CAIRO – Egypt's Islamist president may hail from the fiercely anti-Israeli Muslim Brotherhood, an ally of Gaza's Hamas rulers. But in his first major crisis over Israel, he is adopting a stance not unlike that of his ousted predecessor Hosni Mubarak, Israel's longtime friend.
After Israel launched its ferocious campaign of airstrikes and shelling against Gaza in retaliation for militant rocket attacks, Mohammed Morsi recalled Egypt's ambassador to Israel in protest and on Thursday ordered his prime minister to head to the tiny Palestinian territory in a symbolic show of solidarity.
Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, is facing calls at home to take stronger action. But he is just as wary as Mubarak about straining ties with the United States, Israel's top ally. Moreover, powerful parts of the Egyptian ruling establishment — particularly in the military and the security forces — deeply oppose Hamas, and Morsi could face a backlash if he appears to move too strongly in the militant group's direction.
In theory, the bloodshed in Gaza would be an ideal opportunity for Morsi to let loose against Israel. In past conflicts between Israel and Arab countries, his Muslim Brotherhood loudly denounced Mubarak for too timid a response, demanding the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador from Cairo, for example. The group often accused Mubarak of toeing Washington's line on Israel.
But in his first public comments on the crisis, Morsi on Thursday was subdued and almost conciliatory. He called the bombardment an "unacceptable aggression" but avoided sharp condemnations of Israel. He expressed support for Palestinians in Gaza, but made no reference to Hamas.
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"We don't accept the continuation of this (Israeli) threat and aggression against the people of Gaza," he said in comments at a Cabinet meeting aired on state TV. "The Israelis must realize that we don't accept this aggression and that it can only lead to instability in the region."
Morsi also said he spoke before dawn Thursday with President Barack Obama on stopping the assault and on how "peace and security could be achieved for everyone without aggression."
The tame response could be out of pragmatism. Egypt does not want to be seen as fueling the Gaza crisis and it has a strong interest in securing the goodwill of the international community — particularly the U.S. — as it seeks massive injection of foreign investments and aid to kick-start its ailing economy. The U.S. is Egypt's chief Western backer, giving it $1.3 billion a year in military aid and $250 million in economic assistance. Washington's goodwill is also needed to secure a key $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. An IMF team is currently in Cairo to negotiate the loan.
Morsi could come under greater pressure for a tougher response if the onslaught worsens. Over two days, Israel has blasted more than 200 targets in Gaza, killing 15 Palestinians, including the Hamas military chief. Palestinian militants barraged Israel with nearly 150 rockets on Thursday, killing three people. Three rockets struck the densely populated Tel Aviv area, raising the likelihood of an even tougher Israeli response.
But so far, his response has not gone beyond what Mubarak did in the past. Mubarak, who was overthrown in early 2011, twice ordered home his ambassador to Israel, once over the Jewish state's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and again in response to Israel's repression of the Palestinian uprising that began in 2000. In both cases, Mubarak used fiery rhetoric to denounce Israel's actions but remained firmly committed to his country's U.S.-sponsored 1979 peace treaty with the Jewish state.
On Thursday, Egypt's ambassador to Israel, Atef Sayid al-Ahl, arrived back in Cairo, saying he was back for consultations with Morsi and that the embassy in Tel Aviv was still operating.
The dispatch to Gaza of Prime Minister Hesham Kandil was a notable symbolic gesture, the highest level Egyptian official to visit Gaza since Hamas took over the territory in 2007. But it remained largely symbolic, given that the prime minister's authority is dwarfed by the president's overwhelming powers.
Kandil was ordered to head to Gaza on Friday, heading a delegation to meet the "urgent humanitarian needs" of Gaza residents, according to state TV. The move is likely to be criticized by his opponents contending the president is showing more concern for Palestinians living under the rule of his Hamas allies than toward the millions of Egyptians hit hard by the nation's worst economic crisis in years.
In effect, Hamas is the Palestinian chapter of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest political group. Since entering office in June, Morsi has received Hamas leaders in Cairo and has repeatedly vowed to stand by the Palestinians in the face of Israel. That is a significant break from the policy of Mubarak, who helped Israel in blockading Gaza after Hamas took over the territory in 2007. Morsi has largely opened Egypt's border crossing with Gaza for Palestinians to enter and exit.
Though the Brotherhood in the past called for the annulment of the 1979 peace deal with Israel, Morsi has promised to abide by the accord.
With Morsi taking a quieter tone, his Brotherhood has stepped in to trumpet the harsh rhetoric on Israel. At an Islamist conference in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, the Brotherhood's spiritual leader Mohammed Badie blasted Israel as the "project of the devil" and boasted that the first "martyr" in the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 came from the Brotherhood.
Hamas leaders on Thursday lavishly praised Morsi's response to the Israeli offensive.
"The popularly elected Egyptian leadership is giving everyone a lesson. The Egyptian leadership has shown that it is taking a new course and adopting a new vision. The era when Israel did what it pleased is over," the group's top leader Khaled Mashaal told delegates in an Islamist conference held in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.
In a televised address, the Hamas prime minister in Gaza Ismail Haniyeh said that as Gaza was being hit, "the Arab and Muslim cities were all in silence, but we found a quick response from the Egyptian leadership, a reflection of its new leadership. ... Leaders can no longer sit on their hands while seeing our people preyed on."
Egypt governed the Gaza Strip between 1948 and 1967, when Israel seized the territory along with Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. Israel returned the Sinai under the two countries' 1979 peace deal. In recent years, Egypt has negotiated a series of truces between Hamas and Israel, chiefly out of the contention that turmoil in Gaza could easily spill over into Sinai and maybe the nation's hinterland.
Distrust was deep between Hamas leaders and Mubarak's regime — and it remains strong among some in Egypt, particularly among the security forces. Morsi's critics claim that Hamas wants to hold sway over Sinai to give its fighters a much bigger stage from which to attack Israel. They also say Gaza militants are fueling the near lawlessness in northern Sinai, where Islamic militants have carried out attacks on Israel and on Egyptian security forces.