Conflict in Gaza tests Egypt’s new president

Egyptians hold a banner with inscription reading in Arabic 'save Gaza' during a protest against Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip in Cairo on Nov. 15, 2012. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi condemned the Israeli airstrikes. (AHMED KHALED/EPA)

The conflict between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip has presented the first major test for Egypt’s newly elected president, as he seeks to balance close ties to Gaza’s Islamist rulers and respect for Egypt’s three-decade-old peace treaty with Israel.

President Mohamed Morsi condemned Israel’s continuing air offensive against Palestinian militants in Gaza on Thursday and ordered his prime minister to visit the embattled enclave, sounding an angrier and more confrontational tone toward Israel than has been evident from Cairo in decades.

But political leaders and analysts said Morsi is toeing a fine line as he tries to balance a sense of accountability to Egyptian voters with a desire to maintain stability along what remains a potentially volatile border.

As Egypt’s first elected president, Morsi has grappled with the challenge of distinguishing his government from the regime of Hosni Mubarak, who was widely viewed as a lackey for Israeli and U.S. interests in the region and was ousted last year.

Morsi is a product of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has close ties to Hamas, the Islamist organization that rules Gaza. And Egyptian political parties, activists and the local media called on Morsi on Thursday to chart a new course with the Jewish state, with which Egypt has maintained a cold peace since 1979.

Some politicians, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood, called on Morsi to sever ties with Israel.

The conflict in Gaza comes at a critical juncture for Egypt, the Arab world’s largest country, as it pushes to ratify a new constitution and seeks a multibillion-
dollar loan
from the International Monetary Fund to revive a deeply battered economy.

Severing ties with Israel would put Egypt’s already weakened relationship with Washington on shaky ground and could further threaten the $2 billion that Egypt receives annually in U.S. aid.

“While trying to show solidarity with Hamas, the last thing they need or should want is a major conflict in Gaza,” said Dennis Ross, a former senior Middle East adviser to President Obama and President Bill Clinton.

“If they don’t act to get Hamas to stand down, they may end up paying a major price in terms of assistance from the outside,’’ said Ross, who is a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “So is their ideology going to trump their economic needs?”

But Morsi also faces a need to maintain credibility on the part of his fledging government, widely seen as a test case in what many Arabs hope will become a broader effort to establish effective Islamist governments to succeed the military-dominated secular governments toppled in the Arab Spring.

“A lot of people will ask, ‘What are the major changes between you and the previous regime?’ ” said Nader Bakkar, a spokesman for the ultraconservative Salafist Nour party.

Morsi’s Islamist credentials have heightened Egyptians’ expectations that their president would stand strong against a deeply unpopular ally, Bakkar said. “People here are very much with the Palestinians, and they want to help them by any means. So it is difficult for him to convince people that these steps are sufficient,” he said.

Egyptian officials and political figures stopped short of calling for Egyptian military intervention in Gaza, but many advocated for stronger outward support for Hamas and the Palestinians through aid and resources.

“Egypt is obviously not going to confront the Israelis and reopen the conflict that has been closed since 1979,” said Walid Kazziha, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo. But the new government’s integrity is riding on Morsi’s course of action in Gaza, he said.

Mubarak was widely criticized in 2008 for Egypt’s stance during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, an air and ground offensive that left more than 1,000 Palestinians dead and much of the strip’s infrastructure in ruins. Egypt shut its Gaza border for most of the three-week invasion, blocking the passage of refugees, aid and journalists in and out of the coastal enclave.

As a banned opposition group at the time, the Muslim Brotherhood was able to harshly condemn the assault. And in the run-up to the country’s presidential election last summer, the group promised to chart a more assertive course with the Jewish state.

Now that Morsi is in the driver’s seat, the complex reality of navigating Israel and Gaza’s newest conflict has presented a critical challenge for the new Egyptian leader. On Wednesday night, Morsi recalled Egypt’s ambassador to Israel and called for an emergency meeting of Arab League foreign ministers.

But many politicians and activists, including some from the Morsi-allied Muslim Brotherhood, said Thursday that his moves were inadequate.

“What he did was withdraw the Egyptian ambassador and kick out the Israeli ambassador. But what we need is to have all ties cut completely,” said Mahmoud Ghozlan, a high-ranking official in the Muslim Brotherhood, echoing a popular call to annul the countries’ long-standing treaty.

The Brotherhood and other parties called for a nationwide protest outside mosques on Friday to demonstrate Egyptian solidarity with Gaza.

If popular pressure mounts, Morsi could be compelled to reconsider the terms of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel and provide at least indirect support to Gaza, analysts said.

“He can make a real nuisance out of Gaza for the Israelis, without getting implicated — in the same way the Syrians made southern Lebanon a big nuisance [for Israel] without getting directly involved,” Kazziha said. “You arm people, you open the borders, you offer support.”

William Branigin in Washington and Muhammad Mansour in Cairo contributed to this report.

Abigail Hauslohner covers D.C. politics -- and the people affected by D.C. politics. She came to the local beat in 2015 after seven years covering war, politics, and corruption across the Middle East and North Africa. Most recently, she served as the Post’s Cairo Bureau Chief.



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