Morsi the Moderate?

Can Egypt under an Islamist president still be a force of stability in the Middle East?

Since a presidential decree granted Egyptian President Morsi new powers that put his judgment beyond judicial review, Egypt has witnessed increased tensions and growing violence which eventually resulted in several dead and hundreds of injured.

Despite the concerns about the ups and downs that are characterizing the transition to democracy in Egypt, the Obama administration seems to have made a distinction between the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups such as the Salafists or Al-Qaeda, and has appeared relatively comfortable in recognizing President Morsi as a legitimate interlocutor. Other political actors in Washington, particularly in the US Congress, do not share the administration’s conviction. They argue that the Islamists are a threat to US interests in the Middle East. Supporters of the latter view have often singled out the security of Israel and the stability of the region as two major compelling reasons for not trusting Islamist organizations.

Is this mistrust toward President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood well-placed? What has been President Morsi’s record in foreign policy so far?

In August 2012, thirty-five unidentified gunmen stormed an Egyptian military post near the border with Gaza, killed sixteen Egyptian soldier, seized at least one armored vehicle and headed toward Israel where they were blocked by Israeli security forces. The attack was a dramatic warning of the increased lawlessness and instability in the Sinai region and of the possible security threats to Egypt and Israel emanating from such an uncertain situation. As a response, President Morsi reportedly intensified talks with the United States about stepping up US-Egyptian cooperation to restore security in Sinai. US assistance would include electronic and aerial surveillance, border police training and military equipment.

Regarding the ongoing uprising in Syria, the Egyptian government has put its weight firmly behind the Syrian opposition to the Bashar al-Assad regime, thereby, supporting the broad coalition comprising the United States, Saudi Arabia and many other Western and Arab countries. Although, contrary to the United States, Egypt has been trying to include Iran in the diplomatic effort to stop the crisis, Mr. Morsi is cooperating again with the West and is showing to be a moderate international player. As a telling sign of its sincere commitment to the Syrian rebels’ cause, Egypt recently decided to host the headquarters of the newly established National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

Last but by no means least, the most significant show of political pragmatism by President Morsi to date was probably the role he played in negotiating a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. On November 15, a violent military conflict erupted in Gaza between the Israeli Defense Forces and Hamas militants. After days of intense negotiations Egypt, in close cooperation with the United States, brokered an agreement between the fighting parties that most likely averted a full-scale Israeli ground invasion of Gaza and the bloodshed this might have entailed. According to news outlets, Morsi and Obama spoke by telephone at least six times during the crisis.

Critics of the Islamist Egyptian president would point out that Mr. Morsi was the first Egyptian head of state to visit Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution (although on that occasion Morsi unequivocally criticized the Syrian government, and indirectly Iran as Syria’s principal backer, about the handling of its uprising). Critics would also recall the September 11, 2012 attack by an angry mob against the US embassy in Cairo and President Morsi’s belated condemnation of such an attack (although Egyptian security forces coordinated with US officials to clear the area without escalating the tensions). Finally, criticisms could derive from the Egyptian government’s public statements of strong support for Hamas during the recent confrontation with Israel (although Egypt worked hard to broker the eventual ceasefire).

Most of Morsi’s ambivalent behavior can be explained by the sometimes conflicting needs to balance Egypt’s ties with the United States and the West on the one hand and with the domestic public opinion on the other. How this difficult balancing effort will evolve in the future, it is hard to say. However, the evidence provided in this article should suggest that the first Egyptian Islamist president may end up being not as a bad news for the United States and the Middle East as some people originally feared.

The author is a PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies

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13 thoughts on “Morsi the Moderate?

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  3. Callum Smith says:

    I feel as though stability is a major factor in whether or not Morsi can be deemed as “the United States and the Middle East as some people originally feared”. I feel as though this article, whilst making several salient points, neglects some of the short sighted opportunism shown by Morsi to date.

    His relatviely narrow victory margin appears to have been interpretted as an outright mandate to rule and the severe domestic unrest that we’re seeing right now is a direct consequence of that.

    • Eugenio Lilli says:

      This article does not neglect the fact that as far as domestic policies are concerned President Morsi has made dubious decisions that have led to the current unrest. In fact, this article is by no means an apology of Mr. Morsi’s policies in general. Domestic stability is surely important to implement a coherent foreign policy. However, this article consciously focuses on Morsi’s foreign policy records. The analysis of such records seems to prove that despite the domestic unrest, the Islamist government of Egypt has still been able to act moderately (and to be generally cooperative with the West for that matter) on the international arena. For this reason the article states that President Morsi may prove to be “not as a bad news for the United States and the Middle East as some people originally feared.”

    • Person says:

      His relatviely narrow victory margin appears to have been interpretted as an outright mandate to rule

      I infer you are saying he does not actually have such a mandate. What level of votes for him would confer a mandate to rule?

    • Eugenio Lilli says:

      “I infer you are saying he does not actually have such a mandate. What level of votes for him would confer a mandate to rule?”

      I think this is an important point.
      Mr.Morsi won the election by obtaining 51.7% of the votes. That gives him a clear legitimacy to rule Egypt. In many countries, also in the West, governments receive their mandates without reaching the 50+1 percent of the vote.
      However, I believe we need to distinguish the cases of “standard” policies, i.e. a reform of the healthcare system, and “fundamental” policies, i.e. the drafting of a new constitution.
      A 50+1 majority can pass a reform of the healthcare system without causing great harm but the same kind of majority should be wary about adopting a new constitution. A national constitution is the foundation of a country, and as such it needs to be the result of a large consensus and not the expression of narrow party’s preferences.
      Therefore, I think President Morsi does have the legitimacy he needs to lead Egypt, but when it comes to fundamental policies, he has to compromise and reach out to dissenting voices. Adopting a new constitution with a small margin of 5-6 percentage points is a risky business and it is likely to be a harbinger of future conflict.

