Key test for Egypt's Morsi as Gaza conflict intensifies

Since taking office in June, Egypt's Islamist President Morsi has upheld Egypt's peace treaty with Israel and strictly controlled border crossings. Could the Gaza conflict change his calculus?

Bernat Armangue/AP
Egyptians chant slogans against latest Israel airstrikes in Gaza during a protest in Cairo, Wednesday. In a televised speech Thursday, President Mohamed Morsi said Egypt will stand by the people of Gaza, and condemned Israel's airstrikes.

Israel's new air assault on the Gaza Strip, which has so far killed 15 people in the tiny enclave and raised the prospect of a longer conflict, has also presented Egypt's Islamist president with the first real test of how he will manage his country's ties with Israel. 

The Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi took office June 30 amid worry in the West that he would not uphold Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, while at home, where the treaty is unpopular, he faced pressure to reorient Egypt's foreign policy and take a stronger stand against his northern neighbor.

Now, his response to the crisis in Gaza could indicate the extent to which his foreign policy will be influenced by the ideals he espoused as a Muslim Brotherhood member, or whether it will follow the course laid out by his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak

Mr. Morsi's spokesman announced today that the president had instructed Egypt's prime minister to visit Gaza tomorrow in a show of solidarity with the Palestinian people,. If the visit occurs, it would be a bold move by the new president.

But so far, there have been few other indicators that Morsi will break strongly with the past. Last night, Morsi's spokesman announced the recall of Egypt's ambassador to Tel Aviv. But Mubarak himself did the same several times during his rule. Morsi also reopened Egypt's Rafah border crossing with Gaza, which was closed today for the Islamic new year holiday, but it remained open only to those with government permits to cross, as well as those wounded in the assault. Mubarak also allowed wounded Palestinians to seek treatment in Egypt during the last major conflict in Gaza – Israel's three-week ground assault that begin in late December 2008. 

In a televised speech today, Morsi said Egypt will stand by the people of Gaza, and condemned Israel's airstrikes. "The Israelis must realize that this aggression is unacceptable and would only lead to instability in the region," he said. 

In an airstrike yesterday, Israel assassinated Ahmed Jabari, the head of Hamas's armed wing, Ezzedeen Al Qassam Brigades. Israel continued to pound the tiny coastal enclave by air, land, and sea. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF)  said they hit 156 targets in the enclave, most of which they said were rocket launchers. The strikes killed 15 people, eight of whom were civilians, according to Reuters. Hamas and other militant groups responded by launching rockets of their own, killing three Israelis. The IDF said 200 rockets had been launched at Israel since yesterday, 135 of them today.

This latest escalation began Nov. 8, when a small Israeli military incursion into Gaza provoked a gunfire exchange and a 12-year-old Gaza boy was killed by Israeli fire. The two sides exchanged attacks until Nov. 12, when Palestinian militant factions agreed to a truce, and rocket fire from Gaza mostly, though not completely, lessened. Israel's strike against Jabar broke the brief lull. 

Brotherhood calls for severing of ties

The Muslim Brotherhood, in a statement released yesterday, condemned Israel's "criminal aggression" and called on nations – starting with Egypt – to sever diplomatic ties and trade with Israel. The group also called on Egyptians to demonstrate in support of Gaza today and tomorrow.

That puts Morsi in a difficult position. He was a part of the Brotherhood when, under Mubarak, it harshly criticized the former president for not taking a strong stand against Israel. Hamas itself is an offshoot of the Brotherhood, and the two groups share an ideological connection. The Brotherhood has criticized Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, though Morsi has promised to uphold it as president.

In an interview last week, Brotherhood secretary general Mahmoud Hussein said popular opposition to the treaty is natural because Israel routinely violates it, while only Egypt respects it.

“There is no treaty because there’s no respect for the treaty,” he said. “When the Egyptian people see that Egypt is the only party that respects the treaty, they will want to revisit it.”

But Ibrahim El Houdaiby, a senior researcher at the Cairo think tank House of Wisdom, and a former Brotherhood member, says the Brotherhood will not put real pressure on its man Morsi to respond strongly to Israel's airstrikes on Gaza. He calls the reactions of both Morsi and the Brotherhood to the Gaza strikes "shameful." 

"They are taking the former regime's positions, and the problem is that they're doing that with relative absence of opposition. Because they [the Muslim Brotherhood] were one of the key forces opposing these policies of the former regime, and now they are repeating the same policies," he says. "I would say that the Palestinian cause has never been in such a bad position as it is with the Brotherhood in power."

He points to Morsi's actions in the Sinai, where the new president has clamped down on the smuggling tunnels that connect Gaza and Egypt far more strictly than his predecessor. Egyptian security forces destroyed several dozen tunnels after an attack by Sinia-based militants that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers. The tunnels are a key route for basic goods like food, as well as building materials, into Gaza, which has been under blockade by Israel since 2007. Mubarak refused requests to open the official Rafah border crossing to trade, and Morsi has also refused Hamas requests to open a free trade zone near the border to allow goods into Gaza legally or to open the Rafah crossing to goods.

Though the Muslim Brotherhood called for protests today and tomorrow, no significant gatherings were reported today. But the longer the conflict in Gaza goes on, the more popular anger is likely to build against Morsi.

Yet even if Morsi wanted to make a bold policy shift, his options are extremely limited because the costs of a dramatic shift are too high, says Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who was recently in Egypt.

"For them to take an alternative path would be extremely costly, given that the No. 1 priority is to ensure delivery for Egyptians of goods and services and restore Egypt's place in the world," he says. "So I think siding with Hamas, at this time, in any significant way, would isolate Egypt or put Egypt in confrontation with the US and would challenge its own strategic interests in seeing stability in the region. It's not prepared to do so."

Morsi is facing plenty of challenges at home – economic woes have grown even as popular demands for better government services, decent wages, and proper infrastructure are at an all time high. 

"Right now, supporting the Palestinian cause and supporting Hamas in its struggle with Israel is not at the top of their list of foreign policy priorities," says Danin. "It is at an ideological, rhetorical level, but not at an operational practical level because the price is just too high." 

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