Egypt's Gaza balancing act

Lee Sustar looks at Egypt's role in trying to halt the Israeli onslaught against Gaza.

Egyptian President Mohamed MorsiEgyptian President Mohamed Morsi

EGYPT SENT a message to Gaza and the world when its foreign minister, Mohamed Kamel Amr, visited the besieged Palestinian territory amid Israel's brutal air war. The Egyptian government appears to have played a central role in the push for a cease-fire that was floated on November 20--even as Israel stepped up its attacks on unarmed civilians.

The imagery of Egyptian officials in Gaza suggested that post-revolutionary Egypt will be more assertive when dealing with Israel over Palestine, marking its distance from the Egypt-Israel peace deal of 1978, which Egyptian dictators Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak used to keep a lid on the Palestinian struggle ever since.

But there may be less to Egypt's boldness than meets the eye. While Egypt is attempting to stake out a more independent foreign policy role in the Middle East, there are definite limits to its willingness to stray from Washington's line.

Israel is constrained, too. Despite its aerial blitzkrieg and the bloodthirsty and even genocidal rhetoric of Israeli politicians, the country's military brass are loath to risk the defeat they suffered in the Lebanon war of 2006 or face the kind of international backlash that followed Israel's 2008-09 onslaught against Gaza. Israel's horrific but still limited attack can be seen not just as a probe of Hamas' military capabilities, but also a test of Egypt and other Arab governments in the wake of the Arab Spring.

For these reasons, the conventional wisdom is that a cease-fire will take shape in the coming days. Certainly an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza is still possible given the inherent unpredictability of military conflict. Nevertheless, it appears likely that a deal will be reached, with Egypt playing the role as mediator.

Both sides have an incentive to settle. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is wary of a spike in casualties from a ground war in advance of Israeli elections in January. He can claim "victory" on the basis of the slaughter so far. As of November 20, 128 Palestinians, including at least 54 civilians, had been killed in Israel's 1,500 air strikes, with 840 wounded, including 225 children.

For Netanyahu, attacking Gaza is a calculated risk--one with domestic benefits, but also dangers if wider war ensues. It's also a surrogate for a war with Iran, which Israel claims is the source of Hamas' rockets. Since the U.S. won't okay a preemptive attack on Iran, murdering defenseless people in Gaza will have to suffice for Netanyahu.

For its part, the U.S. wants to contain the conflict. President Barack Obama is sincere in his ceaseless statements of support for Israel. Still, he would prefer to stabilize Morsi's Egypt under renewed U.S. tutelage rather than see an Israeli onslaught provoke a wider military and diplomatic crisis today. Moreover, with Syria embroiled in a civil war; mass resistance taking shape in Jordan, another U.S. ally; and a continued U.S. confrontation with Iran; Obama needs to play for time.

As for Palestine, Khaled Meshal, leader of the Islamist Hamas party that runs Gaza, can claim to have taken resistance to a new level with rocket attacks that hit near Jerusalem and Tel Aviv--even though the weapons were relatively ineffective, at least when compared with the Israeli military machine.

Certainly Hamas' military capabilities upstage the efforts by the rival Fatah faction that runs the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Fatah, which presides over a notoriously corrupt government, seeks recognition of Palestinian statehood by appealing to the United Nations General Assembly.

While perhaps symbolically important, the move at the UN, if successful, would have little material impact on the lives of Palestinians, and it wouldn't establish an independent Palestinian state. Hamas, by contrast, has dramatically strengthened its claim to lead the Palestinian national movement.

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THE INCENTIVES for Israel and Hamas to avoid an all-out war has given Egypt room to resume its traditional role as a mediator between the two sides. Yet while Morsi can voice support for Hamas--which shares a common political heritage with the Muslim Brotherhood Morsi leads--the dynamics are familiar.

First, the Egyptian brokers in the crisis include the country's intelligence chief, Mohammed Shehata, a product of the Mubarak era. Figures like Shehata have connections with Israel and continue to play a role in limiting Gaza's access to the world. The revolution has compelled the Egyptian military to tone down its dealings with Israel, but the connections continue.

Indeed, the military in recent months seemed to be leading Morsi into a rapprochement with Israel. While it was in the opposition to the Mubarak regime and facing repression, Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood was critical of Mubarak's close ties to Israel. But in the months prior to the Israeli onslaught, Morsi himself restated Egypt's commitment to the Camp David accords that led to peace between Egypt and Israel. He even sent a message to Israeli President Simon Peres that left-wing critics denounced as a "love letter." The tunnels used to allow in food and medicine into Gaza have been destroyed by Egypt, but Rafah, the main entry point from Egypt, has only partially been reopened.

