Egypt's balancing act in Gaza

On Nov. 16, Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi ascended the dais at Cairo's al-Azhar University. It was the first time the popular preacher had spoken at the voice of the Sunni establishment, after being exiled from Egypt during President Hosni Mubarak's regime.

He used the opportunity to deliver a strident denunciation of the Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip. "The lying and audacious Israel that manipulates history and reality arrogantly wants to show the world that it is strong," he told the thousands-strong crowd. "I tell Israel that you are facing one strong nation, which is the nation of the Prophet Muhammad."

Qaradawi's words mirror widespread anger in Egypt over Israel's six-day offensive in the Gaza Strip, which has so far resulted in the deaths of over 100 Palestinians and three Israelis. Under the Mubarak regime, such popular discontent meant little. But for President Mohammed Morsi, who was elected with a mandate to make dramatic changes in Egypt, it represents his greater foreign-policy challenge yet.

I asked Amr Darrag, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood's political organization, how his movement is trying to walk this tightrope.

"We are very clear: Egypt is in no position to get into a conflict with anybody at the moment," said Darrag. "But on the other hand, the ties between the Egyptian people and the Palestinian people are quite strong and we cannot just sit back as these type of aggressions are broadcast every day...There is a limit to what the Egyptians can endure when it comes to this."

Like Mubarak, the Morsi government has attempted to mediate a ceasefire: Israeli and Hamas representatives met with Egyptian officials on Nov. 18 in an attempt to forge a truce. But unlike the previous regime, the new government in Cairo has attempted to align itself with the popular mood -- most notably sending Prime Minister Hesham Kandil to Gaza in a show of solidarity with Hamas. But with Israel also lessening airstrikes when Kandil was in Gaza, the visit was also meant to provide an opening for ceasefire negotiations.

"The first [purpose of the visit] was to show solidarity to the Palestinian people in Gaza," said Darrag. "And the second purpose was to try to reach some sort of calming the situation down - starting some kind of dialogue to put an end to this."

Such diplomatic balancing acts, however, will become increasingly difficult if the Israeli operation in Gaza intensifies. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has openly mulled the possibility of a ground invasion, calling up 40,000 reservists and saying the army is prepared to "significantly expand" the operation.

If the offensive continues, Darrag said that the Egyptian government may consider opening the Rafah border crossing permanently, "to facilitate support coming from any destination to Gaza." The illicit flow of arms from the Sinai Peninsula into Gaza is already one of Israel's primary bones of contention with Egypt, and any easing of restrictions along the border could exacerbate tensions.

Egypt has enough domestic challenges to work out -- it doesn't need to add a skirmish with the United States and Israel to the mix, and Morsi knows it. But the longer this conflict goes on, the more pressure the Muslim Brotherhood will feel to side with Hamas. "I don't know why the Israelis are pushing the Egyptians to their limit," said Darrag. "The current government and the majority of the Israeli political stream seems to not be with peace - they are quite happy with strength."

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Will China's leaders reform? I have no idea

On Thursday, the Chinese Communist Party announced the seven people who would lead the country for the next five or ten years. Helmed by Chairman Xi Jinping, they're a mysterious bunch -- the world knows very little about what they think and how they will act. But still, their ascension is very significant, and whether or not they decide to institute "political reform" (i.e., liberalize the party) will help determine where China goes over the next decade.

As usual, this has caused a dilemma for western newspapers: Extremely important event + extreme surfeit of information = vague headlines.

"China's new leadership team not expected to push drastic reform" and "Don't expect reform from China's new leaders" the Washington Post wrote on Thursday.

The Financial Times seemed slightly more optimistic the Friday headline, "Chinese transition leaves many questions". The subtitle was, "Change of leadership prompts reform speculation."

Granted this vagueness is better than baseless predictions, but it's still worth noting again just how in the dark we are about elite politics in China.

Xi is slightly less than a mystery than his predecessor. Ten years ago Hu Jintao took power amid widespread bafflement about the man or his policies.  Articles in respected media outlets in 2002 expressed bafflement at the "faceless apparatchik" set to run the world's most populous country. Hu turned out to be fairly conservative, though that took a few years to be apparent. (In the meantime, there were headlines like that of the New York Times July 2003: "China's Leader Gives No Sign of Changes to Come".)

The most accurate prediction about Hu that I've seen comes from a Nov. 15, 2002 article in The New York Times:

''People think Hu will fulfill their own dreams,'' said Wu Guoguang, an expert in Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. ''The liberals see a reformer; the conservatives see a hard-liner. Sooner or later he will have to make some choices, and people will see his real colors. But it may take years for that to happen.''

It's a comment worth remembering when guessing about what direction Xi will take China in his early days in office.