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Egypt’s new friends: USA, Israel and Saudi Arabia
The world, especially the US, has reacted pragmatically to the July coup, its repressive aftermath and Mubarak’s release from prison. They want to protect the interests of nations other than Egypt: peace with Israel, military agreements and the suppression of Al-Qaida.
Egypt’s new friends
by Alain Gresh
“Black Wednesday”, 14 August 2013, will be remembered for one of the biggest massacres of demonstrators by the forces of repression in a day since Tiananmen Square in 1989 (1). We may never know exactly how many died — officially over 600 but actually many more. The families of some victims were only allowed to claim their bodies if they “recognised” that their loved ones had died of “natural causes” or committed suicide.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has called for an “independent, impartial, effective and credible investigation of the conduct of the security forces”. That is unlikely to happen, not just because the authorities in Cairo, with the almost unanimous support of neoliberal and leftwing political forces — apart from a small coalition of the Revolutionary Socialists of Egypt, the 6 April movement, the Egyptian Current Party and supporters of the former presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh (2) — have rejected the idea, but also because the “international community” seems paralysed.
Following a closed session on 15 August, the UN Security Council issued a declaration, read out by its president, the Argentine ambassador Maria Cristina Perceval: “Members first of all expressed their sympathy to the victims and regretted the loss of life. The view of council members is that it is important to end violence in Egypt, that the parties exercise maximum restraint. And there was a common desire on the need to stop violence and to advance national reconciliation.” After this lukewarm statement, Perceval reiterated Argentina’s position (it still suffers from the effects of military repression in the 1970s). She condemned the Egyptian coup against a democratically elected president and urged the junta to “cease the spiral of violence let loose in recent days against unarmed citizens.”
Most governments with no significant geopolitical or economic interests in Egypt, including Indonesia, Brazil, South Africa, Malaysia, Bolivia, Nigeria, Pakistan and Ecuador (and the African Union, which has suspended Egypt), have condemned the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi and the repression of his supporters. India and China — which do have major economic interests in Egypt — have avoided condemnation, and the official Chinese press has commented on the results of copying “western-style democracy” (3); though divided on many issues, India and China have denounced “Islamic terrorism”, which they both claim to be fighting, respectively in Kashmir and Xinjiang Province.
The most carefully analysed response by any of the powers with a direct involvement has been that of the US. According to Egyptian commentators, the US is attempting to defend diametrically opposed positions: the official (and liberal) Egyptian media claim the US is still supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, while the Brothers say it backed the army coup. The US official statements are so full of complex and contradictory assessments that it is easy to be misled, but that would be to overlook the fundamentals of US policy on Egypt.
Peace treaty with Israel
Lord Palmerston, British prime minister in the 1850s and 60s, once made a statement to the effect that Britain had no permanent allies and no permanent enemies, only permanent interests. This applies equally to Britain’s successor as the dominant world power, the US. President Barack Obama supported former president Hosni Mubarak during the 2011 uprising, then switched his allegiance to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and finally to Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, hoping that they would have a stabilising influence. Despite these switches, the US has pursued a single goal: to preserve the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. It has succeeded. Morsi may have shown signs of change in his stance on the Palestinian issue — relaxing the blockade of Gaza, taking a tougher stance on Israel’s aggression in November 2012 — but in all else he copied his predecessors.
Obama is not going to sever ties with Egypt’s new masters for a few hundred deaths. He has cancelled the planned joint military manoeuvres and postponed the delivery of four F-16 fighters, but is unlikely to go further. Academic and Middle East analyst Juan Cole can see ten reasons why the US is unlikely to suspend military assistance (worth $1.3bn, compared with $250m of economic aid). Egypt uses the money to buy US military equipment and is therefore subsidising the US military-industrial complex — especially Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Raytheon. An even more important reason, Cole says, is that “the aid was given as a bribe to the Egyptian elite to make nice with Israel. Given the chaos in Sinai, and Egypt’s instability, Congress is more worried about that issue than at any time in 40 years” (4).
Though Israel has not expressed its views publicly, they can be guessed from the comments of retired leaders. Former prime minister Ehud Barak told CNN that General Abdel Fatah Sissi, the new regime’s strongman, “and the liberals ... and others deserve the support of the free world. Who else can they turn to?” (5). Danny Yatom, former head of Mossad, confirms: “There is no question that Israel prefers the army to the Muslim Brotherhood and a secular regime over a religious one” (6). The army is also the more attractive option because Sissi, whom the Egyptian media are calling “the new Nasser”, has had close ties with his Israeli counterparts for years (7).
