Morsi’s Gaza Challenge: How New Can the New Egypt Afford to Be?

The Egyptian president has denounced the Israeli attack and recalled Cairo's ambassador to Tel Aviv. But Mubarak did as much in the past. Will the Muslim Brotherhood do more?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Tara Todras-Whitehill / The New York Times / Redux

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy at the presidential palace in Cairo's Nasr City, Sept. 20, 2012.

The rapidly escalating conflict in the Gaza Strip has presented the fledgling administration of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi with its strongest foreign policy challenge yet. So far Morsi has taken pains to differentiate himself from the policies of his predecessor–ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak. But Morsi faces a long-term tightrope walk over the Gaza issue; and his decisions going forward will be subject to intense international and domestic scrutiny and pressure.

On Friday morning, Morsi made it clear that post-revolutionary Egypt will be turning a new page on Gaza. In an unprecedented move, Morsi dispatched Prime Minister Hisham Qandil on a visit to Gaza, where he met with senior officials of the Hamas-run government and visited the wounded in Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital. “What I saw today in Gaza, at the hospital, with the martyrs, cannot be met with silence,” Qandil told reporters. “This tragedy should not be met with silence and the whole world should take responsibility to stop the aggression.”

Morsi himself declared that the Mubarak-era Gaza policies ended with the revolution. “I say to those on behalf of all the Egyptian people that Egypt today is different from yesterday, and Arabs today are different from yesterday. I say confidently that Egypt will not leave Gaza alone,” Morsi said in a speech after Friday prayers at a suburban Cairo mosque. “We assure [Israel] that the price will be high for continued aggression.”

(PHOTOS: A New Gaza War: Israel and Palestinian Militants Trade Fire)

Under Mubarak, Egypt largely kept the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula sealed shut–particularly after Hamas took control of the territory in June 2007. This policy cost Mubarak tremendous domestic prestige, allowing his critics (including Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood) to paint him as subservient to U.S. and Israeli orders and an equal partner in the suffering of the Gazans.

During the last major Israeli offensive in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead–which lasted from December 2008 into January 2009–the Muslim Brotherhood (with Morsi as one of its main strategists) went out of its way to specifically embarrass Mubarak for his Gaza policies. It was a strategy that the regime–which regarded Gaza as a national security redline–didn’t soon forget. Throughout 2009, Mubarak’s police embarked on a massive Brotherhoodcrackdown, imprisoning dozens of senior leaders and targeting much of the organization’s senior leadership. One senior Brotherhood official told me at the time that he believed the crackdown was a direct retaliation for the Brotherhood “overstepping its boundaries on the Gaza issue.”

So far, Morsi has taken no real concrete steps that would threaten the Camp David-enforced Egyptian-Israeli peace. He withdrew Egypt’s ambassador to Tel Aviv, but that’s something Mubarak did multiple times during his 29 year reign and was regarded as a standard go-to move to appease public outrage during bouts of Israel-Palestinian violence.

(MORE: Sinai Border Attack: What’s Behind the Unrest in Egypt’s Rogue Province)

But the longer the conflict drags on–and particularly if Israel launches a ground offensive into the tiny coastal territory–the domestic and international pressure will rise for Morsi to do more. The Qandil visit to Gaza was important, but almost entirely symbolic. The Prime Minister has no foreign policy experience and had served as Minister of Irrigation prior to assuming his current post. Under Mubarak, the Gaza file was held almost exclusively by his powerful intelligence chief and briefly-serving Vice President Omar Suleiman–who died in the U.S. earlier this year while undergoing surgery. Any Egyptian pressure on Hamas to tone down the rocket attacks into Israel will likely happen as it always has–through backchannel communications via the intelligence services.

Five months into his administration, Morsi has a checkered track record on foreign policy issues. He made an immediate splash this summer by openly calling for regime change in Syria while speaking at a conference in Iran–one of the main sponsors of the Syrian regime. But he also badly misjudged the political winds in September when angry protestors–incensed by an obscure Youtube video that insulted the life and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad–scaled the walls of the heavily fortified U.S. embassy and took down the American flag, replacing it with the black flag symbolic of militant Islamism.

In the wake of the incident, Morsi was conspicuous by his silence. His first public statements focused on criticizing the movie and expressing condolences for U.S. ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, who was killed during an attack on the consulate in Benghazi. But Morsi–perhaps wary of taking on the ultraconservative Salafist Muslims who had sparked the embassy protests–said nothing to condemn the breach of U.S. embassy grounds. Hi silence prompted a harsh rebuke from President Obama, and open speculation in Washington as to whether Egypt (recipient of $1.3 billion in annual U.S.aid) could even be considered an ally any more. Morsi’s government had to scramble to repair the damage.

(MORE: How the Military Won the Egyptian Election)

Domestically, Morsi faces an equally tricky balancing act. Public outrage over the Israeli attacks on Gaza is still building slowly–an anti-Israel protest in Tahrir Square on Friday only drew about 2,000 people. But that anger could spike quickly if Israel launches a ground offensive, particularly since Arabic satellite news networks such as Al-Jazeera typically show far more graphic footage than any American network ever broadcasts.

At the very least, Morsi can expect his home organization the Muslim Brotherhood to refrain from any sort of public criticism of his decisions going forward. But the same can’t be said for other political forces across the spectrum, from Salafists to secularists. The Salafists are relatively new to street politics, but have always regarded Israel with open antipathy and speak regularly of a desire to “liberate Jerusalem.” And much of the current generation of young secular activists came of age politically during anti-Israeli protests before starting to focus on Mubarak and the domestic situation.

One of the key elements of how Morsi’s Gaza decisions are regarded will be the statements coming from Hamas–which was originally founded as an offshoot of the Brotherhood. So far, Hamas leaders have effusively praised Morsi for his support. In a televised address on Thursday Gaza-based leader Ismail Haniyeh hailed “the new equation, leadership and spirit in Egypt.” But Haniyeh also included an implicit challenge for Morsi’s government to keep it up. “We must prove to this occupier [Israel] that times have changed.”

Other Hamas leaders in the diaspora have been even more explicit. In a speech in the Sudanese capital Khartoum on Thursday, Khaled Meshaal–who outranks Haniyeh in the Hamas hierarchy–directly called on post-revolutionary Arab governments like Egypt, Libya and Tunisia to break from the past and chart a new course in their dealings with Israeli and the Palestinians. “Today the leaders of Arabism and Islam must raise the ceiling and change the rules of the game,” said Meshaal, adding that the time was ripe to, “pluck the fruits of the Arab Spring.”

Ashraf Khalil is a Cairo-based journalist and author of Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation

PHOTOS: Mohamed Morsi Declared Egypt’s First Islamist President