CAIRO: Eleven weeks after president Hosni Mubarak was toppled in a popular revolt, Egypt’s new government has scored its first diplomatic coup with a Palestinian reconciliation deal.
Cairo tried for more than a year to mediate between bitter rivals Fatah and the Islamist movement Hamas, as it did to broker a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas. Both efforts fell flat.
Hamas was frank in its view that Mubarak and his spy chief Omar Suleiman, who mediated the talks, favored Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s secular Fatah party.
But on Wednesday, after a low-key meeting in Cairo, Hamas and Fatah announced they had agreed to form a unity government that would prepare for elections in a year.
Analysts say the sudden agreement was at least partly due to changes in Egyptian policy.
“As soon as there was a balance in Egyptian policies, the agreement was possible,” said Wahid Abdul Magid, an analyst with the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
“In the past, Egypt dealt with the Palestinian division as an ally of one side in confronting the other,” he said.
Hamas leader Ismail Radwan said the new government in Cairo was even-handed with both factions, which have been sworn foes since the Islamists seized the Gaza Strip in a week of bloody street battles in 2007.
“The Egyptian revolution and the new leadership stand at the same distance from all parties, and that has allowed for a quick agreement because the points in dispute could have been resolved years ago,” he said.
Hamas was on the verge of agreeing a unity deal last year but backed out after alleging that Egypt had changed the terms of the agreement without Hamas’ consent.
It also blamed the United States, which it said wanted to exclude the Islamist group, which does not recognize Israel, from a unified Palestinian government.
But Egypt’s new caretaker government has already shown its willingness to reconsider the blockade on Gaza and its relationship with Iran, Israel’s regional arch-enemy.
By pushing Fatah and its Islamist rival Hamas to end their feud, the generals who now rule Egypt are seeking to gain leverage over Israel, cosy up to regional rival Iran and gain credibility among a largely pro-Palestinian population.
Egypt also shares a border with Gaza, the tiny coastal enclave which Hamas rules, and an accord that ends Palestinian infighting would mean a more secure frontier, analysts said.
“Cairo has a number of interests in this deal and the provisional military authority played a lead role in the intra-Palestinian deal,” said Kamran Boukhari, Middle East analyst with Stratfor Global Intelligence consultancy.
“Egypt does not wish to see turmoil in Gaza at a time when it is engaged in a transition on the home front. It appears also that Egypt is trying to assert itself vis-a-vis Israel.”
With its apparent new streak of independence, post-Mubarak Egypt may regain its historic role as a moral leader in the region, after a decline which set in under former president Anwar Sadat, analysts say.
Foreign Minister Ahmed Al-Araby, one of the UN’s International Court of Justice judges who ruled in 2004 that Israel’s separation barrier in the West Bank was illegal, has already condemned the blockade on Gaza.
Israel and Egypt have maintained the siege since Hamas took over Gaza, reducing Fatah’s power base to the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
“Egypt cannot ignore the inhumane suffering” of Gazans, Al-Araby told a local newspaper.
Such remarks, along with those by other Egyptian officials, have raised concerns in Israel, which has a 1979 peace deal with Cairo and counted on US-backed Mubarak as a reliable ally against Hamas and Iran.
Mubarak is now under investigation for a controversial deal under which Egyptian natural gas was allegedly sold to Israel at discounted prices.
Israel was worried that Mubarak’s overthrow by pro-democracy activists could mean an end to peace, but one of the first announcements made by the ruling generals was to reinforce the accord.
Shortly afterwards, the military-appointed government reached out to Iran, Israel’s arch-enemy and the main backer of Hamas, saying the time was ripe for better ties.
The ruling military council allowed two Iranian warships to pass through Egypt’s Suez Canal in February despite loud objections from Israel and the disapproval of Washington.
Egypt’s intelligence service has also eased the movement of Palestinians from Hamas-ruled Gaza over its Gaza border.
Egypt also appears to have coordinated with Iran its efforts to bring Hamas and Fatah together, a sign of further closeness.
“The Iranian foreign minister’s praise of the deal indicated Tehran is backing the reconciliation,” Boukhari said.
“And since Iran has signed off and Hamas is headquartered in Damascus it means Syria also decided to allow the reconciliation to go through.”
Egypt’s foreign policy over the past 30 years was seen as the private domain of the staunchly pro-American Mubarak.
A vehement opponent of Islamist groups, Mubarak tried to suppress the opposition Muslim Brotherhood and quashed an armed Islamist uprising in the 1990s.
He survived an assassination attempt in Addis Ababa in 1995.
“The policy against Hamas and the close alliance with the United States and Israel stemmed from the Mubarak administration’s attempt to prioritise personal interests ahead of national ones,” said a senior Egyptian official involved in policy making.
“Mubarak was busy with internal affairs, such as engineering the succession of his son Gamal. This characterised his administration’s policy,” the official said.
Since Mubarak’s resignation on Feb. 11, the interim military rulers have steered foreign policy away from Mubarak’s legacy to show that Egypt now wants to slowly but surely expand its alliances and restore its status as a regional power.
Military intelligence supervised the Hamas-Fatah accord, and Egypt said it would send a security team to Gaza soon to implement the agreement.
“The army believes a more balanced Egyptian foreign policy is necessary and that Egypt still has a key regional role that it may have lost track of previously but can regain,” said Safwat Zayat, a military analyst.