THE BLOG

Why Morsi Could Be the Gaza Conflict's Biggest Loser

Since his election, Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi has gone to great lengths to show the disparities between his Muslim Brotherhood-backed government and the much-loathed Mubarak dictatorship. Israel's military campaign against the Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip seemed to have provided Mr. Morsi with his juiciest opportunity yet, while climbing a few steps on the ladder toward regional leadership in the process. In stark contrast to Mubarak's response to Israel's 2008/9 Operation Cast Lead, Morsi has partially opened the Rafah border crossing and pledged unprecedented solidarity with Hamas -- itself a Muslim Brotherhood movement. However, as each Hamas rocket over Tel Aviv brings Israel's tanks closer toward the Gaza border for a ground invasion, Mr. Morsi risks being embarrassed and undermined by the same faction with whom he pledged solidarity.

On November 17, the spotlight on Mr. Morsi's emergency Arab League meeting on Gaza was shattered when a train slammed into a school bus in the impoverished Assuit region, killing 50 school children. This costly disaster was the latest in a series of public transport accidents during Morsi's term, once again highlighting the dire problems of infrastructure and law enforcement plaguing Egypt's population of 83 million. Soon after, Egyptian social networks began teeming with outrage over state media's inadequate coverage of the disaster in favor of covering the ongoing hostilities in Gaza.

Before the Assuit disaster, many Egyptians had begun to express concerns with the nascent government's threatening rhetoric toward Israel and their bolstering of Hamas. The Wafd party, amongst Egypt's most veteran political factions, refused to attend a Freedom and Justice Party-organized emergency meeting aimed at condemning Israel, for fears that it would compromise Egypt's much-needed U.S. aid. Meanwhile, Hamas' refusal to hold its rocket fire and adhere to an informal lull during the visit of P.M. Hisham Qandil to the Gaza Strip on November 16 was seen as a slap in the face to many citizens, accusing Hamas of disrespecting their generous offering of solidarity.

Qandil's visit wouldn't be Hamas' last snub toward Egypt, not by a longshot. On November 17, Egypt intensified its efforts to mediate a ceasefire in Gaza, when its influential intelligence chief Mohamed Adbel Wahed hosted former Hamas politburo chief Khaled Mashaal in Cairo. Hours after the meeting, Hamas' Gaza leadership shattered any hopes for a ceasefire by firing an additional long-range rocket into Israel's largest city of Tel Aviv, pushing Israel's government closer to a ground incursion into the Gaza Strip.

If not stopped, Hamas' efforts to push Israel into a ground invasion will be disastrous for Egypt. The use of tanks, troops, and heavy artillery in Gaza's densely populated urban centers will guarantee a surge in civilian casualties, the relative absence of which has limited mass participation in anti-Israel protests in Tahrir Square until now. A ground incursion would further provide cannon fodder for Morsi's political rivals, both within the Muslim Brotherhood and in ultra conservative Salafist parties. On November 17, the political outbidding of these groups over the role of Sharia Law in Egypt's constitution had boiled over, resulting in the withdrawal of Egypt's persecuted Coptic Christian factions from the constituent assembly.

With or without a ground incursion, Egypt needs Hamas to offer a truce before the Israeli military commits irreversible damage to its governing infrastructure. With over 600 rocket-related targets destroyed, the IAF has begun to target Hamas governing institutions, including the cabinet and interior ministry. It won't be long before Israel sets its sights on Hamas' civil police force, the very same police force Egypt relies on to crackdown on radical Salafists and Jihadists in the southern Gaza Strip. In the security vacuum which ensued since Mubarak's ousting, Gazan jihadists have joined forces with al-Qaeda linked groups in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, bombing the economically crucial Sinai natural gas pipeline and staging repeated attacks on Egyptian security forces.

By throwing his weight behind Hamas, it seems that Mr. Morsi may get more than he originally bargained for. With each rocket Hamas fires into Israel, they further undermine Egypt's image as a credible broker, hindering Mr. Morsi's personal aspirations to restore Egypt's role as a regional leader.

The good news is that unlike Israel and Hamas, Mr. Morsi has an exit from the conflict in Gaza -- by simply ignoring it. The glitz and glamour of revolutionary regional leadership must be a second priority in order to bring Egypt back from the brink of economic collapse, sectarian strife, and insecurity. Indeed, if Mr. Morsi wants to distance himself from his predecessor, he can start by prioritizing the needs of his own people.

Daniel Nisman is an Intelligence Manager at Max Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk consulting firm based in Tel Aviv, Israel. You can follow him on twitter @dannynis.

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