In the past, Egypt’s important role in the Muslim East (aka Middle East) was stymied because of its rulers’ subservience to imperialism and zionism. This may be changing amid renewed hopes.
Egypt occupies an important place in the Muslim East (aka the Middle East). For decades it was denied this role because of the imposed regimes that were aligned with external powers working against the interests of the Egyptian people. The Islamic Awakening that swept the region early last year, has ushered far-reaching changes in Egypt as well. Not only was the old dictator Hosni Mubarak driven from power but through successive elections, al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun have demonstrated their popular support base among the masses both in the elections for the People’s Assembly as well as the presidency.
The old guard entrenched in the bureaucracy and the judiciary manipulated electoral laws to dismiss the People’s Assembly. They used the military to send elected representatives packing and thus enabled the military to usurp extensive powers. This was a major challenge for the Ikhwan, one that was meant to force them to pull out of the presidential race. To their credit, they played it cool and took it all in stride. Even this writer had expressed concern about the manner in which the Ikhwan had allowed the military and the old guard to manipulate the system and subvert the people’s will. Subsequent developments have shown that the Ikhwan had thought through their plans carefully and were not going to allow such ambushes to derail their plans.
Since being sworn in as president, Dr. Muhammad Mursi has moved deftly to consolidate his hold on power. He used last month’s attack on a military post in Sinai to send the intelligence chief, defence minister and army chief packing home. The last two — Field Marshal Muhammad Tantawi and General Sami Enan — were seen as hardnosed military men who were close to the Americans. Dr. Mursi kicked both of them upstairs by appointing them as his advisers. He also conferred the highest military honours upon them to massage their bruised egos. While it is too early to tell whether the two men will be content with this, but since they have been stripped of any direct command of forces, their mischief making has been considerably reduced.
It is, however, on the international front that Dr. Mursi has made his real mark. At the Organization of Islamic Cooperation conference in Makkah (August 15–16), he defied the Saudi hosts by proposing a four-member Contact Group comprising Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran and Turkey to resolve the Syrian crisis. At a stroke, he confined the issue to regional players excluding the meddlesome Americans and their Zionist allies. Dr. Mursi also demonstrated his independence by visiting China and then dropping by in Tehran to attend the Non-Aligned Summit. The Americans had hoped Washington would be his first port of call. US President Barack Obama was among the first foreign leaders to call and congratulate Mursi on his election victory. He then sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Cairo. Dr. Mursi gave her a polite hearing without making any specific commitments. US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta was extended the same courtesy who also descended on Cairo after Clinton’s visit.
For decades, the Americans had financed and armed the most brutal dictatorships in Egypt: Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak respectively. These dictators brutalised the Ikhwan and sent hundreds of them to the dungeons of Egypt. Dr. Mursi himself was imprisoned as was Khairat al-Shater, the man he replaced for the presidential run because the latter was barred from contesting. With such a track record, the Americans had the gall to go to Cairo hoping to curry favour with the new president. To his credit, Dr. Mursi extended the usual courtesies to his American visitors but has wisely chosen to chalk out an independent foreign policy.
This will be most clearly evident in how he deals with the racist Zionist regime in Israel and its brutal suppression and suffocation of the Palestinians, particularly in Gaza. When the Egyptian military post in Sinai was attacked, Dr. Mursi put the blame squarely on the Israeli Mossad. This would have been unthinkable during the Mubarak era. While he shut down the Rafah Crossing for several weeks to deal with the fallout from the attack, Egypt has since announced opening of the border for three days a week to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinians.
Given Egypt’s dire financial straits, Dr. Mursi’s options may be limited but with people’s support he can restore dignity and honour to Egypt, something that the people were deprived of for decades by brutal dictatorships. Egypt’s example shows yet again that if there is a representative government anchored in Islamic values, it can surmount great challenges.
Zafar Bangash is Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought.