Egypt’s President Muhammad Morsi, a member of the same Muslim Brotherhood that gave birth to Palestine’s Hamas movement, has emerged as a key broker in the Gaza crisis. President Obama is said to have called him for the third time in 24 hours on Tuesday!
Morsi sympathizes with the stateless Palestinians, who are being kept without a state and without basic human rights by the right wing Israeli government. But more, he sympathizes with Hamas itself, which the US and Israel have branded a terrorist organization. Because the US has put Hamas on the terrorist list, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cannot talk to the government of Gaza (which seems rather stupid), and Morsi is therefore a key interlocutor.
Morsi and Hamas want an end to the Israeli blockade on Gaza, which prevents the Strip from exporting 99% of its products. Israel wants an end to the launching of small home-made rockets against its territory (these rockets occasionally injure people and cause property damage in nearby cities such as Sderot, and in the past decade killed some 26 victims before the outbreak of the current hostilities.) It is not clear that anyone in Gaza could actually deliver on a pledge to stop small guerrilla groups from launching home-made rockets.
Morsi is already being blamed by old-regime secularists in Egypt for failing to curb Muslim fundamentalist radicals in the Sinai Peninsula. If the Gaza conflict in some way spills over onto Sinai, Morsi would risk looking as though he is not in control, and would probably face strong opposition from the officer corps (much of which dislikes the Muslim Brotherhood).
Still, Morsi as president makes part of the big difference between Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2008-09 and today’s assault. In 08-09, the Palestinians had no real support from Egypt and of course the Israeli government and the Bush administration had it in for them. Hosni Mubarak and his right hand man Omar Sulaiman hated Hamas. When Israel attacked Gaza, they quickly closed the Rafah crossing and Egyptian troops actually shot dead two Palestinians trying to flee into Egypt from the bombing.
Egypt, at some 82 million (nearly the size of Germany), is the most populous Arab country, and it is still something of a thought leader for the Arab world. It has the biggest and best army in the Middle East, though there are virtually no Egyptians who would welcome war.
This time, Morsi has called the invasion a “farce,” and has swung into action to get a ceasefire. He sent his prime minister into Gaza to make a statement, and his government has allowed over a dozen foreign ministers and other high officials from the Middle East into the Strip to show their solidarity or explore negotiations. It is not entirely clear what chips he brings to the table with regard to Israel. Egypt and Israel don’t do that much trade with one another, and Morsi has few effective moves. He can keep Egypt’s ambassador to Israel at home and just play symbolic politics, though that step might not be effective.
As a last resort, he could always just go to Gaza himself, a step Palestinians are imploring him to take, calculating that Israel would not dare risk killing the president of Egypt with an errant air strike or in a land invasion.
Egypt has also taken some wounded Palestinians for treatment at El Arish, and some 500 activists from Egypt brought in food and other aid on Saturday.
If Morsi succeeds in brokering a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, that step would reinforce the US-Egyptian alliance and perhaps raise Egypt’s importance. If he fails, he could well face public anger in Egypt; and, he might face a new challenge from the Egyptian military.