Seyed G Safavi
International Peace Studies Centre – IPSC
Mohamed Morsi’s victory in the Egyptian presidential election, 2012, inspired hope – in the Islamic world in general, and in Iran in particular – that dramatic change in Egyptian policy would follow. The present article focuses on the challenges that Morsi would face in attempting to change Egyptian policy, in view of the contemporary political realities in Egypt, in the Middle East, and in the West.
Morsi faces six major challenges. These may prevent the possibility of fundamental change in Egypt, under the rule of the pragmatic Muslim Brotherhood:
- The Camp David Treaty
- The power of military
- A weak economy, reliant on foreign aid
- Eco-political Relations with the United States
- Tensions in the Middle East – and specifically in Syria, as well as the conflicting interests of Iran and Saudi Arabia
- Eco-political Relations with Iran
Keywords: Egypt, Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Middle East, Iran, the United States, Tel Aviv, Saudi Arabia, Resistance Movement, Political Economy.
Mohamed Morsi won the first round of the Egyptian presidential election with a slight lead; he received only a quarter of the total votes (a similar number of votes were cast for General Shafiq). Morsi won 52 percent of the votes in the second round, and became Egypt’s president (though without winning a landslide victory). Since Morsi’s election, the question is: will Egypt now join the resistance movement?
As president, Morsi is saddled with certain “international obligations,” as well as several major challenges that will cast a long shadow over future Egyptian policy. These challenges include the Camp David Treaty, the power of the country’s military, Egypt’s weak economy and reliance on foreign aid, its relations with the United States, the tensions in the Middle East, the conflicting interests of Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Egypt’s relations with Iran.
The Camp David Treaty
In 1979, U.S. President Jimmy Carter brought the leaders of Egypt and Israel together to sign the Camp David Treaty. The Egyptian signatory, Anwar Sadat, was later assassinated by Khalid Islambouli; this led to the rise of Hosni Mubarak, a staunch ally of Israel and of the U.S. Today, about a year after Mubarak’s ouster, the fate of the Camp David Treaty is at stake.
Mubarak’s fall adversely impacted the security of the Sinai Peninsula. In the past year, armed groups have been responsible for several explosions targeting the Israel–Egypt–Jordan gas pipelines, in addition to armed attacks on border patrol stations. On August 5, 2012, thirty-five armed men attacked a patrol station along the Egypt–Israel border, killing 16 Egyptian patrolmen. Armed men also attacked several patrol stations in Rafah in the early morning of August 7, 2012. According to security officials, the assailants opened fire on the patrolmen from inside several unmarked vehicles, and quickly drove off.
In addition to these attacks, a factory under military protection was also attacked. During these clashes, at least one civilian and one state trooper were injured. One week after these attacks, Egyptian border patrolmen were attacked in the Sinai Peninsula. After shooting at an Egyptian border patrol station, the assailants opened fire on UN peacekeeping troops stationed in the area. Both Egypt and Israel have blamed Islamic radicals for these attacks.
In a major shake-up following these developments, Morsi fired the Head of General Intelligence, General Morad Mu’afi, the Governor of the northern Sinai Peninsula, Abdul Wahhab Mabrook, the Commander of the Presidential Guard, and a number of other security and police officials. Morsi also announced the retirement of Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi and of Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces General Sami Annan. General Tantawi had overseen a year of change – from the fall of Mubarak, to the presidential elections, to the transfer of power to the new president. Yasser Ali, spokesman for the Egyptian president, announced that recent personnel changes were necessary to move Egypt towards increased stability and security.
Following these developments, the Egyptian government closed down the Rafah Terminal, which borders the Gaza Strip. The Morsi government’s reaction to the armed attacks on the northern Sinai Peninsula indicates that the Camp David Treaty has impacted Morsi’s policies to a large extent. On the one hand, Morsi is facing pressure from some Egyptians to combat uthe regime that occupies Quds; on the other hand, Egypt depends on military and economic aid from the United States, which is a strategic ally of Tel Aviv, and is also deeply committed to the Camp David Treaty, which it facilitated.
In the wake of these developments, the U.S. Administration announced that it would boost its counter-terrorism collaboration with Egypt. In a phone conversation with the Egyptian prime minister, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed that the U.S. supports Egypt’s efforts to increase its security. State Department Spokesman Patrick Ventrell also noted that the radicals’ violence in the region poses a major threat to Egypt and its neighbors, as well as to the United States. Addressing reporters, he said that the U.S. considers it its duty to safeguard the security of Israel.
