Opinion: The Ceasefire that Started A New Conflict

It was a noteworthy occasion: Israel and Gaza had agreed to stop shooting, ending speculation that a new full-scale war was about to begin. And it was an unusual, and therefore significant, announcement: The cessation of hostilities between Israel and Gaza was announced by Egypt and promoted by… the United States?

That understandable, albeit questionable, move by the US to lend its political weight to the ceasefire has now resulted in a new battle in the very city where the calm was announced.

Roughly 24 hours after the ceasefire was announced in a joint press conference between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr in Cairo, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi announced that the judiciary could not challenge his decisions until a new constitution is established in the country, according to the Egypt Independent.

Furthermore, the Egypt Independent, citing a report from Egyptian publication Al-Masry Al-Youm, noted a troubling side to another decree issued by the Islamist President Morsi. This one prevents the disbanding of the bodies primarily tasked with the process of formulating the constitution, and it so happens that the Constituent Assembly and the Shura Council both have Islamist majorities.

In other words, Morsi has solidified his power as immune from judicial challenge until a constitution is designed by philosophically-friendly committees, whose Islamist majority is protected from challenge as well.

The timing of Morsi’s move almost certainly was encouraged by the Israel-Gaza ceasefire. With less than two weeks until another key judicial decision was expected that could challenge his power, Morsi had real political capital to spend. And spend he did.

For months Egypt has been trying to reassert itself as a regional powerbroker. First they tried to reunite the Palestinians, an effort that has yet to produce fruit.

At long last, a real crisis drew the eyes of the world and Egypt was the only real mediator between the sides. The US, sensing a regional clash it didn’t want, felt the need to step in. The US surely over-stepped its role as Israel’s ally, rather than letting Israel decide how the conflict should go. Regardless, now Egypt was playing with the big boys.

And so the announcement was made not just by an Egyptian official, as such ceasefires often are. Rather it was the US that gilded the press statement with all the headline-grabbing political influence it possesses. And furthermore, it was not a lowly US envoy that spoke beside the Egyptian foreign minister. It was Hillary Clinton, the top US diplomat and a former-president’s wife. And Clinton spared no praise on Egypt and Morsi.

“I want to thank President Morsi for his personal leadership to de-escalate the situation in Gaza and end the violence,” Clinton was quoted by her office as saying. “This is a critical moment for the region. Egypt’s new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone of regional stability and peace.”

That sure didn’t last long. Tragically, the prominence the US offered Egypt as reward for brokering the ceasefire has apparently been parlayed into a power grab by Morsi.

Realizing his political capital was at an all-time high, Morsi moved to quell the primary remaining political opponent he had: the judiciary. In a Hitler-esque move, his former organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, is now supporting him with protests.

Who will challenge a President who has shuttered military opposition, rallied thousands of protesters to his side and has no serious political challengers?

Perhaps the Egyptian people, who bravely demanded freedom less than two years ago, will again step up. But they can’t do it alone.

Now it’s up to the US to show real backbone lest one conflict averted merely result in a new one restarted. Despite all the goodwill and any under-the-table deals reached with Morsi to achieve the Israel-Gaza truce, the US must make it blatantly clear they won’t trade a pro-West dictator for a pro-Islamist one.

The initial round of commentary from Hillary Clinton’s office, released by State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland, offered meager hope of such a response.

Nuland was quoted as saying Morsi’s move to wrest power “raises concerns.”

“We call for calm and encourage all parties to work together and call for all Egyptians to resolve their differences over these important issues peacefully and through democratic dialogue,” said Nuland in typical diplomatic ambiguity.

It’s true, the Egyptian declaration was new and the US ought to be careful to analyze and understand any foreign move before outright condemning it, especially when it’s as politically charged as this one, with Morsi portraying his decision as a step against the lingering ghosts of the previous dictator’s regime.

And so, Nuland’s comment that did offer hope is that the US still has a vision for Egyptian freedom. “One of the aspirations of the revolution was to ensure that power would not be overly concentrated in the hands of any one person or institution.

“The current constitutional vacuum in Egypt can only be resolved by the adoption of a constitution that includes checks and balances, and respects fundamental freedoms, individual rights, and the rule of law consistent with Egypt’s international commitments.”

It’s that expression, that glorious hope that freedom-hungry Egyptians sought and are still seeking, that the US must cling to in the days and weeks ahead. If Morsi truly isn’t going to honestly include a representative spectrum of Egyptian society to formulate his country’s move forward, if he is going to use his political success in Gaza to take over Cairo, the US must react harshly.

The United States sends enormous financial and military aid to Egypt every year. If Morsi wants to pull the plug on Egyptian democracy for a new Islamist-fascist state, the US should threaten to pull the plug on every penny coming his way.

It’s a shame that even an effort to achieve quiet in the region resulted in even more conflict. But no sense in crying over spilled milk, certainly not when spilled blood is at stake.

(By Joshua Spurlock, www.themideastupdate.com, November 25, 2012)