By Robert Joyce
CAIRO—Exactly two years after the revolution, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi is on the ropes. Since November, Morsi has faced his most significant domestic challenge yet, seen the passage of the post-Mubarak constitution, and jumped headfirst into the Hamas-Israel relations and Palestinian unification arena. So far, Morsi has seen better luck abroad than at home. His negotiation of the November Hamas-Israel ceasefire won praise from U.S. Secretary of State Clinton, Hamas, and the Israeli leadership. Within Egypt, however, Morsi’s opposition has intensified its accusations of budding tyranny and its criticisms of the still stagnant economy.
Morsi’s first major foreign crisis came when violence between Israel and Hamas restarted after the targeted killing of a Hamas military commander by Israeli forces on November 14th. In a sharp break from his predecessor Hosni Mubarak, Morsi supported Hamas’ position outright, blaming Israeli forces for the violence and excessive civilian casualties. Morsi, as a Muslim Brotherhood leader, has not even referred to Israel by name in his time in office, nor met with any Israelis. The Brotherhood, to which Hamas is tied politically, endorses violent struggle to expel Israel from “Muslim lands.”
Nevertheless, Morsi stepped forward immediately to lead cease-fire negotiations. Israeli government officials flew secretly to Cairo to meet with their Egyptian counterparts, excluding Morsi or any other Brotherhood leaders, according to the Associated Press. Morsi also dispatched his prime minister, Hesham Kandil, to Gaza during the attacks. Despite American and Israeli concerns about the reliability of a Brotherhood-led government in Egypt, Morsi’s politics seemed to give him more credibility in dealing with Hamas and made the cease-fire terms more enforceable. After eight days of bombing resulting in 162 Palestinian and five Israeli deaths, an “Egypt-backed” ceasefire was announced. Al Jazeera footage showed Palestinians in Gaza waving Egyptian flags in celebration.
Coming off his diplomatic victory, on November 22nd Morsi issued a decree making him immune from judicial oversight until the passage of the constitution. Morsi staggered as the clashes surrounding the protests against this “coup against legitimacy” grew more violent. While opposition grew, the controversial Constituent Assembly tasked with drafting the constitution hastily passed their draft without the votes of any secularist members. Morsi rescinded his decree and Egypt voted. The referendum passed with 63.8 percent and Morsi quickly signed the new constitution into effect on December 26th.
Following this stinging battle, Morsi jumped right back into the Palestine fray, hosting unification talks in Cairo. Since the 2006 elections, the Palestinian Territories have been violently divided between Hamas, led by Khaled Mashaal, which governs Gaza, and Fatah, led by Mahmoud Abbas, which governs the West Bank under the banner of the Palestinian Authority. The PA has been Israel’s and the United States’ main interlocutor and represents Palestine in the United Nations. With talks between the PA and Israel long stalled, efforts have been made to unite the bitterly divided Palestinian factions. Cairo, and most recently Morsi, has led these efforts. In the negotiations this month, Morsi directly involved himself in the shuttle diplomacy between Abbas and Mashaal. A new agreement on a timeline to reconcile was announced on January 16th. Both sides acknowledged Egypt’s role in the negotiations.
Following bruising domestic battles, it is logical for Morsi to pursue popular foreign policy objectives in order to rebuild his political capital. Much attention is paid to the Palestinian issue here in Egypt. Throughout the revolution, secular and Islamist groups alike have staged rallies in solidarity with events in Palestine. Egyptian Facebook pages have pledged loyalty to Palestine, going so far as to promise Egyptian soldiers for armed liberation of occupied territory. There are political points to be won on the Palestinian issue for Morsi, and given the national gridlock, it seems that foreign policy could be a route towards tangible achievements.
Action on Palestine has a more specific political advantage for Morsi, and threatens an equivalent backlash. Through the Gaza cease-fire and unification talks, Morsi has elevated the position of Hamas. Hamas' origins as a political party began as an offshoot of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, and positioning a political ally next door strengthens Morsi’s hand as Egypt searches for a regional leadership role. Activists in Cairo who are critical of Morsi’s policies point out that being “pro-Hamas” isn’t the same as being “pro-Palestine.” They see Morsi’s moves in Palestine as just further evidence of what they call an effort to “ikhwanize” Egypt and the region—placing members of the Brotherhood (ikhwan) in positions of power.
There are also those in Egypt who reject any Egyptian resources going to Palestine. With the country in desperate need, they argue, all available resources ought to be kept in country. Hardship, brought on by an economy in shambles and political instability, has caused resentment among many Egyptians towards an issue they see as unrelated to their own well-being. They point to a November accident when a bus carrying dozens of young children collided with an oncoming train, killing 51. At the time, Morsi focused his attention and rhetoric on deaths in Gaza and ignored calls to reform Egypt’s accident-prone Railway Authority, disappointing many.
New Egyptian policy on Palestine and Israel is a clear revolutionary priority, and Morsi will have to deliver if he’s to maintain credibility. However, domestic concerns should come first. With a crumbling infrastructure, a failing economy, and dangerous living conditions, Egyptians are demanding that their government act for them before attending to political goals beyong their own borders.
Robert Joyce is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of Jonathan Rashad.]