The shockwaves of the surprise attack to Israel are reverberating well beyond the Gaza Strip, reflecting the gradual change in the balance of power of the broad Middle East. Gulf powers have risen in prominence and it is not by chance that Qatar is in talks with both parties of the conflict to negotiate a possible prisoner swap. Doha is working to obtain the release of 36 Palestinian women and children from prisons in Israel in exchange for the same number of women and children taken hostage by Islamist militants during their latest raid. Tiny Qatar has already a quite successful history of hostage negotiations, having just managed to obtain the release of five US citizens detained in Iran in exchange for the transfer of US$6 billion of frozen funds to Tehran.
Nevertheless, more traditional players seem better suited in managing, and possibly defusing, an explosive situation. Having already mediated between the two parties to the conflict before, neighbouring Egypt has already been in close contact with both Hamas and Israel to prevent further escalation. While the retaliation of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) on Gaza seems inevitable and has already resulted in a complete siege that builds upon the 16-year blockade, Egyptian officials have urged caution, saying that continuous Israeli airstrikes are making the negotiations difficult. Having already provided intelligence warnings about Hamas’ plans that apparently went unheeded in Tel Aviv (claims predictably denied by the Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu), Cairo is evidently worried about the possible repercussion of a major conflict on its doorstep.
The killing of two Israeli tourists and one Egyptian tour guide in Alexandria by a policeman the day after the attack is just a reminder of boiling tensions associated with the Palestinian cause still creeping underneath the normalisation trend, even in a country that has been the first among its Arab peers to sign a peace deal with Israel in 1979. A protracted conflict in the Gaza Strip, would likely destabilise the Sinai Peninsula where Egypt is already waging a 12-year counter-insurgency campaign against terrorist groups. More importantly, it will come at a time when the country moves forward with the presidential elections expected to further consolidate the power of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, despite a deep economic crisis that has warranted the intervention of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
While the crisis in and around Gaza represents an unnecessary distraction, it could also provide a formidable opportunity to send a reminder to friends and allies about the pivotal role that Egypt still plays in the new and increasingly transactions Middle East. Especially at a time in which the US debates about the fate of the US$235 million (part of the US$1,3 billion a year allocated to Egypt) in military aid blocked over human rights concerns by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. By not wasting a good crisis, Cairo could win Washington’s favour for helping defusing a dangerous escalation, use its leverage to regain some influence over a Hamas increasingly tilting towards Teheran and retain a seat at the table of the major powers in the region.
Associate Fellow for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the North Africa region