U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is due in Cairo on Monday following President Barack Obama’s calls for an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Kerry is set to meet with Egyptian officials in a bid to jumpstart earlier failed efforts at negotiating an end to the hostilities, which have resulted in the deaths of more than 500 Palestinians and 25 Israelis. The diplomat has his work cut out for him: not only is he facing the daunting task of bringing an end to fighting in Gaza, he also has to contend with the regional rivalries that have simmered in the background of this latest conflict and threaten to further impede ceasefire efforts.
Qatar and Egypt have found themselves facing off in the scramble to take political ownership of a negotiated ceasefire agreement. According to Reuters, “Egyptian officials suspect Qatar encouraged Hamas to reject a ceasefire plan Cairo put forward last week.” That Egyptian plan had been criticized by Hamas as mere capitulation to Israeli demands amid claims that the Palestinian side had not even been consulted. Even putting aside Qatar’s influence on Hamas, it’s not difficult to see why there may be friction between the Palestinian faction and the government in Cairo.
Since the ouster of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, a staunch Hamas ally, Egypt’s military rulers have instituted a stark shift in policy where the Islamist group is concerned. Their campaign to vilify any and all allies of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government — including Hamas, which Egypt now considers a terrorist organization — have left it in an awkward position to help broker an agreement. Cairo’s traditional role as the go-to mediator in such conflicts has been undermined by its virulently anti-Hamas rhetoric over the past year, which might explain why the Palestinian group has been wary of Egyptian efforts here.
Rival Qatar, on the other hand, has maintained its alliance with Hamas despite pressure from neighboring Gulf Arab states. And, unlike Egypt, its efforts to negotiate are unlikely to be viewed with suspicion by Hamas’ leadership, including Khaled Meshaal who lives in Doha. That Qatar would look to capitalize on this alliance to develop a greater role for itself in international mediation efforts should not come as a surprise to Egypt, which is clearly rankled by the Gulf state’s involvement in upcoming talks with Kerry and other regional players. However, Cairo’s squandering of its initial opportunity to negotiate a truce comes with consequences. The opening for other, rival stakeholders eager to boost their own geopolitical profile is one of them.