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Gaza conflict offers Egypt's new leader a defining 'moment,' but it's brief

The Gaza crisis has put Egypt's President Morsi in a tight spot, caught between his sympathy for Hamas and his country's reliance on the US. If he chooses to play the role of mediator, he may have little time.

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Morsi has made his sympathies clear on Egyptian television, lamenting the spilling of Palestinian blood and railing against what he calls the Israeli “aggression.” But privately he is apparently sounding more amenable to trying to convince Hamas to stand down, perhaps by accepting a cease-fire. Morsi has spoken by phone with President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton several times this week, US officials say.

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 This is where Morsi’s head comes in. Egypt depends on the US for some $1.5 billion in annual assistance, not to mention Washington’s advocacy before international financial institutions – including the International Monetary Fund, where Egypt currently has a $4.5 billion loan under consideration.

Egypt’s relations with the US have not sailed through the stormy waters of the Egyptian revolution unscathed. The uncertainty and growing mistrust that now characterize what was once the solid core of US relations with the region were captured by Obama’s comment in an interview in September: “I don’t think we would consider [Egypt] an ally,” the president said, “but we don’t consider them an enemy,” either.

The turbulence has led some analysts to wonder if Morsi might be willing to jeopardize US assistance in order to pursue pro-Islamist – and more overtly anti-Israeli – policies. This week’s deadly violence between Israel and Hamas has led to some speculation that Morsi, who recalled Egypt’s ambassador to Israel, might be willing to take steps jeopardizing the Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel. 

But experts like Mr. Miller point out that Egypt’s economic stability is linked to Camp David, since receipt of the substantial US aid, and favorable treatment with international financial institutions, are both products of the 1979 accords.

Without a treaty, there’s no special relationship with the US – whether or not it’s as an ally.

Morsi might take a number of steps to convince Hamas to pull back. He could agree to open the Egypt-Gaza border (this possibility is why Israel is pressing Egypt to block any passage of weapons, including replacement rocket launch pads, across its border) and he could work with Saudi Arabia and other patron states to up their financial assistance to Gaza, Miller says.

Morsi might then come out of the Gaza crisis with a much shinier image – the question now may be whether Israel is willing to hold back to see if Egypt’s Islamist leader is capable of this role.

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