07/22/2014 03:20 pm ET Updated Sep 21, 2014

Has Sisi's Disdain for the Muslim Brotherhood Poisoned Egypt's Position on the Conflict in Gaza?

FAROUK BATICHE via Getty Images

In November 2012 Mohammed Morsi's Egypt was a vocal supporter of Hamas. Now, less than 20 months later, Egypt's current leadership classifies Hamas as a terrorist organization that ought to be wiped off the face of the Earth. This about-face is reflected in the public outcries of journalists such as Azza Sami from Al-Ahram newspaper, who writes, "Thank you, Netanyahu, and may God give us more [people] like you to destroy Hamas." To gain greater insight into this shift in public opinion, it is crucial to examine the role of the military, the failed presidency of Morsi and the current administration's influence on the population of Egypt.

The Role of the Egyptian Military

Shortly before the events that triggered the current unrest in Gaza, I had the opportunity to meet with top officials at the Ministry of Defense in Egypt as part of the 2014 Gabr Fellowship. During our talk we were bombarded with images of Muslim Brotherhood supporters attacking Egyptian military and police. Ominous music played in the background while video excerpts depicted bloody bodies being carried from the streets. We were constantly reminded of the terrorist inclinations of the Muslim Brotherhood and their transnational aspirations of establishing a new caliphate, though nothing was said about the thousands of protestors who were butchered by military personnel in Rabaa Square. The generals were out to convince us that the Muslim Brotherhood is composed of nothing more than opportunistic thugs hell-bent on ruining the country -- a mad dog that has to be put down. This is the first piece of the puzzle, namely that Egypt's military sets itself in direct opposition to the Brotherhood and its subsidiaries, including Hamas.

Admittedly, it was almost impossible to differentiate the victims from the perpetrators of these heinous acts, which prompted one of my American colleagues to ask about the determination of legitimate targets. I was aghast at their response: "We can smell them.... [A]nyone with a beard is a legitimate target." After the recent failed attempts at a ceasefire, I was left asking myself how Egypt could possibly be an honest broker between Hamas, whom they view as the armed wing of the Brotherhood, and Israel, when this is the view they have concerning legitimate targets in their own country.

It seems to me that the Egyptian military sees itself in an existential battle for the identity of Egypt -- and with the recent slaughtering of 30 Egyptian soldiers along the Western border, one with lives hanging in the balance. For them, the struggle for Egypt's identity is waged between the forces of transnational Islamism on one hand and secular nationalism on the other. Samuel Huntington's thesis -- that the wars of today will not be primarily based upon ideology or economics but upon cultural identity -- continues to ring true. Yet domestic security concerns are not the only contributors to this change in Egyptian sentiment as the change in political leadership has also had a significant impact.

Political Leadership and Polarized Politics in Egypt

Polarized politics are certainly nothing unique to Egypt. All one has to do is look at the political grandstanding that has become emblematic of the American Congress to judge the verity of this claim. However, the transition in Egypt's presidency from the Muslim Brotherhood's representative, Mohamed Morsi, to the former commander-in-chief of the Egyptian military, Abdel Fatteh El-Sisi, has had major ramifications for Egypt's relations with Hamas and in redefining Egyptian identity in its nascent democratic era.

To put the current situation into perspective, it is important to recount the political savvy displayed by President Morsi in the last ceasefire agreement in November 2012. Morsi was clearly sensitive to the requests of Palestinians and Hamas leadership while simultaneously being sure not to alienate the Israeli government in the process. His success is perhaps best signified by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's public statements of gratitude for Morsi's efforts in securing peace between the two factions.

However, the atmosphere in Egypt has unquestionably changed since Morsi's ouster. Almost every meeting we attended touched upon the hijacking of Egyptian identity by Brotherhood leadership. We were told time and again about the oppression of women and religious minorities under Brotherhood rule. From renowned actors to economics professors to Egyptologists, all highlighted the need for strong leadership to provide a secure environment to jumpstart the Egyptian economy, and the need to reclaim Egyptian identity from the clutches of Islamist politicians.