Saudi hostility to the Brotherhood
When talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority — shaky, but strengthened by the weakening of Hamas after Morsi’s fall — have just restarted at US instigation, the US cannot afford to withdraw its support from the Egyptian regime, especially as US influence in the region has declined significantly over the last few years (particularly since the defeat in Iraq). This is evident from its failure to broker a compromise between the army and the Brotherhood that would have secured Morsi’s resignation and non-recourse to violence (8).
The European Union played an active role in this attempt at mediation and noted it was the Egyptian army that rejected the compromise. But although some countries, such as Denmark, were calling for the suspension of EU aid to Egypt, the member states have, for the moment, confined themselves to halting deliveries of any equipment that could be used for repression.
The US’s relative withdrawal (and embarrassment) has been accompanied by a rise in the influence of the Gulf states. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait — and Bahrain, which continues (unreported by the media) its violent repression of democratic protests — have been unstinting in their verbal and financial support of the new regime. Even before the demonstrations of 30 June, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia had promised generous subsidies to Egypt’s armed forces if they overthrew Morsi (9); he has kept his word.
The reasons for this support are the revulsion that the Saudi royal family feels at the events started by the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions; and their hostility towards the Muslim Brotherhood, which dates back to the first Gulf war (1990-91) and their role in the protests for reform in the decade following the war, as well as their support for the Arab Spring. Morsi’s timid attempts at rapprochement with Iran strengthened this animosity, shared by the Syrian leadership, who openly rejoiced at the fall of the Egyptian president.
In response to Egypt’s counter-revolution, a motley Middle East front is forming. It includes Turkey, Iran, Qatar and to a lesser extent Tunisia, whose leaders are watching developments in Cairo anxiously. Turkey has taken the toughest stance: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused Egypt of “state terrorism” (10) and recalled his ambassador to Cairo. This could be seen as “Islamist” solidarity except that all political forces in Turkey, including the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), have condemned the coup. Erdogan may be trying to restore his image after the repression of the demonstrators in Gezi Park but, more importantly, he is probably attempting to regain the initiative, as his regional policy has become bogged down in the Syrian conflict and lost some of its attraction. He is waving the flags of democracy and Palestine — and embarrassing the Gulf states, which are not enthusiastic about either.
If Turkey agrees with Iran in its condemnation of the Egyptian coup (though they disagree on Syria), does that mean regional alliances are shifting? Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, is just settling in and his primary concern must be Iran’s nuclear programme. He knows that Saudi Arabia, along with Israel, is the major factor behind US intransigence on the Middle East. But he also knows that Turkey, allied with the government of the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq, disagrees with Iran’s allies in Baghdad on many issues, including Syria. Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood’s principal supporter in the region, has ceded control of the Syrian opposition to Saudi Arabia. The new emir of Qatar is still finding his way, even if, like his father, he fears his powerful Saudi neighbour.
Russia is trying to regain its footing in the Middle East. Isolated because of its support for Syria’s Assad regime, hostile to the Arab revolutions from the start and fearful of the rise of Islamism at home (Tatarstan, the Caucasus), it is trying to take advantage of the new situation. The meeting at the Kremlin in July between Prince Bandar bin Sultan, head of the Saudi intelligence services, and President Vladimir Putin caused much speculation (11). Although divided on Syria, the countries have the same position on Egypt. They could find common ground in their hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia guaranteeing that the overthrow of the Assad regime would allow into power neither the Brothers nor jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaida, which both Russia and Saudi Arabia are fighting. The prince tempted Russia with promises of lucrative arms contracts. Are we about to see spectacular changes in alliances? It’s unlikely, but the relative decline of US influence has opened things up.
In his 2009 speech in Cairo, Obama promised “a new beginning” in relations between the US and the Muslim world. Four years on, there has been little progress on Palestine or on democratisation. Ayman al-Zawahiri, head of Al-Qaida, knows this. What happened in Egypt, he says, “is the biggest proof of the failure of democratic means to achieve an Islamic government.” Having criticised the Muslim Brotherhood — and Hamas — often in the past, he has called on the Brotherhood to abandon democracy and to “join the jihad and establish a truly Islamic state” (12). It is to be feared that this will be heard by the families of the victims of repression in Egypt and by many young Arabs who had placed their hopes in the revolutions.