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Samer Shehata: Egyptian government may not cooperate with siege of Gaza and isolation of Hamas; restoring relations with Iran

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. A few weeks ago, it was reported that the new military government of Egypt was going to stop building the metal barrier and metal wall that was helping to stop tunneling between Gaza and Egypt. According to Israel, these tunnels were being used to bring in arms. According to the people in Gaza, they were bringing in food and other necessary supplies. And perhaps there’s truth on both sides. At any rate, the Egyptian government that had under Mubarak been fully cooperating with Israel in the siege of Gaza perhaps is changing its position. There’ve also been some major protests in Cairo outside the Israeli Embassy. Now joining us to talk about Egypt, Israel, and perhaps a bit of a new Egyptian foreign policy is Samer Shehata. Samer teaches Arab politics at Georgetown University. He’s the author of the book Shop Floor Culture and Politics in Egypt. Thanks for joining us again, Samer.


JAY: So first let’s start with Egyptian-Israeli relations. How much is it changing? What do you think we are likely to see?

SHEHATA: I think there’s going to be some significant change in the Egyptian-Israeli relationship. As Nabil el-Araby, Egypt’s new foreign minister, stated, Mr. Mubarak was a treasure for the Israelis. And what he meant by that–and this is really quite true–is that President Mubarak, many felt his foreign policy was completely out of line with Egyptian national interests as well as Egyptian national feeling. He participated, as you mentioned, in the illegal blockade of Gaza. He also was very anti-Hamas, favoring Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah over Hamas and so on. And there was close security cooperation, as well as economic cooperation, between Egypt and Israel, most notably in the sale of Egyptian natural gas at below-market prices to Israel. And, in fact, there has been some revelations that the president’s younger son, Gamal Mubarak, as well as a number of businessmen close to Mr. Mubarak himself, were implicated in some corruption involved in the sale of natural gas to Israel. So I think the relationship is going to change at some level. Of course–and this is quite important–the Camp David Peace Accords are not going to change. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, as well as the new foreign minister, as well as the prime minister, Essam Sharaf, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the two leading contenders in the Egyptian presidential election coming up, have all said that Egypt will uphold all its international treaties, including the Camp David Peace Accords. But the specifics of the relationship having to do with the sale of natural gas, having to do with Egypt’s orientation towards Hamas, having to do with the closure of the Rafah Border Crossing between Gaza and Egypt, all of that is going to change, and I think that is quite significant.

JAY: Let’s pick up on two of those. Let’s first of all start with Egypt’s attitude towards Hamas. With the new reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas negotiated in Egypt, is this a reflection of their change? Israel was not very happy with the idea that there’s going to be new elections. Hamas and Fatah are going to organize them. And if there is this unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state in September, that will be a declaration that I guess one assumes includes Hamas.

SHEHATA: That’s exactly correct. And we only have to remember that the Mubarak regime was quite hostile to Hamas. We recognize that from its actions. But there was evidence that was recently disclosed through the WikiLeaks documents–the WikiLeaks documents confirm that Omar Suleiman, the head of general intelligence and briefly the vice president under Mubarak, told General Petraeus that Egypt’s position was to, quote, undermine Hamas in Gaza. And then he also told Admiral Mike Mullen that one of Egypt’s top priorities was to bring Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah back in control in Gaza. So Egypt has been claiming, the Mubarak regime has been claiming, that they have been trying to mediate the disagreements between Fatah and Hamas over the last three or four years. Egypt, of course, has not been a neutral broker in those mediation efforts, clearly favoring Fatah at the expense of Hamas.

JAY: Which is partly why Hamas would never sign the agreement, even though, you know, PA would and Fatah would keep saying, listen, this is minor language difficulties; you can sign. Hamas knew this was part of a kind of Egyptian manipulation, and they just wouldn’t sign it.

SHEHATA: That’s completely correct. An Egyptian–and the Egyptian regime pressured Hamas on a number of ways–by closing the border, opening it at times, closing the border, and also detaining a number of Hamas officials and Palestinian sympathizers to Hamas in Egyptian jails. So, clearly, the previous regime was very much anti-Hamas, because, of course, Hamas is an Islamist movement, ideological and historical roots, relations to the Muslim Brotherhood, which was at the time the leading opposition movement to Mr. Mubarak’s regime. So, yes, that has changed quite significantly. Not that the new Egypt is pro-Hamas. Hardly. But it is genuinely interested in mediating conflicts between Hamas and Fatah to get to a unified Palestinian position that will hopefully help in achieving an independent Palestinian state in the near future.

JAY: And maybe the new military regime in Egypt’s a little more vulnerable to Egyptian public opinion on this point than Mubarak was.

SHEHATA: There’s no question about that. This is a much closer position to the middle Egyptian voter, as it were, than in the previous regime, which of course had no concern for Egyptian public opinion when it came to all kinds of things.

JAY: Now, what about other parts of Egyptian foreign policy, particularly in the region?

SHEHATA: Sure. Well, Mr. Nabil el-Araby, the new foreign minister, has also stated that Iran isn’t an enemy of Egypt and that there is a possibility of establishing full diplomatic relations with Iran. Of course, diplomatic relations were cut off in 1979, 1980 as a result of the Camp David Peace Accords, after, of course, the Iranian Revolution, which became then an Islamic revolution afterwards in Iran, and a denunciation of the Camp David Peace Accords. And then, of course, relations deteriorated even more when President Sadat allowed the deposed Shah into Egypt, where he is buried now. So in the last five years or so, the Mubarak regime, partially because it was very much in line with American foreign policy in the region, was very hostile to Iran, very critical of Iran, always talking about Iran’s increasing regional hegemony, Iran’s relationship with Hamas and Hezbollah.

JAY: And very much something United States wanted to hear from Egypt.

SHEHATA: Of course, of course, because Iran is threat number one for the United States with regard to the region, not only in Iraq, but with regard to Iran’s relationship to Hezbollah, Iran’s support for Hamas, and so on. So Egypt was playing the role of the so-called moderate Arab state, along with Saudi Arabia and Jordan and other states, supporting American policy, very much hostile to Iran and hostile to Islamist groups in the region like Hezbollah and Hamas. The new Egyptian foreign policy is one that states that Egypt is not necessarily opposed to Iran, that they are not natural enemies, and that full diplomatic relations have the possibility of being reestablished. Right now, although Egypt has representation in Tehran and Iranians have representation in Cairo, there are not diplomatic relations at the level of ambassadors. So that’s something likely to change.

JAY: Egypt is still very dependent on American money for its military. They’re looking for a new aid package from the United States. Are they not a little worried about how that’s going to develop if they’re a little too friendly to Iran?

SHEHATA: Well, this is the point that I was going to say. I mean, although diplomatic relations are going to be established, and although the kind of Cold War media war that had been taking place between Iran and Egypt over the last four or five years has come to an end completely, that doesn’t mean that Egypt is going to become a strategic ally of Iran, opposed to the United States. Hardly. They’ve also said in Cairo that they want to maintain very good relations with the United States. And I think this is going to be a tricky path to navigate, but I think that the new Egyptian government is capable of doing so, establishing full diplomatic relations but not allying with Iran in the way that Syria does, for example. So I don’t think that’s going to negatively–or it does not necessarily have to negatively affect the US-Egyptian relationship.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Samer.

SHEHATA: You’re welcome.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Samer Shehata is an assistant professor of Arab Politics at Georgetown University. He is the author of the book: "Shop Floor Culture and Politics in Egypt" published in 2009. Samer has also written numerous articles on Arab politics for the International Herald Tribune, Boston Globe and the Arab Reform Bulletin.