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Critical containment
Published in Ahram Online on 18 - 05 - 2021

This week Egypt was engaged in an intensive diplomatic reach-out in the hope of containing the conflict between Israel and Palestinian factions. Egyptian diplomats were also busy pushing to secure international support to defuse tensions over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) dispute, and to consolidate the fragile stability in Libya.
In the midst of the diplomatic flurry, Cairo and the Biden administration suddenly found themselves in intense consultations. According to government sources, in addition to a phone call between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri, there has been coordination between Cairo and Washington "at many levels" to help set the ground for an end to the confrontation between Israel and Palestinian factions in Gaza.
By Tuesday over 220 Palestinians, including 60 children, had been killed in Israel's assault on Gaza, and the Strip's already inadequate infrastructure had been further degraded. Israel sustained 10 causalities, including one child.
Egypt is providing Palestinians with much needed medical support and opened the Rafah crossing to allow Palestinians wounded in the Israeli assault to be treated in Arish. On Tuesday President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi pledged a $500 million package to help with the reconstruction of Gaza.
Egypt's idea of a ceasefire is based on a humanitarian armistice followed by the resumption of Cairo-sponsored security talks leading to a — relatively — long-term truce, with the possibility of a prisoner swap.
Sources say the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza is forcing the US to support efforts to secure a ceasefire, hopefully sometime this week.
"I think we are [now] in agreement with Washington that it would be very hazardous to allow things to carry on unchecked. For the crisis to continue is not in the interest of regional stability at all. We need to work closely to make sure the parties commit to a ceasefire as soon as possible," said an Egyptian diplomatic source.
Hisham Youssef, senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, argues both Egypt and the US have an interest in securing a ceasefire. Egypt has long worked to stop any escalation on the Palestinian-Israeli front — "this was the case in the wars in 2008-2009, 2012, 2014 and it is not any different today," — he says.
He points out that, in working to facilitate a longer-term truce and a prisoner swap deal between Israel and Hamas, Cairo was already engaged with regional and international players and will continue to work with influential capitals to secure a ceasefire.
And now, Youssef adds, the Biden administration has been forced, however unwillingly, to prioritise the Palestinian situation, and in pursuit of a ceasefire realises that Egypt, a leading regional player with direct contacts and influence on both the Palestinians and Israel, cannot be bypassed.
"Egypt and the US will work together to reach a ceasefire. The main question is whether they will succeed in getting a political process started to allow for the serious resumption of peace talks."
Maged Abdel-Fattah, permanent representative of the Arab League to the UN Security Council, says the Arab Group in New York is working hard to secure support for an immediate ceasefire plan that Egypt and other Arab countries, particularly Jordan, are pushing. He warns, however, that without a prompt political process that re-launches serious peace talks the cycle of violence will not be broken.
In addition to de-escalation in Gaza, Cairo is working to avert any escalation over GERD or disruption to the fragile state of stability in Libya. In both endeavours it is seeking to engage leading international players.
Egyptian officials have already noted a new willingness on the part of Washington to find a political settlement to the dispute over GERD.
Jeffrey Feltman, US envoy for the Horn of Africa, visited Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia late last month. Following his tour, the US State Department urged the three countries to resume talks sponsored by the African Union and agree a settlement that meets all their concerns.
"The Horn of Africa is at an inflection point, and the decisions that are made in the weeks and months ahead will have significant implications for the people of the region as well as for US interests," read a US State Department statement issued this week.
That the US is now throwing its weight beyond AU-led talks signals a major shift in Washington's position, argues Amany Al-Tawil, an expert on African affairs at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
"While the US is not offering direct mediation, it is certainly going to be involved, directly and heavily, in pushing the DRC-led talks," she says.
DRC, the current chair of the AU, has already hosted an unsuccessful round of talks involving the foreign and water ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan, and according to government sources another meeting is currently in the works. "Later this month or early next month," said one.
In Paris this week for a meeting on development in Africa, President Al-Sisi had a brief encounter with his Ethiopian counterpart, Sahle-Work Zewde. According to an informed source, Al-Sisi pressed Zewde to work with Egypt and Sudan to serve the interests of the people of all three countries.
GERD was also high on the agenda of Al-Sisi's talks in France with French President Emmanuel Macron and with African leaders.
Libya was another top issue for Al-Sisi in Paris. France and Egypt have both offered support to the transitional government in Libya.
Egyptian officials say Cairo and Washington have upgraded their contacts over Libya. The Biden administration is concerned about the strong Russian presence in Egypt's western neighbour and, according to officials, the positions of Cairo and Washington are "quite close". Both capitals want a stable and militia-free Libya.
Government sources say Egypt is working with all involved parties, Washington included, to guarantee foreign militias start leaving Libya as soon as possible. The recent easing of tensions in Egypt's relations with Turkey and Qatar, they add, is helping to serve this goal, as has the election, earlier this year, of the new transitional government.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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