The Last Great Myth About Egypt

Opinion Articles

In the 1970s, Henry Kissinger fell in love with Anwar Sadat. To Kissinger, the Egyptian president "had the wisdom and courage of the statesman and occasionally the insight of the prophet." It was from this romance that a set of ideas about Egypt became inculcated in American Middle East policy: Egypt would be a bulwark against the Soviet Union, a base from which U.S. forces would launch in the event of a crisis in the Persian Gulf, and a mediator between Arabs -- especially the Palestinians -- and Israelis. 

Of these, only the last remains relevant to contemporary U.S. policy. It is, however, nothing more than a myth that American officials and analysts tell each other. Kissinger's hagiography of Sadat notwithstanding, the Egyptians have never been the effective, impartial negotiators that Americans expect them to be.

As Israel's "Operation Protective Edge" nears its second week, with hundreds of lives lost, what are the Egyptians up to? They're doing pretty much what they always do -- looking out for themselves. For all the dramatic changes in Egypt since Hosni Mubarak's fall, the Egyptian military and intelligence services view Gaza in much the same way they have for the better part of the previous decade or more. They want to keep the Palestinians, especially Hamas, in a box, prevent the conflict from destabilizing the Sinai Peninsula, ensure that the Gaza Strip remains principally an Israeli responsibility, and exclude other regional players from a role in Gaza.

Because of the way American policymakers and other observers have come to think about Egypt, they expect that a cease-fire serves these goals. The reality is, however, that it may or may not.

Israel's offensives in 2009 and 2012 both ended the same way. After a number of weeks of fighting, the Egyptian General Intelligence Service -- working in concert with its American and Israeli counterparts -- hammered out an agreement that brought about a cessation of violence. In each case, the Egyptians came off looking good: Their borders were secure, they were not dragged into Gaza, and Israel's battering of Hamas weakened the organization militarily.

It was not always easy, of course. Hamas's leaders are not naïve: They knew that the Egyptians hardly had the organization's interest at heart, and thus resisted handing Cairo a victory. The Palestinian Islamist organization also had help from the Syrians and Iranians, which was a source of great frustration for Mubarak's intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman. Still, when it came time for a deal, Hamas was unable to withstand the combination of Israeli military and Egyptian political pressure.

Depending on whom one asks, Egypt's failure so far to mediate a cease-fire is either a function of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's perfidy or incompetence, or Egypt's diminished status among Muslim countries. But there's another explanation: 

The Egyptians seem to believe that a continuation of the fighting -- for now -- best serves their interests. Given the intense anti-Muslim Brotherhood and anti-Hamas propaganda to which Egyptians have been subjected and upon which Sisi's legitimacy in part rests, the violence in Gaza serves both his political interests and his overall goals.

In an entirely cynical way, what could be better from where Sisi sits? The Israelis are battering Hamas at little or no cost to Egypt. In the midst of the maelstrom, the new president, statesman-like, proposed a cease-fire. If the combatants accept it, he wins. If they reject it, as Hamas did -- it offered them very little -- Sisi also wins.

Rather than making Sisi look impotent, Hamas's rejection of his July 14 cease-fire has only reinforced the Egyptian, Israeli, and American narrative about the organization's intransigence. The Egyptians appear to be calculating, rightly or wrongly, that aligning with Israel will serve their broader goals by bringing Hamas to heel, improving security in the Sinai, and diminishing the role of other regional actors. In other words, Sisi is seeking to accomplish without a cease-fire what Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi accomplished with a cessation of hostilities.

Sisi's strategy, of course, could backfire. Mubarak tried something similar during the 2006 Israeli incursion into Lebanon -- supporting the operation with the belief that the mighty IDF would deal a blow to Hezbollah, only to be exposed politically when the Israelis underperformed and killed a large number of Lebanese civilians in the process. Confronted with an increasingly hostile press and inflamed public opinion -- posters lauding Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became common around Cairo -- Mubarak was forced to dispatch his son, Gamal, and a planeload of regime courtiers to Beirut in a lame effort to demonstrate Egypt's support for the Lebanese people.

A similar dynamic might alter Sisi's calculations on Gaza. Egyptian officials may have whipped up anti-Hamas sentiment in their effort to discredit the Muslim Brotherhood, but this does not diminish the solidarity many Egyptians feel for the Palestinians. 

It may be that Egyptians have come to loathe the Brotherhood, but they hate Israel more. As Operation Protective Edge widens and more civilians are killed, Sisi's collusion with Israel may become politically untenable.

Turkey and Qatar have attempted to fill the mediation role that Sisi has seemingly relinquished, but the chances for an Ankara- or Doha-made solution remain remote. Like the Syrians and Iranians who gave Omar Suleiman fits, the Turks and Qataris are providing Hamas with a potential way out of the Egyptian-Israeli pincer by offering the organization enough support to fight on. Yet for all of their posturing, neither the Turks nor the Qataris are likely to get very far in mediating an agreement.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's heated rhetoric on the violence in Gaza is mostly about what it is always about -- domestic politics. It is important for his constituency to believe that their prime minister is the "King of the Arab Street," even if Ankara has lost its regional luster. The Egyptians and Israelis also dislike Erdogan and would never let him play a role in bringing the conflict to an end. The same is true of Qatar, which the Egyptians regard as a rogue state for its support of the Muslim Brotherhood and extremist groups in the region. There is simply little reason to believe that Cairo would abdicate negotiating something as important as its own border security to two countries it not only does not trust, but that it regards as enemies.

Ever since Cairo and Washington embarked upon their "strategic relationship," Americans have nurtured a great many myths about Egypt. The last great myth standing is the erroneous belief about Egypt as a mediator between Israelis and Palestinians. It is ironic that Henry Kissinger might explain the Egyptians' failure to resolve the conflict in romantic terms, lamenting that there is no Sadat -- whom he identified with the Pharaoh Akhenaten as a leader well before his time -- to step in. But at the dawn of the Sisi era, the real reason is rather more Kissingerian: The Egyptians just do not regard a cease-fire to be in their interest.

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