Undoubtedly Egypt has been one of the most important countries for the Arab world for being the center for political thought generating 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 with considerable impact on these regions. 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 on the Palestinian Authority to support Dahlan’s bid to return the politics, Dahlan aided the current administration for overthrowing Islamists. Moreover, this alliance spread to Libya. That said these relations have had a honeymoon atmosphere always. 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
His first acquaintance with Egypt was when he attended to a university there to study physical education. After failing to obtain a degree, Dahlan returned to Gaza, perhaps without knowing 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, to the Gulf-backed counter revolution across MENA region after the so-called Arab Spring and to East and North Africa, particularly to Sudan, Ethiopia, and Libya. Dahlan and Egypt met in the intersection of these matters, mostly allying but not submissively.
As outlined in the chapters of Palestine, Israel and the US, Dahlan was one of the main figures in the Egypt-brokered Palestinian-Israeli talks, Egypt-brokered ceasefires in Gaza and Egypt-brokered intra-Palestinian negotiations. He was so close to both Egyptian and Palestinian leaderships that Hosni Mubarak had handed him a letter to deliver Yasser Arafat directly. He was always present in the Egypt-Palestine meetings. It was not only because of his official duty before being exiled to the UAE, but also of his deep-seated relations with Egyptian army, bureaucracy, and business world.
Needles to re-list Dahlan’s role and involvement in these Egypt-brokered talks. But it’s noteworthy that Dahlan developed relations with several Egyptian figures with whom he would share similar political goals as well. 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 Mohammad 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 had managed to gain one of Egypt’s wealthiest figures. Dahlan’s relations with Egypt became more important during two major events: Morsi’s ouster and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project.
First, Dahlan had a hand in Morsi’s ouster that resulted in the devastation of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had 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, the elections were held, perhaps the first and the last free and fair elections in the country’s history. Despite the low turnout, Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Mohmmad Morsi won the presidential post, causing panic in the Gulf since the ascendancy of an Islamist to power in a country like Egypt through elections would ignite further dissatisfaction among their peoples, who also kept asking for broader rights and freedom in protests. His first official visit was to Saudi Arabia but during his one-year presidency, his relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf were one a knife edge. Moreover, his 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 begin uttering their disturbance with the King more loudly. 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 happened under the current President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi’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 Sissi and promised financial aid of billions of dollars. Dahlan was the key person to flow dollars to Sissi who would get rid of Morsi.
According to the SissiLeaks, which is not available on the internet anymore, the UAE tasked Dahlan with transferring money to Sissi before the coup so that the protests and anti-Morsi propaganda would be financed. Dahlan has not clearly denied his involvement in Morsi’s ouster. Instead, he expressed his appreciation with the coup, saying that Abbas was working for Morsi. In a 2015-dated interview, in response to the question of whether he helped Sissi 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, failing 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 “architecture 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 he was training as many as 8.000 fighters in the Sinai region. This region was one of the sources of unrest in the country and 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 when a lawyer, Mostafa Olwan, 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 pointed out an armed organization under Dahlan’s control in Sinai. In 2018, Egyptian journalist Haytham Abokhalil released photos of 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 side, Middle East Eye reported the claims that Dahlan positioned militia men in Sinai in support of Sissi. 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 insurgent, it can well be concluded that both Egypt and Hamas were unhappy with the presence of armed groups in that region. It is also 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 with aiding insurgent groups in Sinai, started seeking cooperation with the group. In the exactly 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. Those days witnessed several media reports, suggesting that Dahlan would please Israelis to allow 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 motivated him to come 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 incited Egyptian 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 for preventing Libya’s Islamists to run the country. As explained in the Libya chapter in detail, the UAE instructed Dahlan with instilling Ahmed Gaddaf al-Dam, a cousin of Moammar Gaddafi. In 2015, a Libyan channel, Panorama, released an array of voice recordings of Sissi and his chief-of-staff, Major General Abbas Kamel. Kamel informed Sissi that Mohammed Dahlan had a secret role in Libya, instructed directly by Mohammed bin Zayed. In another leaked voice record, Kamel said Dahlan was going to visit Libya secretly in a private jet. The Sissi leaks also aired other voice recordings in which Sissi and his men discuss Dahlan’s role in a counter-revolution in Libya, led by al-Dam until putschist Gen. 