On Sunday, in an apparently conciliatory move, Egypt’s president Mohamed Morsi rescinded his controversial decree of November 22 assuming vastly new powers granting him immunity from law, which triggered massive protests against his regime. However, he is stubbornly holding on to his push for holding a referendum on a draft constitution on Saturday.
Most certainly, Morsi’s timing is interesting. He took his time to make the move during which he post-haste got the draft constitution adopted by the constituent assembly, which in turn has enabled him to announce the referendum on Saturday. That is to say, the raison d’etre of the November 22 decree has ceased to be in any case, since its real purpose was to forestall an expected move by the country’s hostile constitutional court (‘hostile’ because it is packed with Hosni Mubarak’s appointees) to annul the constituent assembly and prevent it from adopting the draft constitution.
At the same time, Morsi now looks as if he made a big concession to the political opposition by cancelling his November 22 decree. Once again, he comes out as the best poker player among the pack of Egyptian politicians. The opposition has been caught on the wrong foot and made to look as if it is needlessly obdurate while Morsi projects himself as the embodiment of conciliation and reasoning.
But Morsi’s timing in annulling the November 22 decree has two other facets to it, which need to be understood as they go a long way to explain the real undercurrents of the drama unfolding in Egypt.
First, he did it after the United States President Barack Obama telephoned him on Thursday for the first time to speak about the political crisis. Obama expressed «deep concern» and stressed to Morsi to opt for dialogue «without preconditions» and «emphasized that all political leaders in Egypt should make clear to their supporters that violence is unacceptable».
The funny part is that Morsi is also all for «dialogue». He can now claim that he heeded Obama’s thoughtful advice. Equally, Obama’s phone call (interestingly, following the adoption of the draft constitution the previous day in Cairo) amounts to a tacit rejection of the demand by sections of the opposition including such leaders as Mohammed ElBaradei that Morsi should resign from the post of president. Morsi can draw the satisfaction that he continues to enjoy the US support.
Meanwhile, there are reports that have not been contradicted so far to the effect that Morsi had notified Washington in advance about the November 22 decree before it was officially proclaimed in Cairo. At any rate, Morsi has estimated correctly that the Obama administration is not going to breathe down his neck. In fact, the US had become his main enabler both in terms of the generous IMF aid package as well as his regional diplomacy that brought about the Gaza ceasefire.
Arguably, he needs to factor in that Obama has come under fire from a variety of quarters – principally from the US’ Persian Gulf allies and their lobbyists in the Washington establishment – that he blundered into the «dangers of falling in love with your [US’s] client [read Egypt]». In a scathing attack in the Washington Post, the influential columnist David Ignatius wrote:
«How did Washington become the best friend of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, even as President Mohamed Morsi was asserting dictatorial powers and his followers were beating up secular liberals in the streets of Cairo?… Morsi’s unlikely role as a peacemaker [in Gaza] is the upside of the «cosmic wager» Obama has made on the Muslim Brotherhood… When assessing the turbulent events in the Arab world, we should remind ourselves that we’re witnessing a revolution that may take decades to produce a stable outcome. With the outcome so hard to predict, it’s a mistake to make big bets on any particular player».
But, equally, Morsi would know that Washington has made a considered decision by now that the US (and Israel) can do business with the Muslim Brotherhood. The bottom line for the US and Israel is that the Brothers have not shown the slightest interest in challenging Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. Furthermore, both Washington and Tel Aviv expect Morsi to act as a moderating influence on Hamas in Gaza. To be sure, it is extraordinary that Senator John McCain is vigorously hopping from TV studio to TV studio in Washington singing praise of Egypt’s Brothers and promoting the notion of a ‘moderate Muslim Brotherhood’.
In retrospect, therefore, the recent conflict in Gaza has turned out to be a litmus test of Morsi’s intentions. Suffice to say, from the US and Israeli viewpoint, Morsi passed the test with flying colors. Morsi consulted very closely with Obama during the crisis and ordered the Egyptian intelligence to collaborate with its Israeli counterpart in bringing the conflict to an end. Both Washington and Tel Aviv openly showered praise on Morsi’s government.
Convergence of interests
What needs to be factored in here is that the Egyptian intelligence is a creation of the US and as one regional observer noted recently, it «operates as an extension of the CIA station in Egypt»…
This brings us to another crucial template of the present turmoil in Egypt. Morsi has rescinded his November 22 decree within a day of the ominous statement by the Egyptian military calling for talks to end the crisis… The military’s statement said, «The armed forces… realize their responsibility to preserve the higher interests of the country and to secure and protect vital targets, public institutions and the interests of innocent citizens. The armed forces affirm that dialogue is the best and only way to reach consensus. The opposite of that will bring us to a dark tunnel that will result in catastrophe and that is something we will not allow».
The statement made no mention of Morsi and appeared to place the armed forces as a party that sought to defuse the crisis. But in reality, the statement was issued through the defence ministry, which is headed by a self-proclaimed ‘Islamist’ defence minister Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi, who also happens to have an «unwavering commitment to the US-Egypt mil-to-mil relationship» – to borrow the words of US defence secretary Leon Panetta.
What is more important and has been hardly noticed is that the military’s statement was issued after the draft constitution was approved by the constituent assembly. The heart of the matter is that Morsi has cleverly used the draft constitution to cement his equations with the military. The draft constitution contains on the one hand a number of provisions that hold the potential for incremental Islamization of the country, but on the other hand, it makes major concessions to the military, which are of an unprecedented nature by way of legitimizing the vast powers and autonomy of the military. In sum, the draft constitution is a brilliant compact between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian military.
The draft constitution provides the military immunity from parliamentary scrutiny and also proposes creation of a national defence council in which majority of members will be the military’s nominees, and which will have a key role to play in formulating the country’s security and foreign policies. Considering that Washington funds, equips and trains the Egyptian military, which has also been the US’ creation in the early 1970s (after Anwar Sadat took over and expelled the Soviet advisors), one doesn’t need much ingenuity to estimate the complex alignments within the current Egyptian power structure headed by Morsi.
Ignatius is hundred percent right in naming Morsi as America’s ‘man in Cairo’. Obama and the Egyptian military have a convergence of interest in Morsi’s continuance in power. Morsi’s latest decree empowering the military to give security for the holding of referendum on Saturday will also be seen from this perspective. Paradoxically, there is only thing that can frustrate this grand bargain between Morsi, US and the Egyptian military – the democratic opposition and the country’s silent majority.