Egypt strides to center stage of Middle East
Published: Aug 21, 2009 10:39 AM Updated: May 25, 2011 12:57 PM

No dramatic announcements came out of the meeting between Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his host, US President Barack Obama on Tuesday. However, the session was yet further proof that Egypt is once again at the center of all events in the Middle East, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This is Mubarak's first visit to the White House in five years. The previous US President George W. Bush chose to sideline Egypt to some extent and to punish Cairo for what Washington saw as its poor record on human rights. But Obama has shown he believes in engagement.

On leaving Washington, the Egyptian team felt confident enough to announce that it hopes the Obama administration would soon unveil an outline of its peace proposal that would bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table after an almost 12-month hiatus.

However, perhaps surprisingly, as far as Mubarak is concerned, the starting point for an Israeli-Palestinian solution lies entirely in the Palestinian arena. While he does demand that Israel meet its obligations, his spokesman told reporters that there can be no Israeli-Palestinian settlement until the Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, end their differences.

Only Egypt appears capable of bringing that dispute to an end, according to Yoram Meital, director of the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in southern Israel.

"Egypt's role here is crucial. From the time that Hamas took control of Gaza, it's been clear that Egypt is the country with the most sway over Hamas," Meital said.

He added that this is not because Cairo particularly agrees with Hamas' policies, but rather the result of Hamas' geographical location. The movement's main scope of operations is the Gaza Strip, which borders Egypt.

Agreeing that Egypt's role is vital in dealing with the Hamas-Fatah standoff, Elie Podeh, a professor in the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, points out that all its attempts have been for naught thus far.

"This shows that despite Egypt's importance, its ability to coerce these organizations is very small. But then again, Saudi Arabia also tried to arbitrate between them. That resulted in a unity government being created, but that disbanded after a brief period," said Podeh.

The comparison between Egypt and Saudi Arabia is frequently made these days as Riyadh appears to be as dominant a player as Cairo both in the Middle East and on the international stage.

For 30 years or more, Egypt was the strong neighbor in the region, but today the Saudis also see themselves as a central force.

When Obama chose to make his key speech to the Arab and Muslim world on June 4, it was no coincidence that he arrived in Egypt after a visit to Saudi Arabia.

Obama does not necessarily prefer one of these countries to the other, but is pleased to have both of them on board as he tackles the Palestinian issue alongside other regional affairs, first and foremost Iran.

The Americans also want to appear to be engaging these and other Arab countries, but Washington realizes that Egypt plays a key role in the region and therefore Cairo must be included in all discussions on regional developments, said Podeh.

Egypt knows it will have to partner with the Palestinians as they take fresh looks at their internal security questions and incitement against Israel, two key areas Obama said must be addressed. Actually, the Egyptians have already been working closely with the Palestinians on security issues.

Israel was closely watching the Mubarak visit, not only for the Palestinian issue, but also for Iran. Egypt is one of the most vocal opponents of Iran and its nuclear program in the Middle East.

There have been reports in recent months of differences between Washington and Cairo on how to deal with the perceived Iranian threat. "We have also discussed the issue of Iran and the issue of nuclear Iran, and we talked about these issues very frankly," said Mubarak at the conclusion of his meeting with Obama.

"This visit strengthens the understandings between the two countries... on the Iranian question," said Meital. The timing is extremely significant because sometime in September or October the United States is expected to announce what it sees as its future approach to the Iranian question, he added. For that reason, it is very important that Obama has a key Middle-Eastern player on board at this time.

With both the Iranian and Palestinian issues in mind, Obama has made it clear that he values Egypt's input and sees Cairo not just as public relation vehicle for improving American relations with the Muslim world, but as a real partner who can help bring about key changes in the Middle East in line with current American thinking.

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