Arab World: Morsi's dilemma

The Egyptian president needs to be seen as doing more against Israel than his predecessor.

Egyptian President Mohamad Morsy 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Stringer Egypt)
Egyptian President Mohamad Morsy 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Stringer Egypt)
Egypt lost no time in adopting a number of retaliatory measures following the killing of Ahmed Jabari, the strongman of Gaza. The Egyptian ambassador was recalled to Cairo – either for consultation or for an unlimited period – and Israel’s ambassador was called to the Foreign Affairs Ministry to receive an official protest. The Egyptian president turned to the secretary-general of the Arab League and demanded an urgent meeting of Arab foreign ministers to discuss what he calls the “criminal Israeli aggression” on Gaza, while instructing his ambassador to the United Nations to demand an immediate reunion of the Security Council.
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has taken all commonly used diplomatic steps to demonstrate his anger at Israel’s actions, while being careful not to go further – for the moment. There has been no attempt to sever diplomatic relations and no threat to the peace treaty. He did call on the United States to pressure Israel to “stop its aggression;” however, America had made it clear that it supported Israeli’s right to defend itself.
Egypt has no valid reason for initiating a further deterioration of its relations with Israel, which have nearly reached rock-bottom since the election of a president who cannot bring himself to utter the name “Israel.” There is today no dispute between the two countries and nothing to explain this state of affairs except for Muslim fanaticism and blind support for the Palestinians. Morsi knows well enough who started the present round of fighting – as well as the previous ones – but feels that Muslim/Arab solidarity demands a “suitable Egyptian response” to demonstrate to the Egyptian and Arab public that the Muslim Brothers stand by their traditional hostility toward Israel.
The Egyptian president must be seen as doing more than his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, who recalled his ambassador a number of times – from Operation Peace for the Galilee through the second intifada and more. Recalling the ambassador is becoming routine and is losing its effectiveness.
Yet unless something dramatic happens, one can cautiously predict that Egypt will not take further steps to endanger even more the relations between the two countries. Cooperation on issues having to do with terror – the only field in which the countries are still cooperating – will go on. At the same time, inflammatory rhetoric against Israel and Zionism will rise and mass demonstrations in Tahrir Square can be expected. The Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood has already called for a “million man march” after Friday’s prayers in the mosques. Not to be outdone, Sheikh Al-Azhar has added his voice to the chorus to show that he hates Israel as much as the Brothers do.
However, on the face of it, Morsi has no reason to encourage extremism – unless he intends to mortgage Egypt’s future to Islamic fanaticism. The country has never been in such dire straits and people are fast losing hope. Morsi can’t seem to find a way to deal with the economy and has not been able to bring the ongoing doctors’ strike – something unheard of before – to an end. In spite of his efforts, the draft of the constitution is still not ready. After five months in office, it is painfully clear that the president – and the Brotherhood – have no clue and no program to deal with burning economic issues.
Morsi is fighting blind, suggesting one scheme after another – such as early closure of shops and coffee houses to save electricity, which triggered an uproar among shopkeepers and customers alike.
There are dozens of strikes further weakening the economy and the country’s leaders don’t seem to know what to do. People are demanding the government be dismissed; liberal and secular forces are fighting the attempted Islamic takeover of the draft constitution and the imposition of Shari’a law.
Respected figures such as Mohamed ElBaradei and Amr Moussa have resigned from the constituent assembly.
The fact is that Morsi needs a peaceful border with Israel and continuing security cooperation in order to tackle terror in Sinai as well as the economy. It seems that he has had failed to come to an understanding with Hamas that would have put an end to the encroachment of jihadist militants in the peninsula. The army cannot seem to find a way to fight Islamic terror in Sinai and is itself under attack; there are almost daily assaults on police stations, road blocks and even army patrols. Morsi is now trying to open a dialogue with the jihadists in Gaza in order to find a compromise.
The present crisis comes at a very awkward time for the Egyptian president, who is desperately seeking to restore order in the peninsula. He cannot yet force Hamas – a movement which is, after all, an offshoot of the Muslim Brothers – to accept a compromise and yet must find a way to bring the shooting to an end without losing face. While violent diatribes are directed at Israel, furious negotiations are probably going on with Hamas, which has come to understand that it has gone too far this time and is paying the price. Morsi has recalled his chief of intelligence, who was in Turkey, and tasked him with shuttling between Hamas and Israel.
One hopes a solution will be found sooner than later, with Hamas proclaiming that it has made Israel suffer enough to leave with its pride intact. One hopes – since when tempers are so frayed and tension is so high, there is always the risk that reason will be thrown overboard and passion will take over.
The writer, a Fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden. •