Banking on the Brotherhood: The Egyptian Predicament in Gaza

Morsi Mashaal AP.jpg

On the heels of the Arab spring, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood finds itself in a series of intermingled problems that threaten to thrust it and Egypt into regional chaos and further domestic frustration.   

The recent volley of artillery between Hamas and Israel place Egypt, Egyptian interests and its identity front and center in the race to secure the gains of the revolution and increase stability.  As Morsi begins to maneuver in this tumultuous time early in his administration, there are three key areas he needs to focus on.

1. Maximize on Israeli Recognition

A decision was made in senior Israeli government circles to publicly recognize Egypt’s role in negotiating a potential settlement with Hamas. In an interview, President Shimon Peres juxtaposed the positive surprise of Egypt’s role in the negotiations, against the negative surprise of Iran arming Hamas with longer-range rockets. This is a significant departure from the more hawkish rhetoric on the post-Mubarak administration and its Brotherhood ties to Hamas.  Morsi must seize this opportunity and lean into the US to push for closer engagement between his administration and Israel. 

The responsibility placed on Egypt should come with an increased level of equity in engagement.   At junctures such as this, a significant shift in the stability of Morsi’s administration can come with smart action. This will require two things.  Egypt needs to engage with balance and forgo the temporal reward of inflammatory rhetoric for the sustained domestic and international impression of mature leadership.  Second, it will also require the US and Israel to depend on Egypt in its discussions with the Turks, the Saudis and the Qataris.  Not that all communication must go through Egypt, but Egypt should return to its place as an equal at the table.  

If President Morsi and the Brotherhood see a role for themselves in Egyptian politics in the next 50 years, there is no time to mainstream the brand like the present, as Israel and the US look to him for the resolution of an acute crisis.  By assuming the role of mediator and reasonable neighbor, Egypt’s current government begins to look like a participant with the authority and recognition enjoyed by previous Egyptian governments.  This branding is not only important for the maintenance of good international economic relations, it is also critical for factions of Egypt’s electorate that continue to assess whether Morsi, and ultimately the Brotherhood, are serious about being mature political actors that can maneuver in difficult spaces that require nuance and strategy. 

With yet another ceasefire negotiated, Egypt’s role is critical in keeping both sides reasonable at the table. Egypt should stay on the phone with the Israelis, report its progress to the Turks, Qataris and Saudis while pushing the Obama administration to allow Egypt to engage with Israel, not just with Hamas. 

Even with a cease-fire enacted, it is possible that violence will flare up again and Morsi needs a plan for what he is going to do if and when that happens.  In the interim, he should focus on tangible ways in which Egyptian support is clearly distinguished from that of the Turks and the Gulf Arab nations

Morsi should engage directly and publicly with Israeli leadership, he should reduce statements that sound like protests and increase those that sound like he is solving a problem.  He can articulate the realities on the ground as well as the significant moral challenge of Israel’s collective punishment as a means of dealing with Hamas. Morsi needs a public relations campaign focused on Western media and shifting American perception of the current situation.  Finding people that can represent, even informally, the opinion of the Morsi administration on Western media outlets is critical for the public recognition of Egypt’s role in this conflict.  Senator Lindsey Graham threatened the Egyptian administration with the loss of their US aid if they appear too biased toward Hamas.  To an observer of American politics, such attacks mean Morsi’s administration has an opportunity to engage the American public and American public opinion directly.  By pushing back against the likes of Graham, Morsi and his administration can become relevant in the conversation currently taking place in the US. 

With the presence of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan in Egypt and Foreign Minister Davut-Oglo in Gaza and their unique challenge of the Syrian conflict leaking on their borders, Morsi is in a position to tone down the rhetoric toward Israel while maintaining a clear stand against its disproportionate actions.  Some will argue that the louder Morsi’s administration is toward Israel the more popular they will become on the Egyptian street.  I disagree.  The Egyptian street is sick of protesting and wants an adult running the country. If you can deal with the Israelis while maintaining your dignity and holding down the fort at home, you show the maturity necessary for public confidence in your contribution.  Unlike Turks, Egyptians don’t perceive themselves to have the luxury or stability of focusing too heavily on the conflict in Gaza.

2. Get Real with the Hamas

As Hussein Ibish writes, we are now witnessing a significant post-Arab Spring split in the leadership ranks of the Hamas organization.  Those on the outside, now under the patronage of Qatar, as opposed to Iran, seem to have reduced influence over the militant wings or secular affiliates of the organization in Gaza.  With political pressure as it currently stands, and with the loss of Damascus as a base of engagement and financing, they have also lost their ability to coordinate the ‘Iran-Syria-Gaza’ funding cycle that rendered them superior in relevance and strength.  At such a juncture, the regional Hamas leadership is left with conference calls and press conferences to amplify their support for the rocket-launching brigades of militants, now acting outside their sphere of power or even influence.  Their actions are similar to a child running after a ball that has been kicked by a more able older sibling. 

This fracture has led to a series of embarrassing and dangerous moments that can cause significant damage for the current Egyptian administration.  Among them is the continuous firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel during the Egyptian Prime Minister Qandil visit to Gaza on November 16th.  The very following day just after the Cairo meeting between Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and head of Egypt’s Intelligence Services, Hamas militants launched their longest-range rocket yet, directly into Tel Aviv.  Such actions undermine the Egyptian leadership’s influence on the conflict and further divide Arab efforts at a ceasefire.  If there is to be an honest brokering role for Egypt in this conflict, Hamas needs to honor the ceasefire.  Morsi can leverage how far Egypt is willing to go with its negotiations. The President should also be clear on what he is not willing to endure as a favor to the exiled leaders of the organization.  Inability to get Hamas on the same page is not just relevant to the life of people in Gaza but also to Egyptian sovereignty.  Egyptians are suffering enough in their domestic reality that they will not allow Morsi to spend too much of his political capital on the Palestinian question.  All engagements on this issue, from the Egyptian public’s perspective, will need to keep at the tip of the spear, Egypt’s interests alongside popular support for Palestinians. 

