President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt is on a mission — to return his country to its rightful place as the “indispensable” Arab state after what he saw as the dangerous chaos of Muslim Brotherhood rule under his predecessor, Mohamed Morsi.
He also is determined to resist the spread of Islamist militancy, now entrenched in Sinai and spilling into Egypt from Libya. Since leading the ouster of Morsi a year ago, el-Sisi has hounded the Muslim Brotherhood underground; hundreds of its members have been arrested and many sentenced to death. Morsi himself languishes in jail and is on trial for inciting murder and other offenses.
El-Sisi is not the first Egyptian leader to fear Islamist militancy. In fact all but Morsi have suppressed it and one — Anwar Sadat — ultimately was its victim. And not coincidentally all but Morsi– stretching back to Gamal Abdel Nasser — were military men before becoming President.
These two imperatives — a sense of Egypt’s historic role and the traditional animosity of the Egyptian military toward Islamist radicalism — have propelled Egypt to take a central role in the on-off cease-fire talks to end the latest Gaza conflict.
It helps that Egypt’s intelligence service has deep experience of dealing with the Palestinian factions and Israel.
Egypt’s central role also is dictated by geography. It is the only Arab state to share a border with Gaza. If that border is to be reopened, Egypt will have to agree to any international monitoring mission to prevent banned goods — the sort that would allow Hamas to re-arm — from entering Gaza.
But el-Sisi’s government does not see itself as an “honest broker” between Israel and Hamas. El-Sisi shares the Israelis’ loathing of Hamas, which itself sprang from the Muslim Brotherhood back in 1987 and which was recently labeled a terrorist organization by an Egyptian court.
Egypt and Israel vs. Hamas
The Egyptian government is not directly negotiating with Hamas, but with a Palestinian delegation of which Hamas and Islamic Jihad are a small part. Any concessions won by the Palestinians will be claimed by the Palestinian Authority as much as Hamas.
While Morsi embraced Hamas and warned Israel that it would “pay a heavy price if it continues its aggression,” Egypt and Israel are now in lockstep against a shared adversary.
The last thing el-Sisi wants is any sort of Hamas victory, imagined or otherwise, that would appeal to the Arab street. One Israeli minister described the close cooperation with Cairo as “an odd but very welcome moment” after the hostility of the Morsi government.
Perhaps that is why the first Egyptian cease-fire proposal was so readily accepted by Israel.
In the words of one diplomat in the region, “The Israelis knew Hamas would reject it, so they could accept it and look good, knowing that in a few hours they’d be able to resume the demilitarization of Gaza.”
El-Sisi wants to see Gaza demilitarized as much as Israel does, not just because of Hamas but because of other actors there such as Islamic Jihad.
Egypt faces a host of its own security problems that would only be aggravated by a strong militant presence in Gaza. Jihadist cells — which Cairo claims have been aided by Hamas — are now entrenched in the Sinai, a vast area that borders Gaza and whose lawlessness has challenged successive Egyptian governments.
Islamist militant groups are also sprouting up along the western border with Libya. Last month, more than 20 Egyptian soldiers were killed when gunmen crossed the desert border and attacked a checkpoint at Wadi el-Gedid.
El-Sisi responded by promising that “terrorism will be uprooted from every part of Egypt.”
But the attacks have continued. A gun battle Tuesday between security forces and suspected militants in the region of Matruh on the Mediterranean left nine dead, according to the Egyptian Interior Ministry. El-Sisi blames the Muslim Brotherhood for opening Egypt to an influx of jihadists.
Despite its obvious motivations, Egyptian mediation is not without risk.