The Middle East peace process has new hope due to Egypt's role as the new "honest broker" between the Israelis and the Palestinians, according to two top foreign-policy aides to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy.
While street clashes between Morsy's supporters and the opposition have escalated this week, the two aides have been in Washington on a charm offensive, meeting with National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, and Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT).
Their message: Egypt is back as a diplomatic player in the Middle East after years of drift and decay under deposed president Hosni Mubarak.
"Let me tell you why the Gaza mediation worked. For the first time in a long time, there was an honest broker," Khaled al-Qazzaz, secretary of the president for foreign affairs, said in an interview Wednesday.
The Egyptian government's first priority will be a new initiative to first achieve reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, followed by a new dialogue between the Palestinians and the Israeli government, the advisors said.
Essam al-Haddad, who is the equivalent of a national security advisor to Morsy, said that Palestinian reconciliation is necessary so that nobody will be able to claim that the Palestinians are not speaking with one voice or that there is no Palestinian partner for peace. He also said that Egypt will press for more rights for Palestinians in Gaza.
"We would like to see a new road map in order to make sure [Israeli-Gaza violence] will not happen again, to make sure the people in this part of the world to enjoy a human and peaceful life," Haddad said. "They have the right to move freely, to be educated. It is not acceptable to besiege 1.5 million people in the 21st century. This is the biggest open-air prison on earth."
Haddad said the Egyptian government will not tell Hamas to recognize the state of Israel or renounce terrorism.
"We don't tell people what to do. We help them to make the proper choices and we try to create an environment that will be conducive enough to achieve the long-term objectives," he said.
But he heavily criticized the Israeli government's recent decision to move ahead with plans for 3,000 new residences in East Jerusalem.
"This announcement of new settlements is really closing the small window of the possibility of a two-state solution," Haddad said.
Haddad said that Morsy is interested in expanding the strategic relationship between the United States and Egypt and using that relationship as the basis to expand Egypt's efforts to promote regional democracy and stability.
"We're trying to build a relationship. We were invited to Washington for two reasons: to prepare for President Morsy's visit to Washington early next year and to start understanding how can we build a relationship between the U.S and Egypt on a new basis and based on the new structure and vision of Egypt," Haddad said. "We have huge potential for building a strategtic partnership between the U.S. and Egypt to build a more stable, prosperous, democratic region in the Middle East, which will have an effect beyond the region as well. Egypt can play a greater role in maintaining regional peace and security and the United States is highly interested in making that happen."
Skepticism in Washington about the Morsy government's commitment to democratic principles is high, however, particulary after Morsy issued a decree last month declaring that his edicts are beyond judicial or legislative review, a move that sparked protests in Cairo that have left more than 200 people injured.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Cairo the night before the decree was issue and met with Morsy, but Morsy didn't tell her the decree was coming, nor did he tell President Barack Obama when they spoke over the phone, Haddad acknowledged.
"Gaza was the overwhelming issue during Secretary Clinton's stay in Cairo," he said. "The domestic information reaching the president -- he decided not to leave town, and the decision to issue the decree was made the next day, which is something that is totally domestic."
Haddad said that the decree is temporary and will be nullified when Egyptians go to the polls Dec. 15 to vote on a referendum on the new constitution. He also said that if the United States supports democracy in Egypt, it should support the Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), from which Morsy hails.
"If you could find all the excuses to support the dictatorship for 30 years, providing them with full support, I think it will be much easier to support a democracy in Egypt, and even a moral obligation," he said.
Haddad and Qazzaz said that the Morsy government was doing all it could to prevent violence but that violence was coming from the protesters, including Molotov cocktails thrown at FJP offices.
"Protests in the streets are something normal and accepted. It's a good sign of our democratic changes. It's an acceptable way of expressing views and as long as it is not violent, it is even encouraged," Haddad said. "We must admit there has been some use of violence, but we hope this use of violence will end as soon as possible and the security [forces have] very clear instructions not to use violence and they are restraining themselves to a great extent."
That message may not resonate on Capitol Hill, where $450 million of U.S. economic aid to Egypt is now on hold due to objections by leading lawmakers. A $6 billion IMF loan is also in the works -- a desperately needed cash infusion for a country that has been devastated by the economic fallout of its political turmoil.
Haddad said that if U.S. lawmakers are willing to become better informed about the FJP and its goals, the Egyptian government is confident it will allow the aid. He also said that international NGOs, which were persecuted by the last Egyptian government, will be allowed to return to Egypt as soon as a new NGO law is passed.
"We believe in our new Egypt that civil society is a main pillar in building a new state. As soon as we have the parliament, there will be a new law. International NGOs should be allowed to operate within the legal framework of Egypt," he said. "You can come, you can operate. You have to be transparent, you have to be legal, and you have to follow the framework. We are happy to welcome more NGOs to help develop the civil society of Egypt."
The Muslim Brotherhood does not want to create a theologically based state in Egypt, the aides insisted. But it does want sharia to inform Egyptian government and law going forward, he said.
"We are going to be a democratic, modern, civil state. From our point of view, this is pure Islam... The sharia is a reference for most of the laws," Haddad said. "We have no room, no acceptance of a theocratic state."
Washington-based Egypt experts say that the jury is still out on whether the Morsy government will live up to its promises to uphold democratic values and practices.
"There's a real divide in Washington right now inside the U.S. government as well as in the expert community between those who are willing to assume good intentions on the part of President Morsy and those who believe that what he has done recently proves he has no intention of carrying out a full democratic transition," the Atlantic Council's Michele Dunne said. "Developments in Egypt over the next few weeks might settle this argument one way or the other."
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.