Egypt and Qatar spar over Gaza ceasefire

Doha might be trying to insert itself into the Gaza ceasefire negotiations as part of its regional power struggle with Cairo, writes Youssef Hamza

A handout picture released by the Egyptian Presidency on July 17, 2014, shows Egypt's president Abdel Fattah El Sisi meeting with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in Cairo. AFP Photo/ Ho/ Egyptian Presidency
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CAIRO /// Abdel Fattah El Sisi is pressing ahead with efforts to end the fighting in the Gaza Strip despite an earlier initiative being rejected by Hamas.

The Egyptian president, in his first major foreign policy test, has presided over a flurry of diplomatic activity in Cairo, where he has met foreign ministers from EU countries as well as Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.

“The Egyptian initiative alone is what is on the table,” Egypt’s foreign minister Sameh Shukri said on Saturday after meeting his French counterpart.

Egypt’s truce proposal, he said, already has the support of the Arab league and the UN Security Council.

Egypt says its proposal, which has been welcomed by Washington, ensures a chance for a ceasefire, ending the bloodletting of Palestinians, lifting the siege of Gaza and providing a framework to ensure that basic needs of Gazans are met.

Some of those conditions match the demands of Hamas. But Hamas’s rejection of the plan may be rooted not so much in the terms of the truce as it is in its loyalty to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, its parent organisation whose government was removed by Mr El Sisi a year ago, and the wider regional power struggle.

Mr El Sisi led the military’s removal of president Mohammed Morsi in July last year and has since labelled the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation. Mr Morsi, along with most of the Brotherhood’s leaders, have been detained and are on trial on charges that carry the death penalty. Thousands of Brotherhood supporters are also in detention and hundreds have been killed in street violence.

It was Mr Morsi who brokered a peace deal to end Israel’s eight-day war with Hamas in 2012 that killed more than 170 Palestinians.

Egypt also declared Hamas an illegal organisation this year, seizing its assets and barring members from meeting on its soil. It accuses the Muslim Brotherhood of passing on state secrets to Hamas and of allowing the Palestinian group to meddle in Egyptian affairs.

More recently, the Egyptian army destroyed many of the smuggling tunnels running under the Egypt-Gaza border. The tunnels supplied Gaza with everything from food and fuel to vehicles and construction materials, and their destruction led to a steep hike in prices.

Hamas has said only that it rejected the Egypt-led peace initiative because it was not consulted first and that it amounted to “capitulation” to Israel. It is believed that Hamas wants to postpone a peace agreement until more favourable terms are offered.

However, a Gulf official with access to the Gaza peace drive, said Hamas was also under pressure from Qatar, the chief backer of the group and the Brotherhood, to reject it. The peace plan, if it had succeeded, would have been Mr El Sisi first foreign policy triumph.

The official said Qatar and Turkey, another Brotherhood backer, were tweaking the proposal put forward by Egypt and may eventually announce their own peace plan.

Egypt’s response to leaks of a possible Turkish-Qatari truce proposals came from its foreign minister.

“Egypt has not seen any initiative, whether from Turkey or Qatar,” Mr Shukri said on Saturday.

Egypt has long viewed the Gaza Strip as central to its national security policy. The enclave was under its direct rule from the end of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war until it lost the densely populated territory to Israel along with Sinai in the 1967 Middle East war.

The removal of Hamas from power in Gaza would undoubtedly be a relief for Egypt, which is careful to publicly make the distinction between how it views the group and Gaza’s residents.

But Egypt, in the meantime, cannot afford to be seen as encouraging or even acquiescing to Israeli aggression on Gaza.