Undoubtedly, Egypt has been one of the most important countries for the Arab world as the the center of political thought from Arab socialist nationalism to Islamism. It is also of significance for being situated in the intersection of the Middle East, North Africa and East Africa. In short, Egypt is not a country that a regional player can easily take the risk of losing. While his relationship with the country traces back to his youth, Dahlan and Egypt appeared as inextricable actors for their roles in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and combatting the Arab Spring-incited Islamists. While Egypt has been pressuring the Palestinian Authority to support Dahlan’s bid to return to politics; Dahlan aided the current administration by overthrowing Islamists. Moreover, this alliance spread to Libya. That said, these relations have always had a honeymoon phase. Dahlan’s role in favor of Ethiopia in the dispute with Egypt over a dam project on the Nile irritated Cairo, leading to efforts to curb his influence.
I am that hero, who ousted the Brotherhood
Mohammed Dahlan, interview in Dream 2 Channel in 2013
Dahlan’s first acquaintance with Egypt was when he attended university there to study physical education. After failing to obtain a degree, Dahlan returned to Gaza, perhaps unaware that he would establish deeper relations with Egypt. His relations with this country have had ups and downs in several fields. Egypt is a central country to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as it is to the Gulf-backed counter revolution across MENA region after the so-called Arab Spring. Dahlan and Egypt met in the intersection of these matters, mostly aligning, but not without cost.
As outlined in the chapters on Palestine, Israel and the US, Dahlan was one of the main figures in the Egypt-brokered Palestinian-Israeli talks. He was equally involved in the Egypt-brokered ceasefires in Gaza and Egypt-brokered intra-Palestinian negotiations. He was so close to both Egyptian and Palestinian leaderships that Hosni Mubarak handed him a letter to deliver Yasser Arafat directly. He was always present in the Egypt-Palestine meetings. This was not only a reflection of his official capacity before being exiled to the UAE, but also of his deep-seated relations with Egyptian army, bureaucracy, and business world.
It is noteworthy that Dahlan developed relations with several Egyptian figures with whom he would share similar political goals. For instance, it was not a secret that he had developed both personal and business relations with Egypt’s infamous tycoon Naguib Sawiris, who was, like Dahlan, a staunch opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi. When the Palestinian Authority requested Sawiris to freeze Dahlan’s assets in Sawiris-owned Orascom investment group, his response was unsurprising: “There was nothing between us [him and Dahlan] but friendship and mutual respect.” Dahlan was also quick to deny having any financial relations with him. Whether they have a financial relationship or not, it is clear that Dahlan was close to one of Egypt’s wealthiest figures. Dahlan’s relations with Egypt became more important during two major events: the ousting of Morsi and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project.
First, Dahlan had a hand in the ousting Morsi, which resulted in the devastation of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood initially appeared in Egypt at the beginning of the last century and expanded towards other Arabic-speaking countries. In other words, Dahlan was one of the main figures that crippled one of the most prevalent Islamist movements.
It was soon after Dahlan’s relocation to the UAE that the Arab Spring, beginning in Tunisia, euphorically swept across MENA region. While the demonstrations in other countries like Jordan, Bahrain or Kuwait were mostly neglected, the global attention was on Egypt. After mass protests, the country’s ailing dictator Hosni Mubarak stepped down in 2011, ceding power to the army. Following a transition period, elections were held, which were perhaps the first and the last free and fair elections in the country’s history. Despite the low turnout, Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Mohamed Morsi wonthe presidential post. This caused panic in the Gulf since the ascendancy of an Islamist to power in a country like Egypt through elections could ignite further dissatisfaction among their peoples, who also kept asking for broader rights and freedom in protests. Morsi’s first official visit was to Saudi Arabia. During his year-long presidency, his relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf were on a knife edge. Moreover, Morsi’s attempts to develop relations with Iran at a time when the Gulf was irritated with Tehran’s expansionist policies towards the region’s Shiites, some of whom were living in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, fueled the fear. Jordan began asking Morsi to step down with the fear that its own Islamists would be more vocal. At the same time, the al-Qaida and later ISIS-affiliated groups in the Sinai region began attacking Egyptian security forces, causing both political and social unrest in the country.
In short, Morsi had to go. The media attacked him, and mass protests were organized. Then the military coup happenedunder the current President Abdelfattah el-Sisi’s leadership, resulting in the death of hundreds of people. Subsequently, the Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed, and thousands of people were jailed, including Morsi. Unsurprisingly, the UAE and Saudi Arabia pledged their support for Sisi and promised billions of dollars of financial aid. Dahlan was the key in the of flow dollars to Sisi.
