The 30th of June 2013 was to be an important day in Egypt’s long history as it was getting ready for the first time to celebrate the anniversary of a democratically elected president. Instead, a large protest broke out on the same day, demanding the immediate resignation of the President Mohamed Morsi.
Taking over from the leads started in Tunisia in late 2010, Egypt was the second country to follow in what is now termed as the ‘Arab Spring’. The recent protests however, were very different from the 2011 protests which had seen Egypt overthrow the dictator Husni Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt for almost thirty years. Mubarak was always seen as an authoritarian ruler who was an ally of the West. The same, however, could not be said of Morsi. He was democratically elected (the first in Egypt’s long History) after the 2011 Egyptian Spring.
The biggest calls for the removal of Morsi seem to stem from the fact that he refused to share power with other stakeholders in Egyptian politics. Morsi has also been seen as pushing for an Islamic-slanted constitution, which to most people in Egypt is seen as autocratic. Other complaints against Morsi were that the economy has deteriorated even further since he took over. Rates of price inflation have soared to unimaginable levels, and more than 25 percent of Egyptian youths are unemployed. The Egyptian pound has depreciated by 12% since the December 2012.
Almost 500,000 people queued up in Tahrir square, the situation complicated further by the presence of the Army. The Army does not seem to really favor a democratically elected leader, particularly representing an organization outlawed in the Mubarak era. Instead of protecting civilian life, the army has yet again chosen to interfere in the politics of Egypt. It is very evident that the army of Egypt, which is the remains of the Mubarak regime, has political ambitions of its own as it supported the protesters and finally removed the president.
To complicate matters further, Egypt’s largest Salafist party, the ultra-orthodox political party al-Nour, has endorsed the military coup. Al-Nour, which was a key ally in Morsi’s government, seems to have now taken a complete U-turn. Al-Nour is now emerging as an important player in the politics of Egypt and it is possible that it will be the key player for the army to decide on Egypt’s immediate future. This sort of alignment between a highly conservative party and the army may lead to a very conservative regime, and this in turn may have adverse effects on the region, particularly Israel.
The US stance on the current situation in Egypt has been rather ‘cautious’. The US seems to be treading on a tightrope and does not want to be seen as taking sides. Obama has said that the U.S acknowledged the legitimate grievances of the people of Egypt but also maintained that Morsi was a democratically elected leader. This stance of the U.S seems to raise a lot of questions considering that the events are happening in a politically fragile area. The feeling is that the U.S is happy maintaining a status quo position in the Middle East with not too much change in too short a time.
Israel, however, is highly concerned about the U.S hesitancy in being vocal about the Egypt situation. Israel has pointed out that the U.S in the past has not been able to identify Middle East processes properly and has often failed to distinguish between friend and foe, and this has actually lead to further damage in the Middle East. Israel has welcomed Morsi’s ouster and takeover of power by generals.
Other countries in the region, however, have been more vocal about the protests. Turkey has come out in strong support of Morsi and has called the ousting as unacceptable. Syria’s Assad, on the other hand, is rather overjoyed about the overthrow. Faced with problems of his own and refusing to step down, Assad’s reaction seems rather ironic. Iran, which is in a stalemate with the West over its nuclear ambitions, has had mixed reactions to the protests. Some parts of Iran seem to welcome the overthrow, while others have criticized the move. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates continue to be the biggest critics of the Muslim Brotherhood, and both countries immediately promised huge amounts of aid to Egypt’s new government.
Saudi Arabia has committed $5 billion in the form of grants and loans to the new Egyptian government, and the United Arab Emirates committed to $3 billion as financial support. Kuwait too offered financial assistance to new regime in Egypt in tandem with its regional allies. What is clear is that there is a definite link between the increasing power of parties like al-Nour, which are now in a position to dictate terms in Egypt, and countries with autocratic governments like Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. These countries would prefer a conservative and autocratic regime in Egypt to keep their throne safe.
Reactions from the countries in the region are the clearest signs of a growing divide amongst the nations. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are amongst the most powerful monarchies in the region and clearly do not favor a liberal democracy in Egypt. They will not be comfortable with such a system questioning their unchallenged political and religious supremacy in the region. The fact that the al-Nour party embodies Wahhabism is another possible reason for Saudi Arabia’s increased interest in the future of Egypt.
Qatar, on the other hand, has always backed the Brotherhood and has actually given Morsi’s government several billion dollars. Qatar’s stance in the region has been more sympathetic towards Iran and Hamas in Palestine. Qatar has also been seen as being far more lenient towards Turkey than towards its conservative brother in Saudi Arabia. The new Emir of Qatar seems to be moving towards favoring a democracy in Qatar and his views only get reinforced as he seems to support a democracy in Egypt and has been far more vocal in support of the Arab Spring. He is also an active supporter of the revolution in Syria, against the Assad regime. Turkey, which has been the most successful democracy in the region, also wants the same for Egypt and had supported the Morsi government.
The emerging picture is that of two opposing power blocs. The monarchies of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates want to continue regional domination and also want a conservative Islamic government in the most populated country of the region. Qatar and Turkey, on the other hand, are in favor of a less conservative, democratically elected leader.
It is time for the U.S to take a pro-active position in supporting democracy and human rights in Egypt and denounce the Army’s role in politics. Looking at Middle East only through the prism of Israel and the Obama administration continuing to send aid to the tune of $1.5 billion to the military, despite it being a violation of US law to provide such assistance to a government that took power via a coup d’etat, is a betrayal of this great movement happening in the region first time in history and is against the American ethos and values. The continuing stalemate and American support to yet another oppressive and autocratic regime in Egypt can cause the rise of extremist groups similar to that of Hamas or Hezbollah in Egypt, and there is also a chance of at least some section in the Brotherhood moving towards a violent reprisal. Watch, another Taliban is brewing in Egypt on behalf of Al Nour and other Salafi groups with generous funds from Saudis and Emiratis.
Conservative groups are just waiting for chance to jump in. Considering the close proximity of Egypt to Israel’s borders, an ultra-conservative regime can only do more damage than good to Israel. The current situation in Egypt is blurred. There is possibility of Civil War. The growing power of conservative groups is a serious cause of concern. On the face of it, the ouster of the President seems like a direct attack on the Muslim Brotherhood and more importantly on democracy. Within one year of embracing democracy, Egypt seems to have squandered it. The bigger question as always remains: Will democracy ever become a reality in the Middle East?