Morsi deals to Hamas to please US but frustrates his own people.

His election is the glittering hope of democracy in the Middle East. Last week he helped America stop a war in Gaza. This week democrats in Egypt were demonstrating against a dictatorial decree. What's going on?

Hopefully, just a precautionary prelude to a constitution that President Mohammed Morsi has delivered overnight, but nothing I read this week could tell us very much.

All I know about Egypt I learned in one night 20 years ago. A party of journalists and academics were in the United States on a visit sponsored by the State Department to watch the 1992 presidential election.

Two of the party were from Israel, two from Turkey and one or two from other Muslim countries including a young woman from Egypt.


This night, somewhere in the US, the conversation turned to Palestine and one of the Israelis got into a fairly intense argument with the Turks. The Egyptian woman said little but when she eventually made a remark, the Israeli rounded on her with an ironic smile and said, fairly good-naturedly I thought: "Anyway you love us."

The room went quiet. She flushed and fell silent. The others said nothing for a moment. They resumed the argument but she took no further part in it.

The Israeli had referred, fairly obviously, to the peace treaty that Egypt's military President Anwar Sadat had signed shortly before his assassination. Equally obviously that night, Israelis knew how deeply Egyptians resented it.

Israelis also knew Egyptians could do little about it. Sadat had signed it as a condition of US financial aid that the country sorely needed. Egypt may be the intellectual and cultural capital of the Arab region and its most populous state, but lacking oil it is poor.

Sadat's military replacement, Hosni Mubarak, had maintained the pact for the same reason.

That young woman, a researcher at a Cairo university, hated Mubarak but didn't seem to fear him. She feared something else. She talked about the pressure that was coming on women like her to cover their heads.

It was 1992. That was the first I'd heard of an Islamic fundamentalist revival. It was hard to take seriously when the modern world was packing away the 20th century and all its mistakes: socialism, the cold war, apartheid. The creation of Israel could surely be resolved too.

All it might take was a little less zionism and a bit more pluralism to accommodate Palestinian national aspirations too. If that sounds naive now, it didn't then. A twin-state solution would soon be on the table.

But settlements of a different kind were happening in parts of Palestine that were not part of the 1948 United Nation's creation. Islam and Israel were each hardening into more potent fuel for a peculiar religious nationalism that would announce itself to the West on a sunny New York morning in 2001.

The woman I knew in 1992 was determinedly resisting a head scarf but she probably wears one now.

Even as she told the westerners in the party about the inequalities of women under Islamic law, it was clear she loved the religion and she wished we knew Arabic so that she could explain why.

As a scholar of American politics, she also loved liberal democracy and elected representation. I wonder where she was in the Arab Spring, and I wonder which side she took this week when some protested against Morsi's decrees.

Western reports have made no connection between the Gaza agreement and the decrees but I wonder. Morsi brought Hamas to heel at the request of President Obama, who was talking to Israel.

Morsi has not renounced the 1979 peace treaty and Egypt probably needs US aid more than ever in the present state of its economy. Reports of the Gaza truce suggest that the US played that card again.

I hope Obama has had a glimpse of the frustration and shame of an ordinary Egyptian at what has been done in their name. Israel, much closer to public opinion in the region, has taken a guarded view of the Arab Spring.

Three years ago Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu snubbed Obama's appeal to stop further settlement of the West Bank so that peace talks might start. When Netanyahu decided to respond to rockets from Gaza 10 days after Obama's re-election, Obama could have let Israel stew in its own juice.

Had he not intervened, Israel would have sent ground forces into Gaza as it has done before, with the same result. It would have wreaked enough death and destruction to bring a brief respite from rocket attacks - and do nothing to lessen the popular resentment of Israel.

That resentment remains. It will assert itself more powerfully if democracy prevails in Egypt. Israel needs to offer something for Palestinians soon.

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