As tensions between Israel and Gaza continue to flare, the real story is what’s happening in Cairo. The conflict represents an acute crisis for the Muslim Brotherhood, which knows the West has long been apprehensive about how it would conduct itself with regards to Israel. So far, the Brotherhood has been in no rush to give a definitive answer, offering instead a mix of sabre-rattling and olive branches. Its hand is now being forced.
Internally, the Brotherhood is divided over the Gaza conflict. Hard liners see this as an excuse to tear up the peace treaty, reassert Egyptian pride, and impose themselves on the conflict. Even before Israel launched military action against Hamas one of the Brotherhood’s most senior members in Alexandria, Ahmad Hamrawi, resigned his membership in disgust at Mohammed Morsi’s unwillingness to bin the Camp David Accords. Hamrawi accused Morsi of ‘treason’ for sending Shimon Peres a cordial letter and demanded he step down.
Proponents of such reactionary views, though headline grabbing, are disempowered within the Islamist government. Morsi has been keen to show Egypt can maintain security and has responded swiftly to militant activity in Sinai. At a meeting of Brotherhood leaders over the weekend the Deputy Supreme Guide, Khairat el-Shater, again stressed that Egypt shouldn’t allow weapons to be smuggled into Gaza. This isn’t to suggest that the Brotherhood will abandon Hamas. It won’t. Such a policy would see much of the Brotherhood’s support evaporate overnight while jihadists would exploit the opportunity to portray Morsi as a reincarnation of Mubarak, albeit in more conservative pinstripes.
Having finally realised their ambitions after more than a century of political struggle, the Brotherhood is simply unwilling now to sacrifice itself for Hamas. Herein lies the dilemma for Morsi. He needs to find a way of carrying public opinion, controlling Hamas, and also addressing Israel’s concerns. These are the lessons of leadership the Brotherhood must now learn. The onus is on Morsi to prove he can manage the burdens of statesmanship over the bargain-bin appeal of reactionary politics.