The Gaza ceasefire deal reached on Wednesday marks a startling trajectory for Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi: an Islamist leader who refuses to talk to Israelis or even say the country’s name mediated for it and finally turned himself into Israel’s de facto protector.
The accord inserts Egypt to an unprecedented degree into the conflict between Israel and Hamas, establishing it as the arbiter ensuring that militant rocket fire into Israel stops and that Israel allows the opening of the long-blockaded Gaza Strip and stops its own attacks against Hamas.
In return, Morsi emerged as a major regional player. He won the trust of the US and Israel, which once worried over the rise of an Islamist leader in Egypt, but throughout the week-long Gaza crisis saw him as the figure most able to deliver a deal with Gaza’s Hamas rulers.
“I want to thank President Morsi for his personal leadership to de-escalate the situation in Gaza and end the violence,” US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who met Morsi on Wednesday, said at a Cairo press conference with Egypt’s foreign minister announcing the accord.
“This is a critical moment for the region. Egypt’s new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone of regional stability and peace,” she said.
After Israel launched its assault on Gaza a week ago, aimed at stopping militant rocket fire, Morsi’s palace in a Cairo suburb became the Middle East’s diplomacy central. He held talks with Turkey’s prime minister and the emir of Qatar, Germany’s foreign minister and a host of top Arab officials to get them behind his mediation. An Israeli envoy flew secretly into Cairo for talks with Egyptian security officials, though Morsi did not meet or speak directly with any Israelis. Throughout it all, Morsi and his aides sided openly with Hamas, accusing Israel of starting the assault and condemning its bombardment, which has killed more than 140 Palestinians. Five Israelis have been killed by Hamas rocket fire during the battle.
Morsi hails from the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most powerful political group and Hamas’ own parent organization. Brotherhood leaders, including Morsi, refuse to speak to Israeli officials. Morsi has not even said the name of the country publicly since he was inaugurated in late June, though he has referred to its people as “Israelis.”
In ideology, the Brotherhood supports the use of force against Israel to liberate “Muslim lands.” Only two months ago, the Brotherhood’s supreme leader, Mohammed Badie, proclaimed that regaining Jerusalem can “only come through holy jihad.”
The group opposes Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
However, since coming to power, the group has had to yield to pragmatism. The Brotherhood and Morsi have promised to abide by the peace accord. Through a military operation and through dialogue, Morsi has tried to rein in Islamic militants in the Sinai Peninsula who have attacked Egyptian security forces and staged attacks across the border into Israel.
When the Israeli offensive began, US President Barack Obama spoke to Morsi after talking to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. While Obama and Morsi disagreed over whom to blame for the violence, they agreed to work together to halt it.
That Israel was comfortable with an Islamist like Morsi mediating may not be a measure of trust as much as a realization that only the Egyptians can persuade their Hamas cousins to enter a deal and ensure an end to rocket attacks. The ceasefire announced on Wednesday defines Egypt as the “sponsor” of the deal to which each side would appeal over violations. That potentially puts Egypt in the uncomfortable position of ensuring militants in Gaza do not fire rockets. If the deal falls apart — whichever side is to blame — Egypt could face damage to its credibility or strained ties with one side or the other.
Egypt’s first freely elected president, Morsi also handled the Gaza conflict in a way starkly contrasting with his predecessor, longtime authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled nearly two years ago.
An ally of Israel and deeply opposed to Hamas, Mubarak’s regime helped Israel blockade Gaza after Hamas seized the territory in 2007. When Israel and Hamas last went to war in 2008, Mubarak was accused by critics of secretly supporting Israel’s ground offensive. During that offensive, far bloodier than the past week’s, Mubarak kept the sole border passenger crossing between Egypt and Gaza mostly shut, preventing some of the more seriously wounded Palestinians from receiving treatment in Egyptian hospitals. Mubarak’s regime was also wary of any deals that would legitimize Hamas’ rule in Gaza. Mubarak feared that a strong Hamas would embolden Islamists at home, particularly his nemesis, the Brotherhood.
Morsi has not completely thrown open the crossing as Hamas would like, but during the past week, Egypt let in wounded Palestinians and bolstered Hamas with waves of delegations entering Gaza to show their support — from Egyptian activists to the foreign ministers of Turkey, Qatar, Algeria, Sudan and others.
Morsi also dispatched his prime minister to Gaza soon after hostilities began on a heavily symbolic visit. A photograph of a tearful Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil kissing the lifeless body of a Palestinian child was splashed across the front page of every Cairo newspaper.