Egypt’s Brothers and New Middle East (I)

Egypt’s Brothers and New Middle East (I)

Prima facie, it would seem that a great unifying figure has finally appeared on the banks of the Nile whose shadow spreads across the entire Middle Eastern political landscape. That, at least, is the impression generated by the range of commendations from the international community that followed the election of Mohammed Morsi in the presidential election in Egypt. Ranging form Israel to Iran, the Middle Eastern countries hailed the outcome of the Egyptian election resulting in the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate. All big powers have risen in unison to add their voice to the chorus and hail the advent of democracy in Egypt. 

However, on closer examination, there is also a noticeable “unevenness” in the tone and substance of the statements from the world chancelleries. There is manifest thrill, for sure, in the voice of Iran and Turkey as if a brave new world is around the corner in their neighborhood; the United States and Britain have spoken in the sweet seductive voice suggestive of determined courtship; most countries, including Russia, spoke correctly and prudently as such occasions demand; while, the voice of some regional countries such as Israel, Jordan or Saudi Arabia also betrays a high degree of nervousness about the uncertainties that lie ahead.

What explains this fascinating range of emotions? First, of course, Morsi is an “incorrigible Islamist” and the stunning political reality is that it is a novel sight in regional politics to see Islamism arriving through the ballot box. It is a thrilling, troubling sight. Second, there is always the anxiety over the “unknown unknown” – as the former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld would have said – in the highly volatile environment of the Middle East. The heart of the matter is that the Muslim Brotherhood [MB] to which Morsi belongs, is an unknown quantity in the power dynamic of the regional system. Besides, the MB has already displayed in the recent period a rare capacity for pragmatism and flexibility (although unwaveringly wedded to the ideology of Islamism) and has done somersaults on the political turf so much and so often in the past so that one begins to wonder where the tactic ends and strategy begins for the Brothers. Third, there lingers an inescapable doubt that what has unfolded in Egypt is still not quite the final concluding act of the unscripted revolutionary drama that began playing out on the Tahrir Square over an year ago in December 2010 and a lurking suspicion that the denouement lies possibly somewhere up ahead still. 

To be sure, Morsi’s election profoundly impacts the geopolitics of the Middle East. Principally, there are four vectors that merit close attention. First, Egypt has been an anchor sheet of the US’ Middle East strategy and how far would things change with the rise of the Brothers? Second, related to the above, where does Egypt stand in the new situation vis-à-vis the core Middle Eastern question – Palestinian problem and the Arab-Israeli relations? Third, what is the impact, if any, that the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt would have on the future trajectory of the Arab Spring? Finally, what regional policies can be expected of Egypt as a democracy led by an Islamist government toward its Arab neighbors? 

An arbiter, mediator and impostor

Morsi was partly educated in the US and he lived and worked in the US in the NASA and was a professor for sometime. Evidently, he is an erudite mind, familiar with the US political system. He played a key role in the establishment of contacts between the US and the Muslim Brotherhood, which rapidly developed through last year and led to the visit by a delegation of the Brothers to Washington where they were received by senior officials in the White House and the State Department and US Congressmen and were feted by the think tanks connected with the US establishment. Evidently, Morsi is far from a stranger to the Washington establishment and his election victory might have been foreseen by the US. 

On the other hand, the US’ relationship with the Egyptian military has been and still remains the most meaningful and enduring part of its bilateral ties with Egypt, although the alchemy of the relationship began changing ever since the Hosni Mubarak regime got overthrown. Similarly, Muslim Brotherhood also has shown the willingness to work with the Egyptian military – often to the great exasperation of the revolutionaries on Tahrir Square – and in the coming period, the sort of equilibrium that would develop in the mutual equations between the MB and the military would have a great bearing on the course of Egypt’s democratic revolution. Suffice to say, the US wouldn’t mind a role as an arbiter between the Brothers and the military, if the need arises, which indeed is a familiar role for American diplomacy in the pursuit of maximizing or expanding the overall US influence in foreign countries. 

Clearly, the US cannot afford to completely or openly take the side of the Egyptian military, nor does it wish to project itself that way, as it will be thoroughly inconsistent with its professed championing of the democratic aspirations of the Arab nations and will be resented by the Egyptian people. Despite being the Egyptian military’s “financier” – US has been giving an estimated 1.5 billion dollars as aid to the military per year – there is evidence to believe that the US also got some nasty surprises during the recent period from the Egyptian military. The indications are that on occasions the Egyptian military might have even told the American interlocutors one thing and then went on to act in the best interests of its corporate interests as an entity in Egypt’s political economy. Nonetheless, credit must be given to the US for being quick on the learning curve and to comprehend that it will be sheer folly to just play the side of the Egyptian generals in their game with the Brothers. 

The US’ immediate lookout will be to try and explore a mediatory role for itself in the power play in Cairo by offering its “help” to Morsi and the military find a mutual equilibrium under the pretense that the highly volatile situation in Egypt doesn’t reach a flashpoint that would destabilize the country and the region. What does this imply? One the one hand, it implies that the US would refrain from giving one-sided support to the military while on the other hand, it gives the leverage to the US to nudge the Brothers to move in the direction of moderation and compromise. To be sure, there are gray areas that one may never get to know – for instance, how far did the US know beforehand (or acquiesce with) the latest moves by the military to usurp the powers of the democratically elected president and the parliament. 

