Hamas' victory in the recent Palestinian Legislative Council elections came as a big surprise for all interested parties. The surprise was not a happy one, except in Tehran and Damascus where the Hamas achievement was perceived as a consolidation of the anti-US camp in the Middle East.
For Egypt, the Hamas victory challenges its policy in Palestine. For years, Egypt has been playing the role of the main regional sponsor of the Palestinian National Authority and Fateh. With a Hamas-led government, Egypt's role in Palestine faces a major challenge. The strong working relationship between Egypt and the PNA is in jeopardy. The value of Egypt's political investment in Palestine, particularly during the preparation for the Israeli pullout from Gaza, needs to be reassessed.
The Hamas victory is a reason for concern but not panic in Cairo. Over the years, Egypt has developed functioning working relations with Hamas. Egypt has negotiated and sponsored the current tahdia ("calm") with Hamas, which should get credit for observing the terms of the tahdia against tempting, and sometimes adverse, circumstances. Nor does Hamas' victory alter the basic geostrategic realities. A Palestinian government, whether led by Fateh or Hamas, needs to win the cooperation of Egypt as its main channel to the outside world. An isolated Hamas government in particular is not likely to risk losing this. In a word, geography and politics place a Palestinian government, regardless of ideology, in dire need of Cairo's cooperation.
Egypt, a country that has long dealt with the ideological and political tides of the Middle East, believes that the hard realities of the Arab-Israel conflict can generate surprising transformations among ideology-driven actors. A country that led the radical Arab states for years believes in the power of reality more than anybody else. The conventional wisdom in Cairo is that, given the proper chance and sufficient time, Hamas will learn how to adjust to reality. To bring about the needed changes, a proper mix of incentives and pressures should be applied. It is necessary, however, to administer this mix cleverly, so that the required adjustments in Hamas' positions are engendered without risking unneeded escalation.
Moreover, the Egyptian leadership believes the Hamas hardliners in power could give peace in the Middle East a precious opportunity. After the disappearance of Arafat, credible leadership is needed if a negotiated final status agreement is to be reached. Fateh's decline does not permit it to provide the required leadership. Moreover, a leadership with a credible hard-line legacy is better equipped to sign a peace agreement that might otherwise be labeled a sell-out.
A more moderate Hamas position could bring tremendous positive changes to Middle Eastern politics. The Palestinian question has for years been the most important engine for the radicalization of the Arab and Muslim public. Previous peace agreements were not very helpful in containing the rising radicalism in the region. A peace deal cut by the radical Islamic Hamas could be instrumental in taking the wind out of the radicals' sails. The defusing of the Palestinian problem by a radical Islamic movement should grant the Middle East badly needed breathing room to give moderation a chance.
Coordinating Egyptian policy toward Hamas with other Arab states is important. Hamas should hear the same message in all Arab capitals. In particular, a coordinated policy among Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan could provide the leadership for a common Arab policy toward Hamas. Within this framework, the Arab League can help soften Hamas' positions; in particular, it can provide a face-saving venue for a more moderate Hamas to emerge.
Egyptian policy should be closely coordinated with the new government in Israel. While Israeli objections to dealing with a Hamas-led Palestinian government are understandable, Egypt is not at ease with the Israeli plan for a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. The new Israeli government is expected to allow sufficient time before launching its unilateral pullout: implicit reciprocity with Hamas' evolving positions would be instrumental in bringing about further changes in Hamas policy.
The Hamas victory should not put an end to the diplomatic process. To the contrary, a revitalized peace diplomacy could facilitate the needed changes in Hamas' positions. This is the message Egypt is now trying to market among the members of the Quartet. A Quartet initiative could be useful for all parties, without any individual party being liable to specific costs. Stronger commitments from the concerned parties would follow--when Hamas shows more solid signs of change.- Published 4/5/2006 © bitterlemons-international.org