A Tel Aviv bus exploded yesterday in a terrorist attack in the ongoing battle between Israel and Hamas. This was before a cease-fire was declared later that evening. Reports have not confirmed who is behind the attack, but Hamas has greeted the attack with pleasure, but has not claimed responsibility. There are reports that the Fatah affiliated faction, the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, could be behind the attack. This could be due to the ongoing feud between Hamas and Fatah, and the wish of Fatah to take some of the spotlight away from Hamas. The actions in Gaza have overshadowed the PA’s efforts of bringing a vote on statehood to the UN General Assembly.
The attack threw the cease-fire negotiations based out of Egypt into disarray and left Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi in a difficult position, having to balance his and the Egyptian peoples’ natural disposition to support Hamas against Israel, and his practical objectives of calming the situation in order to work to improve Egypt’s fiscal, political, and security situation, particularly in the Sinai. Reflecting the chaos in the Sinai, Salafists with connections to Al-Qaida have claimed responsibility for firing rockets into Israel. In the end, Morsi’s pragmatic side dominated his decision making.
Morsi’s support for Hamas can be seen as a challenge to Turkey’s quest for leadership in the Sunni Arab world, and to Iran’s efforts for regional influence. After Morsi had sent his PM to Gaza in a show of support, Erdogan responded with a trip to Cairo and harsh rhetoric against Israel, stating on Monday that Israel is a “terrorist state”. It has been reported that Morsi’s support for Hamas may have gone as far as turning a blind eye to the smuggling of Iranian Fajr-5 long range rockets into Gaza through the Sinai. Questions have been raised whether the smuggling was carried out with Morsi’s knowledge.
In an op-ed in the popular London based Arab daily Asharq al-awsat, Tariq Alhomayed referred to a recent statement by Hamas leader Khalid Mishal at a press conference in Egypt. Mishal stated that “the enemy wanted to test the new Egypt…the 25th January Egypt, and the response was not what was expected. It wanted to test the Arabs during their Spring, however the Arabs have met our hopes.” According to Alhomayed, Mishal is now being careful not to embarrass Egypt for the lack of any stronger actions against Israel and is showing that he is pleased with the Morsi’s support so far. Part of the reasoning behind this is to solidify his position as the leader of Hamas and gain Egypt’s support for himself against other challengers. Mishal may have solidified his position by concluding the truce with Israel under Morsi’s mediation.
However, so far, Morsi’s support during the Gaza conflict has been mostly verbal, as he has sought to curry favor with the US and the international community for badly needed aid money and support. Thus, we see Morsi as a pragmatist, which has been a key characteristic of the Muslim Brotherhood movement. While Hamas claims to be a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, it has morphed into a distinct national movement with more overt jihadist tendencies, which do not always align with the opinions of Brotherhood leaders in Egypt, who tend to be more patient in achieving their common goals. For that, and other practical reasons already mentioned, we do not see rockets being fired by the Egyptian army into Israel. While a military conflict between Egypt and Israel cannot be ruled out completely, it is more likely that Egypt will continue to allow third parties such as the Salafists in the Sinai and Hamas, to carry out attacks against Israel while prohibiting them from targeting the Egyptian military.
What seems to be clear is the Arab uprisings have led to the coming to power of Islamists throughout the region with the risk of more Arab governments falling. The next in line would be those in Syria, Jordan, and the PA in the West Bank, and Morsi wants to be the leader of the new Islamist governments in the region. Morsi will carefully balance his words and deeds in the aftermath of the the bus bombing and cease-fire without giving up on his long-term goal of an Islamic Caliphate controlling the region. He will do so without endangering his own hold on power. This was reflected in Morsi’s pivotal role in pushing Hamas to make a temporary cease-fire with Israel.