Israel’s latest campaign in Gaza against Hamas has left Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi in a bind. His rivals, both on the left and more significantly those on the right, the Salafis, have taken to the streets to protest Operation Pillar of Defense. Morsi has recalled Egypt’s ambassador to Israel, and now the Egyptian prime minister, is reportedly traveling to Gaza tomorrow, protected by a special unit from the Egyptian army, to lend moral support. But it’s not clear how much further the Cairo government can push the issue without finding itself in hot water.
Morsi’s attention is now focused on securing loans and aid packages from Western states and institutions—$6.4 billion from the EU and another $4.8 from the IMF—that in effect are contingent on Egypt’s stability, which in large part means keeping the peace with Israel.
To be sure, many Egyptians are clamoring for Hamas to take the fight to Israel, even government officials like the minister for religious endowments who is calling on the Palestinian resistance to strike deep in the heart of the Zionist entity. But much of the country seems to agree with Morsi that it is time for an Egypt on the verge of bankruptcy to look inward and settle its own problems, rather than tempt war with its powerful neighbor to the north. However, the new Egyptian leader’s domestic rivals are backing him into corners from where he may not be able to extricate himself or the 80 million people he was elected to lead.
On Tuesday, the legal committee of Egypt’s ruling Freedom and Justice party (the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party) announced that it was working on a new draft law to amend parts of the 1979 peace treaty. The major issue regards the re-militarization of the Sinai, which would thereby allow the Egyptian army to deploy forces throughout the peninsula. The problem for Morsi is not just that the Israelis do not want the Egyptian army in the Sinai, but that the Egyptian army doesn’t want to be there either.
The Sinai is home to around half a million Bedouins, a population that includes Salafist jihadists that may have ties to al Qaeda. The peninsula is a dangerous place, especially it seems for Egyptian security forces. The most recent incident, two weeks ago, saw three Egyptian security officers killed, but the largest operation was the August attack that cost the lives of sixteen Egyptian border policemen. The army does not want its soldiers shot and loathed—Bedouins hate the security forces—and therefore it does not seek a permanent presence there that would antagonize the Bedouins and perhaps give rise to a war of tribal vendettas.
In the past, because Jerusalem is also concerned about the security situation in Sinai, the Israelis have proven agreeable in dealing with the Egyptians on a case-by-case basis whenever Cairo sought to send more forces into the peninsula. This mechanism survived the Mubarak years. Indeed, just this past August, Morsi sent the army into the Sinai to root out the militants that had attacked Egyptian security forces. The operation was blessed by the Israelis, who share with Morsi an interest in curtailing the activities of those who might be working in partnership with al Qaeda.
So why is Morsi pushing back against one of the key provisions of the peace treaty while at the same time also risking alienating his own army’s leaders (whom he hand-picked over the summer) by seeking to have the military permanently deployed in the Sinai?
The reality is that it’s unclear whether or not Morsi really does want Egyptian soldiers there, or if he’s even committed to making a case for this amendment. After all, the actual legal procedure is still way off. The Freedom and Justice party’s legal committee says the amendments would be reviewed by Morsi and the next parliament, which won’t be elected until next year. Morsi and the MB are making noise about the Sinai because they need to get out front on the issue so that they will not be outflanked by domestic rivals, especially the Salafis.
The Egypt-Israel peace treaty is a bad fit with the Muslim Brotherhood’s political framework. Morsi and the Brotherhood can hardly embrace a relationship with Israel and stay in power. That’s why Morsi has generally chosen to keep his public statements about Israel to a minimum, while he raises money around the world. But domestically, he has to ensure that his opposition can’t portray him as a clone of his predecessor, a Mubarak with a beard, who adheres to the status quo position of compromise with the West.
Accordingly, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood need to own the Sinai issue so that their rivals don’t. Drafting an amendment that will not even be reviewed for a year is a way to stall. The danger is that putting such an amendment into play means that in spite of Morsi’s intentions, what started as a ploy to fend off local challengers could nonetheless become real very quickly. The fate of Egypt depends largely on the ability of an untested leader to navigate very difficult weather, on the international, regional, and domestic fronts.