Middle East

Egypt's Mursi has scarce room for action on Gaza

Egyptian protesters shout slogans and hold up Palestinian flags during a protest against Israel's ongoing military operation in the Gaza Strip, at Tahrir square in Cairo November 16, 2012. Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi denounced Israel's attacks on the Gaza Strip as "a blatant aggression against humanity" and said Cairo "would not leave Gaza on its own", the state news agency MENA reported. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

CAIRO: Egypt's ruling Islamists are working for a truce in Gaza to show off their regional clout and reassure major donor the United States, but stern rhetoric against Israel to appease an angry support base is unlikely to translate into serious action.

Formulating a response to Israeli strikes on Gaza presents a dilemma for the Muslim Brotherhood, the group which propelled President Mohamed Mursi to office and spent years criticising ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak for cosying up to Israel.

The Islamists now have to live up to their decades-old opposition to Israel but balance that with the realities of running a nation by avoiding escalating tensions on the border or angering Washington, a major benefactor to Egypt's army.

Those realities of office will for now prevail over decision making, even if some Brotherhood sympathisers harbour longer-term dreams of renegotiating a 1979 peace treaty signed between Israel and Egypt.

Mursi, who took office in June, has recalled his ambassador to Israel and his prime minister visited Gaza on Friday in a show of solidarity. But even Mubarak pulled out his envoy from Tel Aviv twice without putting the treaty at risk.

"The current leadership and the Muslim Brotherhood are not willing to jeopardize relations with America," a senior Muslim Brotherhood official with close ties to the presidency but who spoke on condition of anonymity told Reuters.

"Gaza will remain a national security issue that Egypt's general intelligence services are in charge of. The presidency follows this arrangement for now," he said.

The army, which receives $1.3 billion in aid from the United States each year, remains in the driving seat over national security issues such as ties with Israel, even if Mursi clipped the military's wings in August by sacking some top generals.

U.S. officials in Washington told Reuters Mursi had spent months trying to pin down a date to meet U.S. President Barack Obama so he could burnish his credentials as a moderate Islamist, without success.

Following his phone call with Obama, Mursi issued the decision to send his prime minister to Gaza, a move U.S. officials said may have stemmed from Obama's push to do everything possible to defuse the situation.

Egyptian officials briefed on the call said the presidents did not see eye to eye over who was responsible for the situation in Gaza but agreed that the escalation must stop.


Israeli officials say privately that security contacts between Egypt and Israel have continued since Mubarak was toppled and even under Mursi, even if Israel's ties with Cairo, which were never warm, have turned even cooler.

"In the end, it is up to both sides to come to an agreement ... which would be in everybody's interest," said a security official in Cairo, adding that Egyptian officials were working on reinstating a broken truce between Hamas and Israel.

A delegation of Egyptian intelligence officials met with Hamas representatives in Gaza on Friday, along with Prime Minister Hisham Kandil.

Presidential spokesman Yasser Ali said diplomacy to "reach a truce" was one of the main tracks Egypt was following.

"Egypt is following several paths to end the violations and aggression of Israel on Gaza. At the forefront is intensive diplomacy involving the most effective countries in the Arab world and abroad," he said.

Egypt has limited options beyond largely symbolic measures such as recalling its ambassador from Tel Aviv or rallying support at the Cairo-based Arab League, where it can try to rebuild a reputation as a regional diplomatic powerhouse, a status that waned under Mubarak.

"Recalling the ambassador is a classic symbolic move by Mursi to prevent an outburst from Islamists at home," said Khalil Anani, Egypt analyst at Britain's Durham University.

"The truce he is trying to establish shows the Brotherhood leadership to be realistic and pragmatic, able to put aside its ideology for the sake of maintaining a steady foreign policy."

Even some of the most outspoken voices among Brotherhood sympathisers have urged caution from the group's backers, albeit couched in more confrontational language for the longer term.

"Be patient as the companions of the Prophet have been patient in their time," said preacher Safwat Hegazy, who backed Mursi's election, telling followers "we are building a state that needs years and years of intense efforts."

"The Egyptian army cannot intervene in Palestine now. We cannot go to Jerusalem to fight," he said in remarks on Facebook.

However, Egypt may have room to put extra pressure on Israel, such as threatening to ease restrictions on passage into Gaza. Until now, Mursi's government has shown little interest. It has even smashed some tunnels used to smuggle supplies and people to and from the enclave.

Israel Hasson, former deputy head of Israeli internal security and a lawmaker with the Kadima party who has handled sensitive mediation with Egypt, said Egypt could act without cutting ties.

"They could certainly come along and say that agreements which deal with the border crossings are not currently in force and they are opening the border and beginning to move things on behalf of their fighting Hamas brothers," he said.

Senior Muslim Brotherhood member Medhat el-Hadad also indicated that Egypt would seek to act "without severing ties."

"While he cannot change the compass of relations right away ... he is calling world leaders to ensure Gaza is a priority for them as well," said Haddad.

For years, the cornerstone for Mubarak's foreign policy was the peace treaty with Israel, used as a tool to speak to all sides in the conflict and act as a mediator.

Though the treaty with Israel has kept the peace for more than three decades, many Egyptians grumble about some of its provisions, including limits to the security forces Egypt can deploy in the Sinai border region.

During Egypt's presidential election, several politicians ranging from Islamists to leftists and liberals suggested the treaty should be amended but few said it should be torn up.

Mursi has rarely even referred to Israel by name in his public comments. The Brotherhood, from which he resigned on becoming president, calls it a racist and expansionist state, describing it in public documents as the "Zionist entity."

But, with an economy on the ropes, Mursi has little interest in being distracted by an escalation with Egypt's neighour, although he is now having to focus more closely on those ties.

"He is trying to avoid the Palestinian-Israeli issue. But now he has to face it," said Anani.





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