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Nov 15, 2012 | 19:57 GMT

Egypt's Measured Response to Operation Pillar of Defense

Egypt's Measured Response to Operation Pillar of Defense
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/GettyImages
Summary

The Egyptian government confirmed Nov. 15 that Prime Minister Hesham Kandil and other members of the Egyptian Cabinet would visit Gaza on Nov. 16 despite ongoing military action between Hamas and Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood now occupies many key positions in the Egyptian government, so unlike Israeli-Egyptian coordination on Gaza during the Hosni Mubarak era, the Brotherhood must carefully balance the expectations of its supporters against its own regional constraints. The fact that such considerations are even being made testifies to Egypt's ongoing political transition. However, Cairo's response will be informed by geopolitical realities despite rhetoric to the contrary. 

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood differ from former President Hosni Mubarak in many ways. During times of conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Territories, the Mubarak regime coordinated with Israel to help block the smuggling of arms, rockets and supplies through tunnels leading from the Sinai Peninsula into Gaza — much to the consternation and criticism of Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. In stark contrast to previous Israeli-Egyptian coordination on Gaza, Mubarak also resisted calls from Palestinian groups and regional supporters to open the Rafah border crossing with Gaza to allow aid and supplies to more easily reach affected populations.

Ideologically, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are much more sympathetic toward Hamas than the military-backed Mubarak regime. The Brotherhood has called for Friday protests and has demanded that the Egyptian government sever ties with Israel and act as a leader for other Arab and Muslim nations. For their part, Morsi and his Freedom and Justice Party — the Muslim Brotherhood's political wing — have called the airstrikes unacceptable. 

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Yet they also are working for a truce. This is because the new Islamist-led government operates under the same geopolitical forces as Mubarak — a fact that helps explain why neither the Egyptian government nor the military has indicated any desire to formally break off relations with Israel. In truth, Cairo's response has been relatively measured. While the government condemned the attack, the Egyptian government has been in close contact with U.S. officials to seek out a truce. U.S. President Barack Obama spoke with Morsi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Nov. 14, during which Morsi urged Washington to use whatever influence necessary to help curb Israeli actions and maintain stability in the region. So far, neither the Egyptian government and its Islamist leadership or the Egyptian military have indicated any desire to formally break off relations with Israel. 

Resuming its Role

The government in Cairo cannot ignore calls from the street for a tough stance against Israel. Yet Egypt cannot afford to break with Israel and risk an all-out war on its periphery. Leniency on the border could invite Israeli action on Egyptian soil, especially if Israel has already taken the risk of moving into Gaza. That is not something that either the Muslim Brotherhood or the Egyptian military is prepared for. For now, Cairo is posturing as a champion of Gaza, hence the Nov. 16 visit by senior Egyptian officials (the first visit of its kind since 1958).

Meanwhile, Morsi will coordinate closely with the United States — coordination will likely include backroom conversations with Israeli leadership — thus resuming Egypt's role as a mediator between Hamas and Israel, albeit in a much more subdued way.

Visit our Israel page for related analysis, videos, situation reports and maps.

However, Morsi, the Freedom and Justice Party and the Muslim Brotherhood can ill afford being perceived as overly accommodating to the United States and Israel. Kandil's upcoming visit is an obvious concession to Egypt's domestic Islamist constituency, as is the decision to reverse Mubarak-era policy and open the Rafah border crossing to allow humanitarian aid to reach Palestinians in Gaza. Both moves reflect the changing relationship between Egypt, Gaza and Israel.

Israel probably would not risk any sort of military action while Kandil is present — a tactic that could help Egyptian efforts to halt Israeli military action — but the move could expedite Israeli military action prior to his visit or result in Israeli action to try and prevent Kandil's crossing into Gaza. In any case, what is most apparent is that Morsi, like Mubarak before him, will craft a response informed by geopolitical realities.

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