The Gaza Crisis and Egypt: Can Cairo Manage a Complex Relationship?

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Palestinians carry the bodies of the Dallu family during a funeral procession in Gaza on Nov. 19, 2012. Nine members of the Dallu family died after Israeli forces hit their building the previous day

In the face of pressing domestic concerns, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy’s government continues to navigate the treacherous waters of the latest Israel-Gaza conflict. As Israeli air strikes rock the tiny coastal territory and Gazan militants continued to fire rocket barrages into southern Israel, Morsy has placed himself in the center of negotiations toward a cease-fire.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, based in Qatar, visited Cairo on Monday for talks with Egyptian security officials, and Morsy has continued to sound a note of tepid optimism.

“There are some indications that there could be a cease-fire soon,” he said at a joint news conference with the visiting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday in Cairo. But, Morsy added, there are “no guarantees.”

(MORE: How Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula Figures in the Gaza Turmoil)

On Monday, Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil, whom Morsy dispatched on an unprecedented visit to Gaza late last week, sounded a similar refrain. “Negotiations are going on as we speak, and I hope we will reach something soon that will stop this violence and counterviolence,” Qandil said. “I think we are close, but the nature of this kind of negotiation [means] it is very difficult to predict.” The Arab League has essentially deputized Egypt to act as an intermediary in the conflict. An emergency session of Arab League foreign ministers on Saturday yielded an endorsement of Egypt’s role. It also produced a direct threat that the Arab League could abandon its support for the so called Arab Peace Initiative — a 2002 plan that offered widespread Arab recognition of the Jewish state in exchange for territorial concessions and compensation for Palestinian refuges who can’t return home. But that threat was largely symbolic since Israel has never really taken the Arab Peace Initiative seriously in the first place.

In the meantime, Morsy’s government has turned the Rafah border crossing — the only entrance to Gaza that isn’t controlled by Israel — into an entrepôt of diplomatic missions of support into the Gaza Strip. A delegation of Arab League foreign ministers is set to visit the territory, and Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdesslem and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu are also scheduled to make separate visits this week.

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

So far, Morsy has not had to deal with serious public criticism of his handling of the Gaza situation. That’s partially because public attention has been largely focused on the aftermath of a terrible collision between a train and a school bus in southern Egypt over the weekend that killed dozens of young children. But there’s also no real public consensus as to what concrete steps critics expect Morsy to take beyond what he is already doing. “The Egyptians are caught in the middle. They’re not prepared for an escalation, they don’t want to be dragged into it. They stand to lose big if there’s a real escalation,” Shibley Telhami, a Palestinian-born University of Maryland professor and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said in a Saturday interview with MSNBC.

Egyptians sympathize with the plight of the Palestinians — and especially the Gazans — but there is no public appetite for a return to any kind of hostilities with Israel over the issue. The relationship between Egyptians and Gazans is deeply complicated and was exacerbated by information campaigns from the era of Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship that were designed to paint the Gazans as dangerous troublemakers.

Yet Egyptians and Gazans have much in common. Gazan Arabic is distinctly different from what’s spoken in the West Bank — the former being a sort of a hybrid melding of standard Palestinian Arabic and the Egyptian dialect. But despite the cultural common ground, there’s a widespread belief among Egyptians — an almost knee-jerk bias — that Gaza is largely populated by thugs and militants who are trying to drag Egypt into a new war with Israel. Much of this goes back to the Mubarak years, when the state media frequently painted the Gazans this way in order to deflect attention from Mubarak’s own complicity in keeping Gaza bottled up. That got much worse in 2007, when Hamas took decisive control over the Strip. After that, Cairo sealed the Rafah crossing, opening it only for rare medical cases.

(MORE: Gaza Assault: How Surgical Are Israel’s Strikes?)

This all came to a head in January 2008, when Gazan militants blew open the border wall with Egypt and hundreds of thousands of residents giddily flooded into Sinai for a few days. In the aftermath of that incursion, the Egyptian state media were filled with tales of Gazans engaging in criminal behavior in el-Arish — the closest real city to the border — and buying up goods with counterfeit $100 bills.

So far, Morsy has managed to balance the competing pressures of his situation. Sending his Prime Minister into Gaza immediately blunted any potential accusations that his Gaza policies were simply a redux of the overthrown Mubarak. And even the Israeli government and media have reacted sympathetically to his decision to withdraw Egypt’s ambassador to Tel Aviv — recognizing that Morsy had to do it in order to maintain credibility. His predecessor, Mubarak, managed to keep the Israelis and the Americans happy, but at the cost of his own domestic prestige. What remains to be seen now is how long Morsy can keep up the high-wire act.

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