Expectations of a different Egypt caught in a similar crisis

How Egypt President Mohammed Morsi responds to the Gaza crisis will be subject to intense international and domestic scrutiny and pressure.

Hisham Qandil, the Egypt prime minister, centre, and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan meet in Cairo today.
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CAIRO // In December 2008, Israel launched a massive air and ground assault on the Gaza Strip, designed to end the periodic rocket attacks launched by militants in the tiny coastal territory.

The incursion lasted three weeks, killing an estimated 1,400 Palestinians and injuring more than 5,000. It ended just days before Barack Obama was inaugurated as the new US president.

At the time, the Muslim Brotherhood - with Mohammed Morsi as one of their main strategists - went out of its way to embarrass then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak for his Gaza policies. The Islamist group, that was then the largest opposition bloc in the Egyptian parliament, repeatedly called on Mubarak to throw open the gates of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula.

Mubarak refused. He allowed only a limited stream of injured out of Gaza and a few lorry loads of medical supplies in. The policy cost Mubarak tremendous domestic prestige, allowing his critics to paint him as subservient to US and Israeli orders and an equal partner in the suffering of the Gazans.

Four years later, Mr Morsi finds himself on the opposite side of a similar situation. Mubarak was swept away by a whirlwind revolution nearly two years ago and Mr Morsi is now occupying Egypt's presidential palace and walking the same geopolitical tightrope on Gaza. How he responds to the crisis will be subject to intense international and domestic scrutiny and pressure.

So far, Mr Morsi has taken steps to differentiate himself from his predecessor. He dispatched prime minister Hisham Qandil on an unprecedented visit to Gaza in the midst of the hostilities. And he has publicly stated that the Gaza policies of the Mubarak era died with the revolution.

"I say to those, on behalf of all the Egyptian people, that Egypt today is different from yesterday, and Arabs today are different from yesterday. I say confidently that Egypt will not leave Gaza alone," Mr Morsi said in a speech on Friday after prayers at a suburban Cairo mosque. "We assure [Israel] that the price will be high for continued aggression."

Officials with Hamas, which was originally founded as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, have made it clear that they expect a very different Egypt this time around. In a speech this week in Khartoum, Sudan, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal stated that postrevolutionary Arab governments, such as Egypt, must turn a new page on Gaza.

"Today the leaders of Arabism and Islam must raise the ceiling and change the rules of the game," said Mr Meshaal, adding that it was time to "pluck the fruits of the Arab Spring".

Mr Morsi must balance those expectations and find ways to show he is different than Mubarak, while still somehow preventing a rupture with Washington or Tel Aviv.

"The Egyptians are caught in the middle ... They're not prepared for an escalation; they don't want to be dragged into it. They stand to lose big if there's a real escalation," said Shibley Telhami, a Palestinian-born University of Maryland professor and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution a Washington DC think tank, in an interview with the MSNBC satellite news channel on Saturday. "The US doesn't have all that much leverage with the Israelis. When it comes to an issue like this (the Israelis) do what they think is right for them."

So far, Mr Morsi's steps have been largely symbolic. The visit by Mr Qandil visit was important, but the prime minister has no foreign policy experience and served as irrigation minister before assuming his current post. Any true negotiations or contacts between Egypt and Hamas will just take place just as they did under Mubarak - via backdoor channels through Egypt's intelligence services.

Those contacts are continuing and Mr Morsi has sounded a note of optimism.

"There are some indications that there could be a ceasefire soon," he told a joint news conference on Saturday in Cairo, with the visiting Turkish prime minister Recep Tayipp Erdogan. But, Mr Morsi added, there are "no guarantees."

The Arab League has essentially deputised Egypt to act as an intermediary in the conflict. An emergency session of Arab League foreign ministers on Saturday produced an endorsement of Egypt's role. It also issued a veiled threat that the league could abandon its support for the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which offered widespread Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for territorial concessions and compensation for Palestinian refuges who cannot return home. But even that threat was largely symbolic since Israel has never really taken the initiative seriously.

Egyptian security officials say a senior Israeli official arrived in Cairo for talks on reaching a ceasefire to end the Israeli offensive. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity under security guidelines, did not identify the Israeli. Israeli officials declined to comment. Nabil Shaath, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas who was in Cairo, confirmed the Israeli's arrival.

Response by Egypt's public to the Gaza violence has been muted. A November 16 protest against Israel in Tahrir Square drew about 2,000 demonstrators, a small gathering by Tahrir protest standards. And Saturday's tragic accident in southern Egypt a train ploughed into a school bus full of young children, killing at least 47, may temporarily overshadow Gaza concerns.

But if Israel launches a ground offensive with tanks as in did in 2008, public anger in Egypt will spike and many will be looking at Mr Morsi for more than just symbolic gestures.


* With additional reporting by the Associated Press