Mohammed Mursi
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Palestinians in Gaza City celebrate what they say is a victory over Israel after an eight-day conflict. Photo: Reuters

Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi hailed after brokering Gaza ceasefire

Gaza ceasefire defines the nation's leadership role in the region as President Mursi wins the trust of both Israel and the United States

The Gaza ceasefire deal reached on Wednesday marks a startling trajectory for Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi: an Islamist leader who refuses to talk to Israelis, or even say the country's name, mediated for it and finally turned himself into Israel's de facto protector.

The accord inserts Egypt to an unprecedented degree into the conflict between Israel and Hamas, establishing it as the arbiter ensuring that militant rocket fire into Israel stops and that Israel allows the opening of the long-blockaded Gaza Strip and stops its own attacks against Hamas.

In return, Mursi emerged as a major regional player. He won the trust of the United States and Israel, which once worried over the rise of an Islamist leader in Egypt but throughout the week-long Gaza crisis saw him as the figure most able to deliver a deal with Gaza's Hamas rulers.

"I want to thank President Mursi for his personal leadership to de-escalate the situation in Gaza and end the violence," US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who met Mursi yesterday, said at a Cairo press conference with Egypt's foreign minister announcing the accord.

"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," she said.

After Israel launched its assault on Gaza a week ago, aimed at stopping militant rocket fire, Mursi's palace in a Cairo suburb became the Middle East's diplomacy central.

He held talks with Turkey's prime minister and the emir of Qatar, Germany's foreign minister and a host of top Arab officials to get them behind his mediation. An Israeli envoy flew secretly into Cairo for talks with Egyptian security officials, though Mursi did not meet or speak directly with any Israelis.

Throughout it all, Mursi and his aides sided openly with Hamas, accusing Israel of starting the assault and condemning its bombardment, which has killed more than 140 Palestinians. Five Israelis have been killed by Hamas rocket fire during the battle.

Mursi hails from the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most powerful political group and Hamas' own parent organisation. Brotherhood leaders, including Mursi, refuse to speak to Israeli officials. Mursi hasn't even said the name of the country publicly since he was inaugurated in late June, though he has referred to its people as "Israelis".

In ideology, the Brotherhood supports the use of force against Israel to liberate "Muslim lands." Only two months ago, Brotherhood supreme leader Mohammed Badie proclaimed that regaining Jerusalem can "only come through holy jihad." The group opposes Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

But since coming to power, the group has had to yield to pragmatism. The Brotherhood and Mursi have promised to abide by the peace accord. Through a military operation and through dialogue, Mursi has tried to rein in Islamic militants in the Sinai Peninsula who have attacked Egyptian security forces and across the border into Israel.

When the Israeli offensive began, US President Barack Obama spoke to Mursi after talking to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. While Obama and Mursi disagreed over whom to blame for the violence, they agreed to work together to halt it.

That Israel was comfortable with an Islamist like Mursi mediating may not be a measure of trust as much as a realisation that only the Egyptians can persuade their Hamas cousins to enter a deal and ensure an end to rocket attacks.

The ceasefire announced yesterday defines Egypt as the "sponsor" of the deal to which each side would appeal over violations.

That potentially puts Egypt in the uncomfortable position of ensuring militants in Gaza do not fire rockets. If the deal falls apart - whichever side is to blame - Egypt could face damage to its credibility or strained ties with one side or the other.

Mursi has used foreign policy to make a splash, allowing him a high international profile.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Egypt's peace brokering lauded