President Morsi’s wind of change


On 12 August 2012, Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi successfully asserted his authority against the Army, ordering the head of the army and defence minister, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, and several senior generals into retirement and cancelling the constitutional amendments promulgated by the military restricting his presidential powers.  That was an extraordinary achievement.


Since then, he has been demonstrating in word and deed that under his presidency Egypt is going to follow an independent foreign policy.  What is more, it looks as if bridging the Sunni/Shia divide is going to be at the heart of that policy, a high priority being given to good relations with Iran.


He hasn’t set out to antagonise the US, and most likely Egypt will continue to receive aid from the US for now (around $1.5 billion annually, second only to Israel, together they receive around a third of total US overseas aid).  But it is clear that the Mubarak era of Egypt being a “reliable ally” for the US in the Middle East is over.


Also, although he has joined Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in demanding regime change in Syria, he has not positioned Egypt as part of a Sunni bloc in opposition to Iran and its Shia allies (Syria and Hezbollah).


Morsi on Syria

A few days after he put the Army in its place, he made his first foreign trip as president, attending the summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.  There, he went out of his way to be friendly to President Ahmadinejad of Iran.  And on the margins of the summit, he proposed the formation of a Muslim contact group to mediate in Syria, comprising Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran as well as Egypt itself.  The group has been created and representatives have met on several occasions.


President Morsi spoke about Syria in his speech to the UN General Assembly on 27 September 2012.  The Guardian report of his speech read as follows:


President Morsi called for the replacement of the [Syrian] regime with a democratic government representative of all the country's ethnic and religious groups, but said this should be done without outside military intervention.” [1]


He obviously means “intervention” from the West, but does he also include intervention from Saudi Arabia and Qatar?  No way of telling.  There has been joy in Washington and London at his continual condemnation of the Assad regime and his demand that “Assad must go”.  Egypt is now in the West’s camp on Syria, isn’t he?  Judging by this remark and his initiative in setting up a contact group including Iran, they may be counting their chickens before they are hatched.


In his UN speech, he mentioned this “new diplomatic initiative begun by Egypt, Turkey and Iran, and called on other nations to join it”, according to the Guardian [1].  (Saudi Arabia wasn’t mentioned in the Guardian report, but that’s probably an error).  He also said that he wouldn’t back away from a diplomatic partnership with Iran to end the civil war in Syria [2].  That is a poke in the eye to the West, who successfully resisted Kofi Annan’s attempt to establish a contact group for Syria which included Iran.


Morsi stops in Tehran

In late August, having been invited to Washington, President Morsi chose instead to go to Beijing and, on his way home, he made a short stop in Tehran for the 16th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).  Egypt has not had full diplomatic relations since the Islamic revolution in 1979, so the fact that Morsi accepted the invitation to Tehran was itself a significant step.


(Not much is heard of NAM these days.  It was founded in 1961 as a grouping of “neutral” states during the Cold War and Tito was its principal architect [3].  It has had a continuous existence since then, holding a summit every three years.  It now has 120 member states out a total of 193 UN member states.  Nearly all states in Africa, Asia and Latin America are members.  All Arab states are members.


Insofar as it functions as an organisation, it seems to be primarily as a lobby group at the UN and its associated bodies, for example, the International Atomic Energy Organisation (IAEA). Thus, for example, there is a NAM caucus within the Security Council, through which NAM states on the Council attempt to reach a common position on issues before the Council. 


Seven out of the ten current non-permanent members of the Security Council are NAM members – Colombia, Guatemala, India, Morocco, Pakistan, South Africa and Togo.)


At the summit in Tehran, Iran took over the presidency of NAM from Egypt for the next three years, after which the presidency goes to Venezuela.  Morsi formally handed over the presidency to President Ahmadinejad on 31 August 2012.  In doing so, he referred to the Iranian president as "my dear brother" and referred to Iran as "the sister Islamic republic of Iran[4].


The summit was a considerable success for Iran: it was attended by representatives of 120 states.  The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, also attended, despite fierce opposition from the US and Israel.  This was his first visit to Iran as Secretary General.  His speech to the summit contained critical remarks about Iran [5].


Morsi’s speech

Reports in the West of Morsi’s speech at the summit concentrated on his criticism of the Assad regime, and the consequent walkout of the Syrian delegation.  But there were several other interesting remarks (see, for example, Morsi sparks controversy with anti-Assad comments in Tehran, Ahramonline, 31 August 2012 [4] and Morsi makes maiden speech to the Non-Aligned Movement, Middle East Monitor, 31 August 2012 [6]).


First, he went out of his way to please his Shia hosts.  He began his speech with the usual Islamist reference: "May God's peace be upon his Prophet Mohamed”, but he went on to pay an unusual tribute in a political speech to the Sahaba (close associates) of Prophet Mohamed: Abu Bakr, Omar, Othman and Ali, the latter being the most holy member of the Prophet Mohamed's family in the eyes of Shias.