    • Ahmed Hassanein says:

      Eugenio,

      Great article indeed and looking forward to reading some more on your views about Morsi’s internal policies and actions once in position.

      Just need to recap on “His relatively narrow victory margin appears to have been interpreted as an outright mandate to rule.
      I infer you are saying he does not actually have such a mandate. What level of votes for him would confer a mandate to rule?”

      Morsi has indeed been mandated to rule by the votes, however the following points need to be considered when judging his ruling:
      -The timing of his democratic election (not widely practiced/followed in Egypt before) came after such an intense revolution, where people were fed up with the old Mubarak regime and anything it resembled.
      -He was running against Ahmed Shafik, which was perceived to be a “part of the old regime”.
      -Many people voted for Morsi in despise of Ahmed Shafik and the regime he resembled, and NOT voting for his Muslim Brotherhood foundations nor his personal agenda
      -Many people again felt unjust about voting for Muslim Brotherhood Agenda VS. Old Regime Agenda, and boycotted the elections.

      The above facts were largely part of why he won the elections, and was mandated to rule even though the voting/people’s voices would not have necessary been towards his own agenda or the Muslim Brotherhood.

      That being said, the best proof/evidence on the above is the condition of the Egyptian public nowadays which is portrayed on all news channels yet only felt by the people living it. Civil disobedience is evolving, and secular segregation between Egyptians is being observed between Muslim Brotherhood members and Non-Muslim Brotherhood members. The path this is leading does not look promising, and I sincerely hope it does not lead to a civil war.

      On a final note and reflecting on the positives Morsi has brought to the world around him from your article, I believe that Morsi needs to work internally first then focus on Foreign Relations specially that he took the country in a devastating time after nearly 1.5 years of revolutions and non-productivity. He is elected Egyptian president to work for Egypt first, not be the world leader and trying to resolve foreign conflicts. I believe it is very ironic that during his era in power he is bringing such segregation in Egypt and a close-call civil war, yet he is appraised on his foreign policy. It is also argued that enriching his foreign policies with Iran, Palestine, etc… are working towards the secret agendas of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region.

      Time will reveal the truth, and we will be the witnesses!

      Keep on writing Eugenio, and you will definitely need to come visit me in Egypt soon to see yourself what you are writing about. Cardone was just there with me last weekend.

      Cheers,
      Ahmed

  4. Ryan Evans says:

    Interesting article, Eugenio. Good food for thought.

    In my opinion, you are incorrect to conflate ‘moderation’ with ‘pragmatism.’ These are different qualities that can lead actors in different directions as often as it leads them to the same place.

    It is difficult to judge the degree of Morsi’s ‘moderation’ at this point and there are plenty of signs pointing in the opposite direction, some of which you acknowledge.

    There are a number of factors that constrained Morsi’s decision-making in some of the incidents you mentioned: the still significant power of the military, the fact that Egypt is trying to secure a $4 billion loan from the IMF and debt forgiveness from the US, and the fact that the Brotherhood’s hold on power is not as secure as it may seem.

    Will the same sort of constraints still exist in a year? Two years? Five years?

    Also, when writing about Morsi’s decision to support the Syrian opposition, you should have noted that one of the most powerful – if not the most powerful – factions in the Syrian opposition is the Muslim Brotherhood. In that context, Morsi’s support for the opposition was a given. Also, I am not sure how supporting an armed rebellion (morality aside) is evidence of ‘moderation.’ It may be pragmatic. The decision to host the new Syrian opposition HQ also has to be seen in the light of Egypt’s self-regarded status as the leading state of the Arab world.

    I’ll try to to weigh in on this in more depth in the new year.

    • Eugenio Lilli says:

      Ryan, I think you are absolutely right in distinguishing between “moderation” and “pragmatism.”
      Nevertheless, I disagree with you on the fact that I “conflate” them together. In my article I report Mr Morsi’s behavior in foreign policy without investigating the reasons/the motives behind such a behavior. Was Morsi’s moderate foreign policy driven by opportunism or by ideological belief? As you correctly noted, that is too early to say. We may be able to answer to this question perhaps in a year time.
      Whatever the reasons behind Morsi’s decisions, the outcome of such decisions was a relatively moderate foreign policy which did not threaten US interests.
      This moderation has come as a surprise to those who feared that the foreign policy of an Islamist Egyptian government would be driven mainly by religious fanaticism and anti-Americanism.

      As for the Egyptian support for the Syrian opposition, you made another good point. The presence of the local Muslim Brotherhood probably played an important role in Egypt’s decision to back the opposition.
      When I said that such a support was an example of moderation I meant it from a Western and above all an American perspective. In fact, Egyptian support for the Syrian opposition was another example of Morsi siding with the West in yet another international crisis.

    • Person says:

      I think it would be useful to be more specific here: if we mean “pro-stability” (which I think means “pro status quo”), and/or “pro-Western”, we should use those terms.

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  6. What really inspired u to create “Morsi the Moderate?

    | Kings of War”? I personallyseriously adored the
    blog post! Thanks for your effort -Rena

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