The U.S. is pushing Morsi toward continued engagement with Israel. Egypt remains the second-biggest recipient of U.S. military aid after Israel--about $1.7 billion per year--and Washington is determined to keep Cairo anchored to U.S. foreign policy in the region. That, of course, means support for Israel. And it's the U.S. that greenlighted a pending $48 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan to Egypt.

Israel's attack on Gaza, however, destabilized this arrangement. Morsi is under pressure, not only from the left and a renewed strike movement, but also from remnants of the old regime, who are trying to repackage themselves as secular nationalists. These elements accuse the government of giving free reign to militant jihadist fighters that have attacked Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula.

As Mostafa Ali, a Cairo journalist and activist, said:

They claim the turmoil in Sinai and the Islamist attacks on the Egyptian army and security forces as part of a grand scheme to sever Sinai from Egypt in order to establish an independent "Islamic state."

On the other hand, the pressure on Morsi to cut all diplomatic relations with Israel is not massive--despite widespread indignation at the massacres. The Brotherhood has a mass base which is trying to balance denunciation of Israel with warnings not to be "prematurely" dragged into a war we are not ready for. The head of the Brotherhood's political party--the former speaker of the dismantled People's Assembly--visited Gaza and denounced the "Zionist enemy," using strong words.

If leading Brotherhood figures and government officials are in Gaza, it's because public pressure has forced them there. As Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif wrote:

Large groups of young Egyptians have been heading for Gaza; my youngest niece is one of them. Like the efforts of the world's civil society to send ships to Gaza, young Egyptian civilians with a passion for freedom are going to support their friends. And on a more "official" level, medics and pharmacists have already arrived there.

In fact, an aid convey of 500 people, most of them Egyptian, moved into Gaza on November 19.

With that kind of activism--which taps popular opinion in Egypt--Morsi has little choice but to show some measure of support for Palestinians in Gaza, even as he carries out diplomatic maneuvers. In fact, the ambiguity in Morsi's policy towards Gaza is a reflection of the contradictions within the Muslim Brotherhood. As Sameh Naguib of Egypt's Revolutionary Socialists wrote recently:

The Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamists are conservative populists who opposed and appeased the old regime.

There are deep contradictions within and between the various Islamist currents--between their bourgeois leadership, their petty bourgeois rank and file, and their large constituencies in the working class and the poor neighborhoods. These contradictions were always contained by ambiguous religious slogans.

But the economy and class struggle in Egypt--and now, the Israeli war on Gaza--are making it difficult for Morsi to continue rely on slogans to paper over those contradictions.

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MORSI'S BALANCING act was on display to the world as Israel escalated its attacks on Gaza. Solidarity statements notwithstanding, the Brotherhood has not questioned the Camp David accords. And there's no talk of Egypt cutting off its natural gas sales to Israel in response to the attack on Gaza.

Instead, Morsi is following the example of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who, while remaining a U.S. ally, has pursued a more independent foreign policy. According to Ali:

The Egyptian government made a strategic decision to maintain a strategic relationship with the U.S., but with a major difference from Mubarak. They aim to create a space to become more independent in foreign policy, a la Turkey--and specifically in partnership with Turkey. The Turkish prime minister was here two days ago, and said that Egypt and Turkey could contain Israel without the need to rely on the U.S. as a foreign broker."

To be sure, Turkey is pursuing its own interests in the Middle East, which don't always square with Washington's goals. But following the debacle in Iraq, the U.S. has nevertheless been forced to rely on Turkey, a NATO member, to secure Western interests.

Further, the post-revolutionary Arab governments, along with regimes worried about popular democratic movements, are also visibly showing their support. A $400 million investment in Gaza by the Gulf monarchy of Qatar--another U.S. ally--shows that the political playing field in the Middle East is now considerably more complicated for both the U.S. and Israel.

The widespread diplomatic and political support for Gaza is the product of nearly two years of revolutionary upheaval in the region and an expression of the popular mood. Of course, many of the political leaders involved are engaging in cynical maneuvers, and hope to contain the Palestinian struggle today as the old regimes did in decades past.

Even so, the public pledges of government support for Gaza open the way for a revived and expanded solidarity movement, including the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement aimed at breaking economic ties to Israel to protest its apartheid policies.

For the first time in decades, politicians in Egypt and elsewhere feel pressured to give voice to the widespread sympathy for Palestinians. They will limit their action to rhetorical support and some financial aid, biding their time until the normal course of diplomacy resumes.

However, millions of people in Egypt may well draw different conclusions--that it's time to match the promises of solidarity with action, starting with ending Egypt's ties to Israel. Because for all the war's horrific consequences, the reaction to Israel's attack has shown the world that Gaza is not alone.

The change may not come quickly. But it has begun.