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Egypt's Evolving Role In Israel-Gaza Conflict


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, the novel "The Round House" won this year's National Book Award for fiction. We'll talk with author Louise Erdrich about the story and the award. That's just ahead.

But first, Egypt's foreign minister appeared today in a joint news conference with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to announce a ceasefire between Israel and militants in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. That ends and eight-day conflict. Egypt's new government took an active role in the talks and ultimately brokered the deal. Earlier today, before the ceasefire was announced, we discussed this issue with Michael Wahid Hannah. He's a fellow at the Century Foundation and he focuses on international security and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. And also joining the conversation was Leila Fadel. She's the Cairo bureau chief for NPR. Welcome to both of you.

MICHAEL WAHID HANNAH: Thanks for having us.


HEADLEE: Michael, you've actually written a lot about the post-Mubarak government in Egypt. How different is the approach of Egypt's new president, Mohammed Morsi, from the way the previous regime handled the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians?

HANNAH: Well, there's long-standing links between the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Hamas is a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot. And so you do see quite a bit of symbolic and atmospheric difference because this government is not an enemy of Hamas in the way that the Mubarak regime was. The Mubarak regime always sought to undermine Hamas's hold on Gaza.

And obviously that is not a priority for this government. That being said, there is still a great deal of continuity in terms of actual policies. So while the animosity and hostility isn't there, there hasn't been an opening and normalization of the border regime between Gaza and Egypt. And so you do see the ways in which the reality on the ground limits the ability of President Morsi in this new Egyptian government to shift Egyptian policy dramatically.

HEADLEE: Leila, how much is that limited by the opinions of the Egyptian people? Do they support the way that the government is handling this conflict or dealing with Hamas?

FADEL: Well, in speaking to a lot of Egyptians in the last few days, actually, people are happy that the Egyptian government has taken on a pretty robust mediating role. Some even say he should do more. He really is accountable to public sentiment in a way that he's never been before, but it's not - it's definitely not the overlying issue that public sentiment in Egypt is thinking about right now when they're dealing with their own economic issues and economic crises here.

HEADLEE: Michael, President Obama, we're told, has been in communication with the Egyptian president, Morsi, and of course U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Egypt now. What role does the U.S. hope it can play in finding a solution?

HANNAH: Well, it seems as if the United States has put a lot of pressure and emphasis on Egypt's role. Egypt is the one party in this conflict that speaks with both sides. Egyptian intelligence still has very good links and channels of communication with the Israelis, and obviously a Muslim Brotherhood-led government has quite constant contact with Hamas. And so Egypt, by dint of geography and circumstance, plays a fairly unique role here.

And the United States has not played a lead role in these current discussions and has deferred a great deal, I think, to the Egyptians.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. We're talking about the role of Egypt in the conflict in Israel and Gaza. Our guests are Middle East expert Michael Wahid Hannah of the Century Foundation and NPR Cairo bureau Chief Leila Fadel. Leila, I wonder what Egyptian feel about the U.S. role. Do they care? Do they feel the U.S. should take more role or do they appreciate the fact that Egypt is stepping up to the plate here?

FADEL: The sentiment here is generally that the United States is really not a fair broker in these deals, that the public statements that are coming out of the State Department, out of the White House, talk about the right to self-defense by Israel but not about the really barrage of air strikes and naval strikes that are happening in the Gaza Strip.

So there's that feeling. And I think there is - they feel encouraged that their government is taking a central role. And that same sentiment we're also hearing from Egyptian officials, who say we will do our part to try to get Hamas to de-escalate, but only the United States can really put pressure on Israel because that's the ally of the United States. That's where the influence lies.

HEADLEE: I've seen tweets of yours, Michael, that actually hint that this could be a dangerous situation for Egypt, that this could end up going badly for that country. Why do you say that?

HANNAH: Well, first off, I think escalation is not in anybody's interests - neither Egypt, the Palestinians, the Israelis, or the United States. And I think because of Egypt's limited options and the bottom-up pressure that does exist in terms of pro-Palestinian sentiment in Egypt, the longer this goes on, the more that Egyptian impotence and inability to actually affect the events on the ground will be shown.

And that's a problem because it exposes, I think, the Egyptian government and this Muslim Brotherhood president to pressure from the right. And I think that creates a very difficult dynamic to deal with. I think if a ceasefire is reached, Egypt's role will look quite different going forward, and that is also fraught with some risk because Egypt will essentially be playing a guarantor role and will be somewhat on the hook in terms of its credibility as a regional actor in terms of being able to essentially make sure that this ceasefire holds. And so they will be somewhat responsible for Hamas behavior, not just in terms of rockets being launched from Gaza into Israel but also in terms of smuggling.

