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Egypt and Gaza between aggression and appeasement

January 25, 2014 at 2:10 am

Israel’s latest aggression against the Gaza Strip was not just a military assault on occupied land which has a geo-strategic link with Egypt, but it also presented a serious and deliberate challenge to the Egyptian President and his administration. President Mohamed Morsi needs to secure a difficult and complex balancing act through his ability to adopt policies which can help to prevent Israeli aggression without escalating it, whilst maintaining his support for the Palestinians as much as possible with minimum or no cost at all. He must be careful not to undermine the existing understanding with Washington, or to thwart the stagnant but anxious peace with Israel. Morsi must also avoid risky military confrontation. Ultimately, he has to maintain a balance of trust and popular support for his administration at home.

Resistance surge

The qualitative development in the performance of the Palestinian resistance to Israel’s offensive against Gaza is nothing short of remarkable in terms of its resilience and refusal to rush for a truce. It’s use of accurate, sophisticated missile launchers such as Fajr and Katyusha, which have a longer range and greater destructive impact, in addition to anti-aircraft missiles, has given the resistance access to areas in the heart of Israel such as Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem. Moreover, it has laser-guided missiles, as well as the ability to hide underground.

The missiles’ capabilities have given the Palestinian resistance greater accuracy in target selection, whereby its missiles no longer fall on farms or desert areas; they can now aim for strategic targets up to 100 kilometres away.  The Al-Qassam Brigades announced that they shot down an Israeli reconnaissance plane flying over the Gaza Strip during Israel’s bombardment, as well as an Apache helicopter.

Thanks to this qualitative development in military capabilities and operational performance, backed politically by Egypt and other Arab states, the Palestinian resistance was able to achieve a certain deterrence factor for the first time against Israel.

This new strategic situation has had a profound impact on strengthening the Palestinians’ negotiating cards with Israel and the international community. It has contributed significantly towards capping the Israeli aggression and preventing further escalation, affording the Arab and Muslim countries a wider diversity of options and more space to manoeuvre when trying to exert pressure on Israel and its allies.

Egypt rises up

It is indisputable that the official Egyptian reaction to Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip was very different to that of any previous Israeli aggression. In addition to the rapid response, the new Egyptian administration take on the offensive reflected three parallel directions:

First, its removal of any restrictions on relief work, formal and informal, with the opening of the Rafah border crossing around the clock for goods and people alike. Egyptian hospitals were then set up in Rafah and El-Arish during the period of high alert, and provided facilities for food and medical aid to the people of Gaza.

Second, President Morsi was eager to avoid the tactics of his ousted predecessor with regard to dealing with Israeli aggression on Gaza, with various considerations. Being the first civilian president elected after a popular revolution, one of his objectives was to revitalise Egypt’s regional role and curb Israel’s arrogance, in bringing more balance and equality in its relationship with the United States. This was in addition to the organic relationship and historical link between the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, of which Morsi is a member, and Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement in Palestine.

Egypt took an escalatory punitive stance almost immediately, threatening to withdraw the Egyptian Ambassador from Tel Aviv hours before the actual Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip. This was followed by a ground-breaking visit to Gaza by the Prime Minister at the height of Israel’s bombardment.  After that came the visit  of a high-level delegation of Egyptian civil and political society figures, which confirmed Egyptian solidarity with the Palestinians and sent an important message to Israel and the United States that Egypt today is not like Egypt before the revolution; it can not accept such aggression and will not hesitate to support the Palestinian people.

Finally, the liberation of formal political discourse in Egypt allowed a declaration of the country’s full support for Gaza and the resistance, which will not be abandoned. Moreover, Egypt’s ambassador to the Palestinian Authority,  Yasser Othman, stressed that Egypt is not a neutral intermediary between Israel and the Palestinians; it is a supporter of the latter.  This statement may have induced critical responses to the US President’s demand for his counterpart in Cairo to mediate and put pressure on Hamas to prevent the worsening of the crisis.

