Egypt thumbs the nose at US
By M K Bhadrakumar
The gloom in Washington must be deepening. Egypt is careering away from the alliance with the United States – and the bitter truth cannot be hidden or obfuscated anymore.
This is not how Washington expected the “right side of history” to play out. The Arab Spring has borne a strange fruit in Egypt – a pure breed, unlike the hybrids in Tunisia, Libya or Yemen.
Consider the following. President Barack Obama was one of the first statesmen to greet Mohammed Morsi on his election victory in May. Obama broke protocol and phoned to congratulate him, signifying the anxiety in Washington to have a splendid chemistry with him.
Then, Obama wrote a letter to Morsi and he deputed Deputy Secretary of State William Burns to fly to Cairo and deliver it in person. Burns was followed to Cairo by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, again for an audience with Morsi. That, in turn, was followed by the visit to Cairo by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. All this, within the first month of Morsi’s presidency.
Panetta came back to Washington greatly pleased that the Egyptian military leadership, which has been the anchor sheet of the US regional strategy and the custodian of the US’ interests in Egypt, and Morsi were not only getting alone fine but they even had a common agenda.
The rest is history. Within days or weeks of Panetta’s optimism, Morsi unceremoniously sent the military back to the barracks from the corridors of political power. Washington had no choice but to put a brave face on it, almost spreading a canard that Morsi consulted the Obama administration before cracking down on the Egyptian military.
However, in the weekend, the truth is out. The US may be facing across a huge setback to its robust efforts to influence Morsi’s presidency. The letter that Burns carried a month ago apparently contained an invitation from Obama to Morsi to visit Washington.
And Morsi is instead travelling to China and Iran.
This was announced on the Egyptian president’s official website on Sunday. Morsi is apparently combining the visits to China and Iran. It seems he will pay a three-day visit to China next Monday at the invitation of President Hu Jintao and from Beijing he proposes to travel to Tehran on Thursday to attend the summit meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement.
Beijing is yet to announce a visit by Morsi. The government-owned China Daily, in fact, featured a commentary on Monday exclusively titled “Morsi’s visit to Iran could reshape political landscape”, which pointedly sidestepped any suggestion that the Egyptian president’s itinerary would include Beijing as well.
However, Egypt’s flagship newspaper Al-Ahram has reported that Morsi and Hu “plan to discuss crucial issues facing the Arab world, such as the Syrian situation and the Palestinian question. The two presidents will also discuss ways of enhancing commercial exchange between their respective countries, in addition to increasing Chinese investment in Egypt.”
Al-Ahram summed up: “The two visits may mark changes in Egypt’s foreign policy, given that both countries [China and Iran] have tense relations with the United States, to whom Egypt has been a loyal ally, especially under the rule of ousted president Hosni Mubarak.”
Indeed, the Middle East is waking up to the fact that the Americans are in the dog house in Cairo. Without doubt, this decision bears the stamp of the Muslim Brotherhood. What are the calculations?
First, Brothers know that this will go down extremely well with the public mood in Egypt, which is vehemently demanding a new foreign policy orientation that jettisons the Mubarak-era partnership with the US and Israel and a return to the country’s independent foreign policy.
Second, Morsi does not want to depend too heavily on the dole-outs by the International Monetary Fund and/or the wealthy Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, which he is hard-pressed to accept while knowing that they come with political strings attached.
The International Monetary Fund is dictating tough terms for a US$3.2 billion loan for Egypt. The Jeddah-based Islamic Development Bank agreed to give Egypt $2.5 billion in financing. Qatar is depositing $2 billion in the Central Bank of Egypt aimed at alleviating Egypt’s foreign exchange shortage. Last year in May, Saudi Arabia announced aid to Egypt totaling $4 billion in “soft loans, deposits and grants”. A US-led struggle was keenly underway to buy off Egypt’s soul.
Conceivably, Morsi eyes China as a potential investor in the Egyptian economy because Beijing attaches no strings to economic cooperation and plays generally by the market rules, attuned to the neo-liberal policies that Morsi would be largely pursuing. The point is, Brothers know pretty well that the GCC countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia – but especially Saudi Arabia, view them intrinsically with distaste and disquiet as posing an existential danger to their authoritarian regimes. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has had a troubled relationship with the Brotherhood.
