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Egypt Helped Broker Israel-Hamas Prisoner Swap


Next week, Israel and Hamas are expected to swap more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners for one captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. It will likely happen on Egyptian soil. Egypt helped broker the deal and had been working on it for the past couple of years. There were occasional reports of progress that didn't pan out.

So, how was it that success came through the new Egyptian military regime, which replaced Israel's old ally, Hosni Mubarak? And at a time when Israeli-Egyptian relations are worse than they've been in decades.

Samer Shehata, assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, joins us now. Welcome to the program.

PROFESSOR SAMER SHEHATA: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Is there something that the post-Mubarak regime in Egypt did here that was different from what Mubarak's intelligence chief had done in the past, when he was mediating?

SHEHATA: Well, I think the key thing is that the post-Mubarak Egyptian regime is significantly different than the Mubarak regime. I think it was known to many people in Egypt and the Arab world that the Mubarak regime was hostile to Hamas from the very beginning. Of course, Hamas is an Islamist group. And from the vantage point of Cairo and the Mubarak regime, they were very much similar to the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's leading opposition group at the time.

So, you know, the government in Egypt has changed. Of course there have been there have been other dramatic changes in the region, as well, that have also likely facilitated this prisoner swap.

SIEGEL: Not long ago, gunmen attacked Israelis, it's thought, by crossing over the border from Sinai in Egypt into Israel. Israel then killed several Egyptian border guards in the course of pursuing these attackers back across the border. And that lead to Egyptians ransacking the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. And now, that's led to actually an Israeli apology for that.

How would you describe the state of Israeli-Egyptian relations today?

SHEHATA: Well, there's no question that there is a general deterioration certainly in Egyptian-Israeli relations. The previous regime, the Mubarak regime, was seen by many Egyptians and many Arabs as being pro-Israel, as being also hostile to Hamas and hostile to other Islamist groups in the region. And, of course, the Mubarak regime is no longer with us.

And any Egyptian government has to, I think, take into consideration the sentiment of the people in Egypt, which is much more critical towards Israel than the Mubarak regime was. So that certainly plays a role in this.

SIEGEL: The Israelis have offered an apology for that, what they say, the accidental killing of some Egyptian border guards. Is that related to the prisoner swap, the apology?

SHEHATA: I think there's no question that it's related. The official Egyptian newspaper, Al-Ahram, reported yesterday that the apology was issued an hour after news of the prisoner swap was announced in Israel. So I think Egypt managed to also extract from Israel something that many Egyptians wanted, in fact, demanded, which was an official apology for the killing of the five Egyptian soldiers in Sinai in August.

SIEGEL: So this is success for what is still officially a transitional regime in Egypt. But it shows some leadership in the region, nonetheless.

SHEHATA: I think there's no question that it was a success. And it's also part of Egypt's attempt to regain its stature and influence in the regional balance of power in the Middle East, which has seen Egypt's standing deteriorate significantly over the last few decades. And has also seen powers such as Turkey, Iran, and even tiny natural gas-rich Qatar play an increasing role in regional affairs.

Certainly a government that reflects the aspirations and political wills of its people is more likely to be influential and gain status. And I think that's what we're potentially seeing. So, Egypt scored a success, there's no question, with regard to brokering not only this deal - the prisoner swap - but also the Palestinian reconciliation deal months ago.

SIEGEL: Professor Shehata, thanks a lot for talking with us.

SHEHATA: You're welcome. Nice speaking with you.

SIEGEL: Samer Shehata, assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.