CAIRO — At the time of writing this article, Egypt remains at the heart of tense negotiations for a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel. The Israeli airstrikes on Gaza have thus far left more than 100 dead Palestinians, more severely injured, buildings and infrastructure with real damage, while Hamas’ rockets have caused five fatalities and a number of injuries on the Israeli side. The latest batch of news claims a cease-fire will take place tonight, and that “80%” of the details have been ironed out. Then again, nothing is certain in our times.
This is certainly not the first time that Egypt has found itself involved or caught in the middle between Israel and the Palestinians, and the Egyptian state certainly knows its way to a considerable extent around the Israeli-Palestinian maze. But the circumstances today are quite different from two years ago. Egypt today is a quite different Egypt from two years ago.
Most obviously, Egypt is now headed by an Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, hailing from the very same Muslim Brotherhood that has traditionally held a strong stance against the accommodating Mubarak-era policy toward Israel and the peace treaty, and an uncompromising position toward the Palestinian cause. And unlike the Mubarak regime which preferred the nationalist Fatah and PLO, Egypt’s Brotherhood has long enjoyed long warm relationships with Hamas, both of which share an Islamist ideological connection. Supporters of the Brotherhood and many of its ranks have spoken regularly of the “liberation of Palestine,” and the Islamist camp in general sees the Palestinian cause as inseparable from the Egyptian one. Islamists are also generally predicted to maintain a majority in the coming parliamentary elections
The regional dynamics that Egypt finds itself in have also both changed and are changing. Islamist movements are on the ascendancy across the Arab world, have already gained power in countries like Tunisia or are at least causing traditional regimes quite a difficult time in countries like Jordan.
Moreover, Turkey has been moving closer toward the Arab Spring countries, while its ties with Israel have gone sour. Qatar has been seeking to establish itself as the region’s new power broker, evidenced by the recent visit of the Emir of Qatar himself to Gaza and pledging his support, but it is unclear how far Qatar’s money will carry it.”
And surely enough, a few things were different this time. Egypt withdrew its ambassador to Israel (Mubarak did that as well in 2000, and SCAF appeared to chaotically consider the idea in August 2011 following the what has been described as accidental deaths of Egyptian troops by Israeli forces in pursuit of Palestinian militants). Official rhetoric was not minced, stood squarely on the side of Gaza and was not at all hostile toward Hamas, while Morsi vowed that Egypt would “not leave Gaza on its own.”
Moreover, in an historic and unprecedented move, Egypt sent its Prime Minister Hisham Qandil to a dangerous Gaza before a cease-fire was agreed upon. Qandil quite warmly met with Hamas officials, witnessed the human and local damage firsthand, visited hospitals and emotionally expressed solidarity with Gaza. The heads of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party even made their way to Gaza to express solidarity. Moderate Islamist former presidential candidate Abdel Mon’eim Abul-Fotouh and head of the Strong Egypt Party headed a relief effort to the strip, while humanitarian convoys from Egypt’s non-Islamist parties and political movements made their way to Gaza as well. Sunday night, about 500 Egyptians from different ideological backgrounds made their way relatively unobstructed into Gaza across the border checkpoint, captured on video tearfully chanting in support of Gaza from inside the embattled strip, and offering whatever assistance they can, many of whom are activists from the January 25 Revolution.
This would have been unimaginable under Mubarak. Things have profoundly changed, and everyone is just beginning to realize that.
Nevertheless, and beneath all of this, the climax of the official rhetoric was basically that Egypt was working on a cease-fire and a truce. There was no talk of Egypt getting involved militarily or severing the peace treaty with Israel, or any of the sort of rhetoric that some commentators were worried about. In fact, the overarching theme was a genuine desire for things to just calm down at any cost. Egypt had already been negotiating a permanent truce between Hamas and Israel before the current crisis flared up, and recent reports claimed breakthroughs were being made at the time of the assassination of Hamas military chief Ahmed al-Jabari.
A month ago, Morsi surprised everyone and made headlines with a verily cordial and locally controversial letter sent to his Israeli counterpart on the event of the recent appointment of the new Egyptian ambassador to Israel. In the letter penned in the name of the president, Peres was described as a “great friend,” and mentions flowed of peace and amicable relations between both countries (the contents of the letter were explained as largely following protocol). Earlier in late September, the presidential spokesman said there were no needs to amend the peace accords with Israel. Before that, both the President and the Brotherhood assured the world that Egypt was abiding by all of its treaties. There were just no signs of an antagonistic intention.
The potential reasons why Egypt’s presidency and government appear to be walking this tightrope are manifold. For example, the state’s foreign service and security agencies remain predominantly staffed with longtime personnel who are likely to be more comfortable with a calmer approach to foreign policy and the Palestinian matter. The army remains an independent institution nonetheless despite the ouster of Field Marshall Tantawi and his immediate circle, and is not likely to encourage any escalatory approach either. The difficult realities of the Egyptian economy and the much-needed multilateral aid and loan negotiations Egypt is involved in is another. The constitutional crisis the country is facing and looming parliamentary elections are two more. The realities of running a country, especially a country at a bottleneck and in a globalized world, are apparently a pragmatizing influence on a former hard-line opposition.
How and how far can the new Egypt be both tougher and diplomatically pragmatic at the same time? It’s hard to tell. But while the current Egyptian governing and security elite figure out their eventual foreign and security policy formulae, few things are clearer. Both Egypt and the remainder of the Arab region have dramatically changed for a long time to come, and Arab ruling elites can no longer afford to ignore passionate public sentiments or present half-baked moves toward the Palestinian cause (or anything) anymore, especially in crises like what we have now (echoes of the breaking into the Israeli embassy and the more recent attack on the US embassy in Cairo still resound.)
There is just a rising, powerful and non-ignorable public desire in Egypt and the Arab world to see real positive changes and proud decisiveness on the Palestinian cause. Additionally, current Arab governing elites aren’t exactly eager for a confrontation with Israel either, and genuinely need to focus on their internal problems now more than ever. Israel cannot afford to continue to test the limits of the region, all while expecting a non-alarming Mubarak and Jordan on the other side, while the US cannot afford to ignore Arab public sentiment and expect autocratic regimes to deal with their publics anymore.
If there is to be a breakthrough for peace in the region, old policies must change. And unlike what some commentators claim, there is such a window for a breakthrough.
Bassem Sabry is an Egyptian blogger who covers the region on An Arab Citizen. Follow him on Twitter @Bassem_Sabry