According to the SisiLeaks, which is not available on the internet anymore, the UAE tasked Dahlan with transferringmoney to Sisi before the coup. This resulted in anti-Morsi protests propaganda bring well-financed. Dahlan has not catagorically denied his involvement in Morsi’s downfall. Instead, he expressed his appreciation of the coup, saying that Abbas was working for Morsi. In an interview from 2015, in response to the question on whether he helped Sisi end the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Dahlan said “I played an active role as a Palestinian in backing the Egyptian people. It is a simple and limited role, but I assumed it because Egypt has interests in helping the Palestinian people.” He also claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood was useless for the Arab world, as it had failed to create a model like Malaysia or Singapore. In a TV interview, he proudly declared that he was “the hero, who ousted the Muslim Brotherhood.” Mohammed Abu Rumman, a columnist in Dahlan’s Al Ghad TV channel and news site, described Dahlan as the “architect of the current strategy that lays down all political Islam movements; Brotherhood, Salafism, and jihadism, in one package, not distinguishing between moderate and extremist Islam, and putting the Muslim Brotherhood in the ‘war on terror.’”
There were further allegations in 2017 that Dahlan was training as many as 8,000 fighters in the Sinai region. The instability of this region was used by Morsi’s opponents as a pretext to accuse him with failure in state affairs. Dahlan’s name came to the fore in a Sinai-related issue as early as 2014. Mostafa Olwan, a lawyer, submitted a notice to the Egyptian Attorney General in which he accused Dahlan of passing maps of Egyptian security posts to Israel. Olwan had also claimed that an armed organization under Dahlan’s control was in Sinai. In 2018, Egyptian journalist Haytham Abokhalil released photos of humanitarian aid materials with Dahlan’s photos on them. He questioned how it was possible that this aid was sent to the Sinai region despite the presence of multiple checkpoints and high security measures. It was also claimed that Dahlan included Salafi-minded radical Islamist groups in his web in the Sinai region. These groups were responsible for several attacks on the Egyptian army. On the other hand, Middle East Eye reported claims that Dahlan positioned militia men in Sinai in support of Sisi. Dahlan denied all these allegations, saying that he had nothing to do with the Sinai region.
With no clear information about Dahlan’s role in the Sinai insurgency, it can well be concluded that both Egypt and Hamas were unhappy with the presence of armed groups in that region. It is noteworthy that Hamas, which had to deal with the insurgent groups in Sinai as well as the challenges posed by Salafi groups within the Gaza Strip, declared its disengagement from the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt, which initially accused Hamas of aiding insurgent groups in Sinai, started to seek their cooperation. In the meantime, Dahlan and Hamas agreed to establish a new “management committee” of Gaza. Such a committee would allow Dahlan to have power, albeit limited, on the enclave. During this period several media reports suggesting that Dahlan would seek to please Israelis in order to secure a Gaza-Sinai confederation.
Indeed, Dahlan had appeared when Hamas and Fatah were on the verge of an Egypt-brokered reconciliation in 2016. Abbas’ obsession with Dahlan was the motivating factor in coming to an agreement with Hamas. However, it was Dahlan who had financial power to realize this reconciliation, therefore imposing his own terms. It was the same when Fatah and Hamas renewed their commitment to a reconciliation, this time, in a Turkey-brokered negotiation. Dahlan incitedEgyptian officials to step in and prevent any agreement that would leave him out. In other words, Egypt was an indispensable actor for Dahlan to re-gain his influence and power in Gaza.
Dahlan’s pragmatic political approach manifested itself in his alliance with Egypt to prevent Libya’s Islamists from governing the country. As explained in the Libya chapter in detail, the UAE entrusted Dahlan with instilling Ahmed Gaddafi al-Dam, a cousin of Moammar Gaddafi. In 2015, Libyan channel Panorama, released an array of voice recordings of Sisi and his chief of staff, Major General Abbas Kamel. Kamel informed Sisi that Dahlan had a secret role in Libya, instructed directly by Mohammed bin Zayed. In another leaked voice recording, Kamel said Dahlan was going to visit Libya secretly in a private jet. The SisiLeaks published other voice recordings, in which Sisi and his men discuss Dahlan’s role in a counter-revolution in Libya, which were led by al-Dam until putschist General Khalifa Haftar entered the scene. Allegedly, Egyptian officials arranged a meeting between Dahlan and al-Dam.