It is critical that Morsi not forget Sinai.  The reality of Egypt’s national security is that it has very little control over big parts of the Sinai Peninsula bordering Gaza and Israel.  Militant and separatist forces are engaged in a war with Egyptian security forces, and there are a variety of factors leading to Egypt’s poor response thus far to this significant threat to its tourism income and security.  

The post-Mubarak weakness of interagency coordination between the Army, Police and Intelligence on issues relating to Sinai is one of the Achilles heels Morsi must deal with to move forward.  Engaging the management and trust challenges that exist between these nodes of power will allow the administration to assume its full potential in negotiations with Israel and Hamas.  This will be needed in managing the Rafah border,  whether by means of addressing the smuggling of weapons or the radicalization of Bedouin tribes or finding a way to provide humanitarian aid in support of Palestinians. Moris’s way forward regarding the Rafah crossing will be difficult to maneuver and both a solid government apparatus and domestic public support are crucial for his decision-making capacity. 

The human story is one that needs addressing as well.  The situation of Bedouins in the Sinai Peninsula is deplorable and has been addressed frequently by Egyptian and international human rights groups.  With no running water available to most of the 500,000 inhabitants, Bedouins have also long been deprived of socio-economic rights like property ownership and full Egyptian citizenship.  Also, Rafah communities on the Egyptian side are primarily Coptic Christian and concerns about the radicalization of local Muslim communities in response to the opening of the crossing are real.  Managing their concerns, while supporting Gazan development and dealing with the broader Sinai challenges, will be quite difficult and will require partnership with Israel. 

As it stands, treaties between Egypt and Israel limit the Egyptian government’s ability to fully patrol and secure what is referred to as ‘Zone C,’ the land directly adjacent to Israel and the crossing.  This limited mobility restricts Morsi’s ability to deal with the region militarily and hinders his ability to secure the peninsula under central government control.  What is at stake?  Only Sharm El Sheikh and the sexiest part of the Egyptian tourism industry.  Morsi needs Israel’s cooperation in Sinai.  Israel needs Morsi’s support in taming, not only Hamas, but also secular forces among Palestinian militias that prod all sides into an escalation of the conflict in Gaza. 

3. Highlight Domestic Concerns while Dealing with International Issues

In Egypt this week, a train crash in Assiut took the lives of 51 children in a school bus, because a railway worker responsible for manually operating the crossing barrier fell asleep. 

The fall out was fierce. Television host Amr Adeeb amplified public discontent with the Morsi administration.  “This country is too big for you Mr. President” was the phrase used to punctuate his vitriolic rant, echoed by many throughout the country in reaction to this national tragedy.  

Such experiences underscore the purpose of the Arab Spring, particularly overthrowing the Mubarak regime.  Inflation, unemployment, a crippled public transportation infrastructure, dilapidated public education systems and a national sense of helpless malaise brought about the change that subsequently brought Morsi and the Brotherhood to power.  As catastrophes continue to strike, the Egyptian public is reminded of how little has changed since the Mubarak era.  One eyewitness said, “In a civilized European country the President would resign for this.” 

As he manages Gaza, it is critical that Morsi’s administration keeps Egyptian issues and interests on the front burner.  Since the train crash, Egyptian public discourse asks why Morsi and Qandil are spending so much time and energy on Gaza while Assiut is forgotten.  This challenge from the base of Egyptian society garnered a response by fellow Islamist and former Presidential contender Abdel Moneim Aboul Fetouh, placing Morsi’s focus on the Palestinian question in the context of Egyptian national security.  As tensions rise, this split in Egyptian public opinion will increase and lead to public fractures between the Islamist elite and the popular and poor masses on the centrality of the Palestinian question in future policy making. 

Clashes continue to rage on Mohamed Mahmoud St. in protest of the ‘Brotherhoodization’ of the Interior Ministry and government. Morsi needs to keep his focus on the Egyptian street.  With at least one protester shot dead, the current administration is likely already thinking of what political casualties will satiate the anger of the masses in the coming days.  It might well be Egypt’s Prime Minister.   One of the realities of post-Mubarak Egypt is that the street will have a voice in the decision-making process.  Morsi’s ability to respond will determine whether micro-challenges such as the war between Ultra sports fans and police forces or a train crash in impoverished communities will affect his ability to shift macro realities affecting the country at large.  

Gaza, Sinai, Copts, the train crash – they are all linked in the life of an Egyptian President of History.  You can’t envy the situation of Mohamed Morsi, an engineer from the University of Southern California, thrust into a complex and difficult moment in his nation’ great history.  One can, however, see significant opportunities for stabilizing the revolution.  To do so, the Morsi administration needs to once again turn their attention to the basics.  Jobs, housing, education, transportation and health care – to do this while playing a leading role in the current conflict in Gaza – would be a strong argument for the lasting longevity of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian political life.

Ahmed Younis is an American public intellectual and social entrepreneur.  In 2009, 2010, and 2011, he was named as one of the 500 Most Influential Muslims globally. In 2011 and 2012, Arabian Business Magazine named Ahmed as one of the "Power 500" of the Arab world and one of the 500 Most Famous Arabs in the world.

Photo Credit: AP

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