by Ayman Ahmed (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 9, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1433)
In addition to facing opposition from remnants of the Mubarak era, President Mohamad Mursi of Egypt will face his greatest foreign policy challenges from the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Ayman Ahmed explains why.
New leaders come to power amid high hopes and great expectations. The old order is invariably so bad and corrupt that people welcome any new face. This has been true in Turkey as it is in Egypt and Tunisia. Aware that people have reposed high expectations in them, the new leaders make the right noises with suitable promises: to fix the economy, create jobs, end corruption and respect human rights. Even the most corrupt and incompetent rulers would not say otherwise. One only has to look at the example of Asif Ali Zardari in Pakistan. The less said about him the better.
Will the emergence of Muhammad Mursi at the helm of affairs usher in a new era for the long-oppressed people of Egypt? He comes to power after decades of brutal suppression by successive Western-backed dictators. Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimoon, from whose ranks he emerged, has suffered grievously at the hands of a long line of dictators. Many Ikhwan leaders and members were hanged after kangaroo trials; others were mercilessly tortured in Egypt’s notorious prisons. Dr. Mursi, a professor of engineering, was himself thrown in jail during the uprising against the Mubarak dictatorship early last year.
Since his election in June, President Mursi has enjoyed a grace period. How long this will last is difficult to predict but so far he has made few mistakes that would undermine his position. In fact, most observers have been pleasantly surprised with the adroit manner in which he has conducted himself both domestically and on the international scene. This however, does not mean that he does not face challenges, some of them serious enough to possibly undermine his position, and authority, fairly quickly.
Domestically, it would be unrealistic to assume that just because he has sidelined two long-serving generals — Defence Minister Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and Army Chief General Sami Enan — that he has tamed the military. Even though the two generals were kicked upstairs by having them appointed as his advisors, the military as an institution will strike if it sees its interests threatened. Besides, the close links the military has with the US have not been severed. President Barack Obama, too, is nursing a grudge against Mursi for not visiting him before heading elsewhere — China and Iran, for instance — given Egypt’s long dependency relationship with the US.
Then there are the troublesome Saudi-backed elements that will miss no opportunity to stir up trouble for Mursi. They see him as too soft, especially in the area of social behavior, a pet obsession of such groups in Egypt and elsewhere in the Muslim world. They are totally consumed by the length of people’s beards (Mursi himself would not qualify as a “good Muslim” according to them) and the complete veiling of women. Issues like poverty or systemic injustices do not bother these narrow-minded literalists. They are content with rituals rather than substantive issues affecting the lives of millions of ordinary people.
It needs recalling that it was one of these Saudi-backed moderators, Sheikh Khalid Abdullah in Egypt that first aired the blasphemous US-made movie on September 8 on his TV program that set off the global storm. One can speculate about his motives but it is clear that at the very least he wanted to embarrass Mursi and garner support for his own position among the Egyptian people by playing on their emotions. Mursi has had to tread carefully on the movie controversy in order not to make too many enemies at home when he faces numerous other serious challenges.
His greatest immediate worry is the economy. This need not be if Mursi were a charismatic leader and could inspire the people to make sacrifices for the sake of a life based on dignity and honor. Having opted for the political party approach, he is left with few choices but to play politics according to its rules. It must be admitted that people do not thrive on platitudes or pious words; they need bread on the table but if Mursi and the Ikhwan are serious about tackling Egypt’s problems, then they have to go beyond merely implementing the capitalist model more efficiently. They must go to the root of the problem, of which capitalism coupled with imperialism and Zionism is one.
The vast majority of Egypt’s 80 million people are poor because of crony capitalism that was practiced during the Hosni Mubarak era. Thousands of millionaires emerged during the same period. Most of them pay little or no tax and have in any case absconded with much of this wealth out of the country, stashing it in numbered Swiss bank accounts. To address this problem, Mursi will have to decide whether he wants to break the stranglehold of these parasites or continue to make the system more efficient in which such parasites thrive. On the available evidence, Mursi does not intend to make a major course correction in the economy or in the domestic agenda.
When he became president, Mursi promised to tackle five issues in his first 100 days in office. These were: the price of bread, a staple for most Egyptians; improvement in security since most policemen had simply refused to perform their duties after being reprimanded for their swagger and told to conduct themselves properly; regularize gasoline supplies; improve traffic congestion; and clean up Cairo’s appalling garbage problem. On October 9 when his 100 days in office
Ordinary people, however, showed much greater understanding. They admitted the government could not be held responsible for garbage. Every morning, workers came to pick it up from Cairo streets but no sooner had they left then people dumped more garbage in the same spots. As for traffic congestion, it is impossible to build new roads in 100 days. This will require more creativity. Most Caireans agreed that the quality and price of bread as well as the supply of gasoline had improved. Regarding security, the police were back on the streets and had resumed some of their old swagger (old habits die hard) that they had always displayed during the Mubarak era. So some things never change no matter how much one may try. Security, or lack of it, remains a big problem for most people in Cairo.
