Egypt in no man's land over Gaza

COURAGEOUS or foolhardy? Who - Israel or Hamas?

It's too early to say. But both sides in the latest eruption in Gaza are sorely testing Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, effectively daring him to put his money where his mouth is.

Actually, it's Barack Obama's money - an annual $US1.5 billion in direct aid from Washington and a loan for $US4.5 billion from the International Monetary Fund is in play too.

And right now, the army of Israel supporters on both sides of the US Congress are competing to see who can cobble together the toughest demand that Cairo get nothing if it even dares to think about a protest that goes beyond the legal and diplomatic framework of its peace treaty with Israel.

Right now, Morsi is doing the splits. His rhetoric is strongly pro-Hamas, but his every action - recalling his ambassador in Tel Aviv, dispatching his prime minister to Gaza, working the phones to Washington and the capitals of Europe and the region - is within the language of the treaty. But for how long?

Arguably, a part of the strategic thinking in both Israel and Hamas is to test Morsi. Israel needs to know if the man who branded Israelis ''vampires'' for killing Palestinians will honour the treaty, which is the quid pro quo behind the annual US aid cheque.

And Hamas wants to know what sort of new muscle lies beneath the Morsi rhetoric. If all they get after the Arab Spring is more rhetoric, then so what?

Morsi is confronted by the demands of his people - not to mention arms of his own government - that he redresses the failure of his predecessor, the dictator Hosni Mubarak, who merely averted his gaze when Israel stormed into Gaza late in 2008 and then popped down to the bank to cash his aid cheque.

''The Egyptian people, the Egyptian leadership, Egyptian government and all of Egypt is standing with all its resources to stop this assault, to prevent the killing and bloodshed of the Palestinians,'' Morsi said in a speech to the nation. ''Israel must recognise that we do not accept this aggression.''

But if this crisis lasts for more than a few days, mere rhetoric might not cut it.

An inkling of what might be in store appeared in a joint statement by his ministry for religious endowments and the Islamic Affairs Council, urging Palestinian ''resistance [to] Zionist depth [and] prove that they are tougher and stronger than [during Israel's 2008 assault]''.

It goes on, urging Morsi to expel Israel's ambassador to Cairo and to ''fulfil the promise he made to preachers and scholars that he won't allow for Palestine to be hit or for the Palestinians to be killed''.

Then it gets to the nub of its argument, asking clerics to use Friday prayers ''to direct the masses of the [Muslim] nation everywhere in the world to practical revenge, rather than verbal revenge, against the people of Zion''.

Like Hamas, Morsi's Freedom and Justice Party's roots are in the Muslim Brotherhood, ruthlessly suppressed by Mubarak and his predecessors.

Morsi has attempted to steer a middle course with Hamas, perhaps believing he might sidestep unequivocal support by encouraging it to reconcile with the other key power bloc in the occupied territories, the secular Fatah movement headed by Mahmoud Abbas.

This story Egypt in no man's land over Gaza first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.