Potholes on road ahead

Essentially speaking, however, the US diplomacy is navigating through unchartered waters. Far from a situation of the US influencing the course of events, it appears the US is also feeling its way around (and across) the developing situations and the mood if it can be captured, is one of “wait-and-see” and adjusting to the situation. This is not say that Morsi’s election took the US by surprise, but it is rather than Washington is prepared for a range of eventualities to happen and Morsi’s victory was probably (or most certainly) one of them. At least, that is what the swift statement by the White House Press secretary and President Barack Obama’s phone call to Morsi would suggest. The comfort level in Washington would have been far higher if one of the liberal groups that originally were in the vanguard of the revolution successfully emerged as the charioteer leading the government in the coming period but then that is only of academic interest today and the US has to make do with what is available. From the US viewpoint, coming to terms with the MB in Egypt has become critically important as it would have implications for the US’ push for “regime change” in Syria, where also the Brotherhood is arrayed against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. 

The Egyptian Brothers, on their part, have so far refrained form challenging the military frontally and have shown willingness to allow the military to retain its powers and preserve its unique status in Egypt’s society and economy. How far this will continue to be so is a big question. The fact is that Morsi scored a narrow victory (thanks to the support of Salafis and hardcore Islamists and the country’s youth) while MB’s popularity plummeted significantly through the past 6-month period since the parliamentary election and that happened because of the growing disenchantment over the Brothers’ backroom dealings with the military. Thus, apart from the pressure from the military, Morsi also has to interpret in political terms the meaning of the mandate that he has received from the Egyptian electorate, which is that he could only command the support of one half of the Egyptian nation. 

Another aspect that has a vital bearing on the Egypt-US relationship is the state of the Egyptian economy, which is in dire straits and is desperately in need of lareg scale and sustained help from the IMF and the European Union. Egypt’s foreign exchange reserves come to some 16 billion dollars at present; something like 40% of the population are desperately poor, surviving on a daily income not exceeding one dollar; the current debt is put at close to $190 billion; the budget deficit touches 10% of the GDP. The IMF estimates that an immediate infusion of $12 billion or so is needed. Interestingly, Morsi’s election platform advocated neo-liberal policies and a free market economy with accent on attracting foreign investment and privatization of the Egyptian economy, which are measures that leap out of the IMF rulebook. Also, the power behind Morsi, Khairat el-Shater (Muslim Brotherhood’s original candidate in the presidential election) is himself a billionaire who represents the economic interests of the movement. The Egyptian liberals are rightfully bitter that the Brothers had time for Tahrir Square only to burnish their “revolutionary” image while they went about securing their interests. 

The US holds a trump card in controlling the flow of the IMF money that is needed to get the Egyptian economy going. And it is bound to demand at some point that Morsi and the Brothers should play along to its geopolitical agenda in the Middle East – although not so bluntly as that. In sum, it is fair to say that the US may be a spectator of the cataclysmic events in Egypt but it also holds the purse strings of the military and the economy. 

But there are other potholes on the road ahead. Apart from the political wisdom of carrying out neo-liberal economic policies that are sure to make life harder for the poor people and to fuel social tensions, Morsi also has to contend with the possibility that there could be a clash with the US over Israel. Each and every opinion poll through the past year has consistently shown that the Egyptian people are opposed to their country’s peace treaty with Israel emanating out of Camp David accords. Then, as the massive groundswell of expectations in Gaza (which erupted into wild celebrations over Morsi’s victory) testifies, there are high expectations from the MB. On the other hand, Egypt’s adherence to the peace treaty with Israel is a “red line” for Washington, which it will not allow Morsi to cross. If Morsi doesn’t play along, it is entirely conceivable that the US may not hesitate to destabilize his presidency and the government by covert methods such as encouraging the military to create a situation of intolerable tension.

But then, the point is also that, as the saying goes, the road to Jerusalem passes through Cairo and even if Morsi doesn’t tear up the peace treaty with Israel, he cannot be expected to be Israel’s collaborator as Hosni Mubarak was, and he won’t be party to another siege of Gaza by the Israelis. Beyond that, how could the MB countenance Egypt’s economic ties with Israel? Finally, Hamas, which is a sister organization of Muslim Brotherhood, will expect Egypt’s whole-hearted support for the Palestinian resistance. It also happens to be that Morsi himself has an “anti-Israeli” background. His own initiation into the cult of the Brothers three decades ago was through membership of an “anti-Zionist” committee in his Nile Delta province of Sharkiya in the late 1980s, which tooth and nail rejected the raison d’etre of Egypt’s normalization with the Jewish state. Thus, even if Morsi doesn’t annul the peace treaty with Israel, he will never be comfortable with Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood spokesmen have been quoted by the western media as saying that Morsi will not meet with Israelis but he may not prevent other officials from doing so. 

(to be continued)