Middle East

Conflict test for post-Mubarak Egypt

Egyptians chant slogans against latest Israel air strikes in Gaza during a protest in Cairo
Image caption Egypt's new democracy means it will not be able to ignore its citizens views on Israel

The patterns of the violence in Gaza and southern Israel are grimly familiar; the human cost troublingly high.

But the diplomatic landscape of the Middle East has been dramatically transformed since the last time the fighting reached this pitch of intensity.

And that makes it hard to assess what the political fallout might ultimately be.

Israel will have factored the likely reaction in the Arab World and beyond into its calculation of the risks and rewards of killing the senior Hamas commander Ahmed Said Khalil al-Jabari.

But the events of the Arab Spring and, in particular, the election in Egypt of a president from the ranks of the same Muslim Brotherhood in which Hamas has its roots, mean that things have changed.

In the past, under the authoritarian leadership of Hosni Mubarak, the maintenance of Egypt's partnership with the US was a top strategic priority.

Curious relationship

That meant maintaining diplomatic relations with Israel as part of the peace treaty signed in the late 1970s which was the cornerstone of a kind of Pax Americana for the region.

It was a curious relationship; over time the links between leaders became frosty but functional, although the two countries' intelligence agencies showed they could co-operate.

In the background, there was the deep antipathy with which most ordinary Egyptians view Israel - widely seen as a brutal suppressor of Palestinian national aspirations.

Israelis tend to assume the hostility of all Arab populations towards their state.

President Mursi has inherited that diplomatic relationship - and brings to it an understanding of the importance of Egypt's ties with the US - a country in which Mr Mursi lived for a while.

But he has to balance his links with the US on the one hand and his sympathy for Hamas on the other - not easy strategic partnerships to reconcile.

Hassan Nafaa, a political scientist from Cairo University, even thinks that it is possible that Israel's attacks might be designed, in part, to test the solidity of the relationship between Egypt and Hamas.

He acknowledged that the crisis is a serious test for Mr Mursi, explaining: "He has to respond strongly but, on the other hand, he's aware that this is not a time for escalation. He'll take strong steps but they'll be carefully chosen".

Impossible to predict

The key to the Mursi strategy so far has been speed of action.

Within a few hours of the Israeli air strike that killed Ahmed Said Khalil al-Jabari, he had recalled Egypt's ambassador to Tel Aviv.

It is not an unprecedented step. Hosni Mubarak did the same thing several times as far back as 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon, but Mr Mursi has done it quickly.

Image caption Egypt will have to rapidly evolve its strategy towards its neighbours in conflict

On top of that he has summoned Israel's ambassador to Cairo for a reprimand and called for action from both the UN Security Council and the Arab League.

There was perhaps nothing in that diplomatic tool-kit to shake Israel's resolve so Mr Mursi's closest advisers spent much of Thursday looking for something more. In the end, they found it.

The decision to dispatch the Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil to Gaza is designed to support Gazans and to assert Egyptian ambitions to leadership in the Arab world.

Logistically, the trip is easy - Gaza and Egypt share a land border - but Mr Qandil's presence is also intended to make it harder for Israel to mount air attacks, both politically and practically.

Perhaps more importantly it will also answer angry demands from Mr Mursi's own supporters for stronger action against Israel than the country has taken in the past.

And that, of course, is a reminder that it is going to be much harder for an Egypt which is democratising to maintain its working relationship with Israel than it was for an authoritarian Egypt where the leaders did not have to worry too much about what their own people thought.

Mr Mursi might well turn out to be more of a pragmatist than his detractors expected, and he may have a stake in the old Pax Americana.

But, if hostility towards Israel and support for the Palestinians grows among the people of a democratic Egypt, then, sooner or later, it is reasonable to speculate that we will see that reflected in the country's foreign policy.

Almost no-one foresaw the upheavals of the Arab Spring and certainly no-one can say what this region will look like when it finally settles down again.

So while Israel is confident that it has calibrated the likely political reactions around the world to its operations in Gaza, the truth of the matter remains that this is a familiar drama being played out in unfamiliar circumstances.

There are reports that Egyptian intelligence officials are attempting to broker some kind of ceasefire. But no-one thinks for a moment that will be the end of hostilities between Israel and Hamas - and Egypt, even more than the other countries of the Middle East, will have to continue to evolve a strategy for coping with the conflict under enormous pressures.