Gaza ceasefire hangs by a thread
At a joint press conference with the Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr, Hillary Clinton said in Cairo last Wednesday: «I want to thank President Morsi for his personal leadership to de-escalate the situation in Gaza and end the violence. This is a critical moment for the region. Egypt’s new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone of regional stability and peace. The United States welcomes the agreement today for a ceasefire in Gaza. For it to hold, the rocket attacks must end, a broader calm return…
«Now we have to focus on reaching a durable outcome that promotes regional stability and advances the security, dignity, and legitimate aspirations of Palestinians and Israelis alike. President Morsi and I discussed how the United States and Egypt can work together to support the next steps in that process».
Clinton’s fulsome praise for Morsi and indirectly for the Muslim Brotherhood underscored the phenomenal shift in Washington’s perspective on the Egyptian protagonists during the recent three-month period when US-Egypt ties hit a low point following the large-scale anti-American demonstrations in Cairo in September. Full credit goes to the Qatar emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for taming the Sphinx on the Nile banks. The yeomen service rendered by the two «Islamist» leaders in repairing the damage caused to the US-Egypt ties and the western interests in general following the downfall of Hosni Mubarak is without parallels in the region’s muddled history…
But at the end of the day, Morsi remains an adroit politician. Making him a one-dimensional man is fraught with risks. In August, he showed his true mettle in outmaneuvering the Egyptian generals who dominated the political scene in a single clean sweep that took everyone with surprise – including Washington which misread the situation as one of the Egyptian top brass abdicating from political space in a supreme act of self-sacrifice rather than the wily president cracking the whip and sending them to the barracks.
Naturally enough, Morsi sees a window of opportunity in a new direction now that he has become the darling of the West. In sum, he has thought it fit now to set out to use his new clout with the «international community» to reap some dividends in the domestic political arena as well for himself and the Muslim Brotherhood since his the consolidation of his presidency is not yet a done thing.
His latest decree issued last week in the immediate aftermath of the Israel-Hamas ceasefire accord that he brokered, aims at shifting the delicate balance of power between the Brotherhood on the one hand and the nationalists and liberals on the other hand decisively in favor of his presidency at a critical juncture when Egypt is embarking on the momentous task of drafting a new constitution.
But the big question is whether in the process Morsi hasn’t overreached. His move looks rather clumsy and it doubtless lacks the sophistication of his crackdown on the generals. It has produced an immediate backlash. Surely, there is a massive «silent majority» in Egypt, which abhors the creeping «islamization» of Egypt. Morsi is overlooking that he was elected as president in May in the second round with only 51% of the electorate in a highly polarized political arena.
There is trouble brewing in Egypt, and it could well turn out to be big trouble, although he is betting that the opposition is hopelessly fragmented and is no match for the Brothers in their organizational capacity, and, besides, the «international community» dared not cross his path by identifying with the opposition. The Muslim Brotherhood has called for a march by one million supporters in Cairo as a show of support. As of now, there is no sign of the Brothers blinking.
This becomes a truly piquant situation for Washington. As Clinton acknowledged, the US heavily depends on Morsi to see that the fragile Gaza ceasefire holds through the coming period even as Israel puts in place a working relationship at the agency level with the Egyptian security establishment. Morsi’s cooperation and that of the Muslim Brotherhood is also of vital importance for Washington’s unfolding agenda to force regime change in Syria, to stall a regime change in Jordan and, most important, to isolate Iran.
On the other hand, the western liberal opinion militates against Morsi’s ruthless pursuit of power, which holds the risk of not only derailing Egypt’s democratic transformation but of galvanizing the Islamist forces in the region. Washington’s regional allies like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait where the Brothers are secretly operating also feel nervous. The Obama administration cannot remain impassive if a violent confrontation ensues in Cairo between the Islamists and the secular opposition in the coming days.
The great irony is that the constituency in Egypt that opposes Morsi’s move also happens to be the US’ «natural ally», and dumping the liberals and secularists in favor of the Islamists so openly in the interests of realpolitik will appear a cynical act that holds broader implications for the region’s tryst with democratic reform.