Mursi also had to retreat from his confrontation with the judiciary, which is dominated by Mubarak appointees who have made it a point to embarrass the new president. On October 9, when all 21 defendants in last year’s Tahir Square attack that had left more than a dozen people dead, were acquitted, Mursi sacked the prosecutor general, Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud. The latter refused to relinquish his post saying Mursi had no authority to fire him. The president had to retreat leading to protests in Tahrir Square the following Friday (October 12). The old guard entrenched in the judiciary will continue to cause him major headaches.
It is, however, at the foreign level that Mursi has made some bold moves including snubbing Obama by not meeting him while he was in New York to attend the UN General Assembly session. Even before setting foot in New York, Mursi had made two moves that set alarm bells ringing in Washington and what contributed to Obama saying on September 12 that Egypt was “not an ally of the United States.” First, Mursi decided to visit China from August 23–26 and then landed in Tehran to attend the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit. Both visits caused great consternation in Washington. This was heightened by Mursi’s two-day silence in not condemning attacks on the US embassy in Cairo in the aftermath of the blasphemous US-produced movie. When Mursi did speak on September 13, he condemned both the movie as well as the violent protests. For the Americans this was not good enough.
How Mursi calibrates his relations with the US will largely determine his presidency. There are fears that he may be following the pattern set by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan by playing on Muslims’ emotions but ultimately playing the US-Zionist game. Whether Mursi is any more sincere in his pronouncements and actions than Erdogan, only time will tell. For now we must take him at his word and hope that he actually delivers.
The domestic and foreign policies of every country are intricately linked. Each influences the other — both negatively and positively. For instance, the US and Saudi Arabia both have powerful constituencies inside Egypt. The Americans have close links with the powerful military that go back for decades. They have made the top echelon of the military dependent on American handouts. Breaking this habit will be hard and will create major problems for Mursi if he were to attempt it without consolidating his support base. While he enjoys popular support, it is not so widespread as to enable him to take on the military in a head-on confrontation. This is one of his major weaknesses despite his abilities as an efficient manager.
The Saudis have their own axe to grind. With Egypt’s emergence as a major player in the Muslim East (aka the Middle East), it exposes Saudi Arabia’s claims to being the flag-bearer of the Muslim world as hollow. Hitherto, the Saudis successfully played the sectarian card to undermine Iran’s position as the leading edge of the global Islamic movement. They cannot do so with Egypt. Besides, Egypt houses the most prestigious Islamic University in the world — al-Azhar — that is viewed with great admiration by most Muslims even if successive Egyptian regimes have divested this once venerable institution of much of its influence and authority.
The Saudis, however, have the capacity to create problems for Mursi by unleashing their agents. Saudi agents offer nothing concrete or constructive but they have the ability to disrupt social harmony. President Mursi will have to keep a close eye on such elements to prevent them from creating disorder.
His other major challenge is the Rafah crossing into Gaza. The Palestinians in Gaza have suffered from Zionist brutalities for decades. These have intensified since Hamas’ electoral victory in January 2006. The Zionists and their allies have subjected the Palestinians to a vicious siege preventing food, medicines and building materials from getting there. According to United Nations figures, 80% of Gaza’s population is food deficient. Gaza’s only outlet to the outside world through the Rafah crossing also remained closed throughout Mubarak’s rule. Since the election of Mursi, the crossing has not been kept open as often or as much as the Palestinians would want. In fact, they would like it opened completely since the siege is illegal and against international law. While vowing to open the crossing, the Mursi government has not kept its word fully. Under US and Israeli pressure, it has destroyed virtually all the tunnels that were dug by desperate Palestinians to get food and medicines into their tiny enclave. How he handles the Rafah crossing may well determine his future prospects for remaining in power. Not only the Palestinians but Muslims as well as people worldwide are keenly watching the Rafah border crossing.
Mursi’s other challenge is expected to come from an unlikely source: Turkey. This may surprise some observers since Turkey is seen as being on the same page with Egypt and there do not appear any serious outward problems between them. As far as is known, President Mursi gets along well with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan but appearances can often be deceptive. Why would Egypt and Turkey run into difficulties? It has to do with each side’s perception of its own role in the region. Turkey assumes that it is the leading player, a role conferred upon it by the US. Egypt may find this difficult to accept. Despite emerging from an Islamic background, regrettably, Arabian nationalism may not be far off the surface even in Mursi’s Egypt.
This is not to suggest that Erdogan’s Turkey is a natural leader of the Muslim world. His recent policy moves have caused great disappointment among many committed Muslims. While lobbing rhetorical volleys at the Zionist regime in occupied Palestine, Turkish-Israeli trade has continued to expand. Erdogan’s government has taken no steps to bring to justice the Zionists that murdered innocent Turkish aid workers on the high seas in May 2010. Erdogan’s actions have not matched his rhetoric.
These lapses stand in sharp contrast with his belligerent actions against Syria. Many Turks have asked why Turkey is getting so deeply involved in the Syrian crisis and why should it carry the burden of the Syrian refugees that has already led to clashes in Antakya in August? While these problems linger, the eruption of Egyptian-Turkish rivalry for leadership in the region will create more problems for the people.
Will Mursi be able to navigate through these uncharted waters carefully and will Erdogan be able to contain his oversized ambitions that have already led some commentators to call him a modern-day Turkish sultan?