Jun 18 2014

Egypt-Palestine ties set to improve after unity government

Published by at 1:34 pm under Articles,Palestinian politics


By Daoud Kuttab

During the short election campaign for president of Egypt, candidate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was asked about his vision for future relations between Egypt and Palestine. Sisi was very clear in his support for Palestinian rights, and he expressed the anger of the Egyptian people with the Islamic movement Hamas. Sisi, who has met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas both as defense minister and as presidential candidate, is known to be cold toward the Palestinian president.

In all his meetings, the Egyptian strongman has called on his Palestinian counterpart to speed up the reconciliation process. While such a call is understood to mean the PLO-Hamas reconciliation, it is possible that Sisi is referring to reconciliation within Fatah and especially between former Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan and Abbas. Sisi’s overwhelming victory in last week’s presidential elections has once again raised the question of what the relationship would be like between the Egyptian and Palestinian presidents.

Abbas, who has in the past months escalated the verbal war against Dahlan, accusing him of assassinating Palestinians and embezzlement, has also cut off some of Dahlan’s supporters. In a move that is being called “illegal” according to Fatah bylaws, Abbas fired five of Dahlan’s most senior supporters within Fatah on May 31. The move is seen as an attempt to clear the space of any of Dahlan’s supporters before the seventh Fatah congress due to take place in Ramallah on Aug. 4.

However, some pundits are arguing that it might also have been taken in the short period between Sisi’s electoral victory and his swearing in as president due to take place on June 7. On the other hand, a Dahlan aid, Samir Mashrawi published on his personal Facebook page pictures he says were taken with Sisi on May 21, a week before the field marshal’s election victory. Except for a local Gaza website, Mashrawi’s visit did not make much media traction, but it did show the depth of the relationship between Dahlan and Sisi.

A senior Palestinian source in Ramallah close to Abbas told Al-Monitor that Abbas inquired at the Egyptian Embassy in Ramallah about Cairo’s relationship with the renegade Fatah leader Dahlan and was told that the Egyptian government only deals with the legitimate Palestinian government in Ramallah. A similar response was given to Al-Monitor by a media source with ties to the Egyptian military in Egypt, who insisted, “Sisi will continue to deal with Abbas unless the situation in Gaza deteriorates, and then they might use Dahlan.”

Abbas, who has congratulated Sisi on his impressive victory, spoke to the president-elect on May 31 and agreed to meet soon. A major issue of discussion in any meeting will be relations with Hamas and the Gaza Strip. For now, however, Palestinians in Gaza are expecting that the Rafah crossing will be opened now that the Palestinian unity government has been sworn in.

A source with known connections to smugglers in Rafah told Al-Monitor that there are two scenarios being discussed for the Rafah crossing. One is for the presidential guards to return to Rafah as well as the return of European observers. This would basically be a fulfillment of the 2005 agreement with the Israelis. A second scenario would keep the situation on the Rafah border as is, but would add a few Palestinians loyal to Abbas on the Palestinian side.

Multiple sources both in Ramallah and Cairo agree that Dahlan’s position has been considerably weakened with the success of Abbas to accomplish the reconciliation almost entirely on his own terms. The sources say that the new Egyptian president might continue to entertain his friendship with Dahlan and company in regard to pan-Arab and anti-Islamist issues, but not on the Palestinian issue.

For the time being and so long as Abbas appears to be in command in Palestine, the Egyptian political echelon including Sisi will work with him. The only exception, multiple sources have indicated, would be if the reconciliation with Hamas failed or weakened, and if there were any trouble from Hamas on the Egyptian scene. If such a scenario were to occur, Sisi would surely go back to Dahlan and seek his advice and possible involvement against Hamas. Otherwise, Sisi will honor his country’s traditional relations with the Ramallah-based PLO chairman.

Sisi’s success in the presidential elections has certainly strengthened Abbas’ hand. Not only did he feel confident enough to fire five of Dahlan’s aides, but he has also felt strong enough to reject every compromise suggestion by Hamas in regard to the unity government. Abbas has refused to make any serious concession to the Islamists in the forming of the unity government, making it look more like a slight reshuffle of his own Hamdallah government rather than a national unity cabinet.

This more than any other move shows Abbas’ success inside Palestine and in terms of formal relations with Egypt under its newly elected president. And just in case anyone had doubts about where Egypt stood on Abbas, the Egyptians were among the first to welcome the new government led by Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah.


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