Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has won high praise for brokering the Israel-Hamas ceasefire. But can he implement the truce? And on the domestic front, is Egypt’s new president turning into its next pharaoh?
In Arabic, Egypt is sometimes called “Umm al-Dunya” – or mother of the world – a title that turned more ironic than complimentary over the past few decades as Egypt sunk to new lows of poverty, autocracy and humiliation over its failure to defend the honour of the Arab world.
But for a brief moment on Wednesday night, it seemed like the most populous Arab nation was once again the centre of the world.
While announcing an Israel-Hamas ceasefire at a joint press conference with her Egyptian counterpart in Cairo on November 21, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lavishly praised Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.
“I want to thank President Morsi for his personal leadership to de-escalate the situation in Gaza and end the violence,” said Clinton, setting the tone of the discourse in the days to come.
Egypt’s successful brokering of a ceasefire that ended eight days of fierce fighting, which killed more than 160 Gazans and five Israelis, has been hailed as a testimony to Morsi’s diplomatic adroitness – a quality few expected of the new man at the Heliopolis Presidential Palace.
In an interview with FRANCE 24 shortly after the ceasefire announcement, Barbara Slavin, senior fellow at the Washington DC-based Atlantic Council, gave credit where credit was due. “The US has played a role, but Egypt has played an even bigger one,” said Slavin. “It seems, at least at present, to be a victory for Mohamed Morsi and I must say I’m more and more impressed by this individual.”
So was US President Barack Obama, according to a report in The New York Times detailing the phone log of conversations between the US and Egyptian presidents over a 48-hour period.
“Mr. Obama told aides he was impressed with the Egyptian leader’s pragmatic confidence,” reported The New York Times. “He sensed an engineer’s precision with surprisingly little ideology.”
A ‘new pharaoh’ rises from Mubarak’s ashes
But the ink had barely dried on the international paeans before Egypt’s first democratically elected Islamist president made a domestic move replete with ideology.
In a presidential decree announced on state television Thursday afternoon, Morsi stipulated that any challenges to his decrees, laws and decisions were banned.
“The president can issue any decision or measure to protect the revolution,” said the decree, which further stipulated that, “The constitutional declarations, decisions and laws issued by the president are final and not subject to appeal.”
The decree also stated that no court could dissolve the country’s Constituent Assembly, which is drawing up a new Egyptian constitution.
The rewriting of the new constitution has been a controversial issue, with most non-Islamist members quitting the Constituent Assembly – including representatives of the Coptic Christian Church and the April 6 Youth Movement, which played an influential role in the 2011 ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak.
Reacting to the announcement, prominent Egyptian opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei accused Morsi of usurping authority and becoming a “new pharaoh”.
On the microblogging Twitter site, criticism was swift: “It’s going to be difficult for #Egypt to convince the world that it is on a new path when its president assumes almost unlimited power,” tweeted Angus Blair, president of Signet Institute, a Cairo-based think tank.
“Dear US media: You asked who won Gaza-Israel war? The bearded angel of diplomacy Morsi did,” tweeted Firas Al-Atraqchi, a journalism professor at the American University in Cairo.
“Morsi is not fairing as well domestically as he has internationally in the context of the role he played in brokering the ceasefire,” said Samer Shehata, a professor at Georgetown University. “He has to tackle myriad problems internally, such as the economy, institutional reforms and constitutional reforms. His ties to the Muslim Brotherhood have also been very divisive for Egypt.”
Israel’s police and puppet on Gaza
Since he was elected president in June with a 51% sliver of a majority, Morsi has been leading a country with no constitution, no parliament, an economy on the ropes with rising inflation and unemployment, a military that distrusts him and significant sections of the citizenry suspicious of his Islamist roots.
Even within his base, Morsi has to play a fine balancing act.
The morning after the Israel-Hamas ceasefire came into effect, the top leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood denounced the peace efforts with Israel and called for a jihad to liberate the Palestinian territories.
“The enemy knows nothing but the language of force,” said the Brotherhood’s Mohammed Badie. “Be aware of the game of grand deception with which they depict peace accords,” he said in a statement posted on the group’s website.
Morsi may have succeeded in taping a sticking plaster over the latest Israeli-Palestinian spat. But in the long run, he faces the same problems that earned Mubarak his reputation as a “US and Israeli puppet”.
Wednesday’s ceasefire puts the burden of blocking arms smuggling into Gaza on Egypt. Passing on “the problem” of Gaza – a territory Egypt administered until it was seized by Israel in the 1967 war – has long been an Israeli strategy that Mubarak dutifully implemented.
But Morsi is a democratically elected president of a country that has grown weary of the Arab world’s failure to address the Palestinian issue and the expectations are higher for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-linked president.
In many ways, hammering out a ceasefire deal was the easy part. The implementation – including balancing Egyptian public opinion with US and Israeli pressure – is the real challenge confronting Morsi.
For the moment, Morsi has managed to appease Washington. But he has also managed to appease various regional figures, according to Shehata.
“He’s managed this one very well,” said Shehata. “Morsi of course has different constituencies to please. On the one hand, he has to maintain peace due to his dependence on US aid. At the same time, he is a democratically elected president who has to be supporting Palestinian rights.”
But Morsi knows that it will only take another low-grade Hamas rocket into Israel to reignite the fires and move Egypt from the centre of peace to the sidelines of yet another Middle East conflict.