CAIRO - Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi remained discreet Wednesday evening, November 21. He left the task of announcing the outcome of the Israel-Gaza ceasefire talks to his Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed Amr. However, the praise that he has received, from the two warring parties, as well as the United States, says a lot about the role he has played in restoring calm in Gaza.
Hillary Clinton congratulated the Egyptian government for "assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone in regional stability and peace." Who would have thought, five months after his election, that Morsi, Muslim Brotherhood alum, would be receiving compliments from Washington?
The ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman, chief of Israeli diplomacy, who is otherwise allergic to Islamism even in times of normality, also praised the actions of Cairo. And then there were the numerous compliments from Khaled Mashal, chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau, who wasted no time in thanking his Egyptian brother in his role in helping the Palestinian cause.
(UPDATE: Late Thursday, amidst increasing domestic protests, Morsi granted himself sweeping new powers that critics say risk putting him above judicial oversight)
Eight days was all it took for the new Rais to stop the fighting; although in 2009, during Operation Cast Lead, hostilities did not cease until after 22 days of bloodshed. At the time then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak -- regarded very suspiciously by Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood -- did not see Israel in such a negative light. The Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time, Tzipi Livni, even came to Cairo personally to forewarn him about the offensive in Gaza.
The old autocrat's passive approach during the airstrikes exasperated the Egyptian population, and contributed to the popular uprising that would topple his regime two years later.
A real challenge
Confronted with a challenge that would finally determine his capacity to represent real change, Mohammed Morsi had to act... and fast. After having succumbed to the usual, presupposed anti-Israel stance -- by declaring the Israel Defense Forces' actions as a "flagrant aggression against humanity" -- he summoned the chief of the Mukhabarat (secret services) to open negotiations with all of the armed Palestinian groups.
Rumor has it that an Israeli official was also present in Cairo and that he participated in the negotiations through an Egyptian mediator. Discussions progressed quickly, with the possibility of a ceasefire emerging on Sunday, and finally concluding three days later.
It has been a personal victory for Mr. Morsi: engaged and pragmatic, yet quick and clever. Nevertheless, the hardest is yet to come for the President, especially as the agreement brokered by Cairo is almost identical to the one that was conceived four years ago, in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead. It involves both Israel and Egypt relaxing the blockade surrounding Gaza, and the reopening of the Rafah border checkpoint. Like in 2009, the United States has also promised Israel that they will oversee the task of stopping Hamas from acquiring new weapons in Gaza.
The months that followed Operation Cast Lead soon showed that none of these clauses were to be respected. Israel only accepted a partial relaxation of the blockade, while the provision of new weapons only accelerated in Gaza, with the acquisition of the infamous Fajr-5 missiles from Iran, which were transported via Sudan and the Sinai.
So can Morsi do any better? Can he force both Israel and Hamas to make real concessions? Everything is at stake during the discussions to come in the next few days in Cairo.