Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood And The New Middle East
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.
The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that he looks forward to working «with the new administration [in Egypt] based on the peace accords with us», which eh described as «a cornerstone of stability in the region and of vital interest to both countries.» But it is not as simple as that. Israel’s biggest worry will be that even taking at face value Morsi’s public assurance in his first speech after the election victory assurances – «We came to the world with a message of peace. We will maintain international charters and conventions and the commitments and agreements Egypt has signed with the world» – even then, how far will the Egyptian security establishment continue to cooperate with regard to sharing intelligence or undertaking joint operations? Without the genuine cooperation at the working operational level that was forthcoming from the Mubarak regime on a daily basis in real time, the security challenges are such that Israel will have to allocate huge budgets to ensure the safety of its borders with Egypt. Again, without annulling the peace treaty as such, Egypt can demand changes in the terms of the accord, especially as regards redeployment in Sinai, which the peace treaty stipulates as a demilitarized zone. Morsi, in fact, has hinted at such a demand to revise the peace treaty with Israel.
Thus, gnawing worries have begun appearing in the Israeli mind as to whether the MB will allow the Egyptian military to cooperate with Israel at all as time passes and how the Brothers will choose to maintain their relationship with Hamas. Israel is heavily counting on the US to modulate Egyptian policies and to ensure that the military restrains Morsi when it comes to Israel. The early signs are that Morsi prefers to form a national unity government and to negotiate the president’s powers with the military. Israel would regard them as helpful signs. But it is a somewhat thin hope, given the limits to US influence in Egyptian politics and also taking into account the fact that it was the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [SCAF] in Cairo that after all began violating all the existing deals with Israel, including the gas agreement. It was under the SCAF’s watch that the Israeli embassy in Cairo came under attack and Egypt stopped issuing visas for Israelis and decreased the number of flights between the two countries – aside permitting for the first time in history Iranian warships to cross the Suez canal twice in the past year, ignoring virulent Israeli (and US) protests. The Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot neatly summed up the security paradigm that Netanyahu needs to grapple with: «Egypt will not turn overnight into an enemy state that threatens Israel’s borders, but the Israeli intelligence and military institutions should deal with that country as an old friend who needs to be reassessed, and they should prepare accordingly.»
No more a ‘sub-cultural’ status
The underlying question here – as also in Egypt’s relationship with the US and the West in general – is how far or whether Egypt will accept a «subcultural status», to cite an expression from an editorial comment in the Chinese communist party newspaper The Global Times. The daily analyzed that the revolution in Egypt has brought out and amplified «fundamental cultural and political factors» and it is a moot point whether Morsi «becomes more secular.»
Indeed, what will perennially worry Israel is that Morsi mirrors the MB’s strategy of couching a hardline doctrine with short-term pragmatism. The Brotherhood is over 85 years old and it is a pan-Arabic movement that consistently espoused the creation of a Muslim state encompassing the entire Middle East – and, it has never given up that goal despite its pragmatic willingness today, perhaps, to accept the existence of Israel. Of course, Egypt as a country would have a lot to lose if it cancelled the peace treaty with Israel, including billions of dollars of western investment, and last but not the least, Egyptian military is still the ultimate power in Egypt and jettisoning it from that position will take much time and effort on the part of the MB. All the same, as the Chinese daily pointed out, something has fundamentally changed in a broader, regional, civilizational context. The Global Times adds,
«The process of democratization is releasing the cultural and political character of the Arab world. When Arabs have the choice, it seems the first thing they d is to find their identity. Earlier, Palestine churned out the Hamas regime. The Egyptian elections will no doubt encourage the Brotherhood in other countries, impacting US allies such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan.»