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, mentions about a huge shipment of weapons weighing eight tons, giving details about the weapons’ types. It should be noted that the UN estimated that in just Libya alone over 80,000 tons of weapons, cash and other supplies were estimated to be airlifted into Libya and Egypt between January 2020 and August 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 excellent. Despite targeting a common enemy i.e., the Islamists that aim to participate in politics in a legal way, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, especially the former, have also adopted different strategies in some other regions, which was 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, directly involving in domestic issues. On Sudan, the Sissi administration and the UAE were allying for installing a loyal dictator. Assumption that Dahlan was involved in the ouster of Sudan’s leader comes from reporting on his visits to Sudan immediately after the coup to hold 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 in the UAE’s bid to topple Libya’s GNA in 2019. So, 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 Sissi leaks, 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 also among rumors that Dahlan facilitated Israeli involvement in the dam crisis. Reportedly, Egypt was disturbed with Dahlan’s mediating role as well as his invitation to Israeli technology companies to take place in the construction.
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 is on alert due to the filling and operation capacity of the dam with the fear of losing its hegemony on using the Nile’s water. According to a 1959-dated agreement between Egypt and Cairo, 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 bring 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 that uses High Aswan Dam. The construction of this Dam will gain Ethiopia a huge political leverage in the region, increase its energy capacity remarkably and elevate it to an equal political player against Egypt.
On the other side, 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 out 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 on these claims. However, the UAE heavily invests in Ethiopia, primarily in the agriculture sector. It has also helped Ethiopia to tackle with a foreign currency crisis in 2018 through promising to invest three billion USD in addition to depositing one billion USD in the central bank.
Amid the rumors that this Dam will eventually lead to a water war between the two, the UAE uses Dahlan as the key person, who would handle this dispute smoothly but at the same time progressively such as helping Ethiopia with bringing Israeli technology companies. His involvement, however, seems to have irritated the Egyptian side. Despite the absence of any public expression of this dissatisfaction, some reports claimed that Egypt pressured on the UAE to keep Dahlan under house arrest in 2021. Dahlan as a pragmatical politician, found out a way for breaking the ice with Sissi, sending a long public message in which he praised Sissi’s allocation of 500 million USD 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 place to the Egyptian authorities, barring him from leaving the UAE. Also, the UAE officials, allegedly, asked Dahlan to keep silent on political issues, including even the 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 Dam issue. Even so, there is not a visible strict pressure on Dahlan since he freely runs his media business in the country, delivering his messages through Al-Ghad channel. His relations with Egypt mainly intersect at the cross of combatting Islamists not only in Egypt but across the Arab world. 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.
Dahlan is believed to be one of the main figures for attempting normalization process between Sudan and Israel. Israel has a long history in Sudan’s internal affairs going back to the training of Anya Nya by foreign mercenaries.
The Russian-based group “Wagner” initially entered Sudan in 2017 as “Meroe Gold” and “M Invest” giving them access to Darfur and the border with neighboring Central African Republic. Wagner also assisted in brutally suppressing popular uprisings against Bashir. After Bashir was deposed these Russian mercenary groups not only stayed but expanded to protect and train Dagalo’s men. Russia would have a strategic interest in establishing a naval base in Sudan as they did in Syria. The UAE has tasked Dahlan and other military advisors with maintaining this relationship with Wagner, increasing their travels to St Petersburg since the spring of 2021.
Ethiopia attacked Tigray on 3 November 2020, and Dahlan has linked Sudanese support to this conflict. One of his missions is Sudan is described as maintaining stability with Ethiopia but Dahlan was photographed visiting a resort with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in January of 2021 after fighting broke out with Tigrayan elements.
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