CAIRO – Egypt's Islamist president recalled the country's ambassador to Israel to protest its strikes in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday after coming under mounting domestic criticism for not taking a strong enough stance against Israel.
The move may signal a shift in the way Cairo deals with Israel following last year's popular uprising that ushered in the country's first free presidential elections over the summer and a wave of protests since. Ousted President Hosni Mubarak, who built close ties with Egypt's neighbor, was accused by Egyptians for refusing to bend to popular pressure for tough stands against Israel.
Ironically, his successor President Mohammed Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, came under similar sharp criticism earlier this week for failing to speak out after seven Palestinians were killed in Israeli airstrikes over the weekend in retaliation for rocket attacks by Gaza militants. Secular parties and revolutionary groups on Monday held a vigil denouncing Morsi and protesting the Israeli airstrikes.
On Wednesday, Israel heightened its offensive by killing Ahmad Jabari, the commander of the Hamas military wing, in one of some 20 airstrikes on the Gaza Strip in the wake of further militant rocket attacks. Ten people were killed in the assault on Gaza, two of them young children.
This prompted a protest of around 200 people in downtown Cairo on Wednesday who demanded Morsi take a stand against the Israeli attack.
"Morsi where is your decision," they chanted. "Our leaders, enough with the silence. The people of Gaza are dying there."
Late Wednesday, presidential spokesman Yasser Ali announced on state TV that Morsi had recalled the Egyptian ambassador.
The Muslim Brotherhood is a vocal critic of Israel, and the Palestinian Hamas militant group that rules Gaza is an offshoot of the group. Since taking office as Egypt's first freely elected president in late June, Morsi has refused to meet or contact any Israeli officials and doesn't even mention Israel by name in official statements.
Still, while relations have cooled, Morsi has not brought radical change in Egypt's policy toward Israel. He has promised to abide by Egypt's 1979 peace deal with Israel and his government has continued contacts with Israel through its non-Brotherhood members.
Israel and Egypt have quietly cooperated over an Egyptian military operation in the Sinai Peninsula against Islamic militants who have been attacking Egyptian forces and launching attacks into Israel. Morsi's government also still tightly controls Palestinian movement through the Rafah border crossing with Gaza in the Sinai. Under Mubarak, Egypt's backing of a blockade of Gaza imposed by Israel after Hamas won elections and later overran the territory in 2007 was highly unpopular among Egyptians.
As an elected leader, however, Morsi faces heavy pressure to reflect more strongly the widespread anti-Israeli feelings among the Egyptian public.
"Before, in Mubarak's time, there was no response at all and they suffocated Gaza," said Hassan Saleh, a 25 year-old education ministry official who was among those protesting in Cairo on Wednesday. "All this must change. We should allow aid in, open the crossing and hospitals and pressure Israel."
The Brotherhood's political party, which Morsi headed before winning the presidency, warned in a statement Wednesday that "the occupation state must realize that the changes that took place in the region, especially in Egypt, will not let the Palestinian people fall at the mercy of the Israeli aggression as was the case before."
The party expressed condolences for al-Jabari's death and denounced the Israeli airstrike Wednesday as a "crime that requires a quick Arab and international response to stem these massacres." It said Israel wants to "drag the region toward instability." They called for protests Friday to denounce the military escalation.
Egypt's ambassador to Israel Atef Sayid al-Ahl told the semi-official Al-Akhbar newspaper he would arrive to Cairo on Thursday afternoon. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Israel had not received word of the recall and would not comment until it did.
Morsi also asked the Arab League's secretary-general to convene an emergency ministerial meeting in the wake of the Gaza violence, his spokesman said. The Arab League said it would hold the emergency session on Saturday. The Foreign Ministry delivered a letter to the Israeli Embassy in Egypt expressing its "strong condemnation" of the Israeli strikes.
Egyptian military intelligence officials said Wednesday four missiles were fired from northern Sinai into Israel just south of the Kerem Shalom border crossing. The officials said they could not confirm what type or rockets were fired or where they landed inside Israel.
Islamic militants are suspected of being behind the rocket fire, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Associated Press writer Tia Goldberg contributed from Jerusalem.