Cairo's Balancing Act Egypt Faces Fraught Diplomatic Test
The outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence poses a delicate diplomatic challenge for the Egyptian government. While the powerful Muslim Brotherhood is sympathetic to Hamas and public anger is swelling in Egypt against the Israeli military operation in Gaza, President Morsi is also under international pressure to help broker a ceasefire and safeguard peace in the region.
Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil spent three hours visiting the Gaza Strip on Friday morning. Despite agreeing to a ceasefire during Kandil's brief visit with Hamas leaders, Israeli air strikes continued there, while Hamas fired further rockets at Israel.
Three days into what Israel is calling "Operation Pillar of Defense" the prime minister traveled to the region to mediate a truce between Israel and Hamas. A further reason Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi -- a former Muslim Brotherhood leader -- dispatched the prime minister to Gaza was to show solidarity with the Palestinian people.
It remains to be seen if Kandil's efforts to broker a ceasefire will be successful. But his very presence in Gaza is evidence that Egyptian President Morsi is acutely concerned about the ramifications, particularly in light of the Arab Spring, of this latest flare-up in Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Changing Power Structures
The current conflict recalls the war of 2008-2009, when Jerusalem chose to retaliate with a military strike against continued rocket and mortar fire from Gaza shortly after a US election and just months ahead of an election in its own country.
But there has been a shift in power structures since 2008. When "Operation Cast Lead" was launched, Egypt was still led by its long-standing despot, President Hosni Mubarak, a friend to Israel in its fight against the Palestinian Islamists he himself had reason to fear, and a staunch upholder of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty signed in 1979.
In 2007, when Hamas seized power, he ignored the plight of the civilian population and closed Egypt's border to Gaza -- shrugging off the objections of the Egyptian people.
Morsi is taking a different approach. His power base is sympathetic to the Palestinians and to Hamas, and he cannot afford to ignore their demands.
Hence Morsi's condemnation of the murder of Hamas' military leader Ahmed Jabari on Wednesday and of Israel's ongoing assault on the Gaza Strip. Cairo recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv the same day, with Morsi urging both the UN Security Council and the Arab League to react immediately.
Hamas welcomed Egypt's response. "This is a new Egypt," said Hamas Prime Minster Ismail Haniyeh on Thursday. But for many in Egypt, Morsi has not gone far enough. Thousands took to the streets of Cairo on Thursday calling on the government to take a stronger stance against its neighbor.
A Diplomatic Balancing Act
Cairo's western allies have made it clear that they expect Egypt to exert diplomatic influence on Hamas. Whether or not Morsi manages to bridge the gap between the expectations of his supporters and the demands of Egypt's international alliance policies will indicate where Cairo's Muslim Brotherhood is planning to position itself in the Middle East's political landscape.
On Friday, the Egyptian media reported that Kandil was planning to present Hamas with a ceasefire plan which foresees Egypt committing itself to opening its Rafah border crossing with Gaza to goods. For the time being, it is only open to people, which means that Israel controls imports into Gaza -- and therefore, effectively, the entire economy of territories that are home to 1.5 million Palestinians.
If Hamas has its way, this will change. The Islamists will only be able to remain in power if the economic situation in Gaza improves. An open border with Egypt and a reliable market for products "Made in Gaza" would guarantee the movement's political survival. Some observers assume that Hamas renewed its firing of rockets on Israel in summer specifically in order to provoke an Israeli offensive, in the hope that it would end with a ceasefire with more favorable terms.
According to Egyptian media reports, Morsi's plan is to take Hamas to task on the Sinai question in return for opening the Rafah border crossing. The Sinai Peninsula is home to extremists, some of whom have ties to al-Qaida, which poses a growing problem for Egypt. It would be in Cairo's interest if Hamas relinquished its support of these Islamist militias.
On Wednesday, Israel launched an assault against targets in the Gaza Strip which has already claimed 20 Palestinian lives. Its aim is to stop Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel. In recent days, hundreds of rockets have rained down on the south of the country, killing 3 Israelis. On Friday, as Hamas militants in Gaza said they had fired long-range rockets at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Israel appeared to be edging closer to a ground invasion, with the army calling up 16,000 reservists.