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As Gaza Withdrawal Looms, Egypt’s Role Becomes Essential

While Israelis were engaged in a heated national debate over disengagement from Gaza, the political scene on the Palestinian side was rife with drama of its own. As Dov Weisglass, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s outgoing chief of staff, was coordinating disengagement plans with the Americans, the Palestinians were busy negotiating with Omar Suleiman, head of Egypt’s secret services.

The message was clear: It will be difficult — if not impossible — to move anything, anywhere, in Gaza without the active involvement of Egypt and the United States.

And as difficult as Sharon’s challenges may be, the Egyptian job seems equally as challenging.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal went to Cairo this week for another round of negotiations on disengagement with the Egyptians and with the secular Palestinian factions.

What is the Egyptian goal?

Cairo is trying to ensure a smooth transition of power once the Israelis withdraw. To this e! nd, an internal political agreement between the various Palestinian factions must be reached, in addition to a real cease-fire.

Internal Palestinian accord, though, means allowing Hamas to become a full partner, along with the secular Palestinian factions, in ruling Gaza once the area is clear of Israelis.

And cease-fire means that both Hamas and the Al-Aksa Brigade, the terrorist wing of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah organization, must lay down their arms.

Both goals are rather ambitious.

Cairo is also concerned over the growing power of Hamas — offspring of Egypt’s radical Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian regime is well aware of the possibility that instability in Gaza can spill over to Egypt. It took President Hosni Mubarak several years of hard — and dirty — work to suppress Muslim militants in Egypt.

The Egyptian political system is itself at a political crossroads. A conference of the ruling National Democratic Party was sche! duled for this week in Cairo to review a “working plan for 2005.”

B ut Egyptian analysts predicted that the real outcome would be to bolster Gamal Mubarak, the 41-year-old son of ailing President Hosni Mubarak, as one of the leading contenders to succeed his father.

The younger Mubarak joined the party in the wake of its poor performance in the 2000 parliamentary elections. He was appointed chairman of a party policy-making committee, among the strongest political bodies in Egypt, a move tailored especially to smooth his path to power.

The young Mubarak’s supporters and the pro-government media are promoting him as a man committed to fundamental economic reform. The new Egyptian government, sworn in July 14 and said to reflect Mubarak fils’ increasing power, is billed as reform-oriented — in contrast with its predecessor.

The Mubarak regime urgently needs to demonstrate reform, or at least create a political atmosphere of reform.

In recent months, Mubarak has come under constant personal attack — surprising for an autocracy ! such as Egypt. Abdul Khalim Kandil, editor of the opposition weekly Al-Arabi, recently wrote that Mubarak was the longest-ruling leader of Egypt since the 19th century.

He said that “the international role of Egypt has shrunk down to virtual disappearance.”

A breakthrough on the Israeli-Palestinian front would do a lot of good for the Mubarak regime. For the time being, though, things don’t look too promising.

Egypt has been trying to get the Palestinian factions together for more than a year. So far, no real progress has been achieved. In a round of television interviews during his Cairo visit this week, Hamas’ Meshaal said Palestinian factions would reach a unified position only after sraeli withdraws.

“When the enemy leaves Gaza, then we as Palestinian forces will agree on a program and reach a unified position,” he told Al-Jazeera television in an interview conducted in Cairo.

“It is not in our interest to speak today of what we will do, when Sharon i! s still in Gaza, assassinating” and “invading and occupying,” he said.

In frequent trips to Jerusalem, Egypt’s Suleiman has prodded Israel to withdraw calmly and to give assurances that it will not send troops back in after withdrawal. In exchange, Egypt seems to be willing to work for Gaza’s stability.

In recent days, Egypt has made several moves to indicate it means business. Egyptian security forces last week arrested eight people who had planned to infiltrate the Gaza Strip, perhaps through a tunnel, with weapons — including an explosives belt to be used by a suicide bomber.

Egypt has stepped up efforts track arms smugglers, and is pressuring Arafat to disarm the Al-Aksa in Gaza.

But Egypt is not the sole outside power involved. Avi Dichter, head of the General Security Service, told the Cabinet this week that Iran was actively involved in aiding the terrorist factions in Gaza. It no longer counts on its Hezbollah emissaries to do the job.

Israeli sources also said Palestinian efforts to smuggle arms into the Gaza Strip ! from Egypt have reached record levels as armed groups prepare for possible power plays in Gaza. In other words, even as the Palestinian factions made noises of talking to each other in Cairo, the music in Gaza was the drums of violence — Palestinians against Israelis, Palestinians against themselves.

Thus, Suleiman was actually working on three fronts — the internal Palestinian one, the Iranian, and of course, the Israeli.

After all, in a time when Kassam rockets fired from Gaza are a near-daily affair, Israel is highly unlikely to commit to staying out of Gaza after the withdrawal.

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