Strategic regional alliances in disarray after Mohamed Morsi’s precipitous eviction
Changes a severe setback to Islamists, while UAE, Saudis and Israelis relieved
The removal of Egypt’s first democratically elected – and Islamist – president at the hands of the military last week has sent tremors far beyond the country’s borders, upsetting strategic alliances forged during Mohamed Morsi’s shortlived tenure and dealing a blow to Islamists across the region who believed the future was theirs.
Throughout its history Egypt, estimated to be home to one in four Arabs, has repeatedly set the lead the rest of the Arab world followed. Birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood, the pan-Islamist movement Morsi belonged to, and lodestar for the uprisings that have swept the region from spring 2011, Egypt matters greatly to its neighbours.
Morsi’s ousting is a regional turning point. Those who invested most in the one-year president – including the tiny but increasingly assertive Gulf state of Qatar, the Hamas administration in Gaza (Hamas is a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot) and the Islamist-rooted ruling AKP in Turkey – stand to lose the most with the new dispensation.
Morsi’s fall comes at a bad time for Qatar, given that its youthful new emir, Sheikh Tamim, had succeeded his father only the week before.
Doha, which had channelled $8 billion (€6.24 billion) of assistance into Egypt, was Morsi’s main Gulf ally. Its support for his government was part of a strategic bet by Qatar that Islamists would fill the political vacuum left by toppled Arab dictators and were therefore worth courting.
Qatar’s links with the brotherhood are not new. For decades it offered sanctuary to influential Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi – often described as the spiritual guide of the Muslim Brotherhood. Qaradawi issued a fatwa this weekend decrying Morsi’s toppling by the military as “illegitimate” and calling on Egyptians to stand by him.
Among the first to congratulate Adly Mahmoud Mansour when he was sworn in as Egypt’s acting president on Thursday were Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both rivals of Qatar and both with royal families anxious over the threat to their own status quo posed by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood across the region.
“We strongly shake hands with the men of all the armed forces . . . who managed to save Egypt at this critical moment from a dark tunnel,” the Saudi King Abdullah said in a cable to Mansour, according to the official news agency.
“God only could apprehend its dimensions and repercussions.”
Similar sentiments were expressed in the UAE, whose supreme court last week issued lengthy prison sentences to more than 60 people it claimed were part of a foreign-backed Islamist conspiracy to bring down the government. Reports yesterday indicated a high- level delegation from the UAE is to arrive in Cairo shortly, no doubt hopeful of clawing back influence from Qatar.
Also considering its options will be Hamas. Deciding to reorient its regional alliances when its parent organisation came to power in Egypt, Hamas abandoned its offices in Damascus to set up in brotherhood-friendly Qatar.
Morsi earned praise from then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton last November after he worked with her to mediate a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel. “Egypt’s new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone of regional stability and peace,” Clinton said at the time.
Israeli officials, so far guarded in their statements on the removal of Morsi, will welcome the rupturing of the strong ties between Cairo and Hamas, though a possible rise in jihadist activity in Egypt’s Sinai, which borders Israel, will be cause for concern.
Turkey, which has promoted its blend of Islam and democracy as a model for countries transitioning from dictatorship in north Africa, had been nurturing closer links with Morsi’s government.
Officials have reacted with alarm to his eviction. “The toppling of a government that came into office through democratic elections, through methods that are not legal – and what is worse, through a military coup – is unacceptable, no matter what the reasons,” Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu said.
Regime loyalists in Syria have crowed over Morsi’s fate. Morsi was a committed and vocal supporter of the Syrian opposition. Shortly before his ousting he appeared at a rally in Cairo which heard calls for jihad against Bashar al-Assad, whose late father snuffed out a 1980s Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Syria.
In an interview with the official Thawra newspaper last week, Assad declared: “What is happening in Egypt is the fall of what is called political Islam” – ironic, given that his allies in Iran and Hizbullah are also advocates of political Islam, albeit of the Shia variety.
Muslim Brotherhood affiliates and offshoots across the region, including the ruling Ennahda party in Tunisia, have denounced what they call a “flagrant coup”. Morsi’s unseating represents a severe setback to Islamists in the Arab world and beyond. The manner of his departure sends a dangerous message about democracy to more radical forces within that milieu who were already sceptical about or downright hostile to the democratic process.