At noon last Friday, worshippers and TV crews spilled out of every door of Cairo’s ancient al-Azhar mosque. Inside, Palestinian flags waved as Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, often described as the “spiritual leader” or “godfather” of the Muslim Brotherhood, condemned Israeli attacks on Gaza. “The people [of Gaza] do not deserve to be killed, why should they be killed? Israel is the liar that has been lying all through history,” he thundered. It was the 86-year-old’s first sermon in Egypt since the 2011 revolution, and his first ever at al-Azhar, the country’s most important mosque. His appearance was a measure of Egyptian popular outrage over the Gaza conflict and the government’s new willingness to support its expression.
Operation Pillar of Defence is the first test of the new balance of power in the post-Arab Spring Middle East. Egypt, Israel’s peace partner for three and a half decades, is keen to signal that its position has shifted. “Egypt today is different from the Egypt of yesterday, and the Arabs today are different from the Arabs of yesterday,” Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi told worshippers at a mosque in New Cairo on Friday.
200 miles to the north east, Egyptian prime minister Hisham Qandil had just left the Gaza Strip. At Gaza’s Shifa hospital he carried and kissed the body of a four-year-old boy killed in an Israeli air strike. “The Egyptian people are supporting you. The Egyptian revolution will be side by side with the Palestinian people,” he said to onlookers. Other Egyptian delegations to visit Gaza over the weekend included one led by Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a prominent doctor and candidate in this year’s Egyptian presidential elections. Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood now in power in Egypt, is no longer as isolated as it was.
But Egypt’s support for Gaza remains less ideological than pragmatic. Morsi is keenly aware that success in brokering a truce between Hamas and Israel would boost his country’s shaky regional standing. Over the weekend, key figures including Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, the Emir of Qatar and the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met the Egyptian president in Cairo to discuss a potential ceasefire. Erdogan told students at Cairo University that together Egypt and Turkey could bring peace to the region without the need for outside “brokers”—a harbinger, according to some analysts, of a new power axis in the Middle East.
Morsi also seeks to gain popularity at home by acknowledging the depth of anti-Israel feeling—almost the only factor that unites the splintered country. Egyptian satellite channels and social media across the political spectrum are saturated with video and images from Gaza, many of them graphic photos of dead and injured children. On Sunday, an eight-bus convoy of revolutionary activists left Cairo for Gaza. (As yet, though, there have been no significant demonstrations for Gaza in Egyptian cities—a stark contrast to the riots over The Innocence of Muslims film in September.)
Despite the robust official rhetoric, Egypt’s actions so far do not represent a significant break with the cautious policies of the Mubarak era. In recalling Egypt’s ambassador to Israel and summoning the Israeli ambassador to Cairo, Morsi has followed a script laid down by Mubarak during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9. Similarly, he has not threatened to reconsider the country’s peace agreement with Israel or to allow Gazans free movement across the border at Rafah. For all its professions of solidarity, Egypt remains wary of an overspill of chaos and violence from its beleaguered neighbour to the east.
Security in North Sinai near the Gaza border has deteriorated dramatically over the past months. There have been repeated attacks on military and police targets as well as the Egypt-Israel gas pipeline, and reports of jihadi cells operating with impunity. Ten days ago, Egyptian media reported the army’s plans to destroy the extensive network of smuggling tunnels between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, citing concerns over “lawlessness.” The tunnels allow a flow of weapons and people between the territories, but also provide essentials such as food, medicine and fuel for generators at Shifa hospital, now struggling with an influx of casualties from the ongoing attacks.
A ground offensive in Gaza could yet inflame Egyptian public opinion to the point that Morsi is forced to take more robust action. But for now, as Egypt protects its own interests, it is ordinary Gazans who suffer the consequences.