By Chhinmaya R. Gharekhan
July 27, 2013
Unlike the Turkish Prime Minister, who waited patiently to implement his Islamist agenda and sideline the army, the ousted Egyptian President rushed to impose the Brotherhood’s programme on an unwilling nation
Nations, like individuals, seldom learn from the mistakes, as well as successes, of others. Mohamed Morsy, the ousted President of Egypt, ought to have observed the hitherto cautious approach adopted by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Prime Minister of Turkey. Mr. Erdogan bided his time to gradually implement the Islamist agenda of his party (the Justice and Development Party) and to sideline the army’s role as the self-appointed guardian of the country’s secular character. His patient approach has paid off handsomely, with a majority of Turks backing him and his party.
Mr. Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood too commanded significant support in Egypt. They had things going for them. But, unlike in Turkey, they were in too much of a hurry to implement their Islamist agenda. The fact that the Brotherhood had been persecuted for over 50 years and waited so long for power had no doubt a lot to do with its impatience. An Islam-oriented Constitution was imposed. Brotherhood members were blatantly appointed as governors and to other key positions. While the mediation between Hamas and Fatah in Palestine was successfully brought about, the ruling regime in Syria was condemned and diplomatic ties with it were ruptured. This last step was clearly carried out on sectarian considerations as also to please the Americans since it followed closely on the heels of United States President Barack Obama’s decision to provide more weapons to the rebels, and most probably did not reflect popular sentiment.
Now, it is the turn of the Egyptian military to imbibe lessons from recent Turkish history. It must not assume that it has become genuinely popular and can act in a blatantly anti-democratic manner. The genie of people empowerment has come out of the bottle in the largest Arab country and it will definitely not acquiesce in a prolonged power grab by the army. Millions will again take to the streets if they feel their hard won power is slipping away from their hands. The ‘moderate’ Islamist regimes in Tunisia and Libya would no doubt draw their own lessons from the Egyptian upheaval.
The foreign minister of Qatar, mediating on behalf of America, suggested compromise formulae during the critical days leading up to the June 30 demonstration, in essence advising the appointment of a new Prime Minister and calling for fresh parliamentary and presidential elections within about six months. The U.S. National Security Advisor was reported to be directly involved in these last minute parleys, but Mr. Morsy either did not see the writing on the wall, under-estimated popular sentiment or/and was not permitted any flexibility by the ‘Murshid,’ leader of the Brotherhood.
Mr. Morsi’s behaviour could be explained by several factors, but the failure of the U.S. to read the situation correctly and its perseverance in interfering and influencing the course of developments are intriguing. It has given billions to Egypt since 1979 when the latter’s peace treaty with Israel was concluded. This gave the Americans access to the military but not a decisive clout; indeed they have become intensely unpopular in the country. The similarity with Pakistan on this count is striking.
There is yet another parallel with Af-Pak. Like with the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Americans have never had any problem with the Brotherhood. They have had very good relations with the Brotherhood for years. Though Mr. Morsy had taken certain steps, such as appearing to reopen contacts with Tehran, which the U.S. would not have approved, by and large, the U.S. was comfortable with him. According to several sources in Cairo, America had played a significant role in the events, which brought Mr. Morsy to power a year ago. Brotherhood leaders have frequently travelled to Washington. President Obama himself had received Essam al-Haddad, Mr. Morsi’s influential foreign policy advisor. Another point of striking similarity with Pakistan: the generals who overthrew the elected civilian heads of government in Islamabad and Cairo were handpicked for the job by the same civilian leaders.
The one country which was most upset with America on this score was Saudi Arabia which lost no time in expressing its pleasure at the downfall of Mr. Morsy by offering a big aid package to the new regime and prevailed upon its fellow Sunni sheikhs in UAE and Kuwait to cough up similar assistance. Qatar, which had given more than $8 billion to the Morsy regime, has suffered a setback, as has Turkey. Besides the ongoing ‘Great Game’ between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the region is witnessing another struggle for influence between the Saudis and Qataris. According to some sources, the abdication of the previous emir of Qatar in favour of his son has a complicated story, with the situation in Syria having something to do with it. The most significant development, however, is the breach of trust between Saudi Arabia and the U.S.
Israel will not have to worry about the peace treaty since it was the Egyptian military which had concluded it. There is no doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood will be persecuted. The military has always, since Nasser’s coup in 1952, dealt very harshly with it. The killing of several soldiers in the Sinai by suspected Islamic extremists is unlikely to be forgotten, much less forgiven, by the army. With the Brotherhood in the doghouse, its offshoot Hamas will become nervous about its relationship with the emerging regime in Cairo. Already there are reports of the military destroying scores of ‘tunnels’, which are the lifeline for the people of Gaza. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, would no doubt welcome Hamas’ weakening. Hamas, in turn, could resort to adventurism against Israel to remain relevant.
Impact on Syria
President Bashar al-Assad of Syria will surely welcome the developments in Cairo. In any case, no one even in Washington is talking of his early exit from power. The rebels are hopelessly divided and spending their energies and ammunition on killing one another.
The military has appointed an interim President and declared a rather speedy timetable to amend the Constitution by deleting the offensive provisions and submit it to a referendum, as well as hold presidential and parliamentary elections. Egypt will not have to go to the International Monetary Fund in a hurry in view of the largesse of Saudis and others. A professional and respected economist has been appointed Prime Minister.
Mr. Morsy’s followers are following the example of the Tahrir multitude; dozens of them have died at the hands of the security forces, but their deaths have not elicited any sympathy from the ‘secular’ crowd. This is sad. The military, like in Pakistan, has huge vested interests in Egypt’s economy. However, given the mood of the people and their ability to organise massive demonstrations through social media as well as readiness to face police excesses, it is unlikely that the army would try to overstay in power.
Needed Healing Touch
It is imperative for the authorities in Cairo to bring about an atmosphere of some trust and harmony; in the absence of a healing touch, Egypt could descend into a prolonged period of instability and civil strife. Egyptian general Abdel Fatah El-Sisi’s speech on July 24, exhorting people to come out on the streets and support the military’s crackdown on the Brotherhood does not bode well for two reasons: it clearly demonstrates that he is in charge and calls all the shots, and it further polarises Egyptian society. Let us hope all the similarities between Egypt and Pakistan do not lead Egypt into internal turmoil, with al Qaeda-affiliated groups fishing in troubled waters.
Chhinmaya R. Gharekhan is Adjunct Senior Fellow, Delhi Policy Group, former Special Envoy of India for West Asia