Egypt's Morsi takes star turn on world stage

 

Cairo

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi emerged as the key player in a high-wire feat of international diplomacy between Israel and Hamas on Wednesday, marking post-revolution Egypt's debut as a major force within the region.

Just months into his role as Egypt's first democratically elected leader, Morsi became the main interlocutor between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist group that runs the Gaza Strip, as Israel pummeled the enclave with airstrikes and Gaza-based militants fired rockets at southern Israeli towns. The agreement that resulted — some of its details will be hammered out in coming days — was the work of the Egyptians, all sides agreed.

After days of anxious negotiations in this city on the Nile, the bargain that was struck between Israel and Hamas marks a powerful comeback by Egypt on the international stage. The country has long prided itself on being the central arbiter of diplomatic and cultural power in the Middle East but had become increasingly irrelevant under Hosni Mubarak, whose 30-year reign ended last year.

The rapid changes in Egypt have left the United States and Israel with a less pliant but potentially stronger partner, analysts say, as Morsi, an Islamist, can claim to speak for the Egyptian people in a way Mubarak never could. And Egypt's pledge to underwrite the cease-fire may lay the foundations for Cairo to serve as a trusted go-between in any future peace negotiations.

Morsi managed to keep Israel's trust while still reflecting Egyptian public opinion, which long chafed at Mubarak's deferential approach to the neighbor across the Sinai desert. This time around, Egypt came down firmly on the side of Palestinians, while still keeping its peace with Israel and shuttling between the warring sides.

The end result — an agreement between Israel and Hamas, which have long refused to acknowledge each other, brokered by a neighboring Islamist government — would have been unthinkable before the Arab Spring reshaped the region less than two years ago, toppling autocrats who had long held political Islam at bay and strengthening the hand of once-isolated groups such as Hamas.

"Egypt's new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone of regional stability and peace," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday, announcing the cease-fire deal alongside Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Amr.

Her words were echoed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking just minutes before the truce took effect Wednesday night.

"I would like . . . to express my appreciation for the efforts of Egypt to obtain a cease-fire," he said in Jerusalem.

Egypt "did not forget its status as an Arab nation," Khaled Meshal, the leader of Hamas, said in Cairo. Hamas is an offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which is closely aligned with Morsi.

Egypt's evolution may be especially important as Turkey, another country that has sought an expanded diplomatic role in the region, has taken a more aggressive tack against Israel. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said this week that Israel was engaged in "ethnic cleansing" in Gaza, rhetoric that left his country less able to serve as an interlocutor.

Morsi took quick actions last week to condemn the Israeli assault, buying himself time with his own public to work diplomatic channels to end the hostilities. The president recalled his ambassador from Tel Aviv and sent his prime minister to Gaza in the thick of the fighting.

But he also kept Egypt's intelligence service in touch with its Israeli counterpart, maintaining Mubarak-era contacts in the service of post-Mubarak goals, according to former Egyptian intelligence officials still in close communication with their onetime colleagues. And he spoke six times to President Barack Obama, convincing the U.S. president that there was a deal to be done.

"The feeling here was that he came in as a bit of an unknown quantity," said an Obama administration official. But Morsi came through, the official said, on both Gaza and the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo in September.

Morsi's balancing act left Israelis appreciative even as Egyptians felt he had taken a hard line. Conservative Egyptians who could have been pushing their leader to escalate the confrontation were instead applauding his actions. Coupled with an overhaul of the Egyptian military that has greatly reduced its power, Morsi has radically revised some of the central tenets of the old order in his country.

"Now we have a Muslim president and a Muslim country," said Hassan el-Marghany Mohammed Ahmed, 41, a clothing vendor in a religiously conservative neighborhood of northeast Cairo. "We will not leave Gaza alone."

But the new orientation carries new risks. Had the Israeli troops still massed along the Gaza border invaded, as Israel was contemplating, Morsi would have been under tremendous pressure to open his country's northeastern border to refugees.

Such a humanitarian move would be a break with the Mubarak regime, which sealed the border during the 2008-2009 Israeli offensive in Gaza. But it could destabilize the already-volatile northern Sinai region and strain a 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

Morsi, a U.S.-educated engineer and longtime Muslim Brotherhood leader, was the group's second choice for president during May-June elections, after its first pick was disqualified, and many Egyptians expected that he would be a lackluster leader. Many questions remain about the cease-fire, including the extent to which Morsi will be able to guarantee the conduct of Hamas.

And the success abroad comes at a time of uncertainty at home. Egypt's economic situation continues to deteriorate, and Cairo has been rocked by violent protests in recent days. A train crashed into a school bus last week in central Egypt, killing 52 children. And the group writing Egypt's new constitution has split over the extent to which Islamic law should influence the charter.

On Wednesday, those domestic problems confronting Morsi melted away, if only for a moment.

"May God keep him in the presidency," said Meshal, the Hamas leader.

- - -

Ernesto Londoño in Tel Aviv, Ingy Hassieb in Cairo and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015