Egypt’s Coup Churns up Regional Politics (II)

Egypt’s Coup Churns up Regional Politics (II)

Part I

In the event, s series of concessions offered by Mohamed Morsi during his four-hour meeting in the presidential palace with General Abdul Fatah al-Sissi, head of the Egyptian army, didn’t prove sufficient enough. The political concessions offered by Morsi were, according to the Guardian newspaper, the following:

•    The formation of a national government representing all parties;

•    The formation of a neutral committee to change the constitution;

•    A call on the constitutional council to speed up the law on parliamentary elections; and,

•    A new attorney general (he has already gone)

Furthermore, Morsi also apparently hinted that if a plan was put to him to hold a referendum on his presidency, he would agree to it. But all this still failed to impress Sissi. The heart of the matter is that Sissi had already made up his mind, having got the green signal from Washington to go ahead with a «soft» coup.

It has now come to light that none other than the US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel was in touch with Sissi from Washington. The Pentagon has been forced to admit that Hagel spoke with Sissi last week but refuses to divulge details of the conversation. Asked why the Pentagon kept this detail under wraps so far, Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters lamely, «I think you can understand the sensitivities of this situation and that’s in essence the bottom line. We made the decision to acknowledge the phone call and that’s where we are».

That is to say, the famous ultimatum given by the Egyptian army on Monday to Morsi had actually followed consultations between Hagel and Sissi. Sissi’s explanation is that the army rejected Morsi’s offer of a national unity government and reconciliation because it felt the people were calling for help.

Meanwhile, there have been other tell-tale signs, too. Britain has refused to condemn the coup in Egypt. Foreign Secretary William Hague said, «The chance of a democratic future was hard won for Egypt by the Egyptian people two and a half years ago. But looking forward, we call on all parties to show the leadership and vision needed to restore and renew Egypt's democratic transition».

The US president Barack Obama has avoided describing the events in Egypt as a coup. Under the US laws, of course, a coup would have led to the suspension of all American aid to Egypt. The White House statement is extremely long-winded and defensive in tone, carefully eschewing any condemnation of the Egyptian military and, on the contrary, appealing to the junta’s good sense to effect the transition to a democratically elected civilian government.

Strange bedfellows

The US intends to leverage its aid for the Egyptian military to influence the junta’s policies. The White House statement explicitly recognized that in the ultimate analysis, the US policies are based on «shared interests and values».

The coup in Egypt has produced varied reactions regionally. Within hours of the Sissi’s address to the nation on Wednesday where he announced the head of Egypt’s supreme constitutional court Adli Mansour as the nominal interim president, Saudi King Abdullah’s cable landed in Cairo felicitating the new leadership and congratulating the military.

When Sissi spoke on state television, he was flanked among others by the leader of the Salafist Nour party who openly endorsed the coup. The Nour party is funded by Saudi Arabia as counterweight to the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet another presence by Sissi’s side has been the head of the sheikh of Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, who also has close links with the Saudi establishment.

One of the first acts of the military junta has been to raid the Cairo office of al-Jazeera Misr and arrest its journalists. The media organization is linked to the Qatari regime and Doha has been one of the staunchest backers – and financier – of the Morsi government.

However, the Turkish reaction, unlike the Saudi jubilation, is critical of the coup in Egypt. Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu has been quoted as saying, «You can be removed from duty only through elections, that is, the will of the people. It is unacceptable for a government, which has come to power through democratic elections, to be toppled through illicit means and, even more, a military coup». The Freedom and Justice Party, the ruling party in Turkey, has been closely aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood in ideology and has been championing the Brotherhood’s Syrian branch.

Unsurprisingly, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has not hidden his sense of glee over the overthrow of Morsi’s government. He said what has happened is the fall of political Islam and that the experiment of the Muslim Brotherhood’s role failed even before it started because its «project» is not consistent with the nature of the people and aims at creating sedition in the Arab world.

To be sure, the coup has thrown up strange bedfellows. It has met with understanding, support or acquiescence from the US and Britain as well as their allies in the Persian Gulf – especially Saudi Arabia – and Jordan. Syria feels relieved that the Brotherhood has been ousted from power in a key Arab country. Neither quite a winner nor a loser, Tehran is brooding and is yet to react but Iranian media have highlighted the Syrian reaction and have been critical of Morsi.

Winners and losers

A complex set of reasons can be identified for this strange regional line-up. Evidently, the US has a strong partner in the Egyptian military, whereas, it has always remained wary of the Brotherhood’s agenda and intentions as the charioteer of political Islam in the new Middle East. Sisi is a known figure for Washington and his «soft» Islamist touch is helpful for the US policies in the prevailing regional milieu.

From the US perspective, the crucial determinant is that the Egyptian military can be relied upon to work closely with Israel, remain wedded to the 1979 peace treaty and to keep Hamas (which is an offshoot of Muslim Brotherhood) in tight leash.

The interim government comprises a coalition that includes the henchmen of the Hosni Mubarak era and several liberal politicians who are known to be adherents of the Washington Consensus. The IMF can be expected to take control of the Egyptian economy. On the other hand, the military has co-opted the Islamist Nour Party that is under Saudi influence, which further raises the US and Israel’s comfort level by ensuring that the incipient thaw in the Egyptian-Iranian relations will be suspended. All in all, therefore, the Obama administration can be confident that the new set-up in Cairo will collaborate with the US’ geopolitical agenda in the region.

The antipathy on the part of the Saudis and their GCC partners – particularly the UAE – as well as Jordan toward the Muslim Brotherhood is not difficult to understand since the Brothers have been actively seeking regime change in these countries and the Brotherhood’s ascendancy in Egypt set a bad example for the Arab street. The return of the Mubarak-era elites to the power structure in Cairo will please the Saudis.

On the contrary, Qatar and Turkey, which harbor regional ambitions and have eyed the Muslim Brotherhood as useful partners, have to go back to the drawing board. For the Syrian regime, Muslim Brotherhood has been anathema because of the Turkish-Qatari axis projecting its Syrian branch as the mainstream opposition.

The Saudi-Qatari rivalry could cast shadows on the Syrian conflict and may now spread to Lebanon, too. Again, the government of Recep Erdogan will have reason to worry that the military coup in Egypt sets a bad precedent for Turkey, where too, an acute schism has appeared over the «Islamization» agenda of the ruling party. The Turkish military is similar to the Egyptian military in its secular ethos and has a long tradition of being power brokers. Meanwhile, Erdogan’s equation with the Obama administration has lately lost its shine and there is growing uneasiness in Washington about Turkey’s lurch toward Islamism and Erdogan’s antipathy toward Israel.

In the final analysis, though, Israel is the regional power most affected by the changes in Egypt. The return of the military leadership in Cairo works in Israel’s security interests. The Egyptian state will be looking inward for the foreseeable future, groping for a new identity, which is fraught with all sorts of uncertainties. Put differently, the nascent regional alignment of Egypt-Qatar-Turkey, which Hamas leadership began tapping into lately, has overnight disintegrated and that leaves the militant group vulnerable to Israeli pressure…

Finally, the Obama administration has been forced to backtrack from its dalliance with Egypt’s Brothers (and with Islamism), which Israel and its supporters in the US have been consistently seeking. In sum, Israel is the single biggest gainer.
 

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