Egypt recaptures role on Palestinian reconciliation with eye on Washington

Cairo steers the Palestinian reconciliation process away from Qatar and Turkey.
Tuesday 17/11/2020
A file of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (R) meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the Egyptian presidential palace in Cairo. (DPA)
A file of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (R) meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the Egyptian presidential palace in Cairo. (DPA)

CAIRO--Fatah and Hamas delegations began talks with officials in Egypt on Monday with the aim of accelerating steps for Palestinian national reconciliation, which has become much more tied to regional developments and shifting trends than urgent Palestinian needs.

The Egyptian government overcame its dissatisfaction with the negative results of the Hamas delegation’s visit to Cairo at the end of last October, and is trying to seize the reins of the reconciliation process, even though Fatah and Hamas recently resorted to Qatar and Turkey to complete this process, with the aim of sidelining Egypt and playing down its effective role in Palestinian issues.

Cairo was the main reference in the reconciliation file for many years before Doha and Ankara entered the scene. Analysts believe Egypt now wants to retake control of the issue as part of its efforts to flesh out its role as a new US administration takes office.

The Egyptian administration seeks to preserve its hold on the Palestinian issue, which previously gave it leverage with Washington, in addition to the fact that Egypt's return to the Palestinian file deals a big blow to the Qatari-Turkish axis and undermines the threat coming from Gaza.

The head of the Middle East Forum for Strategic Studies in Cairo, Samir Ghattas, told The Arab Weekly that Cairo is trying to tighten the screws on Hamas and stop its manoeuvres aimed at exploiting US President-elect Joe Biden’s declaration of his commitment to the principle of the two-state solution.

Hamas wants to evade its commitment to the general election process under the pretext of waiting for the new US administration to be sworn in as it wants to gauge its chances of dealing with it to obtain gains. In understandings reached with Fatah at the Istanbul meeting last September, the movement did not formally agree to general elections.

Ghattas expects the coming period to witness more consultations between Cairo and Hamas in order to persuade the latter to abide by the reconciliation agreement signed in Egypt in 2017, and build on it rather than start new talks from scratch. In other words, Egypt is asking Hamas to honour its agreements.

The Arab Weekly learned that meetings between leaders from Fatah and Hamas, on one side, and officials in the Egyptian intelligence services, on the other side, are frequently being held to arrange for presidential and legislative elections, discuss steps required to secure them and consult on how to put political pressure on Israel to allow voting in Jerusalem.

The implementation of the Palestinian elections on the ground needs the support of the Arab League, which has mandated Egypt since 2005 to end the Palestinian division.

Cairo agreed with Fatah and Hamas on the need to resume reconciliation dialogue sessions between them in Cairo in order to reach an understanding on the mechanisms for holding elections, and to complete what was agreed upon in previous meetings sponsored by Cairo before going to Doha and Istanbul.

Palestinian sources told The Arab Weekly that Hamas has realised the difficulty of bypassing Egypt in the Palestinian reconciliation file, as Egypt has a political geography overlapping Palestinian actors and enabling it to play influential roles that could upset Hamas’s administration of the Gaza Strip.

It is likely that the Cairo meetings will take into account the content of general understandings that Fatah and Hamas reached in Istanbul, provided that Egyptian intelligence services communicate with all factions to formulate a paper that would be binding to all to work on the basis of what was previously achieved in Cairo, especially since the current round of talks may see the participation of the Islamic Jihad Movement.

There is a general desire for the final reconciliation agreement between all factions to take place in Cairo after the two movements’s delegations agreed to ignore the small differences and focus on the essential points that ensure elections will be held inside the country according to agreed-upon mechanisms, and following the approval of the trustees of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

Betting on new US approach

As Fatah and Hamas pegged Palestinian reconciliation to their respective internal and external agendas, and given the long years of procrastination and manoeuvring by both sides, optimism about the possibility of achieving a breakthrough in the file has begun to fade.

Over the past two months, Cairo received a delegation from Fatah, and then another from Hamas, after their meeting in Istanbul, but the meetings did not lead to tangible progress and only indicated that the two parties did not want to completely sideline Egypt.

Following the Hamas delegation’s departure, some Egyptian media launched a fierce campaign against the movement, which reinforced convictions that Cairo is not buying Hamas’s excuses and justifications for taking the reconciliation file to both Qatar and Turkey.

Media close to the Egyptian government reopened the file of Hamas’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is classified as a terrorist group in Egypt, in the midst of a fierce European campaign against Islamist groups’ hidden role in spreading extremism and terrorism in different countries.

Observers say that Cairo has documented evidence of a relationship between Hamas leaders and militant organisations inside and outside Gaza, which could inflict huge reputational damage on the the movement and reduce the chances of it being able to deal with the rest of the world. This, of course, if push came to shove and the movement’s “black box” was opened.

Islamist organisations, including Hamas, believe that the Biden administration will not give them a raw deal, which leads them to envision previous scenarios that appeared near the end of the term of former US President Barack Obama’s administration that enhanced Islamists’ chances of gaining power.

Hamas’s acquiescence this time to holding talks in Cairo on the reconciliation file is not separate from Egypt’s desire to prepare its regional cards to deal with the new US administration and to confirm its traditional and central role on Palestinian issues.