Egypt finds itself in tough spot over Bahrain conference
CAIRO - Egypt’s participation in the Bahrain workshop on the economic part of the so-called “Deal of the Century,” US President Donald Trump’s blueprint for solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, is stirring controversy.
Cairo decided to attend the meeting after previously stating it would reject the United States’ peace initiative, which, according to leaked information, could include transferring areas of the Sinai to the Palestinians.
On June 2, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said his country would not approve anything the Palestinians rejected and scoffed at reports that Egypt would give parts of the Sinai to the Palestinians as part of the US plan.
“Will you give anything to anyone?” Sisi asked Sinai Bedouins joining him at a breakfast table at the presidential palace in eastern Cairo.
But on June 11, the White House revealed that Egypt would take part in the Bahrain meeting, fuelling speculation that Egypt is under pressure from the United States.
“The US would surely have been angered if Cairo was not represented in the workshop,” said Emad Gad, the deputy head of Egyptian think-tank Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are main parties in this regard.”
On June 22, Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, senior adviser and chief architect of the plan, revealed that the deal would link Gaza with Sinai through upgrading power lines and increasing electricity flow.
Egypt reportedly downgraded its representation at the meeting in reaction, opting to send an aide to the minister of finance rather than the minister himself.
Days later, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry doubled down on Egypt’s position, saying his country would not give a “particle of sand” to anybody. He added that his country would be represented in the gathering only to “evaluate” the proposed solutions.
“Egypt has a clear policy of backing Palestinians,” Shoukry said in Moscow after meeting his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov.
“Resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict must move hand in hand with UN resolutions and the Arab peace initiative.”
The Egyptian foreign minister noted that participating in the meeting did not mean his country was on board with the proposals.
Sinai’s status is a very sensitive issue in Egypt, which, in 1973 lost tens of thousands of soldiers and officers and suffered economic devastation as it moved to liberate the 62,000-square kilometre territory from Israeli occupation. Today, Egyptians are also enduring a heavy loss of life to liberate the territory from terrorism.
Being the most populous and militarily powerful Arab nation, Egypt is of key importance for the Palestinians. Having often been part of peacemaking efforts in the region, Egypt was the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 and has been a driving force behind most peace talks between the Palestinians and Israelis.
Some Palestinians said they felt abandoned by Egypt joining the Bahrain workshop, which was boycotted by Palestinians, but analysts said Egypt must be involved in any gathering that revolves around Palestinian-Israeli-peacemaking, however delicate their position.
“Egypt has to be present to listen directly to the proposals the US administration will make during the gathering,” said former Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed al-Orabi.
“This participation puts Egypt in a better position to judge the workshop and also the proposed ideas.”
Cairo also views the workshop as an historic opportunity for Palestinians, given the balance of power on the ground.
When Egypt began peacemaking efforts with Israel in the aftermath of the 1973 Battle of Sinai, the Egyptian leadership asked the Palestinians to join in. They were met with a harsh reaction, not only from Palestinians, but from all other Arabs who boycotted Egypt for making peace with Israel. At the time, Israel remained in control of minor parts of historical Palestine.
Decades later, what is on the table for Palestinians to take is a fraction of what they could have received in the 1970s when Egypt made peace with Israel, analysts said.
“At the end of the day, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will be resolved in light of the balance of power on the ground,” Gad said.
“This balance of power is tilted severely in Israel’s side and Israel will not likely evacuate heavily populated settlements in the West Bank.”