In one of these leaked voice recordings, Kamel, after praising Dahlan’s role in the country, provides details on a huge shipment of weapons weighing eight tons. The UN estimated that in just Libya alone over 80,000 tons of weapons, cash and other supplies were airlifted into Libya and Egypt between January and August of 2020. As outlined in the Serbia chapter, Dahlan allegedly had a warehouse in Egypt. The weapons were being shipped from Serbia and ending up in Libya via Egypt.
Dahlan’s relationship with Egypt has not always been easy. Despite targeting a common enemy in the form of political Islamist, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, especially the former, have adopted different strategies in regions, which were not directly affected by the Arab Spring or succumbed to the rise of Muslim Brotherhood-like Islamists. Obviously, this region was East Africa where the UAE has been expanding its political and economic influence. Regarding Sudan, the Sisi administration and the UAE were aligned to install a loyal dictator. Assumption that Dahlan was involved in the ousting of Sudan’s leader originates from reports on his visits to Sudan immediately after the coup. Dahlan held meetings with senior officers from the army with an Emirati official. Besides, he was in contact with Mohammed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagolo, head of Rapid Support Forces that was hired to support another UAE strong man, Khalifa Haftar. Thus, Sudan does not pose a problem. But Ethiopia is a problem for Egypt. So is Dahlan’s role in that country.
Dahlan visited Ethiopia in 2015 in bid to mediate the water and front problems among Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt at the UAE’s request. In the SisiLeaks, UAE’s ambassador to the US, Yousef al-Otaiba wrote in an email that “All of what is happening between Ethiopia and Egypt now is Abu Dhabi’s good work.” It was rumored that Dahlan facilitated Israeli involvement in the dam crisis. Reportedly, Egypt was perturbed by the extent of Dahlan’s involvement.
Egypt believes that the construction of a dam on the Nile will significantly curb its water resources. Since its first announcement in 2011 by Ethiopia, Egypt has been on alert due to the filling and operation capacity of the dam. Egypt fears losing its hegemony on the Nile’s water. An agreement between Addis Ababa and Cairo from 1959 states that the former is authorized to use annual average flow of 55.5 km3/year, which amounts to 75% of flow coming from Ethiopia. The construction of Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will be a huge blow to Egypt and a great advantage to Ethiopia, which will be able to generate energy at least two times more than Egypt’s High Aswan Dam. The construction of the GERD will grant Ethiopia significant political leverage in the region, increase its energy capacity remarkably and elevate it to an equal political player against Egypt.
The UAE demands tranquility in the region with no major dispute among the countries that it supports politically and financially. For instance, when Egypt warned Ethiopia to stop the construction, the UAE was the only Arab country that did not pledge a public support to this request. Some Egyptian politicians even claimed that the UAE was financing the construction, pointing to Dahlan’s visits to Ethiopia and Sudan. Dahlan visited Ehtiopia at the beginning of 2021, posing together with Ethiopian officials. This visit came amid Egypt’s consideration of military option against the country. There has been no official statement from Ethiopia or the UAE regarding these claims. However, the UAE heavily invests in Ethiopia, primarily in the agriculture sector. It has also helped Ethiopia to tackle a foreign currency crisis in 2018 through promising to invest $3 billion in addition to depositing $1 billion in the central bank.
Amid the rumors that the GERD will eventually lead to a water war between the two, the UAE uses Dahlan as the key person: able to handle the dispute smoothly while helping Ethiopia through the introduction of Israeli technology companies. Despite the absence of any public expression of dissatisfaction, some reports claimed that Egypt pressured the UAE to keep Dahlan under house arrest in 2021. Dahlan as a pragmatical politician, found out a way for breaking the ice with Sisi, sending a long public message in which he praised Sisi’s allocation of $500 million to Gaza Strip. Yet, this attempt apparently did not work well. The same reports also gave place to the allegation that the UAE disclosed Dahlan’s residential location to the Egyptian authorities, barring him from leaving the UAE. UAE officials, allegedly, asked Dahlan to keep quiet on political issues, including even Palestinian politics. Another report claimed that Dahlan’s demand to relocate his office to Cairo from Abu Dhabi was strictly rejected by Egyptian authorities.Egypt would well be at odds with the UAE, and therefore Dahlan over the GERD issue. Even so, there is not visible pressure on Dahlan since he freely runs his media business in the country, delivering his messages through the Al-Ghad TV channel. While his position within the Emirates Palace makes him an indispensable actor for Cairo, the fact that Egypt is the major Arab player in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as intra-Palestinian disputes compel Dahlan to make nuanced steps in order not to incur Egypt’s wrath.