By Ali Jarbawi
June 2, 2014
The Palestinian cause has always had deep ties to Egypt, which has historically been the largest and most powerful Arab state. As such, it has played the most significant and influential role in defining the Arab world’s position on Palestine, both regionally and internationally.
When relations between Egypt and Palestinian leaders have been good, like during the era of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt has played a central role and provided support. When relations have deteriorated, as they did under Anwar al-Sadat and again over the past two years, Egypt’s influence has diminished.
When Egypt is internally stable, it is externally active, which benefits the Palestinian cause. However, when it becomes preoccupied with its internal affairs and turns inward, then Egypt’s regional and international roles recede, as do its desire and ability to support the Palestinian cause.
Since the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution in 2011, Egypt has been consumed by its internal affairs, which has left it incapable of having any real influence on regional or international affairs.
The situation has been exacerbated by the increasing influence of non-Arab states like Iran and Turkey, which has led to a decline in the diplomatic power and effectiveness of Arab states. These days, most Arab governments are trying to deal with their own people, and grappling with revolutions and civil wars. The Palestinian cause has fallen by the wayside, and Palestinians have been left to face Israel alone, something they cannot do.
Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s election as the new Egyptian president has given Palestinians a sliver of hope that their cause will return to the forefront of Arab affairs — or that, at least, there will be a slight adjustment in the balance of power with Israel. This has nothing to do with any value judgments about the Egyptian revolution. It is a purely pragmatic stance, based on the fact that Mr. Sisi’s election will influence Palestinian affairs in three significant ways.
First, this election may mark the return of stability to Egypt, a stability that is important to Palestinians and to future support of the Palestinian cause. Mr. Sisi is not only supported by the army but also by a large swath of the Egyptian population that desires a return to stability, security and normalcy. This won’t happen quickly, but its consequences will accumulate quickly.
Any new president of Egypt, in order to prevent protesters from taking to the streets, will need to bring the country out of its current decrepitude, modernize its infrastructure, update its education and stimulate its economy.
Second, achieving stability in Egypt is necessary for Egypt to compete with the new regional powers that have usurped its place. If successful, the Egyptian presidential election will have a positive effect on calming the rough waters of Arab politics. Egypt is a strong, central state, and if it begins to stabilize, this will have a positive influence on its Arab neighbours in places like Libya, Syria and Lebanon, and even Iraq. Piecing together the fragments of the current Arab political scene is a crucial step in ending non-Arab actors’ interference in regional affairs. In the near future, Egypt, with the support of the Gulf states, could play a central role in achieving this.
Finally, Egypt will not be able to rise to its former regional grandeur, the sort it enjoyed under Nasser, until it liberates itself from its absolute surrender to the United States, which has, since Sadat, transformed it into nothing more than a satellite in America’s political orbit — so much so that by the end of the Mubarak era, it appeared to be merely following America’s orders.
It appears that Mr. Sisi will have different relations with the United States than his predecessors did. While continuing to maintain Egypt’s strong ties to America, there are signs that he plans to steer Egypt toward a more independent foreign policy; his recent trip to Russia is one indication.
If all of this happens and Egypt manages to avoid a new cycle of violence, then the situation in Palestine could also start to improve.
Palestinians will need to repair the relationship that was frayed during the period in which Hamas was being accused of interfering in internal Egyptian affairs (this led to growing Egyptian mistrust and negative sentiment towards Palestinians in general). This popular mistrust led the Egyptian authorities to take measures against the Gaza Strip, including destroying the hundreds of tunnels that made up Hamas’s central lifeline in Gaza. Egypt’s actions, in addition to other factors like the drying up of political and financial support to Hamas have produced results, the most significant of which may be the internal Palestinian reconciliation that brought an end to the bitter seven-year separation. In short, Hamas learned its lesson.
The end of the Palestinian political schism also marks a return to normal with Egypt. The Palestinian Presidential guard is taking over control of the border between Gaza and Egypt, which will lead to more Palestinian control over security and enable Egypt to better deal with security in the Sinai Peninsula.
As a result, the Palestinian cause could once regain the strong regional and international ally that it so desperately needs. No one expects Mr. Sisi to renege on the peace treaty with Israel, since that has become important to Egypt’s own national security. However, it is expected that there will be a cold peace with Israel, and that Egypt will take a strong and proactive role in confronting Israeli settlement expansion in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
High Palestinian expectations are linked to Egypt’s internal stability. Some will materialize; others are sheer hope. But if Mr. Sisi’s Egypt refuses to shy away from confronting Israel, as Egypt did during the Mubarak era when it was firmly under the American thumb that will be a great boon for the Palestinian cause.
Ali Jarbawi is a political scientist and a former minister of the Palestinian Authority. This article was translated by Ghenwa Hayek from the Arabic.