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Peacemaker then pharaoh

November 28, 2012

IT was impossible not to be impressed by the speed of Mohamed Morsi’s transformation from a widely hailed peacemaker into a much derided potential pharaoh.

A week ago, the Egyptian president was wallowing in international praise — not least from the leaders of Israel and the United States — for his key role in achieving a truce in Gaza.

A day later he almost provoked a domestic intifada with a decree seen by many as a power grab, notably by shielding any laws he issues from judicial oversight and immunising the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly against legal challenges.

It is unclear whether the juxtaposition of events was coincidental. It is perfectly possible, of course, that plans to issue the decree were interrupted by the Gaza bloodshed, and Morsi simply got on with it once that contingency was out of the way. Yet it was inevitable that many of his opponents would see it as an attempt to strike out at home while the accolades were still flowing in from abroad.

Morsi and his government have sought in recent days to point out that the measures are temporary, and will lose their validity once a constitution is completed, approved by a referendum, and followed within two months by parliamentary elections. And, given that judicial appointees are mainly holdovers from the old regime, their objectivity cannot be taken for granted.

It is hardly surprising, nonetheless, that many Egyptians are alarmed by any move that resembles the concentration of power that they revolted against nearly two years ago. Besides, it would be unwise of Morsi to overlook the fact that he was elevated to power by an underwhelming majority.

He held talks on Monday with representatives of the incensed judiciary. Whether or not the judges are convinced by Morsi’s reassurances, the future of a democratic Egypt will depend largely on the popular reaction.

And that, in turn, is contingent to a considerable extent on a visible improvement in economic conditions that has not thus far been forthcoming. The Egyptian stock market descended dramatically in the wake of Morsi’s decree, signifying a sharp drop in confidence. The unemployment rate remains unsustainably high. And the constituent assembly, meanwhile, has witnessed walkouts by those driven to despair by its Islamist tendencies.

The role of Egypt’s future in determining the political contours of the Middle East should not be underestimated. And although its prospects remain uncertain, to say the least, it would be premature to uncross one’s fingers.

It would be hard to convey a comparable impression about Gaza. The ceasefire sponsored by Egypt has enabled both Israel and Hamas to claim victory. Conversely, each side blamed the other for initiating the latest bout of hostilities.

The David-vs-Goliath nature of the confrontation was never in doubt, though — and, inevitably, the modern equivalent of the Roman empire had no qualms about reiterating its undying allegiance to Goliath.

Yet it was notable that international efforts for a cessation of violence were set in motion considerably more speedily than in the case of Operation Cast Lead nearly four years ago, when the Bush and Blair administrations refrained from calling for a truce until Israel had “achieved its objectives”, killing 1,400 Palestinians in the process, and president-elect Barack Obama likewise maintained a silence that offered an indication of his thoroughly unimaginative approach to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

This time around, Hillary Clinton was quickly dispatched to Egypt and Israel, and Obama evidently helped to persuade Benjamin Netanyahu to accept Morsi’s plan. Cue a bout of mutual backslapping between the Israeli and US leaderships — which is mildly remarkable only because it is common knowledge that Netanyahu and Obama are somewhat allergic to each other at a personal level.

Obama and Clinton seldom let go any opportunity to point out that no nation could be expected to tolerate having missiles flung at it, the implication being that no country would hesitate to retaliate under similar conditions. These were expressions of sympathy with Israel, of course. The Palestinians are not a nation and the Gaza Strip is not a country, or even a part of one.

And that, unfortunately, is the way things are likely to remain. Clinton was about the only person who paid any attention to the Palestinian Authority’s leader Mahmoud Abbas — and that too in an effort to persuade him to withdraw his bid for subsidiary membership of the United Nations, which is likely to be approved by the General Assembly this week.

Abbas has precious little credibility left, and whatever remains would be more or less wiped out were he to heed Clinton’s advice. Not that a UN vote will mean much in practical terms. Yet it would temporarily enable him to claim an iota of a peace dividend — something that hasn’t been forthcoming from either Israel or the US in return for his best efforts to abide by their wishes.

In the event, it is hardly surprising that many Palestinians in the occupied West Bank are more impressed by Hamas than by Fatah. They have, after all, seen that a belligerent approach produces some results in terms of negotiations and possible concessions, while kowtowing to US-Israeli demands leads only to further humiliations.

In recent years, the receding prospects for a two-state solution — not least in view of expanding Israeli settlements on occupied territory, whose illegality goes unchallenged internationally — have led to increasing advocacy of a one-state solution.

Either would be a start. Neither is on the cards. However untenable the status quo may seem, it is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

In the meantime, Egypt is entitled to “inspect the implementation” of the truce conditions in Gaza. Chief Inspector Morsi’s ability to fulfil this diplomatic role is likely to depend, though, on whether he is able to establish a semblance of order in his own home without recourse to dictatorial powers.