The world’s eyes are now on Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi as he struggles to sustain what many consider an act of diplomatic acrobatics: stopping the violence in Israel and Palestine.
On Wednesday, Mr. Morsi brokered a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas after eight days of shelling and devastation that led to the deaths of 162 Palestinians and 12 Israelis. That is quite a feat, considering that President Morsi has been on the job for six months, he was not the first choice of his political party, he does not have clear presidential prerogatives because the Egyptian constitution has yet to be ratified, and he is hampered by an Egyptian military that maintains an ominous and watchful eye on politics.
It is notable, then, that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Mr. Morsi’s “personal leadership” in brokering this difficult ceasefire. Has President Morsi’s diplomatic adroitness broken the pessimistic bent found in some media outlets – some of which have referred to the period following the Arab Spring as an Islamist Winter?
Well, I think it should. Egypt’s brokering of this ceasefire should remind us of how an Islamist-led government can be an effective actor in Middle East relations. Egypt’s elected Muslim Brotherhood government has continued to respect its peace treaty with Israel, despite the pessimism of Mr. Morsi’s critics.
This is not to say that Egypt has continued its modus operandi in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After all, in the midst of the onslaught on Gaza, Mr. Morsi sent his prime minister, Hesham Kandil, to the conflict’s ground zero to lend moral support to Hamas. In contrast, Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak would have turned the other way, hoping the Israelis would get the dirty job done quickly while paying lip service to the Palestinian people.
Cairo’s role in the ceasefire is not only as a broker and a guarantor. Egypt has also agreed to open its border crossings with Gaza to allow the trade of people, food and goods, to help relieve Israel’s economic and humanitarian siege. This will be welcomed by Mr. Morsi’s domestic and regional champions, who sympathize with the plight of Gazans.
Yet this is not without potential problems. Egypt will need to stop the transport of Iranian-made Fajr-5 rockets from Sudan through its territories and under the notorious Gaza border tunnels. Moreover, while there is wide public support in Egypt for lifting the siege on Gaza, there is also support for stopping the emboldened Sinai Bedouins from both attacking the Egyptian army, as they have done in recent months, and from smuggling illicit goods along the routes of the Sinai Peninsula.
In the 1950s, the populist government of Gamal Abdel Nasser served as the Arab Middle East’s de facto regional hegemon, and was arguably a trailblazer in relations with developing countries. Has Egypt returned to its past glory days of being the bona fide leader of the Arab world?
Well, don’t hold your breath. The truth is, Egypt has an enormous set of domestic problems to deal with, and both its people and government have little or no ambition to be a regional leader. It is still a poor country with rampant unemployment, high prices, high illiteracy, a stricken tourist sector that accounts for 25 per cent of the economy, and failing public infrastructure.
Historical circumstances have turned Turkey and Qatar into the new regional brokers, and President Morsi’s successes will not return Egypt to its Nasser days. Nevertheless, despite the death and destruction of the past eight days and the tenuous terms of the ceasefire, there is good reason to highlight the responsible actions of Egypt’s democratically elected Islamist president.
Bessma Momani is associate professor at the University of Waterloo and a senior fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation and at the Brookings Institution.