US grapples with Egypt’s Morsi
This should have been the finest hour for Egypt’s President, Mohamed Morsi who is being lionized by the West as the Middle East’s latest peace broker. Yet at home the revolutionaries are burning down the establishments of the Muslim Brotherhood, accusing Morsi of being a ‘new Hosni Mubarak’, a new Pharaoh’. The contradiction needs an explanation. The recent conflict in Gaza has generated a sub-plot, which threatens to take over the main plot…
Arguably, Morsi’s move to issue a presidential decree to secure immunity for himself from law and accumulate vast executive powers for himself had nothing to do with the Gaza developments, prima facie. But the two are intertwined. Consider the following.
The ceasefire in Gaza, negotiated by Morsi, has no doubt boosted his international standing. However, it doesn’t need much ingenuity to figure out that he acted at Washington’s behest. Indeed, Morsi has entered into a Faustian deal with Washington following his recent agreement with the International Monetary Fund for a $4.2 billion and the handsome aid package of $2 billion each extended to him by Qatar and Turkey. Morsi has turned into an invaluable interlocutor for the United States in the Middle East since he is a democratically elected ruler and at the same time an Islamist. In sum, he is one of a kind in the entire region and Washington appreciates that the constructive engagement with him holds the potential to reset the US’ discourse with the Muslim Middle East.
Qatar (and to a lesser extent Turkey) worked hard to help Washington establish the bridgehead leading to the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. The Qataris, in particular, worked according to a script, generously financing the Brothers right from the outset of the Arab Spring (while the Saudis, in comparison, focused on the Salafist outfits).
On another track, Qatar also facilitated the relocation by the Hamas leadership of Khaled Mashal when they decided to leave Damascus following differences with the Syrian regime. What is the secret of the alchemy between Doha and Mashal is not hard to guess and there are all sorts of accounts in the grapevine of the Arab souk. Be that as it may, on yet another track Qatar also reached out to the Hamas’s leadership in Gaza under Ismail Haniyeh. When the Qatari emir visited Gaza in late September, he held out an aid package of $400 million to Haniyeh.
Clearly, Qatar has entered the tent of intra-Hamas politics. These Qatari efforts to cultivate the Muslim Brotherhood and its allied organization Hamas form a key vector of the US’ regional strategy. Qatar betrayed its secret American connection by adopting a dual-track approach: on the one hand it is openly arming the Syrian opposition (within which the Muslim Brotherhood has a major presence) while on the other hand, through the period of the recent conflict in Gaza, it never once uttered a word about arming the Palestinian resistance or giving any sort of logistic support to Hamas (which would have gone against the American script and hurt the Israeli interests). The contrasting attitudes couldn’t be sharper.
Interestingly, while the Gaza conflict was going on, there was a ‘fast-forward’ movement on Syria as well. To begin with, it is useful to remember that within the newly formed Syrian opposition umbrella group (which was also created as a joint US-Qatari enterprise), Muslim Brotherhood is a dominant faction that is obviously being groomed to spearhead the forthcoming push for ‘regime change’ in Damascus. Now, this umbrella group gained recognition from the European Union and Britain, while Turkey put in its formal request for the deployment of Patriot missiles by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] on its border with Syria, and, of course, NATO promptly agreed – all this happened within the week when the world’s attention was drawn by the conflict in Gaza.
Neither ally, nor friend
So, what do we have? Put simply, seemingly independent strands are tightly inter-connected in reality on the Middle East’s political tapestry. First, the US is co-opting the Brothers as the ‘right side of history’ in the Middle East who would be best placed to chariot the Arab Spring in a direction that safeguards western interests, while maintaining the façade that they are leading a homegrown movement.
Washington has Qatar and Turkey as allies in this enterprise and Morsi as a key benefactor. Second, it is discernible that a US-Qatari-Turkish project is under way to strengthen Mashal’s leadership within Hamas. Mashal is generally reputed to be a ‘moderate’ leader, while the leadership in Gaza is regarded as more militant. Qatar is offering the relatively hardline Haniyeh the inducement to soften his militancy.
The US-Qatari objective is to persuade the Hamas to bid farewell to arms and abandon the ‘jihadi’ path and instead to take to a political path. This was a tactic that was successfully attempted in the late 1980s to finesse the Palestine Liberation Organization and to transform Yasser Arafat in particular. In sum, the agenda is to break up the Palestine resistance at the present juncture by taking advantage of the Hamas’ recent alienation from Syria and Iran.
Thus, the alacrity with which Israel eliminated the Hamas military leader Ahmed al-Jabari who commanded the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades also needs to be properly understood; in fact, Jabari’s assassination might have been the most significant Israeli gain of its entire military operation in Gaza, which aimed at weakening the Hamas’ military capability.
The third element is that the US (and Israel) have arrived at the conclusion that Egypt’s Brothers would have no intention to upset the apple cart in relations with Israel or with regard to the 1979 peace treaty with Israel so soon after realizing their dream project of reaching the pinnacle of political power in Cairo.
Last week’s events showed that the US’ reading of Morsi was spot on – namely, that he made the appropriate noises of outrage in public utterances but was willing to play the role of a pliant status quoist with regard to the core issues of the Camp David Accord and Gaza (provided Israel would allow some degree of easing of the blockade and make the life of Gazans a bit less miserable) and the ban on the use of Sinai as staging ground for ‘jihadi’ activities against Israel. Morsi actually deputed the Egyptian intelligence establishment to play the role of an honest broker between Israel and Hamas, which was a role that Mubarak used to play.
However, Morsi may also have had the last laugh. From his viewpoint, he rightly estimates that the US has come to terms with the Brothers and is pinning hopes on using Cairo to act as a moderating influence on Hamas; to cooperate with Washington’s regional strategies, especially in Syria and Jordan; and to cooperate with Israel at a working level on security issues.
Indeed, it seems light years away when in September Barack Obama had commented acidly that Egypt was “not an ally but not an enemy.” Last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lavished praise on Morsi’s Gaza performance.