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Egypt leads drive to curb Hamas poll success
By Simon Tisdall in Cairo
Egypt is leading behind-the-scenes efforts to curb further ballotbox successes by the militant Palestinian group Hamas in planned parliamentary elections in Gaza and the West Bank.
The "Stop Hamas" campaign is part of a strategy to secure a full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in August, a subsequent large-scale international aid and reconstruction effort, and a victory for Fatah and other "moderate" Palestinian factions in polls tentatively rescheduled for next January.
The Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, postponed the legislative elections last month, citing administrative reasons. But the delay was widely attributed to fears that Hamas would repeat its successes in municipal polls in Gaza this year.
Egypt's role in persuading Hamas and its allies to honour last February's ceasefire is said to have impressed Israel and the US. Now it is working closely with Washington and Jerusalem on securing a path to final status negotiations next year.
A senior Arab official claimed Cairo had pressured Mr Abbas to postpone the elections because of concerns that Hamas would win "a clear majority". Hamas's popularity depended on its image as a heroic fighting force which provided community services that a corrupt and inefficient Palestinian Authority failed to deliver, the official said.
But he said Egypt was calculating that the return of Gaza would give a big boost to Mr Abbas and improvements in security, freedoms and the economy could persuade many Palestinians to switch their support to Fatah. "They will know that if Hamas is still fighting, their lives will deteriorate again," he said.
The Egyptian strategy calls for an immediate injection of financial assistance for Gaza once the Israeli withdrawal is complete. Between $500m (£277m) and $800m in funds for the Palestinian Authority has already been allocated by Saudi Arabia and other regional states, official sources said.
All funding for Hamas from Arab countries, direct and indirect, had been cut off, the sources said. Only Iran was still providing financial assistance.
Hamas would be offered post-election carrots in the form of up to four ministerial posts and the opportunity to retain its weapons, possibly as part of the PA's reformed security forces, the senior Arab official predicted. The Egyptians' intention was not to crush Hamas, which Israel regards as a terrorist organisation, but to tame it, he suggested.
"Hamas must be included," the Egyptian prime minister, Ahmed Nazif, said in an interview this week. "We should not leave people out. If we do, they will be the problem of the future."
But Cairo is also keen to prevent Hamas's electoral successes being emulated by its parent organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned in Egypt.
Officials concede the strategy could be derailed if Hamas and Islamic Jihad end the ceasefire, as they threatened at the weekend, or if Israel continues to drag its feet on issues such as prisoner releases and the withdrawal from West Bank towns.
There are unresolved questions concerning port, airport and border controls in Gaza. And there is also a danger that attempts to undermine its electoral appeal could induce Hamas to abandon the democratic process altogether.
"Our brothers in Egypt are exerting considerable efforts," the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said this week. But he emphasised Palestinian concerns that Israel was not keeping its promises and was trying to turn Gaza into a prison.
Talks are due to take place today in Jerusalem between Egypt's intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, and Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, on Gaza and other security issues.
The strategy for the next six months will be discussed when Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, begins a regional tour this weekend. The Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmed Abul Gheit, is also due to visit Israel before next week's summit between Mr Abbas and Mr Sharon.
Under the first stage of the plan, Egypt is offering to deploy 750 border soldiers. Their initial task will be to prevent weapons smuggling into Gaza and help avoid any appearance of Israeli forces withdrawing under fire - a potential deal breaker for Mr Sharon.
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