And of course they face their own security issues in the Sinai peninsula. And so, you know, there's a lot of cross-cutting and different pressures that Egypt will face, whether the situation escalates or there is a ceasefire.

HEADLEE: Well, Leila, maybe you can explain more about this political pressure that Michael just mentioned from the right. What kind of pressure are Egyptian president Morsi's political opponents applying to him? How do they want him to change his handling of the situation?

FADEL: Well, for a long time Egypt has also blocked the Gaza Strip on their side. There is a real concern about smuggling across the border. There's always been smuggling across the border in the Sinai, and that blockade has really not eased. The difference we're seeing now versus the offensive that happened four years ago is that for the first time journalists were allowed across the border very easily here on the Rafah crossing and also on the other side.

And some humanitarian aid easily got through. But as Michael said, there hasn't really been real change in policy other than words and people going into Gaza. If that border opens up, it may also open up a slew of problems for the Brotherhood government. If this truce doesn't go into effect, Morsi actually may come out looking quite bad and easily attacked - especially by his - the more conservative Islamist parties - and even the liberal parties here, as a person who really can't play that gravitas Egyptian role that he promised.

HEADLEE: Let's be a little hypothetical here, Michael. If what Leila just described actually happens, what does that mean going forward in Egypt to this really very young democracy?

HANNAH: Well, I think first and foremost to a degree it shifts focus from domestic priorities. Egypt's main concerns have to be riding the economic situation. The constitutional drafting process is currently a mess. It seems to have broken down along very stratified Islamist/non-Islamists lines. We see police repression continuing. Egypt faces a whole host of problems, and having to deal with foreign crises is something that it simply doesn't have the capacity or bandwidth to deal with at the moment.

So first and foremost, I think it's a complicating factor for the very act of governance which, you know, is a new thing for this very young Muslim Brotherhood government and something that they don't have experience with. So I think it complicates their life from that perspective.

It also complicates the politics, because the longer this goes on, if it escalates, if Egyptian mediation efforts fail, then there will be a moment in which this becomes a political football, a point of weakness and vulnerability for the government, and a point in which they will be easily attacked from the right, saying that they haven't done enough for their Palestinian brothers and that solidarity and words aren't enough.

And of course, you know, even if these are cheap shots, they will have some resonance in the Egyptian public.

HEADLEE: But Leila, to what extent is this about symbolism? Or are the Egyptian people actually willing to sacrifice something to compromise and negotiate at a real level in order to gain some kind of traction for the Palestinian people?

FADEL: Well, I think, actually, that's a question we can't answer right now because, so far, it all has been symbolism. They've played a mediating role, but haven't done anything that would directly affect Egypt, haven't really eased the restrictions on the border with Gaza. So it's a question we can't answer.

But it also - as Michael was saying, it could be a major political victory that will distract from the serious domestic problems we have in this week where Gaza has been the only thing we're focused on. There have been clashes between police and military police, land issues where people have been killed, a problem with transportation, with 45 children dying on a bus that a train crashed into; all issues that Morsi really doesn't have to answer about right now because he's dealing with the Gaza crisis.

HEADLEE: You know, Michael, since the beginning of Morsi's presidency, there have been concerns that, because of his ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, that could jeopardize his relationship and the country's relationship with Israel. Do you think this particular conflict could actually push that relationship to the brink?

HANNAH: Well, it's obviously a difficult relationship. From the very beginning and even before they came into power, the Muslim Brotherhood has signaled that they will respect all existing international agreements. That was obviously code primarily for the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, so what was a cold peace has become colder, but while it's not under any threat of instant rupture in the near term, I think that you don't want to test the sort of resilience of this peace treaty.

I think it exists primarily due to Egypt's national security interests. It's not in a position to take on Israel, but it is quite unpopular, and the longer this goes on, the more pressure it puts on the sustainability of this arrangement going forward. And I think that becomes problematic in terms of being able to justify the continuation of the treaty arrangements.

HEADLEE: Michael Wahid Hannah is a fellow at the Century Foundation. He focuses on issues of international security, human rights, post-conflict justice and U.S. foreign policy in the broader Middle East. He joined us from WUOT in Knoxville. And Leila Fadel is the Cairo bureau chief for NPR. She joined us from Cairo, Egypt.

Thanks to both of you.

HANNAH: Thank you very much.

FADEL: Thank you.


HEADLEE: Just ahead, the original Thanksgiving menu had some distinctly Native American flavors.

RICHARD HETZLER: The foods that you think of if your grandmother - the succotashes and those different things - all have their roots in the native communities and the Native foods that were grown and eaten a long, long, long time ago.

HEADLEE: A Smithsonian chef treats us to a Native American Thanksgiving feast - from a traditional maple brine turkey to the more controversial fry bread and he offers tips for your holiday meal. That's ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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