Meanwhile, the inner dynamics within the Hamas is also in flux and it is entirely conceivable that the «jihadists» may gain the upper hand. This also would significantly impact on the durability of the Gaza ceasefire.
Period of bloodshed and the gun
What is often overlooked is that the Israeli offensive happened at a complex juncture not only in regional politics – civil war in Syria, Hamas’ alienation from Syria and Iran, Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian divides, etc. – but also in the political alignments within Gaza itself. Principally, the leadership question within Hamas remains unresolved.
In September Khaled Mashal had announced his intention to step down and not to seek a fresh election for the fifth successive time to the position of chairman of the Hamas’ politburo, a position he has held continuously since 1996. Speculation was rife that Mashal might be replaced by either Ismail Haniyeh or Mousa Abu Marzouk. But the indications since then have been that the Muslim Brotherhood leadership in Egypt and Qatar and Turkey are averse to Mashal stepping down. They are afraid that Mashal might be replaced by a radical leadership that is wedded to the resistance.
Again, the factions within Hamas – and the various Palestinian factions operating in Gaza – hold divergent opinions on such key issues as the firing of rockets at Israel, dealings with the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas, ties with Iran or Egypt, proximity with the Qatari emir and so on. Suffice to say, there is a power struggle within Hamas and there is also rivalry amongst the various Palestinian groups for control of the Gaza Strip.
The negotiations leading to the brokering of the Gaza ceasefire by Egypt signifies the «return» of Mashal to the centre stage as the Hamas leader. His political stock soared during the eight-day war. But how far Mashal finds acceptance within the Hamas’ power base in Gaza remains to be seen.
This is important because Mashal is the most ardent votary of the current ceasefire while there are other influential voices within Hamas who are inclined to see the ceasefire as a mere pause. Mashal said last week, «we do not want escalation. Hamas is courageous but not reckless». Clearly, in political terms Mashal is a stakeholder in the current ceasefire – just like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
However, on Friday, soon after the Gaza ceasefire was announced, Hamas strongman Mahmoud al-Zahar (who is also a member of the politburo) had an entirely different take on what lies ahead. He said ominously, «We [Hamas] have shown that the option of resistance is the only successful choice in front of us… That period is over when the enemy [Israel] could attack us; we are now at a stage to attack them». He said this is a period of «bloodshed and the gun» and the Palestinian people’s only option is resistance.
Al-Zahar pointed out that after all it is the «rockets of the resistance» that have brought about a shift in the balance of power vis-à-vis Israel. He called on everyone to use the respite of the ceasefire to review the position and to form a coalition supporting the choice of armed resistance. Al-Zahar claimed that the multitude of Gazans who thronged the streets to celebrate victory represented a referendum favoring the choice of jihad and resistance as the sole path ahead for the Palestinian people.
All in all, therefore, much depends on how Morsi’s current travails with regard to his decree pan out. If he is compelled to backtrack by the Egyptian popular opinion and international pressure, it will constitute a setback to the Muslim Brotherhood. The weakening of Morsi will throw Egyptian politics into new uncertainties and deprive Washington of a resolute interlocutor in Cairo at this sensitive juncture. In turn, it may also reflect on the factional politics within Hamas and in Gaza as a whole, and impact on the ceasefire as well.
Herein lies a paradox of the regional alignment. In peacetime when diplomacy is the name of the game, Hamas may feel closer to Egypt than to Iran, but the ties with Iran become more important when Hamas finds itself in the barricades fighting Israel.
Thus, it comes as no surprise that Iran and Saudi Arabia have finally found something in common, although for vastly different reasons – a shared distaste of the spectre of the regional hegemony of the Muslim Brotherhood. Both Iranian and Saudi media are awash with biting criticism of Morsi for his latest power grab, alleging that the Brothers harbor a secret agenda to establish a new dictatorship in Egypt.
Iran would have hoped that the new Egypt and the Brothers would strengthen Hamas as a resistance movement, but is dismayed to find that what is happening is exactly to the contrary. Last week Morsi’s government even turned down a request from Tehran for a visit by Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi to Gaza to express Iran’s solidarity with the Palestinians.