The above observation made earlier in the week in the flush of Morsi’s victory was so prescient that hardly a day later, Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood drew inspiration from the happenings in Cairo and threatened to boycott the forthcoming local elections if Amman didn’t deliver on the promised democratic reforms. The MB spokesman said on Tuesday that King Abdullah of Jordan should fulfill his pledge that cabinet ministers will be elected by the parliament and will no longer be his appointees. «We also want greater powers given to the Parliament,» the MB spokesman told Associated Press news agency. He said:
«All the moves we have seen so far [in Jordan] are cosmetic. We want to see actual moves and serious intentions for real reforms, or we will suspend our participation in the municipal elections.»
Reviving Egypt’s identity
Jordan’s MB has also demanded that King Abdullah should remove Marouf Al Bakhit, a tough ex-army general, from his post as prime minister, who they believe is an unlikely man to steer Jordan’s reform program. Quite obviously, things are coming to a pass in Jordan since the parliamentary elections are slated for early next year and although King Abdullah said it might take «at least two or three years» to put in place an elected government, the political impetus drawn from the developments in next-door Egypt may dictate otherwise. The Jordanians have staged dozens of demonstrations across the country this year to press for democratic freedom and reforms.
Again, demonstrators estimated to number 4000 staged a protest in Kuwait on Tuesday against a court ruling on June 20 scrapping the parliamentary election results in February (in which the opposition won 34 seats in the 50-member parliament). On Monday, Kuwaiti cabinet submitted its resignation following the standoff with the opposition.
To be sure, Morsi’s election will resonate throughout the Middle East region and it has the potential to redraw the relationship between Egypt and the rest of the Arab world – Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular. The last two countries have surged to the forefront in regional politics sidelining Egypt in the recent years but Egypt is bound to reclaim its leadership position. Morsi told the Iranian media in an exclusive interview just hours before his election victory was formally announced:
«[My plan] is to establish relations with all countries of the region to revive Egypt’s identity in the region through economic cooperation among the Arab countries and making certain reforms in the Arab league to activate its role on the international arena – and, besides that, supporting the Palestinian nation in its legitimate campaign for realizing its rights.»
Significantly, Morsi also underscored his enthusiasm for expanding Egypt’s ties with Iran and said the relations between the two countries will «create a strategic balance in the region. It is part of my agenda.»
Iran’s reaction to the election of Morsi has been most effusive. Within hours of the announcement of the election result in Cairo, Iranian foreign ministry conveyed its felicitations to the Egyptian people and government. This was followed by a message from President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. Interestingly, a message from the general staff of the Iranian armed forces also felicitated the «Egyptian nation» and «urged» Egypt’s armed forces to accept the election results. In a separate statement the chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces criticized the Egyptian military’s supreme council for its «illegal measures» and called it an «illegal» body. The Iranian commentaries have counseled the Muslim Brotherhood to confront the military with the backing of the agitators on Tahrir Square and cautioned that any undue delay in settling the equations between the elected leadership and the military may work to the detriment of the democratic forces since the entrenched military would only be inclined to dig in.
Tehran had made repeated overtures to Cairo in the period since the overthrow of the Mubarak regime for resumption of diplomatic relations but had to accept that the Egyptian side needed more time. To what extent Tehran’s enthusiasm for the MB is genuine is hard to say and there could be a contrived spin to it. But Iran is taking a long term view that the rise of Islamism in Egypt will ultimately work in its favor. (This is its public stance vis-à-vis Libya and Tunis as well.) For the present, Tehran draws satisfaction that Morsi will not be party to any US-led containment strategy toward Iran.
Tehran insistently claims an Islamic affinity with the MB and it probably estimates that the feeling is reciprocated. The MB is faction-ridden and it is conceivable that Iran holds influence with some of its factions. The MB’s links with Hamas, its support of the Palestinian problem and its hostility toward Israel are trends that are in harmony with the overall Iranian regional strategy. But most important of all, Iran will keenly watch how the ambivalent relationship between the MB and the Persian Gulf oil states – Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular – will evolve in the coming period. Iran’s worst case scenario will be that the Saudi and Qatari financial prowess might cast a spell on Egypt’s brothers. Its best hope is that the MB feels and overarching Islamic affinity with Shi’ite Iran and does not fall for the Saudi agenda of rallying sectarian Sunni feelings in the Middle East.
