Mohammed Mursi

Mursi raises hopes for peace

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 November, 2012, 3:03am

A welcome new peacemaker has emerged in the Middle East. Egypt's President Mohammed Mursi brokered the ceasefire in Gaza between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, ending tit-for-tat attacks that killed more than 140 people and threatened to escalate into all-out war. He was urged to take a leading role by his US counterpart, Barack Obama, and despite Mursi's fundamentalist leanings - he has not mentioned Israel by name since being inaugurated in June - pragmatism won the day. By maintaining a balanced stance, there is perhaps no better-placed person to help bring a permanent end to the seemingly endless cycle of violence.

Mursi's position was helped by Hamas being an offshoot of his Muslim Brotherhood group, Egypt's most powerful political force. But that is also problematic for a peace role, with the Brotherhood's ideology being to support the use of force against Israel. Nor does it sit easily with Egypt's people; they are wary of the Jewish state after four wars in the past six decades. Turning to conflicts beyond his country's borders when it is suffering economic hardship, high unemployment and rising crime is also seen by some as getting priorities wrong.

Yet, being his country's first democratically elected leader after decades of rule by military-backed autocrats, he also offers a beacon of hope for a region in need of direction. Egypt, the most populous country in the Middle East, has long been a cornerstone of peace and stability. That is precisely what the neighbouring Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank are not - the lack of a peace deal with Israel creating a separate state for Palestinians assures that. Without such a pact, the only prospect is continued Palestinian militancy.

The truce is fragile. Hamas is smarting for revenge and elections will be held in Israel in January, with security the top campaign platform of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mursi's credibility as a negotiator rests on his keeping the sides apart. But with the US by his side, he can also have a bigger role - to push for a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.