The most troubling aspect of these conversations was the conflation of Islam with the goals of Islamists. While I am used to confronting this rhetoric when dealing with Islamophobes in the United States, I never expected to encounter an analogous situation in the Middle East. The fact that there is no monolithic interpretation of Islam to which all Muslims adhere seemed lost on several of the speakers. In their denunciations of Islamic perspectives, they all offered some form of extreme nationalism as the only option moving forward. I felt as though the mere mention of Islam in a positive light in post-Morsi Egypt could get you labeled as a Brotherhood sympathizer, which made you anti-Egypt by default.

Seeing as though there is little chance of using Islam as a point of contact between Egypt and Hamas, what hope does Sisi have in replicating Morsi's success using only the language of secular nationalism?

First of all, let me be clear in stating that secular nationalism and an Islamist perspective are by no means mutually exclusive. Common ground may be very easy to come across as long as the two sides are willing to listen to one another. Second, for many Egyptians the current conflict in Gaza is seen as a proving ground for Sisi. He must show that he is a capable leader well versed in the nuances of international relations. His ability to uphold Egypt's historic mantle of mediator of conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians will either valorize or stigmatize the remainder of his tenure as president. Sisi's administration is already facing critiques for its clumsy handling of the ceasefire negotiations, notably by failing to include Hamas in these talks.

Sisi is caught in a balancing act between catering to popular opinion, which is largely sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians, and staying true to the government's hardline approach to terrorist organizations. If he is congenial to the concessions asked for by Hamas, he undermines everything his administration is built upon; if he ignores the cries of the people, he risks civil unrest during a transitional period that is already fraught with uncertainty. Luckily for him, the political elite have had substantial bearing over the coverage of local media outlets. This, paired with Egyptian suspicion of foreign news sources, has made it much easier to sway public opinion in his favor. Nonetheless, if President Sisi truly desires to be successful in this endeavor and establish himself as a leader on the world stage (and is not interested in humiliating Hamas by making them appear unwilling to work for peace by offering them disingenuous ceasefire agreements), then there are several aspects of this process that he must be cognizant of and be willing to put into action. Here are a few that immediately come to mind:

  • Bringing Hamas to the table and ensuring they are part of the process will certainly have a better chance of attaining peace than relying on the media to disseminate information to their leaders.
  • Revisiting the ceasefire mediated by President Morsi could be enormously valuable, as Hamas has gone on record stating that it is still willing to abide by this agreement.
  • He must acknowledge the fact that Hamas will not allow the blood of Palestinians to be wasted, and that there will be no end to the violence without concessions that provide lasting effects. A return to the status quo is not a viable option.
  • Lastly, he must put the lives of innocent Palestinians above Egypt's and the West's war on terror. Hamas does not speak for the 600 civilians who have been murdered. The obliteration of opponents is not the only way to secure peace in the region.

A Path for Peace

How does one go about reconciling decades-old wounds that are continually ripped open by the bloody hands of dead children? Here I believe that the value of person-to-person engagement cannot be understated. For all of the talk of nation-to-nation relations, if real change is going to come about, it will be from the bottom up, not from the top down. It begins with us -- Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians, and Americans alike. It is incumbent upon us to stand up and aver, "Enough is enough! No more killing in my name! No more rejoicing over the deaths of others! No more bombs paid for with my tax dollars! No more dead children and grieving parents!"

This change begins with a simple hello, a smile, reaching out a hand of peace, sharing a cup of coffee and a conversation. Hating what you do not know is easy; taking the time to get to know someone may be hard, but it is always worth the effort. Initiatives such as the Gabr Fellowship are but one means to break down the barriers that separate us. I look forward to the day when our shared humanity trumps the divisions we have constructed for ourselves. Until then, I offer you a polite hello and an ear that is ready to listen.