Ever since Mubarak’s ouster, security in the region has taken a turn for the worse. Israel is concerned that the Sinai Desert will turn into a hub for Islamist collaboration with the jihadi forces of the Gaza Strip, which would threaten Israel and jeopardize the Egypt–Israel peace treaty. If Morsi’s administration were to engage in extended conflict with anti-Israel Islamists, he would risk losing his Islamist supporters. To tolerate the actions of the paramilitary troops, however, would be to spark the anger of Morsi’s opponents in Egypt, of the U.S. Administration, and of Tel Aviv.
2. Military Power
Egypt’s military, with its 500,000 members, is the backbone of the country’s power. In 1952, the armed forces, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, overthrew the Egyptian monarchy. The three presidents who took office in the years following the coup were all military personnel: General Abdul Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Mubarak. The Armed Forces have always prevented major resistance to the government’s foreign and economic policies. After the ouster of Mubarak, the Egyptian Armed Forces declared its commitment to uphold all international and regional agreements, including the peace treaty with Israel.
Following Mubarak’s forced resignation on February 11, 2011, the Armed Forces High Council, headed by Defense Minister General Tantawi, took control of the country. Prior to the second round of presidential elections in June, Egypt’s ruling military forces dissolved the predominantly Islamist Parliament.
When he came to power, Morsi reinstated the Parliament until parliamentary elections could be held. Observers considered this measure to represent a breach between the Armed Forces and the Muslim Brotherhood. In the end, Morsi gave in to the demands of the Armed Forces. Relations between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Armed Forces are still tense. In practice, the Egyptian Armed Forces are still the most powerful institution in Egypt, and the top echelons have complex relations with the U.S. Armed Forces. At present, the U.S. Department of Defense is in talks with Egyptian officials that will allow the U.S. secret service to provide the Egyptian Armed Forces and Police with facilities to counter the anti-Israel Islamists in the Sinai Peninsula.
3. A Weak Economy Reliant on Foreign Aid
The current state of the Egyptian economy also deeply affects Morsi’s policies, prompting Cairo to ally itself with the West. Egypt (a country of 85 million) currently has a 20 percent inflation rate, a 12.4 percent unemployment rate, and extremely high rates of poverty (52 percent of village residents and 26 percent of city residents live in poverty). Institutionalized economic corruption[i]is another of the many challenges faced by the Egyptian government; these preclude Morsi from making any radical foreign policy moves[ii].
The U.S.,[iii] Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates are the major financial supporters of Egypt’s weak economy. On August 14, 2012, the World Bank gave Egypt a $200 million loan to generate 250,000 jobs. The money is to be spent on public projects such as renovating schools, reconstructing streets and alleys, and dredging canals. Qatar has recently announced that it will provide Egypt with $2 billion, an amount that will be deposited in Egypt’s National Bank – the foreign currency reserves of which have dramatically declined following the fall of Mubarak.
In fact, Egypt’s foreign currency reserves have dipped from $36 billion around 18 months ago to $14.4 billion today. This rapid decline has given rise to concerns that the government will be unable to import vital goods such as grains and fuel. Egypt will soon be unable to repay its foreign loans. In August, a delegation from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) traveled to Cairo to discuss the possibility of a $3.2 billion loan. For economic and communication development, Egypt needs at least $40 billion in investments annually. This need is mainly fulfilled by the Persian Gulf littoral states, and by international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), both of which are under the influence of the U.S.[iv]
4. Eco-political Relations with the United States
Egypt receives an annual $1.5 billion in military aid from the U.S. After Tantawi’s removal, George Little, spokesman for the U.S. Defense Department, noted that the U.S. expected Morsi to appoint his defense team. In light of the suspicious death of Egypt’s powerful security chief General Omar Suleiman on July 19, 2012, and the removal of Information Chief General Morad Moaffi, of Defense Minister General Tantawi, and of Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces General Sami Annan, it seems that there is a covert agreement between the Muslim Brotherhood and the U.S.; veteran armed forces and security chiefs have been removed from office in return for the Muslim Brotherhood’s commitment to uphold Egypt’s former agreements with the West, and to follow new policies against Islamic awakening.
Currently, the U.S. has joined forces with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Syria, and Turkey to topple Bashar Assad’s regime (which is allied with Iran and with Hezbollah in Lebanon). For Egypt to distance itself from the U.S. would result not only in the loss of economic, military, intelligence, and political assistance from that country; it would also deprive Egypt of Saudi assistance. In addition, Russia is not in the position of the former Soviet Union — it would be an inadequate substitute for the U.S. army in any possible conflict with Israel.
5. Tensions in the Middle East: Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia
Given its population, the credibility of Al-Azhar University in the Sunni world, and its military muscle, Egypt has always been regarded as a major player in the Middle East. Other similarly significant nations include Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, all of which are currently experiencing tensions. The region is facing instability; due to Arab and international interventions, the futures of Syria, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Kurdistan, and Jordan are unclear.
