After I analyzed the Israeli decision making calculus on Gaza on Monday, Zack Gold, who is an astute Middle East analyst and tweets from @ZLGold, rightly took me to task for neglecting to examine the Egypt angle. I asked Zack if he’d be willing to write a guest post filling in the large gap that I had left, and between now and then Israel has launched Operation Pillar of Cloud in Gaza and Egypt has responded, making Zack’s post all the more timely. In addition, I argued in the Atlantic that Egypt is likely to be more active in pressuring Israel over the Palestinians, but Zack has a different view contrary to mine and comes at it from an interesting angle, and I like to air as wide a debate as possible here at O&Z. So without further ado, here is Zack on the Egyptian reaction to Israel’s operations in Gaza.
The recent flare-up in tit-for-tat violence between Israel and Gaza, and especially the launch of Operation Pillar of Defense yesterday, has had me watching for reaction across the border in Egypt. Michael wrote a post on Monday on the likelihood of a wider Israeli operation in Gaza. I agreed with many of his points, but I was surprised that a post on Israeli policy towards Gaza didn’t take into account the reaction of a post-revolution Egypt. Michael graciously invited me to write a guest-post on the topic.
The theory that Israel lost its strategic depth on the Gaza front with Egypt’s January 25 Revolution, and the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, is two-fold. First, a democratic leader of Egypt will have to be more responsive to public opinion; and whether Islamist, liberal, revolutionary, Nasserist, Muslim, or Copt, pretty much the only thing that all Egyptians agree on is animosity towards Israel.
In addition to the pressure from the street, it was likely that any Egyptian leader not from the ancien régime would view Gaza differently than had Mubarak. This is not because Mubarak was an American-Zionist stooge, but his regime viewed Hamas in the same light as he viewed his most powerful opposition: the Muslim Brotherhood. That Egypt’s post-revolutionary president, Mohamed Morsi, hails from the Brotherhood is all the more reason to assume the Egyptian government would not sit still during a major Israeli operation in Gaza, as Mubarak’s had during the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead.
So the Israeli government has gambled that Egypt will not react as a changed nation or decided that even if it does the reaction is worthwhile because the threat from Gaza is too great. More worrisome would be that Operation Pillar of Defense is a short-term political decision: acting against an immediate threat to the homeland, right before an election, in a way that may damage longer-term strategic interests.
As of this writing, Egypt has not acted in the tempestuous way one might expect. It is possible that—the Israeli operation so fresh—the Egyptian government has been able to issue harsh statements, to recall its ambassador, and to call for discussions at the United Nations, but not had enough time to plan a more thorough response. Indeed, the “street” has not even had a chance to mobilize yet: small gatherings of leftists and revolutionaries have rallied and marched in Cairo, but the Muslim Brotherhood has called for nationwide demonstrations this afternoon (a public holiday) and tomorrow.
At the same time, there are several reasons the Egyptian government may not react as expected. First is the issue of proximity. Unlike Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s response to Cast Lead, it is difficult for Morsi to be a champion on the “Arab street” when his actions will have important consequences for his own nation. He may refuse to utter the word “Israel,” and his Muslim Brotherhood seeks to quietly diminish relations, but the Egyptian president has continued to stand by the peace treaty. Max Fisher speculated that Egypt could open up the Gaza border: breaking the blockade and allowing in necessary aid. But opening the border is a two-way street, which could allow a portion of 1.5 million Palestinians to flow freely across the border: giving Egypt more responsibility for Gazans’ wellbeing.
An overflow of Palestinian refugees would also exacerbate Egypt’s own economic woes, which also limit its actions towards Gaza. At the very moment the situation unfolds across the Gaza-Israel border, in Cairo the government is sitting down with IMF officials to negotiate a much need $4.5b loan. Egypt just secured $6.3b from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, but that money will be tied to IMF approval. Not to mention the $1.5b annual contract with the Americans. In addition to government loans and grants, Egypt needs private investment. But if Egypt breaks its post-revolutionary commitment to maintain the peace treaty with Israel then investors are less to risk whether it will stand by other commitments.
Finally, post-revolutionary Egypt is still struggling to make the transition to a post-revolutionary system. Morsi is also held back by the Egyptian military and interior ministry, which are “chasing ghosts” in the Sinai: smugglers and Salafi jihadis with links to Gaza. Indeed the Egyptian president’s first attempt to change the status quo was cut short by the August 5 attack that left 16 soldiers and guards dead near the border with Israel and Gaza.
Morsi is trying to raise Egypt up as a regional powerbroker, but he is stunted by domestic problems. For now, it seems, Morsi has settled on statements and for calling on others (namely the United States and the United Nations) to halt the violence. As he meets with members of his cabinet and security apparatus—and as Egypt’s population mobilizes in support of Gaza—it has yet to be seen if Egypt’s first post-revolution president will act any differently from his pre-revolution predecessor.