But he also kept Egypt’s intelligence service in touch with its Israeli counterpart, maintaining Mubarak-era contacts in the service of post-Mubarak goals, according to former Egyptian intelligence officials still in close communication with their onetime colleagues. And he spoke six times to President Obama, convincing the U.S. president that there was a deal to be done.
“The feeling here was that he came in as a bit of an unknown quantity,” said an Obama administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions. But Morsi came through, the official said, on both Gaza and the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo in September.
Morsi’s balancing act left Israelis appreciative even as Egyptians felt he had taken a hard line. Conservative Egyptians who could have been pushing their leader to escalate the confrontation were instead applauding his actions. Coupled with an overhaul of the Egyptian military that has greatly reduced its power, Morsi has radically revised some of the central tenets of the old order in his country.
“Now we have a Muslim president and a Muslim country,” said Hassan el-Marghany Mohammed Ahmed, 41, a clothing vendor in a religiously conservative neighborhood of northeast Cairo. “We will not leave Gaza alone.”
But the new orientation carries new risks. Had the Israeli troops still massed along the Gaza border invaded, as Israel was contemplating, Morsi would have been under tremendous pressure to open his country’s northeastern border to refugees.
Such a humanitarian move would be a break with the Mubarak regime, which sealed the border during the 2008-2009 Israeli offensive in Gaza. But it could destabilize the already-volatile northern Sinai region and strain a 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
Uncertainty at home
Morsi, a U.S.-educated engineer and longtime Muslim Brotherhood leader, was the group’s second choice for president during May-June elections, after its first pick was disqualified, and many Egyptians expected that he would be a lackluster leader. Many questions remain about the cease-fire, including the extent to which Morsi will be able to guarantee the conduct of Hamas.
And the success abroad comes at a time of uncertainty at home. Egypt’s economic situation continues to deteriorate, and Cairo has been rocked by violent protests in recent days. A train crashed into a school bus last week in central Egypt, killing 52 children. And the group writing Egypt’s new constitution has split over the extent to which Islamic law should influence the charter.
On Wednesday, those domestic problems confronting Morsi melted away, if only for a moment.
“May God keep him in the presidency,” said Meshal, the Hamas leader.
Ernesto Londoño in Tel Aviv, Ingy Hassieb in Cairo and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.