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A new pharaoh?

Nils Naumann / slk
November 23, 2012

After eight days of war between Israel and Hamas, the guns have gone silent. Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi played a key role in brokering the cease-fire, but at home criticism builds over a controversial decree.

Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi Photo: REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh
Image: Getty Images

In his first foreign policy test as president of Egypt, Morsi demonstrated steadiness and continuity as a mediator between Israel and Hamas, reassuring the United States that Cairo would not take a radical new course in the post-Mubarak era.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was full of praise for the Egyptian president, whose compatriots in the Muslim Brotherhood are traditionally close to the Islamist group Hamas.

"Egypt's new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone of regional stability and peace," Clinton said.

Even Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a hardliner and not exactly a friend to Cairo, thanked President Morsi for his efforts in brokering the cease-fire agreement.

Navigating the Israeli-Palestinian minefield

Morsi's crisis management was a balancing act between foreign and domestic interests. The United States, Egypt's most important donor, expected Morsi to exercise a moderating influence on the leadership of Hamas. But the president's own followers in Egypt pushed for him to demonstrate solidarity with the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

The Muslim Brotherhood had for years criticized deposed president Hosni Mubarak for pursuing an Israel-friendly foreign policy course. During the 2008 Gaza War, Mubarak largely looked on as the Israeli military launched a bloody ground offensive against Hamas.

Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil (L) and senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh wave to people in Gaza City November 16, 2012. Rockets fired from Gaza hit several sites in southern Israel on Friday shortly after Kandil arrived in the Palestinian enclave. REUTERS/Ahmed Zakot (GAZA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
Egyptian PM Kandil (left) demonstrated solidarity with the PalestiniansImage: Reuters

During the latest round of violence, Morsi withdrew Egypt's ambassador from Israel after airstrikes began against targets in the Gaza Strip. 

"The Israelis have to understand that this aggression will not be accepted," the Egyptian president said on state television.

Shortly thereafter, Morsi dispatched his prime minister, Hisham Kandil, to the Gaza Strop in a show of solidarity with the Palestinians. But at the same time, the president used Egypt's influence on Hamas to successfully push for a cease-fire with Israel.

Continuity in post-Mubarak Egypt

When Morsi assumed the presidency last June, there was concern in Washington and Tel Aviv that the Islamist politician would pursue a more radical foreign policy compared to Mubarak. After all, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas are ideologically kindred spirits in many ways.

"But the Egyptian government expended a lot of effort trying not to fulfill these expectations," Henner Fürtig, a Mideast expert with the GIGA-Institute, told DW. "The government wanted show that it acted independently and did not view itself as a direct and immediate comrade-in-arms of Hamas."

According to Egyptian political scientist Hoda Salah, Morsi is a pragmatist who is interested above all in preserving his own power. Salah believes that there has been no real change in Egyptian policy toward Israel since the fall of Mubarak.

"When Morsi was in the opposition, it was easy for him to criticize the Israelis and Egyptian foreign policy," the political scientist said. "But now he is president and he knows that he cannot afford to represent Israel as the enemy."

Palestinians celebrate the cease fire agreement between Israel and Hamas in the Jebaliya refugee camp, in Gaza Strip, Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012. Israel and the Hamas militant group agreed to a cease-fire Wednesday to end eight days of the fiercest fighting in nearly four years, promising to halt attacks on each other and ease an Israeli blockade constricting the Gaza Strip. (Foto:Hatem Moussa/AP/dapd)
Cairo's diplomatic balacing act helped end the violence in the Gaza StripImage: AP

Domestically, Morsi is working to expand his power. A decree issued Thursday severely limits the power of the judiciary, whose highest courts still consist of Mubarak-era judges.

Called a move to "protect the revolution," the decree said all decisions made by Morsi until a new parliament is elected were not subject to legal challenge. It also prohibited judges from challenging the Islamist-dominated group writing Egypt's new constitution.

Politician Mohamed ElBaradei wrote on Twitter that Morsi "usurped all state powers and appointed himself Egypt's new pharaoh."

Further negotiations

After eight days of fighting that killed around 170 people, the Egyptian mediators could not move the two sides to negotiate a long-term truce and convince the Israelis to open the borders of the Palestinian territories. It is a tough challenge. Israel wants an end to weapons smuggling into the Gaza Strip, and Hamas expects the Israeli blockade of Gaza - in effect since 2007 - to be completely lifted.

But according to Salah, President Morsi doesn't have a long-term plan to solve the impasse between the Israelis and the Palestinians. "In the end, it's the old policy," the Egyptian political scientist said. And she believes the next war is just a matter of time.