Egyptians condemn Israeli attacks on Gaza, but most don’t want to go to war over them
By Michael Birnbaum,
CAIRO — For 30 years, Egyptians simmered with anger toward Israel, frustrated that their longtime leader Hosni Mubarak wasn’t aggressive enough toward their hated neighbor. But under Mubarak’s successor, few in Egypt seem to be spoiling for a fight.
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, has condemned Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip in recent days and has sent high-level delegations in support of Hamas, the Brotherhood-aligned Islamist group that rules Gaza and that Israel considers a terrorist organization. But Morsi has sought peace, not war, and few in Cairo interviewed Sunday seemed to think it should be any different.
From residents of a deeply conservative Cairo neighborhood to visitors at a memorial to the last major war between Egypt and Israel, almost no one was seeking war, no matter how strongly they condemned Israel.
“We are all against Israel,” said Adel Mohammed, 35, a music teacher who was chaperoning a squealing school group during a visit to the October War Panorama, a large memorial to what is mythologized in Egypt as a decisive victory over Israel in a 1973 conflict also known as the Yom Kippur War.
“But Morsi can help people in Gaza through aid or money. We don’t want to be involved in a war,” Mohammed said. “Egypt is not stable economically.”
The Egyptian government has been walking a fine line between giving as much support as possible to Hamas and Gaza without violating a 1979 peace treaty with Israel. The deal strictly limits Egypt’s military presence in the Sinai Peninsula, which borders the Gaza Strip and Israel. Many Egyptians resented Mubarak for what they saw as an overly subservient attitude toward the neighboring country. During Israel’s three-week military campaign against Gaza in 2008-2009, Mubarak was seen as acquiescing to it.
This time around, Morsi has recalled Egypt’s ambassador in Tel Aviv and sent his prime minister to visit Hamas’s offices in Gaza City, which were subsequently destroyed in an Israeli airstrike. He has been trying to broker a cease-fire and will host U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in Cairo on Monday. Also Monday, Mohamed Saad Katatny, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, will visit Gaza.
But Morsi has stopped well short of taking an aggressive military stance against Israel. Actions have been symbolic rather than explicit. On Sunday, the administrator of his Facebook page posted a photograph of him meeting with Lt. Gen. Reda Mahmoud Hafez, the Egyptian minister of state for military production, and another of him meeting with Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, the head of the Gaza-based Islamic Jihad movement, and Khaled Meshal, the leader of Hamas.
Inside the October War Panorama, whose grounds display Egyptian fighter jets and captured Israeli tanks, a narrator reads a triumphal account of the attack against Israel that started the 1973 war. That conflict ended with a cease-fire, Israel retaining control of most of the Sinai Peninsula, and both Egypt and Israel capturing each other’s territory.
The highlight of the exhibition is a diorama and 360-degree mural of a battle in which Egyptian forces overtook Israeli troops near the Suez Canal.
“Whenever I see it, I feel we are stronger than Israel,” said Mohammed Yusuf, 40, a civil servant who said he visits the monument annually. But, he said, he was not looking for war this time around.
“We have a peace deal, and we are committed to it,” he said.
Elsewhere in Cairo, in a northeast neighborhood that is a center of ultraconservative Salafi Islamic life in the city, attitudes toward the ongoing Gaza conflict were similarly mixed.
“The Israeli government is trying to test the Egyptians. They want to see what we will do if they go to war with Gaza,” said Abdel Aziz Matrawi, 24, a worker at an Islamic bookstore, where a sermon about the Israeli offensive blared on the radio.
“Mubarak slept 24 hours a day on a bed made by the Israelis,” Matrawi said, accusing the former president of collusion. “But our response will be diplomacy,” he said.
Two months ago, Matrawi’s neighborhood was a center for protests against an anti-Islam video that was made in the United States and posted on YouTube. The Salafi Nour party helped spur protests outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, sparking a wave of anti-American rallies in many Muslim-majority countries.
At the time, Morsi more clearly struggled between the need to appease an angry domestic audience and the desire to maintain billions of dollars of Western aid that streams into the country. It took days before a stern phone call from President Obama spurred Morsi to clamp down on the protests.
This time, anger in the neighborhood is far less impassioned, though some people say they are ready for a war with Israel if need be. More are worried about Egypt’s struggling economy.
“There are bigger priorities. We are coming out of a revolution. War is not logical right now,” said Abu Rawda, 45, a clothing seller who provided only his nickname.
Muhammad Mansour contributed to this report.