By M K Bhadrakumar – Asia Times Sept 25, 2012
The confusion in the American mind about Egypt ended this past weekend, a mere nine days since President Barack Obama made the famous remark in a television interview that he wasn’t sure of post-Hosni Mubarak Egypt being the United States’ ally.
The confusion actually arose when US National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor scrambled to clarify that “ally” is a “legal term of art”, whereas Egypt is a “long-standing and close partner” of the United States, and, thereupon, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland butted in to contradict both Obama and Vietor by insisting Egypt was indeed a “major non-NATO ally”.
In an interview with The New York Times on Saturday, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi offered to clear up the confusion. Asked whether Egypt was an ally, Morsi smilingly remarked: “It depends on your definition of an ally.” He then helpfully suggested that the two countries were “real friends”.
Growing up with the Brothers
Now, as Morsi probably intended, the thing about “real friends” is that they don’t expect either side to fawn, as a poodle might do by wagging its tail. Thus when he travels to the US to address the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, Morsi doesn’t have to meet with Obama. Yet they will remain “real friends” – although they’ve never met.
According to The New York Times, Obama cold-shouldered Morsi’s request for a meeting. Cairo maintains that it is all a scheduling problem and the planning of a visit by Morsi to Washington was work in progress. Meanwhile, Morsi has “quite a busy schedule” in New York and Obama too happens to have a “tight schedule” – this according to Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr.
In fact, Morsi’s only meeting with US officials during this week’s visit to that country may be at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative (which, by the way, Obama also is attending).
There is hardly any excuse left now for the American mind to remain confused about the bitter harvest of the Arab Spring on Tahrir Square. The spin doctors who prophesied that Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood would ipso facto pursue the Mubarak track on foreign policies have scurried away.
This is especially so after watching Morsi’s astounding televised interview on Saturday, his first to the Egyptian state TV since his election in June. He spoke at some length on the Iran question, which has somehow come to be the litmus test to estimate where exactly Egypt stands as a regional power.
Morsi affirmed that it is important for Egypt to have a “strong relationship” with Iran. He described Iran as “a major player in the region that could have an active and supportive role in solving the Syrian problem”. Morsi explained his decision to include Iran in the four-member contact group that Egypt has formed – along with Turkey and Saudi Arabia – on the Syrian crisis.
Dismissing the Western opposition to engaging Iran, he said: “I don’t see the presence of Iran in this quartet as a problem, but it is a part of solving the [Syrian] problem.” He said Iran’s close proximity to Syria and Tehran’s strong ties Damascus made it “vital” in resolving the Syrian crisis.
Morsi added: “And we [Egypt] do not have a significant problem with Iran, it [Egypt-Iran relationship] is normal like with the rest of the world’s states.”
Equally, Morsi spoke defiantly in his interview with The New York Times regarding Egypt’s ties with the US and the latter’s relations with the Arab world. The overpowering message is that Cairo will no longer be bullied by Washington. He said:
- “I grew up with the Muslim Brotherhood. I learned my principles in the Muslim Brotherhood. I learned how to love my country with the Muslim Brotherhood. I learned politics with the Brotherhood. I was a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
- “Successive American administrations essentially purchased with American taxpayer money the dislike, if not the hatred, of the peoples of the region.”
- It was up to Washington to repair relations with the Arab world and to revitalize the alliance with Egypt.
- The United States must respect the Arab world’s history and culture, even when that conflicts with Western values.
- “If you [US] want to judge the performance of the Egyptian people by the standards of German or Chinese or American culture, then there is no room for judgment. When the Egyptians decide something, probably it is not appropriate for the US. When the Americans decide something, this, of course, is not appropriate for Egypt.”
- The Arabs and Americans have “a shared objective, each to live free in their own land, according to their customs and values, in a fair and democratic fashion … [in] a harmonious, peaceful co-existence”.
- Americans “have a special responsibility” for the Palestinians because the United States signed the 1978 Camp David accord. “As long as peace and justice are not fulfilled for the Palestinians, then the treaty remains unfulfilled.”
- If Washington is asking Egypt to honor its treaty with Israel, Washington should also live up to its own Camp David commitment to Palestinian self-rule. The last bit in particular is ominous. Morsi could be hinting that Egypt intends to seek changes to the 1978 peace treaty. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman hurried to declare on Sunday that there was not the “slightest possibility” that Israel would accept any such changes. “We will not accept any modification of the Camp David Accords,” Lieberman said.
The refrain by Western experts used to be that Egypt’s Brothers depended on US and Saudi generosity to run their government in Cairo. More important, Washington spread an impression that it enjoyed a larger-than-life influence over the New Egypt. The US was supposed to have acted as a mediator between the Egyptian military and the Brothers.
But Morsi scattered the thesis. “No, no, it is not that they [military leadership] ‘decided’ to do it [stepping down]. This is the will of the Egyptian people through the elected president, right? The president of the Arab Republic of Egypt is the commander of the armed forces. Full stop … We are behaving according to the Egyptian people’s choice and will, nothing else – is it clear?” he asked the New York Times editors.
The picture that emerges from Morsi’s stunning interview is that the US has suffered a huge setback to its regional strategy in the Middle East. The fact that Obama has shied away from meeting with Morsi this week underscores the gravity of the deep chill in the US-Egyptian ties. And Obama’s snub comes after he took the initiative to invite Morsi to visit the US and insisted it should be an early visit, even sending Deputy Secretary of State William Burns to deliver the invitation letter and thereafter following up with visits by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to Cairo.
