CAIRO: While the situation in Iraq has slid further into chaos and sectarian strife, Egypt has watched anxiously as two areas closer to home -- the occupied Palestinian territories and Lebanon -- have also been roiled by the spectre of civil war.

Although tense political standoffs in both the Gaza Strip and Beirut have prompted a flurry of diplomatic activity by Cairo, there has been little by way of progress in either case.

In nearby Gaza, attempts to forge a national unity government between leading opposition party Fatah and the Hamas-led government ended in failure, with the two sides unable to agree on terms for power sharing. Calls by Fatah-affiliated Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Dec 18, for fresh parliamentary elections further alienated Hamas, which captured a parliamentary majority in national elections held last January.

Hamas-affiliated Prime Minster Ismael Haniya, describing the proposal as a “political bombshell” in a Dec-19 press conference, rejected calls for fresh elections as unconstitutional. He went on to blame the failure to form a national unity government on foreign pressure aimed at isolating Hamas.

“There is an undisclosed determination to overthrow this government,” he said. “And the US administration is behind this decision.” Almost simultaneously, a number of armed clashes erupted between the two factions. According to satellite news channel al-Jazeera, six people were killed in violence in the Gaza Strip, despite an earlier announcement of a ceasefire.

In hopes of finding a mutually acceptable power-sharing arrangement, Cairo-- a traditional arbitrator between Palestinian political groups -- has tried to convince Hamas to make political concessions. “Egypt is resolved on solving the problem by emphasising the need for a national unity government,” said Mohammed Sayyed Said, deputy director of the Cairo-based al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

Besides making concessions to Fatah, Cairo would also like to see Hamas -- an Islamist party founded on notions of resistance to occupation -- soften its stance regarding Israel. Despite prompting from Egypt, however, the group’s Damascus-based leadership has staunchly refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Jewish state in the absence of reciprocal concessions -- chiefly, the establishment of a Palestinian state based on pre-1967 borders.

Hamas’ refusal to recognise Israel has attracted the ire of leading western nations and institutions, which have enforced crushing international sanctions on the Hamas-led Palestinian government. Now in its tenth month, the embargo, led by the US and the EU, has devastated the Palestinian economy and badly disrupted the administration of public institutions.

Said, echoing the official Egyptian view, blamed the obstinacy of the Hamas leadership for the ruinous sanctions. “Hamas’ refusal to acknowledge Israel is the overriding factor contributing to the international financial blockade,” he said. “Egypt has been largely unsatisfied with the Hamas government and its position on the issue. An acceptable national unity government must be formed in order to end the embargo.”

Said went on to note that Egyptian impatience over perceived intransigence on the part of Hamas could eventually lead Cairo to an open declaration of support for Fatah. “Until now, Egypt has implicitly sided with Mahmoud Abbas, in his capacity as Palestinian Authority chairman, while not overtly siding with Fatah,” he said. “But this could change if Hamas refuses to make concessions.”

The situation is no less dire on the Israel-Palestine front, where Egypt has also led mediation efforts aimed at bringing both sides to the negotiating table.

Following five months of Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip in which almost 500 Palestinians were killed, a shaky truce was finally declared in late November. Nevertheless, hostilities remain an almost daily occurrence.

In an effort to kick-start peace talks between the long-time antagonists, Egypt has urged both sides to consider a prisoner exchange. According to reports in the Egyptian press, Cairo called for the return of an Israeli corporal -- captured in June by Palestinian militants -- in exchange for several hundred Palestinian prisoners currently languishing in Israeli jails.

According to Said, however, such proposals will most likely be put on the backburner in light of the current round of inter-Palestinian fighting. “Cairo was close to brokering a prisoner swap,” he said. “But given the danger of imminent civil war in the territories, the focus has shifted to forging a Palestinian unity government or holding early elections.”

Cairo is no less concerned about events in Lebanon, where an empowered opposition -- spearheaded by Shia resistance group Hezbollah -- continues to lead massive popular demonstrations against the US-backed government of Fouad Siniora. With crowds reportedly numbering in the hundreds of thousands swarming Beirut, protestors from Hezbollah and its allies have vowed to keep demonstrating until the government meets their demands for greater political representation.

Even more contentiously, Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah, along with Maronite Christian ally Michel Aoun, has accused the government in Beirut of colluding with Israel in the war fought last summer between Israel and the Shia militia.

Fearing the outbreak of open conflict, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak sent a letter to the Lebanese Speaker of Parliament earlier this month, in which he pleaded for an “atmosphere of calm”. According to the Dec 5 edition of government daily al-Ahram, the missive urged both sides to “work on calming the situation and to rely on dialogue as the only way towards a solution”.

Diplomatically, Cairo is following the lead of Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, who visited Beirut last week in an effort to mediate the standoff. “Egypt is basically endorsing the Arab League’s calls to initiate dialogue and come up with a viable exit from the current stalemate,” said Said.

Said went on to note that Cairo was “very uncomfortable” with the challenge to the Lebanese government posed by Hezbollah, whose popularity has skyrocketed since its perceived victory in last summer’s war with Israel. “While Cairo stopped short of condemning the Hezbollah-led opposition rallies outright, President Mubarak has reiterated his dissatisfaction with events in Beirut,” Said told IPS.

Indeed, the President has explicitly spelt out his fears of potential regional conflagration. “If the demonstrations continue much longer, those that support the Siniora government will come from outside -- from many Arab countries -- along with those that support Hezbollah,” Mubarak was quoted as saying in the Dec 5 issue of independent weekly al-Karama. “Iran could dispatch partisans of Hezbollah (to Lebanon), forcing other countries to reinforce the Siniora group.”

Some observers suggest that Cairo is particularly distraught by the sight of a popular Islamist movement able to mobilise the street against a fellow US-backed Arab government.—Dawn/The IPS News Service

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