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Middle East

Egypt’s Islamist president condemns shelling of Gaza


Egypt’s Islamist president today denounced Israel’s shelling of Gaza as an “unacceptable aggression,” ordering his prime minister to visit the Hamas-governed enclave in what could emerge as the first major test for the country’s leader.

In the worst outbreak of violence in the territory since the Gaza war nearly four years ago, President Mohammed Morsi has been quick to censure Israel, recalling the Egyptian ambassador from Tel Aviv, issuing a letter of protest to the Israeli envoy in Cairo, and calling an emergency meeting of the Arab League for Saturday. 

Egypt’s actions will be closely watched in the coming days as its Muslim Brotherhood government balances its allegiances to Hamas, the Islamist rulers of Gaza, while avoiding tension with the United States, Israel’s staunchest ally.

In the first visit by such a high-level official since Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, seized power in Gaza in 2007, Egypt’s prime minister, Hesham Kandil, is expected to arrive in Gaza today over the Egypt-Gaza border crossing at Rafah in a show of solidarity with the Palestinians.

His visit, although largely symbolic, is a notable gesture, and comes as hundreds of Egyptians turned out in Cairo, with more protests planned, calling on Israel to halt the offensive, and demanding that Egypt sever ties with the Jewish State.

As the crisis escalated today with the death of seven Palestinians and three Israelis, Mr Morsi criticised the attacks, but stopped short of an outright condemnation of Israel. “The people of Egypt and its government stand with all its capabilities to stop this aggression to prevent the bloodshed and killing of Palestinians,” he said in his first public remarks on the crisis, promising to stand side by side with the Palestinians “until we stop this aggression on them.”

In sharp contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood, whose leader Mohammed Badie today denounced Israel as a “project of the devil,” Mr Morsi took a more pragmatic approach, saying that he had discussed with US President Barak Obama how “peace and security could be achieved for everyone without aggression.” 

His response may fall short, however, for the many ordinary Egyptians who sympathise with Palestinian national aspirations, and hope that Mr Morsi will prove to be more robust in relations with Israel than his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, ousted from power in a revolution last February. 

Under the Mubarak regime, the Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed, and official relations with Hamas were, at best, strained. Mr Morsi, who emerged the victor in the country’s first free presidential elections in June, has his roots in the Muslim Brotherhood movement.