Israel’s assassination of senior Hamas military commander Ahmad Jabari and launching of a major air campaign against Gaza on Wednesday poses the first serious test of the effect of the Arab uprisings on Israel. Egyptian President Mohammed el-Morsi declared that “Egypt today is different from yesterday, and Arabs today are different from yesterday.” Israel is gambling that he’s wrong, that the Arab uprisings have changed little, and that Arab leaders will continue to act much as they did during its 2008-09 war against Gaza, controlling popular anger while doing little beyond perhaps some more heated rhetoric.
This poses the first real test of some of the biggest questions about the real strategic significance of the Arab uprisings of the last two years. Do the uprisings really constrain Israel’s ability to wage wars such as the 2006 war against Hezbollah or 2008/09 war against Gaza? In what way? Would the empowerment of a mobilized Arab public force Arab leaders to adopt significantly different policies towards Israel? Would democratically elected Islamist leaders like Morsi really change core foreign policy positions such as the commitment to the Camp David peace treaty? Would intense political competition, popular mobilization, or different ideologies outweigh the cold calculations of Realpolitik and hopes for international acceptance? It’s far too soon to know the answers to these profound questions — and the signals are mixed.
First, images and video from Gaza have been circulating widely through Arab (as well as international) social media and satellite television channels. The anger and identification which those images have sparked across the region, across ideological trends and across borders, suggests that there has been little change in the centrality of the Palestinian issue to Arab concerns. Syria has clearly disrupted the traditional lines of political consensus, intensifying the bitter arguments, mutual recriminations and charges of hypocrisy, while the relentless stream of images of death and devastation from Syria have perhaps had a numbing effect. But overall I don’t see much evidence that Arabs aren’t focused on or outraged over the attack on Gaza.
At the same time, it’s important to recognize how strikingly little popular mobilization there has been in the Arab world over Gaza thus far. Protests have happened, of course, but they have been relatively small and contained in Ramallah, Tunisia, Yemen and elsewhere. The quite significant protests in Amman have remained largely focused on the lifting of fuel subsidies and political reform (including previously unheard of chants calling for the overthrow of the King) rather than shifting focus to Gaza. Even in Cairo, Muslim Brotherhood mobilization and a major sermon by Yusuf al-Qaradawi in al-Azhar seems to have produced only a march of a few thousand. I think it’s safe to say that most of us would have expected more.
This may soon change, of course, if the war continues for an extended period. As much as it likely prefers to lead the charge against Israel, the Muslim Brotherhood may well see an interest for now in controlling and moderating the level of public pressure on the President. But if other Egyptian forces, Islamist and secular, begin to mobilize in a big way it will be exceedingly difficult politically (and ideologically) for the Brotherhood to remain restrained. Jordanians involved in extraordinary protests may not continue to avoid the emotive appeal of the Palestinian issue. The unifying and intensifying effects of the new Arab public sphere may take hold and build momentum, sparking demonstrations across the region. But we haven’t really seen this yet.
Israelis and many in the West might draw comfort from these early signals to conclude that the Arab uprisings won’t matter much in the course of a war with Gaza. Perhaps Arab publics are now so focused on domestic issues that they have either lost interest in the Palestinian cause, or don’t want to be distracted from pressing their local demands. Or perhaps the fever of the Arab uprisings has broken, and that Arab regimes who have long been comfortable with Israel and hostile towards Hamas are again strong enough continue their traditional patterns of rhetorical posturing while suppressing popular mobilization and blocking significant policy shifts.
Such conclusions are premature. The conflict has only just begun. If this extends into a longer battle, with or without an Israeli ground offensive into Gaza, it seems likely that protests will begin to mount and calculations will change. The caution of Arab leaders is at least in part imposed by their recognition of what an unstable and complex moment this is, and how quickly it could spiral out of control. Morsi in particular is painfully aware of his precarious position, trapped between conventionally defined Egyptian interests and the passions of most Egyptians (not only Islamists).
Regional leaders are trying to position themselves in support of Gazans, but very cautiously. And so Tunisia’s President Moncef Marzouki spoke with Ismail Haniya, and its Foreign Minister is scheduled to visit Gaza on Saturday. Egypt has sent its Prime Minister — but, notably, not President Morsi himself. Qatar, which had invested heavily in a new outreach to Gaza and Hamas, has been relatively muted, calling for a UN Commission of Inquiry but not yet more. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, after an unusually long silence, has canceled his scheduled trip to Gaza and instead will remain in Cairo to consult with Morsi. The Arab League has called an emergency meeting, which may get around to convening this weekend. All seem likely to focus their efforts on pushing Hamas and Israel to accept a ceasefire, and on mobilizing international support for their efforts.
Morsi has demonstrated his preference to pursue a pragmatic foreign policy here, offering some sympathetic rhetoric and a visit from his relatively anonymous Prime Minister but thus far avoiding dramatic gestures such as opening the border with Gaza or throwing Camp David on the table. But as much as Morsi values solidifying relations with the U.S. and the international community, and is constrained by the status quo orientation of the Egyptian military and foreign policy apparatus, he may also see real opportunities to gain domestic popularity and assert Egyptian regional leadership. Morsi’s conversations with Erdogan may be implictly focused as much on coordinating to avoid a bidding war over Gaza which pushes both countries towards overly risky moves. But it is not clear that such a stance can be maintained if the tempo of protests and the human toll of the war escalates.
The coming days will, among many other things, offer some of the first real evidence about the strategic effects of the Arab uprisings. It is important to recognize how limited the response of the Arab public and leaders has been thus far. But it’s also important to recognize how quickly this could change, and how unsurprising this would be should it happen. The Arab uprisings have introduced far greater unpredictability and complexity into everyone’s calculations, raising the potential payoff to dramatic political gestures and decreasing the confidence of rulers that they can safely ignore public demands. All of those ready to confidently dismiss the possibility of such rapid developments should go back first to read what they wrote about Tunisia in December 2010, Egypt in January 2011, or Syria in February 2011. All the more reason for all parties to push hard for a ceasefire now, so that it isn’t put to a test.