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Challenges to meet
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 01 - 01 - 2009

Is Egyptian diplomacy living up to old and new regional challenges? At times, but not always, writes Dina Ezzat
The year that started with a massive inundation of devastated Palestinian citizens breaking through the Rafah Crossing from a suffocated Gaza Strip is ending with an equally terrible scene as Israel brutally slaughters hundreds of innocent Gazan civilians while the Egyptian government has announced that it will open its border with Gaza only to let pass the gravely wounded and nobody else. Thousands of Arab citizens across the Arab world are demonstrating, calling for Rafah to open.
Throughout the year, Egypt hosted endless meetings with top world and regional officials in pursuit of two objectives. The first, to secure a Palestinian reconciliation that would end the rift between Fatah, in control of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and Hamas, in control of Gaza. The second, to conclude a Palestinian-Israeli deal that would put an end to 60 years of struggle and allow for the establishment of a Palestinian state and, if to a lesser degree, a long-term truce between Israel and Hamas.
Cairo's intense diplomatic efforts, Egyptian diplomats suggest as the year came to end, were aborted by many spoilers. The neo-cons of the outgoing George W Bush administration are held responsible just as much as hawkish elements in successive Israeli governments are. However, for some -- though not all -- diplomatic and national security quarters in Cairo, the major spoiler of Egyptian efforts to bring peace -- or at least stability and calm -- to the Palestinians was Iran.
Top Egyptian officials have not been circumspect in their criticism of Tehran's "attempt to expand its influence over the Middle East". Hamas in Gaza, Hizbullah in Lebanon and Syria in its own right were accused by Cairo -- as much as by Riyadh and other "moderate" Arab capitals -- of having torpedoed Egyptian efforts to stabilise the situation on the Palestinian-Israeli and inter-Palestinian fronts.
"When Egypt was about to conclude a deal [between Hamas and Israel] that would have allowed for the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in return for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, the orders were issued from Tehran to hold back," said a senior state official in summer. Later in the year, this same well-informed official, directly, albeit on background, complained about the "unhelpful Syrian intervention with Hamas leaders hosted by Damascus" to "block" an Egyptian attempt to organise a Palestinian reconciliation meeting in Cairo in November. Syria and Iran were both accused by this and other Egyptian officials of inciting what they qualified as "anti-Egyptian" remarks issued by Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah along with anti-Egyptian demonstrations this week.
Complaints over Iranian and Syrian regional conduct are all but a daily routine in official Egyptian foreign policy circles. Even those who advocate the need for an end, or at least containment, of tension between Egypt and Iran, or between Cairo and Damascus, complain of "counterproductive choices". "Why would the Syrians allow for hundreds of demonstrators to chant harsh anti-Egyptian slogans before the Egyptian Embassy in Damascus? What use would this make to efforts exerted by advocates of Egyptian-Syrian rapprochement either in Cairo or Damascus?" asked one source who requested that his name be withheld.
The tension between Egypt and Iran, argues the annual Arab Strategic Report issued by Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, comes at a time Tehran qualifies as the "Iranian era" of the Middle East. "Iran is currently going through a phase that is typically qualified in Iranian culture as the moment of 'strength'". This phase, the report further suggests, has prompted an inevitable "dispute of regional roles". During this phase, according to the same report, Iran tends to instigate undercurrents in the capitals it opposes. And, the report editors add, it is not only Egypt that is entertaining concerns over Iran's choices. "Arab Gulf countries do too," the report suggests.
For their part, Iranian diplomats argue that the problem between Egypt and Iran is not one of contested regional roles as much as it is of contested regional choices. Iran, they say, is advocating an Islamic choice while Egypt is promoting a pro-Western -- especially American -- foreign policy line. The two, Egyptian and Iranian officials accept, are bound to clash.
The worst part, at least from Cairo's point of view, is that the alleged Iranian wish to "drag the entire Middle East to a confrontation and to use Hamas and Hizbullah to implement this confrontation with Israel, and Islamist militant groups in Iraq to attack US targets in Iraq," is tailored only to serve Iranian purposes of retaliating against Washington's attempt to block Iran's "nuclear plans, peaceful or otherwise" by giving the US a hard time in the Middle East. "Why should Egypt or the Middle East, the Arab world in particular, be used to serve Iranian objectives?" said one Egyptian diplomat on condition of anonymity.
The trouble with Egyptian responses to Iran, and to an extent Syria, is that they have been largely ineffective. Throughout the year, Iran managed to open up to several regional capitals, including some of Egypt's closest Arab allies, and not excluding Riyadh whose anti- Tehran concerns are related mainly to controlling its Shia minority population in areas rich in oil. Syria too, with the carefully orchestrated help of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the support of Qatar, that is trying to position itself as a political rival to both Cairo and Riyadh, is coming out of the cold.
Have Egyptian diplomatic choices painted Cairo into a corner? Is Egypt going to lose its political leverage in crucial regional issues, especially the Palestinian issue? And will Cairo's diplomatic foes come out victorious as the Barack Obama administration moves into the White House with known intentions of opening up to Iran and Syria? The answer is a definite no. When all is said and done, Egypt is still a crucial player in the Arab world. Arab and Western diplomats in Cairo who point to what they describe as deterioration in Egypt's regional role also admit that nothing can be done in the region without the support of Egypt. While it is true that new players have emerged (Qatar being an example), Cairo's nod of approval remains essential.
The challenges that unfolded in the region in 2008 are unlikely to disappear in 2009. The key question is how such challenges, old and new, can be met. In this regard, in the Arab world, as many eyes remained fixed on Cairo for some time they are now turning elsewhere to the incoming occupant of the Oval Office.

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