Under the current complex and unstable conditions, Morsi faces the difficult task of developing a clear and effective policy on regional developments, especially as two of the major players in the region – Iran and Saudi Arabia – are now often at odds with each other over critical regional issues, including the crises in Yemen and Syria. At present, Morsi is inclining towards supporting Saudi Arabia; he has taken stances in opposition to Iran regarding developments in Syria, the Persian Gulf, and in Bahrain. During the emergency meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), hosted by Saudi Arabia in Mecca in August 2012, Syria (Iran’s ally and Saudi Arabia’s foe) had its membership suspended, in part as a result of Morsi’s support for this move. During his short term in office as Egypt’s president, Morsi has already visited Saudi Arabia twice.
The question that arises is whether the Muslim Brotherhood will comply with the regional policies pursued by Saudi Arabia and supported by the West. If it does, it will, to an extent, disappoint its Islamist supporters. If it chooses to act independently, it will face serious economic and political problems, given its economic dependence on the West and Arab reactionary regimes, as well as the fact that dissidents comprise 48% of the Egyptian population.
6. Eco-political Relations with Iran
Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood is inclined to diverge from Iran for the following reasons:
Under the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt supports the Syrian opposition. As such, Egypt took a stance against Iran by hosting a meeting to coordinate opposition to the Syrian regime during the OIC meeting in Saudi Arabia. At the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit in Tehran (August 30, 2012), Egypt continued to take an anti-Assad stance. This political stance, however, contradicts the NAM’s principles.
Commenting on the Iranian Supreme Leader’s speech at the NAM’s inaugural session in Tehran, Mr. Hussein Sheikh ul-Islam, Former Deputy Foreign Minister and current Secretary General of the Society to Support Palestine, praised Iran’s Supreme leader’s mannerism, grace, and political wisdom for not mentioning Syria in his opening speech since he was well aware of the divisive nature of this topic. In contrast, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who was the head of the Non Aligned Movement (NAM), committed a grave mistake by deviating from NAM principles, and instead of elaborating on NAM’s standpoint, only mentioned Egypt’s position. In several instances, Mr. Morsi repeated his opposition to Assad’s rule in Syria which was a clear violation of NAM principles.
2. Camp David
Iran is a staunch opponent of the Camp David Treaty (as it is seen to undermine the cause of the freedom of Palestine). Egypt, under the Muslim Brotherhood, has so far not taken any measures to dismantle the Camp David Treaty. Based on Pragmatic analysis, if the Camp David Treaty is cancelled, Muslim Brotherhood will lose less than what it will gain.
3. Egypt’s Claim to Lead the Islamic World
Boasting the Al-Azhar University and significant Muslim Brotherhood institutions, Egypt currently claims to be the leader of the Islamic world. This outlook clashes with the views held by Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.
4. Shi’ism in Iran
The Muslim Brotherhood is not generally supportive of Shi’ism. In his “Fi Zilal al-Quran,” Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyed Qotb has explicitly opposed Shi’ism. During Morsi’s brief trip to Tehran, the capital of Islamic world, his sensational speech at the NAM Summit began, quite unconventionally, with greetings to the Sunni Caliphs (Abu Bakr, Omar, Uthman, and Ali), and ended with an attack on the Alavid rule in Syria. These incidents reflect the significance placed by Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood on distinct religious boundaries.
5. Resistance Movement
Iran considers Palestine as the most important issue in the Middle East and Tel Aviv government as the most dangerous administration in the region. In contrast, Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt still has diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv while flagrantly displays animosity toward Bashar Assad’s administration, the most prominent member of the Resistance Movement.
6. The Consequences of Severing Ties with the West and Arab Reactionary Camps
If Egypt were to turn from the Western and Arab reactionary camps, and were to unite with Iran, it would lose the political and economic support of these governments. Neither Iran nor Russia would be able to fill the financial and military gap that such a loss would create. As such, the pragmatic Muslim Brotherhood can have no inclination to unite with, or even soften its stance towards, Iran. Secular domestic opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood support Egypt’s anti-Iranian stance. Their Islamist rivals also favor Egypt’s current stance on Iran; this is due to ideological considerations, and also reflects Saudi influence over in Egypt. As such, neither domestic nor foreign pressure is likely to lead Egypt to modify its position on Iran.
