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