Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is pictured during a meeting with the US secretary of state at the Heliopolis Presidential Palace on May 26, 2021.
(ALEX BRANDON / POOL / AFP)
Egypt's work to broker and secure a truce in the Gaza Strip this month has thrust it into the diplomatic spotlight, prompting top-level reengagement from Washington.
The efforts have earned Cairo recognition at a time when it was struggling to strike a rapport with US President Joe Biden's administration amid differences on human rights, and to make progress on its top foreign policy goal – a deal to regulate an Ethiopian dam that Egypt sees as a major threat to its supplies of Nile water.
The efforts have earned Cairo recognition at a time when it was struggling to strike a rapport with US President Joe Biden's administration amid differences on human rights, and to make progress on its top foreign policy goal – a deal to regulate an Ethiopian dam that Egypt sees as a major threat to its supplies of Nile water
While Cairo has mediated during previous rounds of violence between Israel and the Palestinians through its ties with both sides, analysts and diplomats say its efforts have been more visible than in recent years.
As the week-old ceasefire took hold between Israel and Hamas, the militant Islamist faction that controls Gaza, Egyptian security delegations shuttled between Tel Aviv and the Palestinian territories.
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Next week, Palestinian figures including Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh are due to start visits to Cairo to further shore up the truce, Egyptian security sources said.
"There is a more active effort by Egypt and President (Abdel Fattah al-) Sisi. It was clear throughout the 11 days of war," a Hamas official told Reuters.
Though Hamas has roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, which is outlawed and subject to a severe crackdown in Egypt, Cairo has well-established intelligence ties with the group.
Because of the importance Egypt attaches to security on the border between its Sinai Peninsula and Gaza, it is "super pragmatic" about its dealings with the Palestinian faction, said one diplomat.
For Egypt and Sisi, who enjoyed good relations with former US President Donald Trump, one achievement of the ceasefire push has been the sudden resumption of contact with the White House.
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After an awkward silence that had lasted since Biden's inauguration in January, the US leader spoke twice with Sisi in five days.
However, US and Egyptian reengagement around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be limited by the current lack of prospects for a peace process, analysts say.
"This is mostly conflict management rather than conflict resolution," said Nabil Fahmy, a former Egyptian foreign minister.
In the past, "our engagement was on peace process issues as well as on the security issues in Gaza when things broke out. Presently there are no serious peace process issues."
Egypt, which receives some US$1.3 billion of US military aid annually, has also faced strong criticism from US Democrats over its human rights record. After a visit to Cairo this week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said human rights remained "very much on the agenda".
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But Egypt has learned to wait out bumps in its relationship with Washington and after proving itself over Gaza had won some breathing space on rights, said Hafsa Halawa, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.
"Egypt has become a patient foreign policy actor, and that really comes from the core institutional belief that Egypt is too big to fail," – a concept Egypt sees the United States and other allies as sharing, she said.