Egypt is cementing its role as a power broker in the Middle East

It took a war in Gaza for Joe Biden to make his first phone call to Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the president of Egypt.

The U.S. president had ousted Sisi in his first four months in office, a sign of dissatisfaction with Cairo’s human rights records and a reversal of the policy of his predecessor Donald Trump. “There will be no more blank checks for Trump’s preferred dictator,” Biden had said while campaigning.

But while the conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants Hamas has escalated in recent weeks, the two leaders have spoken twice. Cairo’s successful negotiation for a ceasefire in Gaza ending the 11-day war that killed 243 Palestinians and 12 Israelis has undermined its relevance as a mediator in the region’s oldest and most intractable conflict. He also won public thanks to Biden.

The account of the call with Biden published by the Sisi office this week listed the reasons why Cairo should remain an important partner for the United States. Biden, according to Cairo, confirmed that the U.S. administration looks forward “to strengthening bilateral relations… In light of Egypt’s crucial role at the regional and international levels and its effective political efforts to support it.” security and stability in the region and resolving its crises. ”

In a nod to Biden’s alleged concerns about freedoms in Egypt, the Washington reading said the U.S. president “thanked Egypt for its successful diplomacy” and “stressed the importance of a constructive dialogue on human rights ”. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Sisi in Cairo on Wednesday as part of a tour of the Middle East to bolster the truce. He said Egypt was a “true and effective partner” that helped end the Gaza war.

Workers unload Egyptian aid boxes after arriving at Rafah border between Egypt and Gaza © Mohammed Saber / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock

Washington’s recognition of Cairo’s importance in stopping the violence makes clear the limits of the “historic peace agreement” between the United Arab Emirates and Israel last year. The Palestinians saw it as a betrayal even when Abu Dhabi claimed that the agreement would help alleviate its long-running conflict with Israel.

A rich Gulf state, the UAE is a regional power that has projected influence in places as far as Libya and the Horn of Africa. But when it comes to the Palestinian question, Egypt is very indebted, it is still a unique place, diplomats and analysts have said. The first Arab country to make peace with Israel in 1979, Egypt has diplomatic and security ties with the Jewish state for decades to come.

“Mediating a crisis requires a credible connection between the two sides,” said Kristin Diwan, a resident student at the Arab Institute of the Gulf States in Washington. “At least in the short term, the UAE has severed its connections with the Palestinians because of its dealings with Israel. While Egypt’s influence in the region has diminished, it still retains political and cultural capital and ties. important constructed through their historical relations ”.

Unlike the UAE, Egypt not only has a long history of mediation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also has borders and security interests with both Israel and Gaza, the Hamas-controlled Palestinian territory. Under Sisi, Egypt and Israel deepened the coordination of intelligence to combat the emergence of Isis in the northern parts of the Egyptian peninsula Sinai. The two countries have also enforced a blockade on Gaza since 2007 when Hamas took control of the territory.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, right, and chairman of the Palestinian Commission for Civil Affairs Hussein al-Sheikh, leaves after a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah © Majdi Mohammed / AP

“Israel has four decades of proven peace with Egypt,” said an Arab diplomat. “There is a trust that exists between them and they respect each other, even though they differ greatly on the issue of the Palestinians. As for Hamas, the relationship with Egypt is played out at the level of If Hamas wants Egypt to cooperate on any issue, such as the opening of border crossings, it will also have to cooperate with Egypt. “

Egypt’s intelligence services have been managing ceasefire negotiations and have played a similar role in ending all previous wars between Hamas and Israel. “I’m sure the UAE would have liked to be able to do that to show that there is a bonanza of peace,” the diplomat said. “But I think that’s why they needed better relations with the Palestinians.”

Egypt’s control of the crossings in Gaza gives it influence over Hamas. Although the Sisi regime is fiercely anti-Islamist and has claimed the Muslim Brotherhood, the group ousted from power in 2013, a terrorist organization, has managed to falsify a way of life with the Palestinian militant group, a branch of the Brotherhood. “Egypt’s policy towards Hamas has been pragmatic,” said Ahmed Kamel al-Beheiri, an analyst at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a think tank in Cairo.

Analysts say Cairo’s role in the implementation of the ceasefire cannot even influence Biden’s policy in Egypt. Cairo is the main recipient of US military aid, $ 1.3 billion a year, but activists and lawmakers want the delivery of this aid to be conditioned by improving human rights.

Under Sisi, who led a coup d’état in 2013 that ousted an Islamist president-elect, there is little room for dissent and tens of thousands of Islamist critics and the secular regime have been jailed. International human rights groups regularly lambast Egypt over obstacles to freedom of expression, unfair trials and the use of the death penalty.

Michael Wahid Hanna, director of the U.S. program at the International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution think tank, said the latest developments “raised” the question of how an administration has done. vote to put human rights at the center of the United States foreign policy should deal with Egypt.

“These events have accelerated a discussion that was a bit at the bottom but that eventually Biden would have to deal with,” he said. “The question is how to balance interests with the alleged commitment to human rights and democracy. It will be a difficult balancing act.”

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