claim that Hamas has punctured its isolation thanks to Cairo’s tough line. I’m not at all convinced this is really the case, but let’s say it is. The more important question than whether the world is talking to Hamas is how the world is talking about Hamas. There is an unprecedented consensus that this is the moment to disarm Hamas and demilitarize Gaza. Is it a pipe dream? Maybe. But the Israeli/Egyptian opposition to letting Hamas off the hook has raised serious discussions about ending the Gaza blockade in return for demilitarizing the strip. And this idea has broad support at the Pentagon, in Europe, and among Arab states in the Middle East.
It might be true that if this doesn’t happen, Dunne and Brown have a case. But that leads to the second problem with their thesis: they have fallen into the classic trap of prioritizing ending this war over preventing future wars. They are nearly mutually exclusive goals. “This war” is not really a separate war, after all, from the last one or the one before that. As long as Hamas is in power in Gaza and able to rearm and threaten Israel, each truce is temporary and each ceasefire comes with an expiration date.
Another problem is that Dunne and Brown give Morsi a bit too much credit for containing Hamas. It’s true that Morsi cracked down on tunnels to Egypt. But as the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month:
Under the protective umbrella of Mr. Morsi’s Islamist-led government, Hamas had imported large quantities of arms from Libya and Sudan, as well as money to pay the salaries of government officials and members of their armed wing, Israeli and U.S. officials said. His successor abruptly changed that.
That’s a significant difference. Enabling weapons flows to Hamas guarantees future violence, so it’s a bit rich to see Morsi praised and Sisi criticized on this score.
And finally, Dunne and Brown–and the other critics of Egypt’s new role under Sisi–don’t seem to appreciate the fact that Sisi’s goals align quite nicely with those of the West. Doesn’t the West want terrorist groups like Hamas, al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the rest to be defeated? I would think so.
And this is even more important in light of the news yesterday that Israel derailed an attempted West Bank coup by Hamas. According to Israel’s security officials, as the Times of Israel reported, “the plot was orchestrated by senior Hamas official Saleh al-Arouri, who is based in Turkey and enjoys the support of the local officials there.”
Any assessment of the balance of power in the Middle East has to incorporate the fact that Turkey is now not only helping Hamas, but enabling the planning of a coup against Mahmoud Abbas’s government in the West Bank. Egypt’s shift to dedicated foe of Hamas is a boon to the West’s otherwise fading influence in the region, and persuasively rebuts the idea that Cairo’s actions don’t align with Western strategic objectives.