Although he has been in office only since June 30 — two months — President Mohammad Mursi of Egypt has already embarked on bold foreign policy initiatives which risk bringing him into confrontation with the US and Israel. It is a risk he is evidently prepared to take. Indeed, his goal appears to be to recover a measure of independence from the tutelage of these powers. If he succeeds, he will win the plaudits of the vast majority of Egyptians.
The immediate area of possible confrontation is over the extreme pressure which the US, egged on by Israel, is putting on the Iranian and Syrian regimes, with the evident intention of bringing them down. The US is seeking to cripple Iran’s economy with unprecedented sanctions and is backing the armed Syrian rebels in their attempt to topple President Bashar AlAssad.
Mursi will have none of it. Braving the displeasure of the US and Israel, he is refusing to isolate or demonise Iran. On the contrary, he has chosen to attend this week’s gathering of Non-Aligned countries in Tehran — the first Egyptian president to visit the Islamic Republic since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. He broke the ice with Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad some weeks ago when they met at an Islamic summit in Makkah. By all accounts, their meeting was extremely cordial.
Again, in direct opposition to Washington, Mursi evidently prefers to resolve the Syrian crisis by negotiation rather than war. He has proposed that the region’s four main Muslim powers — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey — form a contact group to oversee a negotiated settlement.
In other words, he is telling the US and Nato to keep out of Syria and leave it to local powers. (Mursi’s move poses a tricky dilemma for Turkish diplomacy: should Turkey, a Nato power, side with the US in channelling arms, funds and intelligence to the Syrian rebels or would it be wiser for Ankara to join in a regional effort to end the conflict by negotiation?)
US President Barack Obama has invited Mursi to visit Washington in September — no doubt to give him a diplomatic dressing down. But, in yet another assertion of Egyptian independence, Mursi plans to visit Beijing and Tehran first. It may be his way of signalling that he will not tolerate being lectured to.
An even more serious subject of contention concerns the military annexes of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, which Mursi, like most Egyptians, would like to revise. When a band of gunmen surged out of Sinai on August 5 and attacked an Egyptian army checkpoint on the Egyptian-Gaza border, killing 16 Egyptian soldiers and wounding several more, Mursi promptly sent a strong force of troops, helicopters and tanks in hot pursuit of them. But, according to the military annexes, Egypt should have sought Israel’s prior agreement before sending tanks into Sinai, even though it is sovereign Egyptian territory. It would seem that Mursi did not feel the need to do so.
When, last September, I interviewed Amr Mousa, former Egyptian foreign minister and veteran Arab League secretary-general — who was then a candidate for the Egyptian presidency — he called for a revision of the military annexes. “The Peace Treaty will continue to exist,” he told me, “but Egypt needs forces in Sinai. The security situation requires it. Israel must understand that the restrictions imposed by the Treaty have to be reviewed”. Mursi evidently shares this view.
This sort of talk is not to Israel’s liking. The New York Times reported on August 22 that Israel was ‘troubled’ by the lack of advance coordination and had asked Cairo to withdraw its tanks. But Israel finds itself in a cleft stick: it wants Egypt to maintain order in the lawless and turbulent wastes of Sinai, yet it fears that armed Egyptian deployments might one day threaten its security.
Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute (an outgrowth of the Israeli lobby, AIPAC) used strong words in the Washington Post on August 19 to censure Mursi for moving tanks into Sinai without notifying Israel. “If this behaviour continues,” he thundered, “US support, which will be essential for gaining international economic aid and fostering investment, will not be forthcoming”. Known as “Israel’s lawyer” for his decades-long defence of Israeli interests when he was in government, Ross clearly thinks that he still speaks for the American administration. Let us hope he is mistaken.
Another of Mursi’s moves, which alarmed Washington and Tel Aviv, was his sudden sacking of a clutch of very senior officers — the very men with whom Israel and the US had established close relations over the years. These remnants of the Mubarak regime include Defence Minister Field Marshal Hussain Tantawi, chief of staff General Sami Anan, the heads of the Navy, Air Force and Air Defence, intelligence chief Murad Mowafi, and other commanders. Mursi has named Lt. Gen Abdul Fattah Al Sisi as the new defence minister, and Lt. Gen Sedky Sobhi as the new chief of staff. Both men, it would appear, share Mursi’s wish to break free from excessive American and Israeli influence.
The immediate and overriding priority of Mursi and his team will be to revive Egypt’s economy, now in a dire state. Some 85 million people need to be fed. Job creation will be essential. Government services have to be restored. Massive external aid will be required. In the circumstances, there is no danger of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty being scrapped. No Egyptian can today conceive of war with Israel. Nor will the Egyptian military readily sacrifice the $1.3 billion annual subsidy it receives from the US to keep the peace with Israel.
But Mursi will undoubtedly seek to forge a new relationship with both the US and Israel. From now on Egypt is likely to be less tolerant of Israel’s outrageous treatment of the Palestinians, under continued siege and occupation. He has already stressed the need to address the long-neglected Palestine question. He will be less ready than his predecessor to accept Israel’s relentless war-mongering against Iran.
Although he will not be able to challenge Israel’s military supremacy ‑ financed, equipped and guaranteed by the United States ‑ he will seek to end the abuse Israel has made of this supremacy, notably its repeated aggressions against its neighbours.
Many Egyptians have a certain feeling of guilt about the 1979 peace treaty with Israel. They know that, by removing Egypt from the Arab military equation, the Treaty gave Israel more than 30 years of unchallenged military dominance. Lebanon, the Palestinians, Iraq and Syria have all experienced Israel’s assaults.
Mursi’s evident ambition is to restore some balance to Middle East power relationships. It will be fascinating to see how he goes about this high-risk enterprise, and how the US and Israel choose to react to Egypt’s new assertiveness.
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.