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.

Thomas Hartwell/AP
An Egyptian boy leads protesters in chanting slogans against the Israeli invasion of Gaza, outside Al-Azhar mosque where President Mohammed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood called for demonstrations after Friday prayers, in Cairo, Egypt, Friday,

The hostilities threatening to escalate into all-out war between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza concern the two antagonists first and foremost, but the course the fighting takes is likely to be equally consequential for Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi – and for his relations with the United States.

Egypt’s Islamist president finds himself pulled in competing directions by the head and the heart. The fighting this week – the result of heavy Israeli retaliation for escalating rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel – has the Islamist Mr. Morsi in a tight spot: caught between his co-religionists across the border in Gaza, on one side, and Washington, upon which a struggling Egypt relies for economic and military assistance, on the other.

For some Middle East analysts, this could be a moment for Morsi to emerge and establish himself as a leader to be reckoned with in the unstable and leaderless post-Awakening Arab world. But successfully maneuvering this moment will take time. And with Israeli soldiers amassing on Gaza’s border, the analysts add, it’s unclear whether Morsi will have the chance to even take the leadership test the situation presents.

“Morsi is definitely between the proverbial rock and hard place, but if he can pull together the elements to convince Hamas to stop the rockets … and he can defuse this situation, then I think he can emerge as a leader in the region,” says Aaron David Miller, a Middle East scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington. “But he needs time and space to try to do it, and I’m not sure the Israelis are going to allow him that time.”

The sudden flare-up involving Gaza and its Islamist leaders is also testing US influence in a region where the Arab Awakening has deposed a number of autocratic leaders more disposed to upholding a US-led system of security and stability – including former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak – in favor of Islamist-led governments.  

Morsi hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, as does Hamas, the militant Palestinian organization that governs Gaza. The rockets crashing into southern Israel have been lobbed by a collection of militant Islamist groups operating in Gaza, including some aligned with Iran. But after the Israelis launched retaliatory air strikes, including a strike that killed the Hamas military leader, Ahmed Jabari, Hamas has continued the barrage of rocket fire into Israel and the fighting has largely boiled down to a battle between Israel and Hamas.

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.

 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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