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Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi

Maya Alleruzzo, Associated Press

Egypt's leader now a major player

  • Article by: HAMZA HENDAWI
  • Associated Press
  • November 21, 2012 - 6:32 PM

CAIRO, EGYPT - The Gaza cease-fire marks a startling trajectory for Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi: an Islamist leader who refuses to talk to Israelis or even say the country's name mediated for it and turned himself into Israel's de facto protector.

The accord inserts Egypt to an unprecedented degree into the conflict between Israel and Hamas, establishing it as the arbiter ensuring that militant rocket fire into Israel stops and that Israel allows the opening of the long-blockaded Gaza Strip and stops its own attacks against Hamas.

In return, Morsi emerged as a major regional player. He won the trust of the United States and Israel, which once worried over the rise of an Islamist leader in Egypt but throughout the weeklong Gaza crisis saw him as the figure most able to deliver a deal with Gaza's Hamas rulers.

"I want to thank President Morsi for his personal leadership to de-escalate the situation in Gaza and end the violence," said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who met with Morsi on Wednesday in Cairo. "This is a critical moment for the region. Egypt's new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone of regional stability and peace."

After Israel launched its assault on Gaza a week ago, aimed at stopping militant rocket fire, Morsi's palace in a Cairo suburb became the Middle East's diplomatic hub. He held talks with Turkey's prime minister, the emir of Qatar, Germany's foreign minister and a host of top Arab officials to get them behind his mediation. An Israeli envoy flew secretly into Cairo for talks with Egyptian security officials, though Morsi did not meet or speak directly with any Israelis.

Throughout it all, Morsi and his aides sided openly with Hamas, accusing Israel of starting the assault and condemning its bombardment.

Morsi hails from the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most powerful political group and Hamas' own parent organization. Brotherhood leaders, including Morsi, refuse to speak to Israeli officials. Morsi hasn't even said the name of the country publicly since he was inaugurated in late June, though he has referred to its people as "Israelis."

In ideology, the Muslim Brotherhood supports the use of force against Israel to liberate "Muslim lands." Only two months ago, its supreme leader, Mohammed Badie, proclaimed that regaining Jerusalem can "only come through holy jihad." The group opposes Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

But since coming to power, the group has had to yield to pragmatism. The Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi have promised to abide by the peace accord. Through a military operation and through dialogue, Morsi has tried to rein in Islamic militants in the Sinai Peninsula who have attacked Egyptian security forces and across the border into Israel.

When the Israeli offensive began, President Obama spoke to Morsi after talking to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. While Obama and Morsi disagreed over who to blame for the violence, they agreed to work together to halt it.

That Israel was comfortable with an Islamist such as Morsi mediating may not be a measure of trust as much as a realization that only the Egyptians can persuade their Hamas cousins to enter a deal and ensure an end to rocket attacks.

© 2014 Star Tribune