The late Crown Prince Nayef used brutal methods to suppress the activities of the Brotherhood in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi establishment daily Asharq Al-Awasat displayed its antipathy toward Morsi as recently as Saturday, when in a signed article the daily’s senior editor Osman Mirghani wrote,
The blow that Mursi struck [at the military], allowing him to seize power, was completely unforeseen, not just on the part of the SCAF leadership, but for the Egyptian people as a whole … These decisions were akin to a coup d’etat … Brotherhood has attempted to dominate the political arena since they hijacked the revolution and rode the revolutionary wave into government, despite the fact that they joined this revolution quite late … Brotherhood has sought to undermine all other parties and therefore purposely refused to cooperate or coordinate with them during the transitional period prior to the elections.
‘Egypt is now being governed by declarations and “constitutional” decisions that are issued by a president who has far more powers than Mubarak ever did … If some people are saying that Mursi … has liberated himself and the presidency from the army’s custody and intervention, then the question that must be asked here is: will this be followed by Mursi liberating himself from the Brotherhood, which seems to be present in all his decisions and measures?”
It is useful to bear in mind that this sharp criticism appeared within a month of Morsi’s visit to Riyadh at the invitation of King Abdullah and within two days of the extraordinary summit of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) in Jeddah, which Morsi attended.
The narrative has been that Morsi while addressing the OIC summit called for “regime change” in Syria – implying that Egypt is a dutiful camp follower of the line set by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. But in actuality, Morsi snubbed the troika by proposing a solution to the Syrian crisis by forming a Contact Group comprising Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and Egypt, which could mediate a Syrian dialogue and reconciliation leading to peaceful political transition in an atmosphere free of violence.
Handshake across Arabia
Of course, Morsi’s inclusion of Iran in the proposed Contact Group amounted to a snub to Saudi Arabia, which hosted the OIC summit. Then, there was the body language, which counts heavily in intra-Arab parleys. On the sidelines of the OIC summit, Morsi exchanged handshakes and kisses with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and spoke with him amidst much manifest warmth.
Tehran promptly welcomed Morsi’s proposal, which in turn prompted an appreciation by the Brotherhood in Cairo that saw in Tehran’s warm reaction an unmistakable confirmation that Egypt is beginning to regain some of the diplomatic and strategic clout it once held in the region. A sort of mutual admiration society formed between Cairo and Tehran across the arid deserts of the Arabian Peninsula.
Three things emerged from Morsi’s performance at the OIC summit. First, Morsi signaled that Egypt intended to pursue a foreign policy that would be independent of Western or oil Gulf countries’ agendas. That is to say, Egypt will not meekly follow their footsteps any more or accept an inferior position.
Second, Egypt does not see Turkey as a role model, notwithstanding the high-decibel Western propaganda ever since the Arab Spring appeared that the Islamism of the kind that the present government led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan espouses is what the doctor would also prescribe for the ailing Middle East. Erdogan came back from a visit to Cairo last year imagining he was a a rock star for Egyptians, but Morsi apparently doesn’t think so.
Third, Morsi’s decision to include Iran as a partner in the search for peace in Syria meant a rejection of the Western and Saudi-Turkish approach. On the sidelines of the OIC summit, Egyptian foreign minister Mohammed Amr also met his Iranian counterpart Al Akbar Salehi to urge that Tehran should assist in solving the Syrian crisis.
Indeed, these are early days but Morsi’s decision to visit Iran (with which Egypt doesn’t have diplomatic relations) can only be seen as a strategic move with profound implications for regional security and global politics. It needs some explanation.
For one thing, Iran is the first Muslim country after Saudi Arabia that Morsi will be visiting in the Middle East. The Arab Street will take note that Egypt’s Brothers reject the notion (propagated by Saudi Arabia and the West) of an Iran-led “Shi’ite crescent” posing a threat to the Sunni communities of the Muslim Middle East.
