CAIRO, November 20 - As the shelling of Gaza continues and the civilian death toll rises, Egypt’s Islamist President Mohamed Morsi may face increasing pressure at home to take firm action against Israel. If that happens, Egypt might find itself drawn into a conflict that the country neither has an appetite for, nor the resources with which to fight.
In recent days, Morsi has engaged in talks with international leaders and diplomats to contain the potentially explosive crisis and stave off further bloodshed.
His talks with the Qatari leader Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al Thani and Turkish Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Cairo on Saturday focused on "a ceasefire proposal for a longer lasting solution to the problem," a source close to the talks said.
Morsi has also consulted exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and Ramadan Shallah, the leader of Islamic Jihad, a militant group in the Palestinian coastal enclave.
Morsi’s measured response and choice of a diplomatic approach over the military option for dealing with the escalation has surprised some skeptical observers, who had anticipated nothing short of “use of military force” by the Islamist President. After all, the Israeli offensive was a chance for the Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, to act on their frequent and often intense anti-Israeli rhetoric.
Not only has there been no muscle-flexing on the part of the Egyptian President, but Egypt has also played a pivotal role in the ongoing multilateral mediation effort between Hamas and Israel – one that could soon lead to a breakthrough, according to Morsi.
While post-revolution Egypt enjoys closer relations with Hamas than the Mubarak government did (and hence, may have better chances of succeeding in mediating a truce), Egypt’s newly-elected President has so far avoided direct contact with Israeli officials – a factor likely to complicate matters as Egypt works to secure a ceasefire agreement.
If the Israeli strikes continue much longer, Morsi will face increasing pressure from Egypt's newly-politicized public - including revolutionary forces and Islamists - to revise, or scrap altogether the peace treaty with Israel and to permanently open the Rafah border crossing to ease the suffering of Gaza's 1.5 million residents.
The border has been partially open in recent days to allow wounded Palestinians into Egypt for medical treatment. In recent days, Morsi has sent a convoy of much-needed humanitarian aid to Gaza but he has stopped short of providing military aid to Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood from which he hails. In the meantime, Morsi has not threatened to sever diplomatic or commercial ties with Israel.
Analysts say the Israeli offensive is a test for Egypt, whose security cooperation is vital to enforce the thirty-year-old Peace Treaty with Israel and restore stability in the Sinai region.
It also comes as Egypt is embroiled in its own domestic issues including economic decline, high unemployment, a precarious security situation in Sinai that has kept tourists and investors at bay and differences between liberals and Islamists over the role Islamic Sharia law will play in the new Egypt.
Both Israel and Hamas have expressed a willingness to commit to a diplomatic solution but have also said they were prepared to continue to fight if no truce agreement was reached. They have each put forward their conditions for an end to the hostilities. While Hamas wants the blockade on Gaza permanently lifted and is seeking an end to the targeted killings of Palestinian military leaders, Israel has demanded guarantees that Hamas will halt the rocket attacks from Gaza and the neighboring Sinai Peninsula.
In recent months, Jihadi militants have attempted to launch cross-border attacks into Israel from neighboring Egypt. Egyptian military and police forces in Northern Sinai have also been targeted in similar violent attacks.
In the latest in a series of deadly assaults since the start of the year, three police officers were killed when gunmen ambushed a police patrol in El Arish earlier this month. In August 2012, 16 Egyptian border guards were killed when Jihadi militants attacked their outpost as they were breaking their Ramadan fast.
The Israeli onslaught which began on Wednesday and is soon to enter its second week, was triggered by the firing of Hamas rockets from inside Gaza into southern Israeli cities and towns. Longer-range rockets targeting Tel Aviv have also been intercepted.
Since the outbreak of the latest round of violence, hundreds of rockets have been fired into Israel, over 250 of which have been knocked down by Israel’s Iron Dome air defense System. Israeli sources said 120 rockets were fired on Monday alone, nineteen of which were stopped by Iron Dome. Meanwhile the death toll in Gaza from nearly a week of Israeli shelling has reached 110, with hundreds more injured.
Shahira Amin is an Egyptian journalist, the former deputy head of Egyptian state-owned Nile TV and one of its senior anchors.