Egypt played a critical role in brokering a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, a development that officials hope will lead to closer ties with the Biden administration, which up until now had been cool to Cairo over its human-rights record.
Hours before Thursday’s statement that a cease-fire had been reached, President Biden held his first phone call with Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, and the two discussed efforts to de-escalate the conflict, according to readouts from both of their offices.
Mr. Biden extended his “sincere gratitude to President Al Sisi and the senior Egyptian officials who played a critical role in this diplomacy” in his White House address on Thursday. The State Department also announced that Secretary of State
will travel to the region.
Officials in Washington and Cairo had been in constant contact over the past week in the hope that Egypt might exert its influence with Hamas’s leadership to bring an end to the conflict, Western and Egyptian officials said.
Egypt’s intelligence chief, Abbas Kamel, and its foreign minister,
began their mediation efforts with the Palestinian militant group in the opening days of the conflict and communicated a message from the U.S. that it wanted an immediate halt to rocket fire, according to officials familiar with the talks.
The State Department also stepped up communications with Egypt this week, with senior officials
and Joey Hood leading the talks, according to a Western official. On the Egyptian side, the U.S. had “certain conversations,” conveying the U.S. demand for Hamas to immediately stop launching rockets.
That was a different message than the one communicated to Israeli officials.
The Biden administration resisted calling on Israel to implement an immediate cease-fire for most of the 11-day escalation. In the first five days of the operation, U.S. officials had fewer conversations with Egypt than they did with Israel, according to a Western official familiar with the talks.
“On the Israeli side, they went down the laundry list. There were multiple conversations at every level, every day,” said the official.
Mr. Sisi, whose rise came in the wake of the 2011 revolution that overthrew former President
has drawn criticism for his authoritarian rule since taking power following a 2013 coup. In February, less than a month after taking office, the Biden administration expressed concern about the Egyptian government’s record on human rights, particularly after family members of a U.S. citizen and human-rights activist were detained.
But hours later, the State Department announced the sale of nearly $200 million of weapons to Cairo—the first substantial arms transfer to the Middle East of Mr. Biden’s presidency.
Mr. Sisi was a favorite of former President Donald Trump, who by contrast, held his first phone call with the Egyptian president three days after taking office. Last year, the two were said to speak almost weekly by several former U.S. officials, but the Biden team had chosen to keep a distance from him amid growing pressure from lawmakers to review U.S. military aid to Egypt over its human-rights record.
“The Egyptians had been pretty mellow about the fact that Biden had ignored Al Sisi, because their view was, ‘Next time something happens with Israelis and Hamas…you’re gonna come to us. You know why? You always come to us,’ ” said Steven Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“The Egyptians are feeling pretty good about themselves right now for a number of reasons, and they’ll try to leverage it as much as they can,” he said.
Egypt hopes that the newfound leverage with Washington might help it with pressing domestic matters, including its dispute with Ethiopia over control of the Nile River water, the continuing conflict to its West in neighboring Libya and overall regional security matters, Western and Egyptian officials said.
Egypt positioned itself as a supporter of the Palestinians during the current conflict, opening its border to treat wounded Palestinians in Egyptian hospitals and dispatching a fleet of ambulances to Gaza. Mr. Sisi also allocated $500 million in aid for Gaza.
The government of Qatar, where some Hamas leaders are based, was also involved, but Qatari officials were regarded by the U.S. and its allies as having less influence over the situation, possibly due to waning financial support from Doha to Gaza. Egyptian intelligence has a longstanding relationship with Hamas, and Egypt also controls the Gaza Strip’s only viable border crossing for Palestinian civilians.
“It’s really a few Egyptian officials who have sway there,” the Western official said, referring to Hamas.
The cease-fire boosted Egypt’s standing in the region after its influence has faded since the 2013 military coup that brought Mr. Sisi to power. In recent years Mr. Sisi’s government has ceded regional clout to Gulf states like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
On Twitter, following the announcement of the cease-fire, Mr. Sisi praised Mr. Biden for his cooperation and said he “hopes for continued cooperation between us to achieve more common successes.”
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