Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-83)


28 FEBRUARY 2007

  Q80  Mr. Purchase: I have two small questions. You may have heard that, in our earlier sitting, I made reference to some interdependency and mutual agreement, or mutual interests, between Hamas and Egypt, particularly in Gaza. Does Egypt continue to have leverage with Hamas? How much leverage does it have? Will you intertwine that with the influence with the Brotherhood?

  Dr. Hollis: Nomi may want to come in on this. It was very apparent during Arafat's period in Gaza, when he was commuting between Gaza and Ramallah, that he was much more trusting, much more reliant on the Egypt connection, whereas the West Bank continued to have some Jordanian connections. Jordan was the breathing space, and so on. The fact that the heart of the struggle between Hamas and Fatah is Gaza has increased the level of Egyptian influence, because that connection predates the current crisis.

    I am not sure whether the two Foreign Office officials were really saying this earlier. They said that Egypt was vital to getting the process off the ground, and I would agree with that. They said that Egypt's influence was useful, and I would have difficulty quarrelling with that, but it is slightly less than it was.

  Ms. Bar-Yaacov: Omar Suliman, the Egyptian security chief, has done and is continuing to do an incredible job in Gaza. The involvement is vast. Saudi Arabia has a political role to play in the zone of influence, but it is far away. Egypt borders with Gaza—and only Egypt borders with Gaza, because the border with Israel is not always open. Let us not forget that Egypt occupied Gaza between 1948 and 1967 and it knows every inch of it. If there is a spillover of the violence from Gaza, it will spill over into Egypt. It could also spill over into Israel, but it would definitely spill over into Egypt. Egypt's interest in containing and dealing with Hamas is such that the relationship with the Islamic brotherhood will not spill over and fuel further extremism at its end.

    Egypt is extremely involved and has an extremely positive and ongoing role to play. It is currently training Fatah forces. It has an ongoing security role, as well as a political process role to play all the time. That was diminished only in the grandiose political sense that the Mecca agreement was not reached in Cairo or Sharm El-Sheikh, but Mecca. Okay, it is more to do with pride than practicality, but I would not underestimate the tremendous role that it has to play. There is a lack of satisfaction about its monitoring of the tunnels, which no one has mentioned. All the ammunition into Gaza is coming through tunnels in Egypt that are being dug all the time. It is important to monitor that issue, and more can be done on that front.

  Chairman: Final question.

  Q81  Mr. Purchase: Egypt's main goals in the region and the peace process are changing all the time. What do you think its main goals are now? Have they changed?

  Ms. Bar-Yaacov: I do not think that they have changed. My view is that Egypt is very interested in Israeli-Palestinian peace first and foremost because it has a border with Gaza. It has a peace treaty with Israel and it would like to see an Israel-Palestinian peace accord. I do not think that its role has necessarily diminished. It has continued. It is part of the so-called Arab quartet, but within that quartet it is certainly taking the leading day-to-day role in negotiations between the different Palestinian factions.

  Q82  Chairman: Finally, would you say the same for the Jordanian position? Has Jordon's position changed given that it has a peace treaty with Israel, too?

  Dr. Hollis: It was never the same as the Egyptian treaty.

  Q83  Chairman: I know that, but we heard King Abdullah here in November giving a very bleak, pessimistic assessment of what was happening in the region. I should be interested to know whether you feel that Jordan and Egypt are broadly on the same lines?

  Dr. Hollis: No, I do not think so at all. There is also a prestige and status issue for the Egyptians. In terms of the struggle to establish legitimacy in an Arab state system, Egypt was always the senior figure, but it has dropped back. In so far as the Saudis are really making the running with the new peace process, that will give the Egyptians mixed feelings.

    The Jordanians, especially since King Abdullah succeeded King Hussein, have been pretty modest about their role in the region. At the time of King Hussein, Arab leaders saw him as having ideas above his station because he had such an impoverished little country, which somebody else had designed for him and implanted him in. Contempt and competition among leaders can be terrifying when you pick up on the vibes. I think that Jordan is playing a relatively modest role, but now we sense that Jordan is in the position of being so much in the American orbit, and so useful to the American regional position, including intelligence, that the Government and therefore the king have a tremendous struggle to reconcile that with the feelings of ordinary Jordanians. The east bankers are Arab nationalists to the core, and it is a question only of whether they are more of the Iraqi branch of Arab nationalism, the Syrian branch or the south Arabian branch. They are pro-Palestinian in an Arab nationalist sense but suspicious of Jordanians of Palestinian origin.

    They can all agree to be anti-American, and there was quite a lot of support among Jordanians for al-Qaeda-type terrorism in Iraq as a result of the invasion, which they saw very much as an invasion, until al-Qaeda sadly struck inside Jordan and killed Jordanians and Palestinians at a wedding party in the process. Since then, there has been a revisiting of what the extremist forces are, but it should be no surprise that King Abdullah said long before it became fashionable, "Beware the Shi'a crescent." His fear is that the unravelling of Iraq will unravel Jordan and that it will be caught up in this regional meltdown.

    If the American endeavour in Iraq, with or without the Brits, fails, and there is a Shi'a-dominated, Iranian-influenced, largely religious Government in Iraq for the next five years or so, and in the process ethnic cleansing continues in Iraq and the Americans are anxious to get out fearing that they cannot do much more to hold the situation, Jordanians will feel that they have to help the Sunni Arabs of Iraq, as will the Saudis. The Syrians will be confused as to whom they should be helping, but they will probably feel the same as the Jordanians and the Saudis. Jordanians can foresee themselves having to get much more involved in the future of Iraq in support of characters who could, in fact, ultimately turn on them.

    In the past 24 hours the Jordanians have shut the border to Iraqi refugees—they already have 1 million of them. They change the identity of a country that has only 4.5 million or 5 million people in the first place. The Jordanians are trying to retain control of their destiny, which is slightly more alarming for them than Egypt's position, which is to try to retain its status.

  Ms. Bar-Yaacov: Just briefly, Jordan is caught up in so many problems of its own that the role that it can play is not as great as it would have liked, but the role is always positive.

  Chairman: I would like to thank you both for your evidence this afternoon. It has been extremely valuable. We have touched on a lot of complex areas and, as I said in the earlier session, we will be visiting the region and members of the Committee will be in most of countries that have featured in our questioning in the next few weeks. This has been extremely useful. Thank you very much.

  Dr. Hollis: Have a lovely time.

  Mr. Purchase: You said it as though you meant it.

  Chairman: Thank you.

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