Morsi has taken a series of steps since he took over in July, which, in retrospect, had the principal objective of conveying to Washington that he resented the US diktat and intended to follow an independent foreign policy. His decision to visit China and Iran was a calculated one, intended to signal his empathy with countries that challenged US hegemony in the Middle East and to underscore that he hoped to reduce Egypt’s dependence on the United States. But Washington kept pretending that it didn’t take notice.
However, there has been a “fast-forward” in the past 10 days, since the anti-Islam American film, the killing of the US ambassador in Benghazi and the storming of the US Embassy in Cairo by Egyptian protesters. Morsi didn’t react to the storming of the embassy for a full 36 hours. Simply put, he could sense the Arab street heaving with fury toward the US and he decided that it would be politically injudicious for him to do anything other than let the popular anger play out.
Morsi’s deafening silence or inertia provoked Obama to call him up to admonish him (according to leaked US accounts), but all that Morsi would do was to send police reinforcements to protect the embassy compound. He never condemned the storming of the embassy as such.
Living with yesterday’s tyrant
Things can never be the same again in the US-Egypt relationship. A 33-year slice of diplomatic history through which Cairo used to be Washington’s dependable ally is breaking loose and drifting to the horizon. Uncharted waters lie ahead for the US diplomacy in the Middle East. Clearly, the axis that is pivotal to the US regional strategy in the Middle East – comprising Israel and the so-called “moderate” Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, etc – cannot hold together without Egypt, and the strategy itself is in peril.
In immediate terms, the fallout is going to be serious in Syria. A Western intervention in Syria now can be virtually ruled out. On the other hand, without an intervention, a regime change will be a long haul. In turn, Turkey is going to be in a fix, having bitten more than it could chew and with the US in no mood to step in to expedite the Arab Spring in Damascus. (Obama called up Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan last week to extend moral support.)
The good thing is that the US and its allies may now be open to the idea of a national dialogue involving the Syrian government. In fact, the most recent Russian statements on Syria hint at an air of nascent expectations. On the contrary, nervousness with a touch of bitterness is already apparent in the comment by the Saudi-owned Al-Hayat newspaper on the weekend, while taking stock of the United States’ growing difficulties with Egypt’s Brothers:
Will the US president allow his legacy to bear the headline of having kept Bashar al-Assad in power? It would be a terrible legacy to leave behind, no matter how much it could be justified by such arguments as the wisdom of living with yesterday’s tyrant because today’s tyrant could be worse – and what is meant here is not just the tyrant of unruly mobs, but also the tyrants of Muslim extremism and its relations with moderate Islamism in power.
Not surprisingly, Saudi Arabia stayed away from the meeting of the quartet on Syria that Cairo hosted last Monday, without offering any explanation.
Simply put, Riyadh is unable to come to terms with Egypt’s return to the centre stage of Arab politics after a full three decades of absence during which the Saudi regime appropriated for itself Cairo’s traditional role as the throbbing heart of Arabism. Riyadh will find it painful to vacate the role as the leader of the Arab world that it got used to enjoying. Almost every single day, Saudi media connected with the regime pour calumnies on Egypt’s Brothers, even alleging lately that they are the twin brothers of al-Qaeda.
Again, the elaborate charade that the Saudis stage-managed – propagating the Muslim sectarian discords as the core issue on the Middle East’s political arena – is not sticking anymore, now that the two biggest Sunni and Shi’ite countries in the region – Egypt and Iran – are holding each other’s hands, demonstrating goodwill and displaying willingness to work together to address key regional issues. The worst-case scenario for the Saudi regime will be if in the coming months the Arab Spring begins its fateful journey toward Riyadh and the Arabian Peninsula, where the Brothers have been active for decades, welcomes it as a long-awaited spring.
The heart of the matter is that on a regional plane, the Iranian viewpoint that the Arab Spring is quintessentially “Islamic” stands vindicated. In an interview with the Financial Times last week, the Speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Larijani, made the stunning disclosure that Iranian diplomats had met members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria as well as the Salafis (who are being financed by the Saudis) to encourage them to accept “democratic reforms through peaceful behavior, not violence”. This made complete mockery of the Syrian logarithm as per the Saudi (and Turkish and US) estimation – Sunni militancy as the antidote to (Shi’ite) Iran’s influence in the region.
In sum, Morsi’s friendly remarks about Iran point toward a regional strategic realignment on an epic scale subsuming the contrived air of sectarian schisms, which practically no Western (or Turkish) experts could have foreseen. It is a matter of time now before Egypt-Iran relations are fully restored, putting an end to the three-decade-old rupture.
The biggest beneficiary of this paradigm shift in Middle Eastern politics is going to be Iran. Arguably, we are probably already past the point of an Israeli attack on Iran, no matter Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tilting at the windmill. In the prevailing surcharged atmosphere, the Muslim Middle East would explode into uncontrollable violence in the event of an Israeli (or US) attack on Iran.
In the event of such an attack, Egypt’s Brothers would most probably annul the peace treaty with Israel – and Jordan would be compelled to follow suit; Egypt and Jordan might sever diplomatic ties with Israel. Baghdad is seething with fury that the US and Turkey are encouraging Kurdistan to secede; Lebanon’s Hezbollah has been threatening retribution if Iran is attacked.
Even more serious than all this put together would be the domino effect of region-wide mayhem on the Arab street on the fate of the oligarchies in the Persian Gulf, which lack legitimacy and are allied with the US – and where the Brothers have been clandestinely operating for decades.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.