On Tuesday, Egypt became the focus of the world’s attention when the country served as the logistical center of a prisoner exchange deal that was five years in the making. One captive Israeli soldier is being exchanged for 1027 Palestinian prisoners, set to be released in two stages.
The decision was reached a week ago, seemingly overnight, although Egyptian and German intelligence services have been shuttling between Hamas and the Israeli government since the Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, was captured in 2005. What made the deal work now?
The timing was right, analysts say.
“What made the difference is the change in the political situation in Egypt and across the region since 25 January,” said Abdel Alim Mohamed, an Israeli affairs expert at the semi-governmental Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “Relations between Hamas and Egypt are less tense, Egypt wants to reinforce its role in the region and Hamas would want to help with that.”
With the Middle East in a state of revolutionary upheaval from Cairo to Damascus and an uncertain future in Palestine, all sides of the exchange – Israel, Hamas and the Egyptian negotiators – were primed to make something happen.
The Hamas politburo and its leader Khaled Meshaal are ensconced in Syria, where a bloody uprising is in its seventh month. Israel is located in a region where its traditional US-backed allies are undergoing tumultuous change. Egypt exemplifies these changes.
Four hundred seventy seven Palestinian prisoners have been released through Egypt, with Meshaal himself in Cairo Tuesday to bask in the political limelight of the deal. Egyptian media, especially state-run, was effusive about the integral role Egypt played in the swap and how it confirmed Egypt’s importance in regional politics.
“The two main sides were much more willing to do the deal now for a variety of reasons. Also the main arbiter, Egypt, was also willing to be more flexible in its stance as facilitator,” said Mohamed Abdel Salam, the editor-in-chief of the magazine Al-Siyasa Al-Dawlia, which in Arabic means international politics.
Much praise was also given to the Egyptian intelligence services, now led by Mourad Muwafi who replaced Omar Suleiman under Hosni Mubarak. The Palestinian file had long since been taken from the foreign ministry and handed to the intelligence services, due to its security aspect and the shared border with Hamas.
“The intelligence services is one of the few institutions that remained unchanged during the events in Egypt this year, and its interest in protecting Egypt’s external security is tied to the internal situation in the country,” Mohamed said.
Hamas may also have needed a major political victory in light of recent gains made by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president who comes from Fatah, Hamas’s rival faction, in attempting to win Palestinian statehood at the United Nations.
“Hamas wants to get back in the game after the PA went to the UN,” Abdel Salam said. “In the end, it made a deal with Israel, so it’s back in the field of negotiations. Hamas relations with Iran, Syria and, to a lesser extent, Qatar have cooled off a little bit recently and that was also a factor in their willingness to do the deal.”
In his speech in Cairo on Tuesday, Meshaal seemed eager to employ the release of more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners to celebrate his movement.
“The prisoner swap deal marks a white page in Palestine’s history. It’s a victory that was achieved first and foremost by the tough hands that fought Israel and overcame its security apparatus,” said Meshaal, referring to Hamas, which stands for “The Islamic Resistance Front.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has also faced challenges in recent months. Massive protests against economic conditions erupted across the country over the summer. Shalit’s captivity has long been an important issue for Israelis. But the exchange deal did not come without opposition inside Israel, where some opposed the release of Palestinian prisoners who had been convicted of killing Israelis.
Abdel Salam added that Israel is currently facing a strategic crisis with its traditional regional allies, Turkey and Egypt. Cementing the prisoner exchange deal, with Egypt’s mediation, could help Tel Aviv repair relations with Cairo.
Egyptian public opinion on Israel, never before a concern for Israel under Mubarak’s regime, is now something that needs to be taken into account by the Egyptian government. The Israelis may also want to ease tensions between Egypt and Hamas over border issues, and Egypt may now have more sway over the Gaza Strip’s rulers after successfully mediating the deal.
“All sides needed this deal,” Mohamed said. “Israel is facing economic discontent and failed in finding Shalit all those years. Hamas needs political success after Abbas went to the UN and the Palestinian prisoners released are widely representative of the country, they are not just from the Gaza Strip. Egypt needed it to reinforce its role in the region.”
“All sides benefitted from this deal,” said Mohamed.