After Morsi, The Geopolitical Fallout

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

After Morsi, the geopolitical fallout Mohamed Morsi was ousted as president of Egypt by a military coup late on July 3 local time and was reported to be detained at an undisclosed location after the army suspended the constitution. Egypt's top military commander, General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, said Morsi had been replaced by the chief justice of the constitutional court, Adli Mansour, and a government of technocrats would be formed with "full powers" to run the country. He did not specify how long the transition period would last or when new elections might be held. Asia Times Online published the following article by Kaveh L. Afrasiabi just before the coup.

The Egyptian military's decision to issue an ultimatum to Mohamed Morsi has been decried by supporters of the embattled president as an illegal coup attempt to dethrone a democratically elected leader. After several cabinet ministers quit in an expression of solidarity with demonstrators in Tahrir Square who are seeking an end to his rule, agreement to substantial "power-sharing" looks like Morsi's only route to avoid a collision with the military and his inevitable ouster.

A military takeover in Egypt would force the Arab world's biggest nation into a new and uncertain phase of political crisis with clear geopolitical ramifications. The list of questions awaiting answers is long, and includes concerns about the duration of the military government and how quickly a transition to another civilian government could take place through an election, how Morsi's supporters will respond, and the likely level of violence following the coup. Finally, what foreign policy adjustments will the Egyptian military make after toppling Morsi?

It is instructive to review Morsi's foreign policy during the (short-lived) experiment of the Muslim Brotherhood's setting of the foreign policy agenda in Egypt. From the outset, Morsi sought to adopt an "independent" line and made it known to Western powers that the past era of sheepish obedience to their interests was over. Egypt was to act according to its own interests.

It was the pursuit of this new orientation that brought Morsi to Tehran last August to participate in the Non-Aligned Summit, an occasion which he used to express solidarity with the Syrian people fighting against the Assad regime, and to propose a "Syria quartet", including Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis never showed interest in this proposal and boycotted the quartet's meeting in Cairo last year. Nor did the Saudis or the Qataris, two principal financial backers of Cairo, ever welcome Morsi's initial toying with the idea of a diplomatic rapprochement with the Islamic Republic.

Consequently, caught between conflicting priorities, Morsi scrapped a deal for direct flights between Tehran and Cairo, or the facilitation of visa requirements for Iranian tourists, and slowly backed away from the quartet in favor of a Saudi-favored hardline vis-a-vis Syria, which was reflected in his decision last month to close the Syrian embassy in Cairo, coinciding with a generous Saudi loan to Egypt.

With respect to Israel and future of Arab-Israel relations, despite a pledge to uphold the Camp David accords and closing the border tunnels dug by Palestinians holed up in Gaza, Morsi was never able to secure an American-Israeli confidence about his intentions. He was always regarded with suspicion that his intention was to consolidate his own power before turning against the accords, which the Muslim Brotherhood had denounced in the past as a sell-out. Without doubt, Morsi's downfall will be viewed as a foreign policy plus by both Washington and Tel Aviv, whose leaders dreaded Morsi's positive signals to Iran and his "cloak and dagger" approach to foreign policy.

Thus, in retrospect, and assuming that Morsi's fate has been sealed by the end of the week as all the signs indicate, his year-long presidency will likely be regarded by future historians as a short-lived attempt at foreign policy reorientation aimed at elevating Egypt's role as an independent regional actor - one that was caught in the dilemma of conflicting loyalties, such as the fact that getting closer to the Shi'ite Iranians made sense on the geopolitical level but not on the Shi'ite-Sunni fault line.

In turn, this led to incoherent policies that ultimately satisfied no one and was aggravated by Morsi's lack of diplomatic skills and inability to bargain hard for leverages.

Henceforth, a post-Morsi Egypt will likely embed itself more firmly in the Saudi-led conservative camp, take a more assertive role vis-a-vis the crisis in Syria, provide greater assurance to Israel and put to rest the US and Israeli concerns about any regional realignment, in other words, a "thermidorian" restoration of status quo foreign policy approach favored by the unreconstructed Egyptian armed forces.

For sure, such a development in Egypt is antithetical to the interests of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, not to mention Hamas in the Palestinian occupied territories, and will free the hands of Israelis even further with respect to their current policy of settlement expansion, their disregard for a Middle East peace process, and the strangulation of Gaza. Indeed, looking at Israelis discourse on the "greater Middle East" it becomes clear that an independent and self-assertive Egypt was and has never ben part of their equation. Naturally, they and their American patrons prefer a docile and non-problematic Egypt that simply toes the line, just as it did for decades before the tumults of Arab Spring in 2011. But now, with the 'falling out' of Egypt from the domain of American hegemony having turned into an arrested development, the big question is how will a coup regime in Egypt tackle the powerful sentiments that brought Morsi to power exactly one year ago in the first place?

Without doubt, removing a democratically elected government by force will stigmatize the coup-makers and their Western supporters (in light of the discrete American green light). The chances are that instead of restoring stability this will throw Egypt in the bosom of greater chaos and repression, reflecting a surge in ethnic and sectarian violence.

The fact that the opposition was able to muster a huge rally in Cairo's streets does not suffice for regime change, just as the mass protests in Taksim Square in Istanbul have not been interpreted by anyone, the Turkish army or western powers, as sufficient evidence that the country's prime minister must go. Egypt, after all, has a constitutionally elected president; his overthrow by the army citing the power of "people" in the street would make a mockery of these democratic standards.

*Kaveh L. Afrasiabi is a former political science professor at Tehran University and former adviser to Iran's nuclear negotiation team (2004 to 2006). He is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . Afrasiabi is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for Rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).

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Source: Asia Times Online

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*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.