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Analysis

After Gaza ceasefire, Egypt surges to the fore as regional player

In a nearly unprecedented public show of its Israeli ties, including a spy chief photo op with Netanyahu, Egypt seeks to dispel international human rights concerns

Prime Minister Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, hosts Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel at his official residence in Jerusalem, May 30, 2021. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, hosts Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel at his official residence in Jerusalem, May 30, 2021. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

The front-page photos from meetings between Egyptian and Israeli officials on both sides of the Suez on Sunday were unusual, not least in that they were released to the public.

But there they were: Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi sitting for the cameras in Cairo, in the first visit of its kind since 2008, and, even more surprising, Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel shaking hands in a photo op with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem.

Ties between Israel and Egypt have flourished since Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi came to power in a military coup in 2013. But the relationship has rarely been trumpeted so publicly.

“Most of our meetings were held in Sharm el-Sheikh,” a Sinai resort town, said Yitzhak Levanon, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt. “But Ashkenazi was invited to Cairo. This has meaning for the Egyptian government, for the Egyptian public.”

The latest crisis between Israel and the Gaza Strip is proving to be an opportunity for Cairo to showcase itself as a regional player. It is allowing the Egyptians — who have taken a back seat for the past few months — to retake airtime from the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which won plaudits in Western capitals for normalizing ties with Israel last year.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry (R) meets with Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi (L) at the Tahrir Palace in Cairo, Egypt, May 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

And, perhaps most importantly, it is winning American attention for a regime often criticized for its dire human rights record. For Cairo, showing off its role as peacemaker is part of the deal.

“Egypt wants its presence as a regional leader to be felt. It wants to emphasize before the United States, the West, the European Union that it is a positive actor, a strategic asset — despite whatever pricklings of conscience they may have over human rights and democracy,” said Ofir Winter, who studies Egyptian-Israeli relations at the Institute for National Security Studies.

Since the 2013 military coup, Sissi’s regime has sought closer ties with Israel, to the extent that former ambassador to Egypt Haim Koren once called recent relations between the two countries “the best we’ve ever had.”

In the Sinai Peninsula, the two countries worked to crack down on a radical Islamist insurgency. Both are avidly working to advance an ambitious natural gas initiative in the Mediterranean in the framework of a regional energy forum.

But in previous years, Sissi’s regime might have felt unable to so publicly showcase its ties with Israel, perhaps fearing a domestic backlash. Egypt has maintained a cold peace with Israel since the 1979 peace treaty, and citizens who normalize ties often suffer sanctions from government-linked bodies.

However, last year’s Abraham Accords — which initiated normalization processes for Israel with four Arab states over just a few weeks — have radically changed the regional picture.

“Since the normalization by the Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, the bar has moved. The Arab world can now say and do more than before,” said former senior Egyptian diplomat Ezzedine Fishere, a lecturer at Dartmouth University.

In Egypt, meanwhile, the government has relentlessly eliminated or exiled the opposition. Rights groups have estimated that around 60,000 political prisoners are currently held in Egyptian jails.

The most recent round of fighting in Gaza spurred a round of popular solidarity demonstrations for the Palestinian cause across the Arab world. But Cairo’s thoroughfares remained empty.

“Perhaps during other upheavals, such as during 2014 and 2015, when the regime had just been established, it would have been less comfortable for the regime… this could be a sign that the Sissi regime has stabilized its position,” said Winter.

Getting Washington’s attention

US President Joe Biden did not speak to Sissi for nearly five months after entering office in late January. The new president had pledged to take a more critical stance on Egypt than his predecessor Donald Trump, who had publicly boasted of his close ties with Sissi.

There would be “no more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator,'” Biden tweeted in June, a reference to a remark by Trump about the Egyptian president.

But the round of fighting forced Washington to rely heavily on Egypt, one of the few regional interlocutors that deal with both Israel and Hamas. During the Israel-Hamas conflict, Biden and Sissi spoke by phone twice.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken visited the Egyptian capital during his regional tour following the ceasefire. In a statement issued by the State Department, Blinken praised the Egyptian role in negotiating the ceasefire.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken waves as he arrives in Cairo on May 26, 2021. (Photo by Alex Brandon / POOL / AFP)

The diplomat “affirmed the strong strategic partnership between the United States and Egypt, and President Biden’s commitment to this relationship,” the State Department said.

Human rights received a glancing mention at the end, with the State Department saying the two officials had held a “constructive dialogue” on the matter.

Blinken later told reporters in Amman that he had held a lengthy conversation with Sissi about human rights, and rejected the idea that Sissi could expect Washington to remain quiet about his concerns.

Cairo has helped negotiate most of the ceasefires between Israel and Gaza-based Palestinian terror groups since 2008. The Egyptians are perhaps the only mediator acceptable to all sides: Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and other regional players such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Yahya Sinwar (R), Hamas’ political chief in Gaza, embraces General Abbas Kamel (L), Egypt’s intelligence chief, as the latter arrives for a meeting with leaders of Hamas in Gaza City on May 31, 2021. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

Qatar, Hamas’s regional patron, cannot play such a role, the Emirates are deemed to be too close to Palestinian Authority rival Mohammad Dahlan, and the Saudis have largely detached themselves from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an Egyptian political analyst told The Times of Israel in March.

After the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge, the Egyptians hosted a massive conference in Cairo on rebuilding the devastated Gaza Strip.

With the fighting over for now, Egypt hopes to host similar talks on reconstructing Gaza, and perhaps another conference of international donors. Egypt will also soon host indirect talks between Israel and the Hamas terror group that could lead to a prisoner exchange between the two sides and a long-term ceasefire.

Egypt has pledged $500 million to the reconstruction effort. But it is unlikely to hand over the cash to anyone else, especially Hamas. Rather, experts say, Egyptian construction companies will implement the projects themselves.

“Egypt will become a conduit for funds, and Egyptian companies will execute the development projects. There will be political benefit, but also direct financial benefit,” said Winter.

Cairo has also traditionally hosted Palestinian political parties for reconciliation talks because of its unique position. On Sunday, Abbas accepted an Egyptian offer to hold yet another pan-Palestinian meeting of faction leaders to discuss long-sought Palestinian unity.

“There’s no other country that can play Egypt’s role. So given that Biden has something of a negative approach to Egypt, Egypt is even more interested in playing that role,” said Fishere.

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