The regional strategic context stands in contrast to 2008-2009. The government in Cairo is now much more sensitive to popular sentiment, which has been enflamed by the violence. Egypt’s reaction to the conflict will be of keen interest to regional observers.
In a private briefing earlier this year, a senior Israeli policy maker was asked about the effect the Arab uprisings might have on the Arab-Israeli conflict in the long term. Staunchly part of the Israeli left, he responded: ‘I do not believe that there is any reason to expect that increased democratisation in the Arab world will have any affect whatsoever on the Palestinian-Israeli issue.’ It seems that Benjamin Netanyahu, the current Israeli Prime Minister, and on the right of Israel’s political spectrum wants that assessment to be correct. While the ‘Arab Awakening’ has hitherto avoided the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the events of the past week are showing us how accurate – or not – such calculations are.
Plus Ça Change
Israel’s recent military intervention in Gaza might, at first, have given credence to those calculations, at least in terms of post-revolution Egypt. Despite his Islamist credentials – and his party’s historic rejection of the accord, President Morsi has made it clear that the peace treaty between Israel and Palestine is here to say, and, over the last few days, it has been maintained. Mr Morsi has withdrawn Egypt’s ambassador to Israel, but has not expelled the Israeli ambassador from Egypt, Moreover, Muslim Brotherhood figures have justified these actions by telling the Egyptian press that such an action could not take place as it might indicate a ‘readiness for war’.
While there is an Islamist in the Egyptian presidency, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces even after the reshuffle earlier this year, is still in charge of the country’s military and defence strategies – and it has no interest in going to war, under almost any circumstances.
While there is an Islamist in the Egyptian presidency, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) even after the reshuffle earlier this year, is still in charge of the country’s military and defence strategies – and it has no interest in going to war, under almost any circumstances. Finally, Egypt’s intelligence apparatus still remains closely in touch with their opposite numbers in Israel, just as it was under former Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak. Mr Morsi has not, and almost definitely will not, clip the intelligence establishment’s wings in that regard. While Mr Morsi is indeed an Islamist from the right-wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, he and the Muslim Brotherhood are not animated sufficiently to push for a radical change. They are far more pragmatic, perceiving that kind of gradual approach as the way in which to achieve their partisan political aims. In many respects, Israel’s bombardment of Gaza has thus far demonstrated that much of the Egyptian state – particularly the intelligence apparatus – remains unchanged since the revolution that began on 25 January 2011.
However, the current crisis also illustrates how the government is more responsive to the ever-more demanding public opinion in Egypt. Domestically, for example, the Egyptian Minister of Transport promptly resigned a few days ago, following a train disaster that took the lives of 47 people – 44 of whom were young children. Such a speedy resignation would have been unthinkable in Mubarak’s Egypt. Likewise, an Israeli military operation in Gaza during Mubarak’s era would not have seen any public visit from an Egyptian public figure to Gaza, particularly a Gaza governed by Hamas. Unable to take meaningful action thus far and possibly in order to mitigate public pressure, Mr Morsi, ordered his Prime Minister to visit Gaza almost immediately. Other, non-governmental Egyptian political figures followed – and they will continue to do so, as will non-Egyptian political figures (the Tunisian Foreign Minister went to Gaza last Saturday).
Thus far, protests have included calls to support the President’s actions. However, the longer the Gaza crisis continues, the louder will be calls for more assertive action. There are factions within the Muslim Brotherhood that are demanding more measures be taken – and they are being joined by a wide array of non-Islamists. On Saturday, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood (the Freedom and Justice Party), in conjunction with leftist, non-Islamist and even anti-Islamist political forces, issued a statement urging Mr Morsi to revise the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, and take ‘punitive action’ against Israel. Many of these demands are being placed by parties whose constituencies are looking to see a change after Mubarak – unlike Mr Morsi; however, they do not have to deal with the realities of governing.
This situation has brought substantial domestic pressure on Mr Morsi and he will need to address three key priorities in order to relieve this pressure. Firstly, in the immediate term, Mr Morsi needs an end to Israeli attacks upon Gaza: the longer they continue, and as the casualties mount, the more impotent Mr Morsi will appear. This has greater significance in a post-revolutionary Egypt, particularly if it adversely affects Mr Morsi’s ability to consolidate sentiment behind his government.
Secondly, in the short term, Mr Morsi needs a Hamas that fills the security vacuum in Gaza. Violent, anarchical activity in the Sinai is linked to transnational radical groups that have support from non-Hamas groups in Gaza. On the other side of Gaza, Mr Morsi needs Hamas to restrain from any activity against Israel that predictably results in Palestinian causalities as the result of further Israeli military action, which would enflame Egyptian domestic opinion.
Finally, Mr Morsi needs to have a process in motion that shows a viable path to end the Palestinian-Israeli, and the wider Arab-Israeli, conflict. Arab public opinion will always be vigorously pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli – and that creates a dynamic that will always be problematic for any Egyptian government to handle, particularly during a crisis.
None of these objectives are easy for Mr Morsi to achieve, and they are all intertwined. Egyptian public opinion, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood itself, complicates direct, public engagement with the Israelis required to achieve a ceasefire. As such, Mr Morsi will likely pursue using three separate approaches: using Egyptian intelligence to directly engage with Israeli intelligence; using Jordan’s relationship with Israel as an avenue of communication and finally asking Turkey and Saudi Arabia, who are close US allies, to lobby the US to constrain Israel.
Prospects for a Broader Peace
Mr Morsi, for his part, has some sway over Hamas and can pressure it to maintain security in Gaza. Hamas will find it difficult to refuse Mr Morsi’s demand for ideological and strategic reasons. The Muslim Brotherhood is the ‘mother organisation’ of Hamas and Mr Morsi is the President of Egypt, Gaza’s most important bi-lateral Arab relationship.
Regardless of its intentions, however, Hamas may find it difficult to control non-affiliated radical groups. Indeed, the longer the peace process remains in tatters, the harder will it be for Hamas to show any dividends of its more pragmatic approaches, and the more likely it will be for radical violent groups to grow in strength and popularity in Gaza.
A pre-requisite to Morsi finding a lasting solution will be the reconciliation of the Palestinian political factions. If Mr Morsi were able to achieve that, it would calm domestic pressure upon him, as he would be regarded as the restorer of Palestinian unity, and deliver him domestic and regional political capital. Mr Morsi would then need the Obama Administration to impress upon the Israelis the need for political engagement. Mr Obama’s success or failure in this regard will directly impact Mr Morsi’s and Egypt’s fate: but Mr Morsi’s capacity to affect the outcome is deeply limited.
Herein, though, the US and Israel might have an opportunity. In the past, peace treaties with Israel were achieved without regard for Arab public support, which meant that broad Israeli normalisation with Arab countries was unachievable. If a comprehensive Palestinian-Israeli treaty were to come into effect with wider Arab public support, then not only does the absence of military conflict become sustainable, but broader normalisation becomes possible.
Other factors are doubtlessly in play here. Nevertheless, the assessment that Arab public opinion will have no effect on the Arab-Israeli conflict cannot be established on firm ground. On the contrary: it is likely to have a great many effects, and the only question is who will take advantage of it with the most success.