Clearly, Egypt intends to normalize its relations with Iran, whereas Mubarak’s Egypt was awash with Manichean fears of Iranian plots to destabilize it. Things have changed. The deputy leader of the Brotherhood, Mahmoud Ezzat, recently told Associated Press, “The old regime used to turn any of his [Mubarak’s] rivals to a ghost. We [Brotherhood] don’t want to do like Mubarak and exaggerate the fear of Iran.”
From Tehran’s viewpoint, this comes as a diplomatic and geopolitical breakthrough at a difficult time when the P5+1-Iran talks are in an impasse. Simply put, the Middle Eastern equations have been suddenly thrown into a state of flux. It was all meant to be a neat little logarithm of “Tehran’s camp” (Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas) versus the “American camp” (Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and Qatar). But Morsi is nonchalantly crisscrossing that geopolitical barrier.
Could a big shake-up of regional politics be under way? At a minimum, the kaleidoscope is shifting and all of a sudden it seems that the situations in Syria, Lebanon or Gaza might be fraught with new possibilities. (By the way, Morsi made it clear at the OIC summit that any focus on the Syrian crisis should not detract attention from the Palestinian problem, which is the core issue for the Muslim world.)
The big question is what is prompting Egypt’s Brotherhood? The conventional wisdom is that the Brothers are a cautious lot and will take their own sweet time to reset the power calculus in Cairo, leave alone tamper with the compass of Egypt’s foreign policy. But through the past eight-day period, a different picture of the Brothers has begun emerging. What explains it?
No return to Mubarak era
In retrospect, Morsi’s crackdown on the military a week ago was a pre-emptive coup. The Brothers estimated that their best bet would be to ride the wave of high expectations in the public opinion favoring fundamental changes in national policies and that any delay and procrastination in doing so would result in the military gaining the upper hand and turning the tables politically on Morsi’s leadership.
Equally, the Brothers harbor distrust of the US’ role and its real intentions toward Morsi’s leadership. It is useful to remember that the Brotherhood (and Hamas) pointedly accused Israel’s Mossad of being responsible for the terrorist strike in Sinai on August 5.
What made the Brothers come to this conclusion is unclear, but Sinai has been a lawless land for decades and it is inconceivable that Israeli intelligence paid no attention to the Islamist militant groups present there. In fact, what really happened on August 5 remains anybody’s guess and it needs a willing suspension of disbelief to accept that the Bedouins could mount such a highly professional operation.
Besides, something else was jarring. The terrorist strike in Sinai followed Morsi’s meetings with the Hamas leadership in Cairo and his decision to partially ease the restrictions at the Rafah crossing (which of course made a mockery of Israel’s “blockade” of Gaza.
Be that as it may, the attack in Sinai came even as the US was piling pressure on Morsi to optimally resuscitate the Mubarak-era security and military tie-ups between Cairo, Washington and Tel Aviv. Both Clinton and Panetta tried hard to persuade Morsi to recapture the spirit of the tripartite US-Egypt-Israel security cooperation over Sinai.
But the Brothers would see that any such reversion to Mubarak-era policies towards Israel would be deeply resented by the Egyptian public – Islamists and “secularists alike – and in turn discredit the Brotherhood and erode the credibility of Morsi’s presidency – in sum, it will be suicidal politically. The Brothers would also know that any configuration of Egypt’s regional strategies with the locus resting on terrorism would preclude all possibilities of any creative policy rethink on Gaza.
In sum, Morsi’s decision to open a line to Beijing and Tehran needs to be weighed against a big backdrop. The Brothers apprehend a US-Israeli plan to destabilize Morsi’s government if it doesn’t fall in line with Washington’s diktat. Therefore, they are looking for ways and means to whittle down the current level of Egypt’s over-dependence on the US and its Persian-Gulf allies by diversifying the country’s external relationships and adding countervailing partnerships that would help enhance the country’s strategic autonomy.
Next week promises to be a defining moment in Middle Eastern politics and inter-Arab alignments when Morsi travels to Beijing and Tehran. With Egypt drifting away, the US’ regional strategies are in great disarray. The immediate question will be what is gained, after all, by conquering Damascus with such mindless brutal violence and bestiality if Cairo and Baghdad have already been lost.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
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