Why Egypt agreed to release Islamic Jihad detainees

An Islamic Jihad delegation, headed by its leader Ziad al-Nakhala, concluded a four-day visit Oct. 17 to the Egyptian capital of Cairo, which Nakhala described as fruitful, according to a statement issued by the movement Oct. 18.

During the visit, the delegation held comprehensive talks with the Egyptian intelligence services on the latest developments in the Palestinian situation. They also reached an agreement to release around 40 young men stranded at Cairo airport and detained in Egypt, who returned to the Gaza Strip with the delegation through the Rafah crossing on the evening of Oct. 17. These men had been detained on charges of supporting or planning the demonstrations against Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Sept. 20.

Ahead of the visit, on Oct. 14, Islamic Jihad published a statement on its website saying that a delegation will head to Egypt in response to an Egyptian invitation to Nakhala to visit Cairo, in order to hold meetings with Egyptian officials on the latest developments in the Palestinian situation and strengthen ties.

Tension had prevailed over the Egyptian relations with Islamic Jihad after the Egyptian authorities arrested members of the movement on charges of participating in the Sept. 20 demonstrations or filming police checkpoints in Tahrir Square. On Sept. 25, Islamic Jihad issued a statement calling on Egypt to take the necessary measures to release one of its members, who appeared in a video on MBC Egypt Sept. 25, saying he was sent by Gaza officials to support the Egyptian demonstrations.

Al-Quds local newspaper reported Oct. 11 that the Egyptian authorities had released in recent days, and in batches, around 30 detainees affiliated with Islamic Jihad, whom they had arrested as they were heading back to the Gaza Strip. It pointed out that the release was made after the movement’s leadership communicated with Egyptian intelligence officials. Some 70 members of the group have thus far been released by Egypt.

In this context, an official in the Islamic Jihad’s media office told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the visit came within the framework of ongoing communication between the Egyptian authorities and the movement’s leadership,. He pointed out that the movement perceives Egypt as an important country, with the role it plays and the influence it has.

“A lengthy and extensive meeting was held during which many important points were discussed, including the issue of those detained at Cairo airport after leaving the Gaza Strip as they were heading to other countries, through Egypt. The officials also tackled the issues of reconciliation and the truce with Israel, and prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli prisons,” the source noted.

He stressed that the most important outcome was the rapid release of all of those stranded at Cairo airport and other detainees held by the Egyptian authorities, noting that the movement is keen on maintaining Egypt’s security and stability, and respects its sovereignty and rejects any action that destabilizes its security.

“There is no proof that any of the movement’s members have offended the Egyptian state or interfered in Egyptian internal affairs. This is one of our principles; we do not interfere in the internal affairs of any state,” the source added.

Hassan Abdo, a political analyst close to Islamic Jihad, told Al-Monitor that the movement has a distinct relationship with Egypt based on respect for Egyptian sovereignty and support for the stability of its security. He said that the two recently drifted apart after the Egyptian authorities arrested Islamic Jihad members and for other reasons that the movement is unaware of.

Abdo explained that the visit came to confirm Egypt’s keenness to restore confidence in this relationship, especially as it sent an invitation to the movement’s leadership, followed by releasing detainees — a step that the movement was very pleased with.

He said that during the meetings with the Egyptian authorities, no accusation was made against Islamic Jihad regarding its support for the recent demonstrations in Egypt, stressing that it was all fake news.

Speaking about the price Islamic Jihad had to pay to release the detainees, Abdo noted, “I do not believe the movement had to offer anything in return, given how it defines itself as a Palestinian resistance movement, whose weapons it only uses against Israel. It respects the sovereignty and territorial security of Arab states. Egypt seems to have gotten the message, so it was quick to straighten out the relationship.”

He added that Egypt is interested in a strong and solid relationship with Islamic Jihad, as it is a balanced movement that cannot be ignored, be it when it comes to the truce or the Palestinian reconciliation and the Israeli siege.

Abdo said that any tension in the relationship with Islamic Jihad will negatively affect the Egyptian role in the Palestinian reconciliation.

Tayseer Mohsen, professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, told Al-Monitor that most of the visits by Palestinian factions to Egypt, whether they were self-motivated or in response to an official invitation, aim at discussing matters related to the Palestinian cause.

He noted that this is why Egypt is an integral part of the Palestinian situation, pointing out that Egypt should assume its position as a pivotal state in the region.

“Egypt has worked hard over the past years in order to be a strong mediator to stabilize security with Israel, which calls for it to have strong relations with the Palestinian factions, as it is necessary for the success of the Egyptian foreign policy toward the Palestinian cause,” he added.

Mohsen pointed out that sometimes things may happen outside the normal context of the relationship, such as Egypt arresting members of Palestinian factions for unknown reasons — moves that call for dialogue and discussion in order to settle the issue.

Speaking about Hamas’ noninvolvement in the demonstrations in Egypt this time — while it used to get involved during late President Mohammed Morsi’s rule — Mohsen noted that Hamas’ balanced policy when it comes to foreign affairs does not irritate Egypt, unlike the Islamic Jihad movement. The latter has very clear positions, such as support for Iran, which irritates the Egyptian intelligence service.

“Islamic Jihad is being targeted in an attempt to bring its foreign positions to a level that identifies at least with Hamas, which was able to bridge the gap,” he added.

Mohsen explained that Egypt might have easily accepted to release the detainees because the Egyptian intelligence might have assessed the situation in Gaza in light of Israel’s lack of commitment to the truce understandings, and saw that this could prompt Palestinian parties to go back to confrontations, stressing that losing control over the Palestinian issue would not be in Egypt’s best interest.