Does the path to Gaza peace run through Cairo?


CAIRO, Egypt — Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is working hard to make sure that any path to peace in Gaza runs through Cairo.

And diplomatic stars are indeed coming to Egypt.

(Watch Theodore May's video dispatch on Worldfocus.)

UN chief Ban Ki-Moon arrived in Cairo Wednesday for talks with Mubarak. Before him came delegations from Israel and Hamas. Also in Cairo Tuesday was Tony Blair, who expressed his support for the Egyptian peace initiative, which calls for a temporary ceasefire as a means of negotiating a more lasting one.

This flurry of talks in Cairo is important to the Mubarak government not only to achieve peace in the Gaza strip, but also to rehabilitate is reputation as a leader in the Arab world, both in the region and at home.

Egypt has been strongly criticized for being quiet and therefore seeming to support Israel and the U.S. in the Gaza conflict. President Hosni Mubarak's government has been the target of angry demonstrations across the Arab world and in Cairo.

To government supporters in the country, the flurry of diplomatic activity in Cairo shows that Egypt still has clout in the region. Egypt and Turkey are considered to be the states with the most influence and credibility on both sides of the conflict.

"Many of the groups believe Egypt is siding with the U.S. and Israel, but Egypt does have the weight to broker peace," said Milad Hanna, writer and professor at Ain Shams University in Cairo.

"Israel could make peace with all the Arab world," said Hanna, "but without Egypt it would be a very fragile peace."

As the negotiations continue, Egypt is attempting to assert its leadership by ironing out several sticking points.

First, Israel has expressed its interest in a permanent ceasefire whereas Hamas has said it prefers a more temporary one that might be renegotiated. Egypt prefers Israel's tack here, but officials say the government prefers to act as a credible mediator rather than as a partisan player.

With regard to the future of the Egypt-Gaza border, though, Egypt has abandoned its disinterested stance.

Since the start of its attacks in Gaza, Israel has destroyed hundreds of smuggling tunnels that it claims Hamas used to bring weapons across the border from Egypt. Israel has said that before it abandons its offensive, it needs guarantees that the tunnels will not be rebuilt.

Egypt states that it is against the tunnels but it has already publicly rejected any plan to bring foreign troops to its soil to ensure that the tunnels are not re-burrowed.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier came to Cairo earlier this week with a compromise that might satisfy both sides by sending German "technical assistance crews" to help Egypt combat the tunnels.

Egypt has already expressed its approval of the German proposal and government officials hope it will be a step towards satisfying the Israelis.

The third point is how to patrol the stretch of land between Gaza and Egypt, widely known as the Philadelphi Corridor. Israeli officials are publicly weighing whether or not to occupy the corridor. Hamas has responded by saying that any occupation along the border would constitute a major obstacle to forging a ceasefire agreement. So far, it is not clear what position the Egyptian government will take on this issue.

Although it appears that Egypt is at the center of the effort to establish a new peace in Gaza, some experts argue that Cairo's influence over the Arab world has waned over the past three decades.

"When Egypt and Sadat took the step towards peace with Israel," said professor Hanna, "it began to change the balance of power in the region." Hanna explained that an Egypt-Israel alliance allowed anti-Israeli factions to gain traction as leaders in the region.

As the negotiation efforts continue, so, too, does the violence in Gaza. And that is making a lot of people on the Cairo street angry.

"I don't think Egypt is a leader in the peace process," said Moustafa Talaab, a real estate agent here. He conceded, though, that of any country in the region, Egypt does stand the best chance at pushing a peace agreement. "Egypt is the most secure country in the Middle East. And it has no problems with Israel," he said.

But to Talaab, as to many Egyptians, the country's reputation will continue to suffer until a ceasefire is agreed upon.

"The same innocent people are going to die until Egypt and others work to fix this," he said. Talaab's opinion is representative of Egyptian popular opinion and illustrates that the Mubarak government must push ahead with international diplomacy, not only to secure a new peace settlement in Gaza, but to satisfy an increasingly dissatisfied population that Egypt is still a leader of the Arab world.