Anniversaries are usually occasions for reflection and soul searching and the first anniversary since the passing of Mohamed Morsi is no exception. It evokes memories of his life and times, which culminated as Egypt’s first democratically elected civilian president. For Palestinians, his one year in office was filled with hope.
During his presidency, Egypt’s policy towards the blockade of the Gaza Strip changed drastically. The diplomatic isolation of the enclave was broken and Cairo’s support for the full restoration of Palestinian rights were upheld.
The first affirmation of this was made during Morsi’s inauguration address at Cairo University on 30 June 2012: “I announce from here that Egypt, its people and presidential institution stand with the Palestinian people until they regain all their rights.”
It must be recalled that after its signing of the Camp David Treaty in 1979, Egypt’s policy towards the conflict changed from being a supporter of Palestine to becoming a mediator between Israel and the Palestinian people.
Morsi was determined to reset his country’s orientation to one of active support, not for a ‘self-governing authority’ and ‘autonomy’ in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but the attainment of an independent sovereign Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital and the right of the refugees to return.
Regionally, one of the foremost challenges which the Morsi presidency faced was how to ease the hardship of the population of Gaza who have been blockaded by Israel since 2007.
Throughout this period, the Mubarak regime collaborated faithfully with Israel to maintain the cruel siege. In February 2008, his last foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, infamously warned in a statement carried by the state-run Middle East News Agency (MENA) that “Whoever breaks the border line will have his foot broken.”
In order to end the misery of Gaza’s 1.7 million population, the Morsi government recognised that the Rafah Crossing had to be opened permanently for the free movement of people and goods. They wasted no time in accelerating this process.
The new administration in Cairo quickly set about reversing the diplomatic isolation which Israel and the Mubarak regime had enforced. Foreign heads of state, ministers and international solidarity workers soon flocked to Gaza to render technical assistance and help in reconstruction projects.
In October 2012, Qatar’s Emir Tamir bin Hamad Al Thani crossed into the enclave from Egypt; he was the first regional leader to do so since the visit by King Hussein of Jordan in 1999.
Shortly after, during the Israeli assault on Gaza in November, Morsi warned:
“I tell them in the name of all the Egyptian people that the Egypt of today is not the Egypt of yesterday and that the Arabs of today are different than the Arabs of yesterday.”
In a show of calculated defiance and solidarity with the people of Gaza, Morsi sent his Prime Minister Hesham Qandil to the enclave that month. He was the first and highest ranking Egyptian official to enter the Gaza Strip since the Israeli occupation began in 1967. That visit was followed by an Arab League delegation which included Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. In January 2013, Egypt also facilitated a visit to Gaza by then Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Notwithstanding their political importance, all these visits concluded with significant economic aid to the territory.
Normalisation and resistance
To understand the decisions Morsi took and the price he paid for doing so, it must be recalled that long before the 25 January uprising, he was well-known for his support of Palestine. In fact, he was a founding member of the Egypt Council for Resistance Against the Zionist Project.
It is no coincidence, therefore, that the countries which bankrolled the military coup that toppled Morsi – the UAE and Saudi Arabia – are the same ones which today are leading the Arab campaign to normalise relations with Israel.
Morsi was clearly an undesirable obstacle to their plan.
Yet, as far as he was concerned, the Palestinian people had a right to resist the occupation, as long as they acted in accordance with international conventions and human rights law. For this reason, he encouraged the Palestinian factions to unite.
For Morsi, Palestinian reconciliation and unity was fundamental for the renewal of their national project. Furthermore, he was convinced that it would help insulate the Palestinian leadership from Israeli and American pressure in their decision-making.
Unsurprisingly, it took the Morsi administration just three months to broker the Fatah-Hamas Cairo Agreement in October 2012. That agreement was designed to ensure the reformation of the PLO, inclusion of all factions in its ranks, adherence to democratic processes, and representation for all Palestinians, including the refugees.
Neither Israel or its regional and international backers welcomed the agreement.
Throughout his term as President of Egypt, Morsi never pressured the PLO and Abbas to engage in the futile cycle of negotiations with Israel as his predecessor and successor have done. He knew it was a waste of time because of Israel’s deception and refusal to end its settlement expansion.
At the same time, Morsi urged the Palestinian Authority not to bow to Israeli pressure to undermine or obstruct the resistance. Whereas the Mubarak regime had negotiated, unsuccessfully, for five years to secure the release of the captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, it was under the auspices of Morsi’s government that an exchange deal was struck; resulting in the release of 1,027 Palestinian detainees from Israeli jails.
After the July 2013 coup many of the released prisoners were rearrested without a whimper of protest from the Sisi regime.
On the first anniversary of Mohamed Morsi’s passing, many Palestinians quite rightly imagine what their reality would have looked like today if he was still here. Would the Gaza Strip still be under Israeli-Egyptian lockdown? Would Israel have dared to contemplate annexing the West Bank and Jerusalem?
All of these were anathema to Morsi and it was for this reason and others Israel and its Arab collaborators conspired to topple him.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.