Interestingly, Morsi did not meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Mecca, and only briefly met with the Iranian President during the NAM Summit in Tehran. Neither did Morsi meet with Iran’s Supreme Leader. Despite Iran’s eagerness to reopen its embassy in Cairo, Egypt has not yet agreed to this request. Morsi’s short visit to Iran in August 2012 was due to his participation in the NAM Summit rather than an exclusive visit to the country.
Morsi’s speech and demeanor did not sit well with some political analysts in Iran. In fact, Hussein Sheikholeslam, Deputy Majlis (Parliament) Speaker for international affairs, accused him of political immaturity for his unconventional behavior and the repetition of particular statements during his speech. Alluding to Morsi’s hesitation to hand over the NAM chairmanship to Iran, Sheikholeslam noted that Morsi lacked the maturity to chair the NAM Summit, and disrupted the agenda and order of the meeting. Stating that Morsi’s behavior did not befit the leader of an international movement, Sheikholeslam said that the leader of such a movement should express the views of all members, and abstain from merely presenting his personal opinions. He added that Morsi’s own opinions are irrelevant, as NAM members are not obliged to follow the Egyptian President’s views – rather, Morsi has to adapt to the stances of NAM member states.
Ever since the culmination of the Islamic Revolution, Iran has sided with Egypt’s Islamic movement. It has severed ties with the Egyptian government, however, since the signing of the Camp David Treaty. Following the recent uprising of the Egyptian people, the Iranian leader sent a message in support of this movement. At the same time, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf littoral states supported Mubarak to the very end. In return, Morsi has travelled to Saudi Arabia twice so far, has shown animosity toward the government of Assad, Iran’s strategic ally in the region, and has ignored Iran’s calls for economic and cultural cooperation.
Muslim Brotherhood officials have repeatedly stressed that their path is different from that of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. It is worthy of note that despite the fact that Kamal Al-Halbavi does not represents the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or in London, Iranian media consider his statements to represent the official standpoint of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Taking into consideration the pragmatism of the Muslim Brotherhood, the personal traits of Morsi, and his policies so far, Egypt will likely continue to adopt a pragmatic approach to the majority of critical issues in the region. The official website of the Muslim Brotherhood offers insight into the Movement’s pragmatism.[v]Just like Anwar Sadat and Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood will remain an ally of the West, and will continue peaceful interactions with Tel Aviv.
Having been given the go-ahead from the West, Egypt has attempted to bring the Armed Forces in line. In order to get economic aid (again, just as it did under Sadat and Mubarak), Egypt will continue to interact with the West[vi] and with reactionary Arab states. The institutionalized poverty and corruption in the country, however, are problems that cannot easily be solved.
Current alliances in the Middle East place Egypt in the Saudi-Qatar camp, due to the country’s economic dependence on these two states. In the event of Assad’s ouster, Egypt will be aligned with Turkey, but will gradually strive to work as an independent state (and possibly establish and lead a new joint front). Such a front, however, will be weak compared to the Saudi- Qatar union on the one hand, and the Iran on the other.
The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood will weaken Turkey’s standing in the Middle East. Egypt and Turkey share strengths and weaknesses. They are both led by the Muslim Brotherhood, and they both have a large population and powerful armed forces. They both have relatively weak economies. Of the two, however, Egypt has the upper hand, Arabic is its main language, it is the site of Al-Azhar University, and the country serves as a hub for the Muslim Brotherhood worldwide.
Egypt, under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, is opposed to Iran. This is due to its economic dependence on the West and on Arab reactionary regimes, and also as a result of its claim to be the leader of the Islamic world. The West uses Egypt to undermine Iran’s position. The West will interact with an Egypt led by the Muslim Brotherhood, as Cairo has accepted the West’s current superiority in order to discredit Iran (which stands against the West in the name of Islamism). The West has so far presented Turkey and the Justice and Development Party as a model for the Islamic world. In the not-too- distant future, Egypt, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, will be added to this list.
[i] Jane Kinninmont, April 2012 , ‘Bread, Dignity and Social Justice’: The Political Economy of Egypt’s Transition”, at: http://www.chathamhouse.org/publications/papers/view/183047
[ii] Ashraf Mishrif ،”The political economy of Egypt in post-Arab spring“، BRISMES Annual Conference 2012.
[iii] Sabina Dewan, James Hairston, Jordan Bernhardt, “The Path to a Successful Economic Transition in Egypt, What the United States Can Do to Help”, at: http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2012/06/egypt_economic_transition.html.
[iv] The Role of International Loans and Capital in Egypt’s Transition”, Workshop Report, Chatham House, September 2011, at: http://www.chathamhouse.org/publications/papers/view/181031.
[vi] Jane Kinninmont, “Islamists in Tune with West Over Economy”, Jane Kinninmont, Financial Times, May 2012.