CAIRO — Men with satchels and briefcases come and go, negotiating into the night, slipping away in the morning, attempting to make peace in a place where it seems hardest to find.
An Egyptian spy with a wisp of a mustache and an array of tailored suits listens to them all: the Israelis and the moderate and radical Palestinians, including those from the militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman has been working to cement a lasting truce between Hamas and Israel, and to bring reconciliation between rival Palestinian parties.
There is something else at stake for Cairo: its reputation as an influential voice in the Middle East. Its Persian Gulf allies, such as Saudi Arabia, have emerged as prominent players in Arab affairs while Iran, with its links to Syria and the Islamic group Hezbollah in Lebanon, is regarded as a dangerous mix of swagger and mischief that challenges Egypt's sway in an unstable region.
Cairo fears that the 22-day Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip has polarized the Arab world between moderate states and those taking a harder line against Washington and Israel. Cairo believes that hammering out a long-term cease-fire between Hamas and Israel and easing hostilities between the Palestinian camps will reaffirm its stature as the Obama administration is considering renewing nearly $2 billion in annual U.S. military and economic aid to Egypt.
"Egypt wants to prove its critics wrong," said political analyst Mustafa Kamel Sayed. "It wants to say to the American administration, 'We are quite useful for Middle East peace.' "
Egypt has given Hamas until today to accept a deal on a "durable" truce with Israel. The temporary cease-fire that began Jan. 18 has been rattled by Palestinian rockets and mortar rounds fired into Israel, followed by retaliatory airstrikes.
Mistrust also runs deep between Hamas and the Fatah faction, led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Political agreements between Hamas and the more moderate Fatah are crucial to progress on the larger Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
"If Egypt fails in brokering a reconciliation between the different factions, its regional significance will be dealt a new blow, its negotiating strength vis-a-vis Israel will wane, and, finally, other regional actors such as Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia will be invited to play a stronger role in dealing with the Palestinian question," said Ahmed Thabet, a political science professor at Cairo University.
Egypt, if not always successful, knows the terrain, both diplomatically and geographically. It is trusted by Israel, having signed a peace treaty with the Jewish state in 1979, and it is intertwined with the fate of the Palestinians by its northern border with Gaza. Both dynamics have put pressure on the government of President Hosni Mubarak, which is balancing the Gaza crisis amid growing economic problems and political unrest at home.
Egyptians did not want to go to war with Israel over Gaza, but many condemned Mubarak's decision to keep the border largely closed to Palestinians during the fighting. Humanitarian aid couldn't enter the enclave and many of the wounded couldn't get out.
The president's aim was to weaken and discredit Hamas, which has ties to Egypt's opposition Muslim Brotherhood, to help prevent radical Islam from spreading. The nation's tourism industry lost billions of dollars in the 1990s because of bombings, assassination attempts and other violence attributed to Islamic militants.
Egypt finds itself, like much of the Arab world, torn between helping Palestinians and rejecting Hamas and its Iranian backers. The dilemma has highlighted the widening political divide in the region. At a summit in Qatar in January, attended by non-Arab Iran and boycotted by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Cairo was criticized as favoring relations with Israel and the U.S. over its Arab obligations to aid the Palestinians.
Gamal Mubarak, the president's son, said at a recent meeting of the ruling National Democratic Party that anti-Egypt "forces were primarily concerned to eliminate the role of Egypt in Arab and Middle East affairs."
He added that countries opposed to Cairo tried their "best to play with the emotions of the Arab street against Egypt, portraying Egypt as being against the [Palestinian] resistance."
The Muslim Brotherhood, which holds about 20% of Egypt's parliamentary seats, has attempted to benefit as well. Scores of its members were arrested nationwide during large rallies and demonstrations that supported Palestinians and chided Mubarak for what protesters said was his unwillingness to stand up to Israel. But as weeks went on, Hamas, which doesn't want to be portrayed as giving up its fight against Israel, and the Muslim Brotherhood faced limited options.
"Hamas officials in Gaza are realizing they have no other party to turn to except Egypt. No other Middle East country can play this role," political analyst Sayed said. "And although the Muslim Brotherhood has been trying to benefit, I doubt they can translate their popularity from the protests into political gain. Egypt remains a state reliant on its security forces."
Noha El-Hennawy of The Times' Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.