Morsi In The Middle
By Irris MaklerNovember 19, 2012
Muhammad Morsi, the man who sprang from the Arab Spring to lead Egypt, is at the centre of Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire talks. But Morsi has problems of his own.
Egypt’s new President Muhammad Morsi is a man with a lot on his plate. Egypt is in the midst of a constitutional crisis. Its economy is in freefall, and his popularity is not far behind. This weekend a train collided with a school bus carrying kindergarten children, leaving more than 50 dead, and Twitter is buzzing with enraged Egyptians telling Morsi to stop blaming these crises on the country’s poor infrastructure and to start doing something about it. And on top of all that, he has to resolve the current conflict in Gaza.
Egypt is the traditional mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, particularly between Israel and Hamas, who don’t talk to each other directly. But an additional complicating factor is that Morsi is a man of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas, which runs the Gaza strip, is the Brotherhood’s Palestinian off-shoot. Morsi is, naturally, close to Hamas, closer than he is to Israel, with which Egypt has a three-decade-old peace deal.
During the Gaza War of 2009, Morsi was one of the chief strategists of the Muslim Brotherhood’s opposition to how President Hosni Mubarak handled the crisis, supporting Israel and closing the border crossing between Egypt and Gaza. This time round, now President himself, Morsi said the new Egypt was not going to accept Israel’s old ways in Gaza.
“I say on behalf of all the Egyptian people that Egypt today is different from yesterday, and Arabs today are different from yesterday, and Muslims today are different to yesterday,” Morsi said at a suburban Cairo mosque after Friday prayers. The crowd cheered louder after each phrase. “I say confidently that Egypt will not leave Gaza alone.”
Morsi promised Israel would pay a “high price for continued aggression” and recalled Egypt’s ambassador from Tel Aviv. He sent his Prime Minister, Hisham Kandil, to Gaza for a solidarity visit on Friday.
“We identify with the pain of the Palestinian people,” said Kandil. “Egypt after the revolution is standing at the side of its brothers in Palestine.”
Most Hamas leaders went underground following Israel’s targeted killing of the leader of the Hamas military wing, Ahmed Jabaari, and its warning that no Hamas leader should consider himself safe. There was a sense in which Kandil acted as a human shield for Hamas leader Ismail Haniye, who emerged from hiding for the first time since the conflict had begun two days earlier. They were photographed together at sites bombed in Israeli air strikes and at Shifa hospital, Gaza’s main hospital.
Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images
There, they held a dead Palestinian child, four-year-old Mahmoud Sadallah, who died in these clashes (though exactly how is yet to be determined). Kandil said he was moved to tears, but he stayed in Gaza for only 90 minutes, and when he left there was no commitment to lift the restrictions at the border crossing between Israel and Egypt, or even to suspend commercial transactions with Israel as a precursor to freezing the peace deal, which Hamas had been hoping for.
Back in Egypt the next day, the collision between the train and the school bus put Gaza’s problems in perspective. Egyptians saw that more children were killed in one hour than had been killed by Israeli bombs in Gaza over the previous four days.
“The blood of people in Assiut is more important than Gaza,” said Sheik Muhammad Hassan, a village elder speaking near the wreckage of the destroyed bus.
Morsi was being called on to refocus efforts at home, at the same time as he was under pressure from Washington to bring Hamas to the negotiating table for a ceasefire.
“Egypt is now the most important actor in this story, even more than Israel,” said Zvi Mazael.
Mazael served as Israel’s ambassador to Egypt for eight years and is currently a researcher at the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs. “Egypt has so many deep, deep problems, it doesn’t need a conflict with Israel on top of all that. But all the countries of Islam and even Turkey speak very strongly against Israel, so within all this Morsi must find a way to give the minimum support to Hamas and to hold near to his heart the interests of Egypt.”
Morsi didn’t go to the scene of the collision, provoking an angry reaction on Egyptian talk-back radio; he chose instead to meet with foreign leaders to try and resolve the fighting in Gaza. For the first time ever, rockets fired from Gaza landed as far north as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. World leaders were becoming desperate to avert an Israeli ground offensive.
French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said, “War is not an option. There are two words — urgency and ceasefire.” He offered France’s help, but talked up Morsi as the mediator.
Morsi met with the leaders of Turkey and Qatar on Saturday, and summoned two Palestinian militant groups to Cairo — Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, a group with clout in Gaza, as well as a large stockpile of long-range rockets. Afterwards Morsi held a press conference and said there could soon be a ceasefire in Gaza, sparking rumours that a ceasefire deal was to be signed at midnight on Saturday. Midnight came and went without a truce.
There were more determined efforts on Sunday, which was the bloodiest day of the five-day-old offensive, with an upsurge in violence on both sides. Perhaps it was one last brutal convulsion, for it was also the day that an Israeli negotiator arrived in Cairo. There were relentless barrages of rockets into Israel, with more aimed at Tel Aviv. Casualties were low, because many of the missiles were stopped by a new interceptor system that Israel has been trialling called Iron Dome.
Palestinians reported that more than 20 people died in Gaza, 12 of them in one house, which was flattened in an Israeli airstrike targeting the homes of militants. There was a huge crater where a three-story house had once stood.
It was owned by Jamal Al Dalu, and 10 members of his family, including his four grandchildren, died there. Two neighbours were also killed in the blast. The Israeli military said it was investigating, as it appears they may have hit the wrong house. The militant they were seeking, Hamas rocket chief Yehiya Abia, lived next door.
It’s the end game now. President Barack Obama has suggested this conflict should be resolved over the next 24 to 48 hours. Then the two sides can retire to their corners, lick their wounds and see if this latest clash resolved anything, or if the stalemate will continue. And in Cairo, President Morsi can return to his own pressing national problems.
Irris Makler is the author of Hope Street Jerusalem. She blogs at hopestreet.com.au