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It was, for Egyptians, a delightful recognition of their country’s regional role when US President Barack Obama picked Cairo for his important address in June to the Muslim world. The Arab world’s most populous country and its historical leader has been feeling downbeat, fending off attacks from rivals in the region and disapproval at home for having lost its regional edge.
Its relations with the previous US administration, moreover, had been frosty, with regular clashes over the promotion of democracy and deep Egyptian disappointment with America’s Middle East policies.
So tense was the relationship that George W Bush delivered his last speech in the region in 2008 in Abu Dhabi, a capital known more for its economic might than its political muscle.
The relief over an improvement in relations with the US under a new, more moderate administration, however, has yet to translate into changes that Egypt wants to see in the Middle East. True, the Obama administration’s efforts to mend relations with the Muslim world, its determination to withdraw from Iraq, and to pursue a Middle East peace agreement, have lowered the heat on Arab allies such as Egypt.
But Cairo nonetheless has had a rough year on the policy foreign front. A more hawkish Israeli prime minister – Benjamin Netanyahu – is now in power. And the initial enthusiasm over Mr Obama’s new push for Middle East peace has waned after Israel resisted his calls for a freeze on the expansion of Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land.
While it has been squabbling with Qatar and, more recently with Algeria, the huge effort Cairo has put into bringing an end to the Gaza war and then reconciling warring Palestinian factions has failed to produce the desired results. Above all, the mediation in Israel and Palestine has underlined Egypt’s regional dilemma as it faces conflicting pressures.
During the Gaza offensive that Israel launched against the Islamist Hamas last December, Cairo found itself in the eye of the storm. Refusing to open its borders to besieged Gaza refugees, it came under criticism from Arab public opinion and some of its peers for allegedly colluding with Israel, whose foreign minister had visited Cairo shortly before the assault. Frantic Egyptian attempts to secure a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas were stymied amid resistance from the US and hardline states in the region.
While Israel and the US were putting pressure on Cairo to agree to outside monitoring of its Rafah border with Gaza – to prevent weapons smuggling – Egypt contends that Iran, Syria and Qatar were encouraging Hamas to take a hard line in ceasefire negotiations.
President Hosni Mubarak, convinced that Israel’s grand plan is to force Cairo to take responsibility for Gaza, resisted the pressure, and kept the Rafah border closed. Protective of Egypt’s sovereignty, he also rejected US and Israeli plans for foreign monitoring of the Gaza border.
Though an unofficial ceasefire has been in place since January, the Egyptian plan to consolidate it has never taken off. Egypt’s initiative to bring Hamas and its rival Fatah which rules the West Bank into a new national unity government has also been stopped in its tracks. In this case too, Cairo sees a spoiling role by hardline states. The US, however, was no enthusiastic supporter of reconciliation, fearing it would strengthen Hamas.
Some analysts say that Cairo is in two minds over the reconciliation: while it sees it as important for the future of the Palestinians, it fears that bolstering Hamas’ Islamists would have ramifications at home where the Muslim Brotherhood is the main opposition.
Some fault the government for its narrow foreign policy focus, insisting that Cairo should be more prominent in the stand-off with Iran and in resolving crises in Africa, including in neighbouring Sudan. They lament that even Turkey today appears to be taking a higher-profile role than Egypt in regional diplomacy.
“Egypt is losing its image. Egyptian analysts now are speaking about a retreat of the Egyptian role in foreign policy and they think this is the outcome of the concentration on the Palestinian-Israeli issue,” says Emad Gad, a political analyst. “The Palestinian file is the main file of Egyptian foreign policy but it also includes many actors competing with the Egyptian role – Iranians, Syrians, and perhaps Qataris are all trying to take part in that,” he adds. “And we try to deal with Hamas but we know that Iran has much more influence with Hamas, as do Syria and Qatar.”
Others, such as Abdelmoneim Said, chairman of the semi-official newspaper, al-Ahram, argue that foreign policy is rightly further down the agenda as Egypt places greater emphasis on its domestic problems. “Egypt is busier with itself and there’s a realisation that many of the problems in the region are basically unsolvable,” he says. “We’re playing a minimal role … I’m in favour of that.”
What is clear, however, is that Egypt is involved today in issues that are most threatening to its national security – and it sees Hamas-ruled Gaza as topping the list. Officials, moreover, say that the government is being realistic: the Arab world, according to Cairo, is under enormous pressure from Iran which has been exploiting conflicts in the region to boost its own standing and strengthen its hand in its nuclear stand-off with the west. Egypt is acting, they say, where it can to further its goal of achieving Middle East peace and, in that context, Palestinian reconciliation is crucial.
“We have a great deal of self-confidence and we know what we’re doing,” says one official. “Maybe we’re not achieving results now but we believe in long-term engagement.”
Football, fever pitch and flags
Rarely in the history of on-pitch conflict has so much anger been felt by so many over so little, writes Heba Saleh. Rifts among Arab states have been caused by strategic choices such as whether to be aligned with the US or its arch-enemy Iran, whether to support diplomacy to reach peace with Israel or back armed movements such as Hamas and Hizbollah. Now football rivalry has been the cause of a severe falling out between Egypt and Algeria.
Two governments that had good relations this time last month now barely speak to each other while floods of vitriol have been exchanged daily in newspapers and on the internet and satellite television. Egypt has recalled its ambassador from Algeria and says he will not be sent back until the reasons for his recall have been addressed, but an apology is unlikely, says the Algerian press.
Long-term football rivals, the Egyptian and Algerian national teams have met twice in the past few weeks to determine which will qualify for the World Cup. Egypt won the first game in Cairo, but Algeria trounced in the second, securing the ticket to South Africa. Both games were accompanied by violence.
The Algerian team accused Egyptian fans of pelting their bus with stones outside their hotel in Cairo, injuring three players. Although pictures of the players with blood on their faces were broadcast on the internet, Egyptian officials said the Algerians had fabricated the attack. Fifa, the sport’s governing body, has started an investigation.
Algerian feelings were further inflamed after their team lost and a newspaper reported falsely that Egyptian fans had killed several Algerians in clashes that followed the game. These reports sent angry Algerian mobs on the rampage. They attacked Egyptian businesses and trashed an Egyptair office and dozens of shops belonging to mobile phone operator Djezzy, a subsidiary of Egypt-based Orascom Telecom.
Egyptian companies scrambled charter flights to evacuate their nationals but Algiers refused to give landing rights.
With so much hostility in the air, and with the media on both sides whipping up feeling, it was clear there would be violence at the Khartoum game four days later. Ten thousand Algerians flew to Sudan after their government slashed the price of air tickets and Khartoum suspended visa requirements. A few thousand Egyptians also went to support their national team. Mostly well-off middle-class spectators, they included actresses, singers, and the two sons of Hosni Mubarak, the president.
After a tense game, which Egypt lost, huge crowds of Algerian fans surrounded and attacked with stones buses taking Egyptian supporters to the airport.
The violence added insult to feelings already bruised by the loss of the game and the events in Algeria. Angry Egyptians tried to attack the Algerian embassy. “Why do they hate us?” Egyptian commentators now ask, echoing George W Bush’s famous question after the September 11 attacks.
Egypt, which regards itself the “elder sister” of other Arab states – something which does not always go down well in other countries – says its national dignity has been injured. To the Algerians, the Egyptians are just bad losers.
The expectation now is that it will take time to mend relations. There are hurt feelings all round. For the moment, however, two governments usually blamed by their people for social ills such as poverty and unemployment can enjoy a brief respite as populations wrapped in national flags direct angry passions elsewhere.