Speaking about the foundation of NAM, he said:


“When Gamal Abdul Nasser joined the NAM he was representing the will of Egypt to end hegemony and erect a just system in the world.”


On the face of it, it is remarkable that an Islamist Egyptian president, from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood, should make a positive remark about Nasser, who in his time suppressed the Brotherhood.  But it is not so remarkable in reality, since Morsi, like Nasser, is attempting to free Egypt from Western hegemony.


Reform of the UN system is a traditional theme at NAM summits, understandably so since NAM members haven’t much clout at the UN – for example, none of them has a permanent seat on the Security Council, where the real power lies.  Morsi called for reform of the Security Council so that it becomes more representative of the international community in the 21st century.  In particular, he said it was “no longer acceptable that Africa is not represented with a permanent seat on the Security Council, and does not have fair representation among the non-permanent members".  He also called for the General Assembly to play a more active role in international decision-making. 


This was also a major theme of the opening speech at the summit by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.


Speaking about Palestine, he supported full membership of the United Nations for a Palestinian state and promised to continue to promote Palestinian reconciliation (between Hamas and Fatah) so that the Palestinians can focus on the main issue, which, he said, is resistance to Israel's occupation – which is not the language his predecessor as president would have used.


In his speech to the UN, according to the Guardian:


“Morsi said the UN should make a priority of addressing the plight of the Palestinian people, saying that it was "shameful" that successive UN resolutions on the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories had not been enforced.”  [1]


Morsi speaks to US

The New York Times published an interview with him on 22 September, under the apposite headline Egypt’s New Leader Spells Out Terms for US-Arab Ties [7].  Here’s an extract from it:


“On the eve of his first trip to the United States as Egypt’s new Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi said the United States needed to fundamentally change its approach to the Arab world, showing greater respect for its values and helping build a Palestinian state, if it hoped to overcome decades of pent-up anger.


“A former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mr. Morsi sought in a 90-minute interview with The New York Times to introduce himself to the American public and to revise the terms of relations between his country and the United States after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, an autocratic but reliable ally.


“He said it was up to Washington to repair relations with the Arab world and to revitalize the alliance with Egypt, long a cornerstone of regional stability.

If Washington is asking Egypt to honor its treaty with Israel, he said, Washington should also live up to its own Camp David commitment to Palestinian self-rule.”


After the US embassy in Cairo was attacked recently, President Obama was asked if Egypt was an ally of the US.  He replied:


“I don't think we would consider them an ally, but we don't consider them an enemy.” [8]


Under Mubarak, Obama would have described Egypt as an ally, an ally that could be relied upon to do what it was told by the US.  In other words, the relationship was more like that of a master and servant.  From this interview, it is clear that, under the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt is no longer going to be a servant of the US.


Egypt is going to have an independent foreign policy and become once again one of the major players in Middle East politics.


Bridging the Sunni/Shia divide

What is more, it looks as if bridging the Sunni/Shia divide is going to be at the heart of that policy, with a high priority being given to good relations with Iran.


This could have profound consequences for the Middle East, and more generally in the Muslim world, since exploiting this division has been a key to the imperialist powers maintaining their corrosive influence in the Middle East.


At the OIC summit in Jeddah (at which Syria was suspended from the organisation), Saudi Arabia seemed to be anxious that the division wasn’t exacerbated by conflict over Syria. King Abdullah certainly made a significant conciliatory gesture towards President Ahmadinejad by seating him by his side as he welcomed the leaders to the summit. 


Reuters reported on this as follows:


“In giving Iran’s leader such a prominent place at the summit — shown on Saudi state television — King Abdullah was making what analysts described as an important gesture.


“’It was a message to the Iranian nation and, I assume, to the Saudi people, that we are Muslim and we have to work together and forget about our differences’, said Abdullah Al Shammari, a Saudi political analyst.


“Ahmadinejad, wearing the dark suit and shirt without tie favoured by Iranian leaders, sat at the left hand of the king in his traditional Arab robes. The two were shown talking and sometimes laughing together.


“As each of the leaders, including those of major Middle Eastern and South Asian states, arrived in the entrance chamber, Abdullah rose to meet him followed by Ahmadinejad. …


“Analysts said the move to place Ahmadinejad next to Abdullah was intended to soothe sectarian ill will across the wider Middle East.


“That message was reinforced in Abdullah’s opening speech to the conference, in which he proposed setting up a centre for dialogue between different Muslim sects.” [9]


Could it be that the Muslim world is going to get its act together at last and resist Western interference in its affairs?



David Morrison

28 September 2012