Risky gamble for Morsi as Cairo takes on leadership role in talks
Analysis:Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi has played a high-stakes game during the Gaza crisis by placing his personal influence with Hamas as well as Egypt’s new-found regional clout on the gamble that he could secure a ceasefire in the conflict.
Morsi is a longstanding member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood,
Hamas’s parent movement. Because of this, he has a special standing and considerable credibility with Hamas, since most of its top leaders studied medicine or engineering in his country’s universities. Furthermore, the brotherhood, founded in 1928, has always been a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause. Its members fought and died in Israel’s 1948 war of establishment.
The gamble was particularly risky because Morsi could not be certain how Israel would react. He bet on Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, signed in 1979, which is viewed by Israel as an important achievement. The treaty was not only the first with an Arab country but it was with the Arab country that had led the Arab front against Israel for decades.
Once Egypt, which has the largest Arab army, had signed, the Arabs could no longer wage war on Israel.
Furthermore, Morsi did not know whether the Obama administration would exert its influence with Israel when it called upon Cairo to mediate.
Washington had repeatedly declared that Israel’s bombing campaign against Gaza was justified as self-defence and delayed dispatching US secretary of state Hillary Clinton to Jerusalem and Cairo until yesterday, by which time Israel had achieved some of the stated aims of its military operation.
As Clinton arrived, the US blocked an Arab-sponsored UN Security Council statement critical of Israel, claiming it was “counterproductive”.
Morsi hedged his bets by sending Egyptian prime minister Hisham Qandil to Gaza, calling for an emergency meeting of the Arab League, and promoting solidarity with Gaza.
Egyptian doctors travelled to Gaza with medical supplies to treat the wounded and delegations flocked there too. Rallies for Gaza were held by Egypt’s political parties and demands for action were submitted to the government. There was broad Egyptian and Arab consensus, embracing Arab nationalists and leftists as well as Muslim fundamentalists, in favour of this policy.
The solidarity campaign was not only designed to demonstrate Arab support for Gaza but to encourage Hamas to go along with a ceasefire.
It is significant that Hamas’s politburo chief, Khaled Mishaal, dubbed a moderate, negotiated on its behalf rather than the more militant leadership in Gaza.
The visit of Tunisian foreign minister Rafik Abdessalem to Gaza last weekend was a measure of how far his country’s policy had shifted since its offshoot of the brotherhood, Ennahda, emerged as a major player due to the Arab Spring. Under pro-western independence leader Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia had adopted a neutral stance towards Israel.
The difference in approach in both Egypt and Tunisia is democracy, the commitment of their ruling parties to the Palestinian cause, and their desire to court the good opinion of voters angered over Israel’s military action and protracted siege and blockade of Gaza.
Essam el-Erian, deputy chief of the brotherhood’s political wing, Egypt’s ruling Freedom and Justice Party, underlined the difference between post- and pre-Arab Spring policy.
“The cause of Palestine is back in the focus of the Arab people. Egypt has changed. Arabs are rethinking their entire concept of the peace process,” he said, adding that inter-Arab “reconciliation” could be achieved by reaching an accord over the role of the “resistance” Hamas and other armed groups opposing Israel.
By visiting Gaza yesterday, Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi and the foreign ministers of Turkey, Morocco, Iraq, Sudan, Qatar, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority demonstrated the determination of governments and the Arab League to jump on the bandwagon driven by the brotherhood. To reinforce Egypt’s leadership in the campaign for Gaza, Morsi’s foreign minister, Muhammad Kamel Amr, also took part.
Egypt’s influence is certain to be tested by the terms of a ceasefire.
If this is a simple cessation of hostilities, a truce is likely to be short-lived and fragile.
But if Egypt obtains an end of Israel’s blockade of Gaza, a major cause of rocket firings into Israel, Cairo will certainly regain Arab leadership and be seen as a major Muslim power.