Another round of conflict between Israel and Gaza has killed more than 100 people and caused immense destruction. But there may be an unlikely winner: Egypt. A tentative ceasefire agreement was announced not at the UN — where the Security Council, already deeply divided over Syria, could not even agree on a joint statement — but in Cairo. The Egyptian government, led by President Mohammad Mursi, from the Muslim Brotherhood, played a pivotal role in brokering last week’s ceasefire, even after a bus bomb hit Tel Aviv for the first time in several years.
Egypt has a rare combination of contacts with Hamas, originally an offshoot of the transnational Brotherhood movement and relations with Israel. By contrast, most western governments either do not talk to or pretend not to talk to Hamas, while nearly every Arab country does the same with Israel. This has become untenable, hampering attempts to mediate a way towards lasting peace. While the ceasefire is in its early days, western governments have praised Egypt’s role. This comes at a time when Barack Obama is seeking to “pivot” the focus of his foreign policy towards Asia and to focus on relations with China. After the costly involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US is keen to see regional players taking the lead in resolving regional problems, hence its reliance on Turkey in Syria and Egypt in Gaza.
Moreover, western governments have been pleasantly surprised by what they have seen from the Muslim Brotherhood in its first five months in office. Delegations of politicians, businessmen and diplomats have been shuttling back and forth between Cairo and western capitals, getting to know each other after years when the Brotherhood was banned. The relationships are not yet deep, but the first impression of many westerners is that the articulate, suited and often US-educated businessmen are easier to talk to than many expected. This honeymoon has been sweetened by the discovery that the leaders of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood seem largely centre-right on the economy. While they have a different religious and political world view, they want western investment, trade and expertise; they do not want to become isolated like post-revolution Iran. However, western policymakers cannot simply outsource their policies to regional leaders. After the Arab uprisings, governments need to take public opinion more seriously. On one hand, Mursi’s government faces popular pressure to take a stronger stance in favour of the Palestinians. On the other, Egypt’s major donors, the US and the Gulf states, want Egypt to maintain peace with Israel and to play a stabilising role. These two imperatives are not mutually exclusive. Yes, Egyptians have doubts about their 1979 peace treaty with Israel: A Pew Research survey in May found that 51 per cent thought it should be annulled. Yet, if it came down to it, few Egyptians would want a fresh armed conflict with their well-armed neighbour. The military also shares some common interests with Israel when it comes to stabilising the border with Gaza. It worries about the risks of violence spilling over into its own Sinai peninsula, where militant groups have become more assertive since the revolution. Western governments will therefore be hoping that the Muslim Brotherhood could be a force for stability, now that it faces the realities of government. However, back home, Mursi is already being criticised by Islamist opponents, including the Salafists, who say he is selling out to the West. The recent protests in Jordan, the only other Arab country that has diplomatic relations with Israel, highlight the risks — protests were driven by anger about the cost of living, joblessness and a lack of representation, but violence in Gaza poured fuel on the flames.
In Egypt, Mursi assumed new powers to issue laws unilaterally until a new constitution is written, which has been delayed another two months. The timing will convince his critics that he has had a US green light to take on more power in return for brokering the ceasefire. Mursi needs to differentiate his foreign policy from Hosni Mubarak, who had come to be seen in his own country as little more than a US poodle. Egypt’s uprising has ushered in a newly resurgent nationalism in one of the Middle East’s oldest and most historic countries, with both Islamists and secularists saying Egypt should be at the centre of regional affairs. Having relations with Israel can be a means to this end if Egypt also has some leverage in the relationship. One crucial test will be whether Egypt can help find a new system for Gaza — where half a million people have no work — to be able to trade.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2012.
Jane Kinninmont is the senior research fellow at Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.