October 27, 2011 | NOW Lebanon

Post-Arab Spring Politicking

October 27, 2011 | NOW Lebanon

Post-Arab Spring Politicking

Analysis of the deal between Israel and Hamas for the release of the kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit has tended to focus on its implication for Israel’s security and on Western approaches to terrorism. However, there is another strategic angle to the deal. Regional players—namely Egypt, Qatar and Turkey—are jostling for position in a rapidly fluctuating environment that is redefining their roles. The Shalit deal, and the process surrounding it, serves various purposes for Cairo, Doha and Ankara as they compete in the post-Arab Spring political arena.
 
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alluded to this uncertain, transitional regional context when he announced the deal last week, referencing a “window of opportunity” that opened as “storms are sweeping” the Middle East. These storms have already deeply affected two Arab states – Egypt and Syria – that had been directly involved in the years-long negotiation process, and which have had opposing positions when it came to their relationships with Hamas. However, the impact of the Arab Spring on both states, especially in regard to the Shalit affair, could not be more different.
 
It was always an Egyptian interest to be the primary state interlocutor on Palestinian affairs. One of the main questions after the toppling of Hosni Mubarak has been what new role or posture the new Egyptian regime would assume. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) needed to showcase to the Americans as well as the Israelis that it was capable of successfully maintaining Egypt’s mediatory role with the Palestinian factions. An effective performance in the Shalit negotiations provided a perfect opportunity.
 
Concerned about a dominant future role for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Israel does not mind propping up the SCAF. To that effect, the Israeli government has shown keenness not to rock the fragile Egyptian boat, as evidenced by its decision to swallow the assault on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, and by its apology for the accidental killing of Egyptian policemen during the August cross-border shootout with militants carrying out attacks against Israel.
 
Meanwhile, the turmoil in Syria and the stress on the Assad regime’s relations with Hamas, as well as the ensuing internal debate within Hamas over the Syrian situation, have all worked to the Egyptians’ advantage. During the Mubarak years, Bashar al-Assad, in league with Iran, had sought to undercut Egypt’s role and overtake it. In this, he made use of his hosting of Hamas’s politburo chief, Khaled Mashaal, to sabotage Cairo’s efforts. Seven months into an unrelenting uprising against his regime, Assad’s influence has all but vanished. While a second-tier actor in the best of times, today, even Syria’s spoiler role is disappearing.
 
The Syrian crisis has directly affected Hamas’s calculations. Reports emerged in the spring that Hamas was looking to relocate from Syria, possibly to Cairo or Doha. While nothing has materialized yet, several Hamas officials have confirmed this decision, and it is possible that a split exists in the movement over this move.
 
Unnamed Israeli sources quoted by an Egyptian news outlet have claimed that Egypt will allow Mashaal’s deputy, Moussa Abou Marzouk, to move from Damascus to Cairo, part of an overall transfer of Hamas’s external headquarters to Egypt. This, according to the same Egyptian report, was part of the Shalit deal. While no one has confirmed this, it could be argued that the US and Israel would be interested in having Hamas come more firmly under the SCAF’s thumb.
 
Recognizing the constraints such a scenario could impose on its activity, especially as it continues to rely on Iran for arms and training, Hamas has an interest in keeping its options open. The regional turmoil, and the likely rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the post-Arab Spring era, provide the Palestinian group with some options.
 
Two regional players who have sought to capitalize on these political developments are Turkey and Qatar. Both had supported the toppling of Mubarak and have sought to build ties with the new Egyptian political elite, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. The two have sought the same in Syria, where they are currently competing over patronage of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups.
 
Needless to say, Ankara and Doha have long coveted a privileged position of patronage over Hamas, and indeed the Palestinian cause altogether. This had placed them at odds with Cairo, and, in Turkey’s case, has exacerbated tensions with Israel. The announcement that Qatar and Turkey would be hosting a number of freed Palestinian prisoners indicates their eagerness to continue to play a role in that regard. Although Israeli President Shimon Peres has noted some Turkish involvement in the Shalit deal, the details of that role, assuming there was one, remain unclear. It could be that some in Israel, with US encouragement, are seeking to use Shalit’s release to repair strained ties with Ankara.
 
The prisoner deal ended up an episode in the post-Arab Spring politicking—an arena where Damascus has essentially become a footnote. While a small number of the released Palestinian prisoners will also be sent to Damascus, that decision seems more like a nod by Hamas to Iran, whose support remains crucial even as the Palestinian group diversifies its regional relations. In any case, it will not alter Assad’s fortunes, all the theatrics notwithstanding, as the collapse of Assad’s regional role presages the collapse of his very regime.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.

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