The government in Cairo appears to have abandoned its previously meek role, which was limited to receiving orders from Washington or Tel Aviv in order to impose conditions on the Palestinians or persuade them to agree to an unfair truce. This was made clear after the announcement of the ceasefire, whereby Khaled Meshaal praised Cairo’s stance and President Morsi’s role in supporting the Palestinian position and the realisation of the truce. He stressed that Morsi did not put any undue pressure on the Palestinian negotiators and did not seek to impose any solutions or conditions on them.

Israeli snare

The speed and rigour which characterised President Morsi’s response to the Israeli aggression is a clear sign that Netanyahu failed to embarrass him in front of the Egyptian people and the Palestinians.

Just as his predecessors did, Netanyahu tried to ensnare the new Egyptian leadership into an absurd dialogue concerning a truce and the resumption of peace negotiations; such a trap often precedes aggression against the Palestinians.  The strategy was used to suggest that Israel and Egypt have coordinated assaults against the Palestinians.

Perhaps President Morsi was aware that Netanyahu sought to test Cairo’s new attitude towards Israel and its expected tolerance of Israeli provocations,  in Gaza or through raising tensions in the Sinai.  That scheme was evident ever since Morsi took office, when Tel Aviv tried to leak some secret correspondence and contacts with senior Israeli officials, which showed an apparent “closeness” on the part of the new administration, in spite of the official position as stated to Egyptians.

Maybe Morsi knew that Israel and the international community were trying to land him in hot water while relying on Cairo to defuse tension in the region, sensing Israeli plans to embarrass him and undermine his credibility in front of his people with respect to his post-Arab Spring relationship with Tel Aviv and  Washington.

Although a second-term US President like Barack Obama should enjoy more freedom in foreign policy, as he does not have to think about winning a third term in office and succumb to pressure from the pro-Israel lobby, conditions on the ground indicate that nothing has changed. US support for Israel, right or wrong, is at the core of American foreign policy.  The Democrats need to maximise their chances of staying in the White House when Obama’s term expires.

Thus, Netanyahu has put president Morsi in a corner, where he has to balance and defend his popularity at home with his national and Islamic inclinations to support the people of Gaza, while not escalating tension with Israel or damaging the relationship with the US.

The biggest winner

If we assume that all parties have gained from the ceasefire agreement between the Palestinian resistance and Israel, then we may claim that Egypt and its President are the biggest benefactors. Not because they were the first to understand and embrace it, but because each party has paid a price. In this respect, Egypt has taken the lion’s share at the lowest cost.

While the Netanyahu government avoided the inevitable security,  political and humanitarian repercussions of a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, its strikes against the Palestinian resistance infrastructure were painful.  Nevertheless, Israel suffered fatalities and was forces to seek a ceasefire.  The weakness of the famed “Iron Dome” missile defence system have caused new controversy within Israeli political and security circles, who are questioning its relevance and effectiveness. Opposition leader Shaul Mofaz has described Netanyahu’s military offensive against Gaza as a failure.

Aside from revealing the resistance’s deterrence capabilities, albeit at a high cost to the infrastructure and civilian population, the response to Israel’s aggression has improved the chances of Palestinian reconciliation and an improved relationship between Fatah and Hamas.

As for Egypt, opportunities to escalate steps against Israel were restricted due to the worsening of Israel’s violations and acts of aggression.  Even so, in the context of the historical juncture and complexities of the transitional phase post-Mubarak, President Morsi has succeeded in avoiding the Israeli trap and achieving the difficult balance of showing full support for the Palestinians and reining in Israeli arrogance, while showing independence in the face of US pressures and dictates over Egypt’s regional role as a peace maker and beacon of stability. This was instrumental in maintaining his popularity within his country whilst attracting the admiration and appreciation of the outside world.

From this, many observers have opined that the positive consequences of the revolution of January 2011 have been demonstrated clearly and at a faster pace in Egypt’s foreign policy under President Morsi than anyone could really have anticipated.

The author is an Egyptian academic and researcher at Al Ahram Center for Political Studies and Strategy. This article is a translation from the Arabic which appeared on al Jazeera 22 November 2012

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.