Revolution in revolution
The MB’s equations with Saudi Arabia promises to be a fascinating template of regional politics in the coming period and it would have significant ramifications in the situations such as Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Lebanon, etc. On the one hand, Egypt needs financial help and would know that the Persian Gulf countries have deep pockets. But on the other hand, the petrodollar monarchies have shown reluctance to give any large-scale assistance to Egypt unless there are commensurate political guarantees that their vital interests aren’t going to be put into jeopardy. The autocratic regimes in the Persian Gulf are extremely wary of a successful revolution in Egypt as it might become a role model for the Arab peoples and the revolutionary fervor may spread in the region posing threat to the monarchies. Morsi has tried to allay the fears of the Persian Gulf regimes by assuring that Egypt will not export its revolution. But in his victory speech on Monday, he also spelt out a conditional, nuanced approach: «We will not allow ourselves to interfere in the internal affairs of any country in the same way that we will not allow any interference in our affairs.» On the face of it, this may seem a logical and balanced stance that goodwill must be reciprocated but the rub lies in that the MB has had a troubled relationship with Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The MB resents the clandestine funding and promotion of the Egyptian Salafists by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which aims at challenging the stature of the MB as the fountainhead of Islamism in Egypt and in the region. Equally, the MB is well aware that Saudis and Qataris had close ties with Mubarak and tried all through for a very long time to stop the empowerment of the Islamists in Egypt, fearing that it might change the political map of the region and end up drawing attention to the lack of legitimacy of their own autocratic regimes.
The Saudis were very nervous about the MB coming into power in Egypt because they have their own struggle with the Brotherhood in their own backyard. There is also a whole backlog of violent history between the Saudi establishment and the Brothers (whom the late Crown Prince Nayef violently confronted), which the two sides need to come to terms with. The seething mutual suspicions and antipathies erupted recently when Saudi Arabia threatened to expel all Egyptian expatriates and the Saudi embassy in Cairo came under attack, which forced Riyadh to recall its ambassador. (Interestingly, Morsi felt called upon to publicly disavow the media reports that his first visit as president could be to Saudi Arabia.)
Having said that, Morsi’s election victory has been possible, partly at least, only due to the Salafist blocs that voted for him. Given the nature of the «split» verdict, Morsi has hastened to pledge that his endeavor will be to act as the president of «all Egyptians». Coupled with that, his priority for the immediate future will be on domestic issues and not on foreign policy. But even without the MB switching into a proactive regional policy, its rise in Egypt as such promises to restructure the politics of the Middle East. The US’s exclusive influence over Egypt (and the Arab world) is not going to be possible to re-establish. Other players are poised to enter the arena – especially China, which is well-placed to commit resources and is not haunted by past history of entanglement with the Mubarak era. The historic significance of the Muslim Brothers’ rise in Egypt lies in that henceforth no single outside power can completely take the region under its wings and turn it into a «sub-cultural area».
THE GREATER MIDDLE EAST PROJECT
EGYPT’S LAST GREAT ANTI-IMPERIALIST PRESIDENT: GAMAL ABDEL NASSER
EGYPT: GAMAL ABDEL NASSER ON THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD
US STRUGGLES TO INSTALL PROXY BROTHERHOOD IN EGYPT
EGYPTIAN WOMEN FEAR PERSECUTION UNDER MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD REGIME
EGYPT’S MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD, A WESTERN PROXY, DEMANDS WAR IN SYRIA
US FUNDS MILITARY DICTATORSHIP IN EGYPT: MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD A TOOL OF THE CIA
MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD: WASHINGTON’S HORSE IN EGYPT’S PRESIDENTIAL RACE