Mohammad Mursi, the new president of Egypt, probably will not be allowed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) with which he must co-habit to make Egyptian foreign policy, or at least to make it unilaterally. But over time, he may be able to have an effect at the margins. Indeed, we may have to speak of the president’s policy as distinct from the SCAF policy, rather than of “Egyptian” policy. Much depends on whether the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt can restore the dissolved parliament, or can do as well in a second round of parliamentary elections as they did in the first. Much depends on the president’s exact powers in the as yet unwritten new constitution. Much depends on whether Mursi is forced to run again for his office in 6 months, as the military appears to want, and whether he can win again then.
But assuming that he can remain in his office for a four-year term and gathers about himself further institutional power, what would Mursi’s win mean for the Middle East?
Washington’s foreign policy in the Middle East has for decades involved the following:
1. Knee-jerk support for Israel and for all major Israeli policy initiatives, including wars on states such as Lebanon with which the US otherwise has friendly relations.
2. Acquiescence in imposing statelessness and/or refugee status on the Palestinians, and cooperation in crushing any Palestinian resistance to their sad fate. This means no significant US obstacle to Israeli creeping theft of the Palestinian West Bank, and active collusion in the inhumane and illegal Israeli blockade of civilians in Gaza. The policy is seen as necessary to safeguard Israel from historical claims by Palestinians to Palestine, from which most families were ethnically cleansed by militant Zionist forces in 1948.
3. Implicit support for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf oil monarchies, to ensure that petroleum is exported unimpeded and at the lowest prices possible. Although the US imports relatively little Middle East oil itself, the commodity is pivotal for US allies such as Japan and Europe.
4. Supply of security to the Gulf and to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, important channels through which the oil and other trade flows.
5. Application of severe and crippling sanctions on Rejectionist states that effectively support the Palestinians against Israel, attempt to reclaim Middle Eastern resources from imperial hegemony, pose obstacles to US corporations investing in their countries, or just speak nastily of the US. Now that Iraq’s legs have been broken for a generation or more, the current target is Iran.
6. Direct military intervention against groups and states perceived as inconvenient to these goals, whether through land invasions or aerial bombardment and use of drones.
Mursi is at the least inconvenient for the Washington Project in the Middle East.
He certainly will not offer knee-jerk support to Israel the way his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak did (in fact Mubarak was almost certainly being bribed; no one is that obsequious for free). There is no reason to think he will want to be on a war footing with Israel, but his position is likely to resemble that of Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan preserves diplomatic and even commercial relations with Israel while challenging some of its key policies, such as the blockade of Gaza.
The Muslim Brotherhood has said that it will reexamine parts of the Camp David Treaty of 1978-79. But what they appear to mean by that is that the treaty assumed that progress would be made on Palestinian statehood and dignity, whereas Israeli governments used the peace with Egypt as permission to expropriate and half-starve the Palestinians and to invade or attack Lebanon at will.
The Muslim fundamentalist Hamas movement, dominant in the Gaza Strip, hopes that Mursi will finally do something about the plight of the 1.7 million Palestinians there, who suffer severe Israeli controls on imports and especially exports. The blockade extends to many non-military items and Israeli officials have spoken about putting the Palestinians “on a diet,” i.e. making them food insecure to punish them for having voted for Hamas in 2006 and continuing to resist Israeli hegemony. About 40 percent of Gaza’s Palestinians are families expelled from what is now Israel in 1948. Israel does not allow Gaza to have an airport or seaport, interferes with agriculture in 20% of the territory, interferes with Gaza fishing, and is punishing ordinary civilians, most of them children. About 10 percent of Gaza children are malnourished, and over half are food insecure as a result of what Israel has done to them.
Save the Children has recently found that the Israeli blockade is having devastating effects on Gaza’s children (a majority of the Palestinian population), and that clean water is increasingly in low supply. For tl;dr people, see short news article summary.
The blockade of the children of Gaza is a blight on the moral character of the entire world as long as it is permitted to continue. Mursi may or may not be allowed by SCAF to make Palestine policy, but if he can make it, the US Congress (which has been paid off to have an irrational hatred of Palestinian children) is not going to like the results.
Mursi is unlikely to do anything to put in doubt the security of world trade in the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. Although the Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia are rivals because each claims to be the exemplar of the true Islam, he likely will have correct relations with King Abdullah.
But, Mursi is not going to want to cooperate in Washington’s attempt to cripple Iran economically and isolate it militarily. He will have differences with Iran (e.g. over Syria). But he told Iran’s Fars News Agency that he wants to return Egyptian-Iranian relations to ‘normal’:
” Replying to a question about the fate of Iranian-Egyptian relations, Mursi affirmed that ‘We must return to natural relations with Iran, on the basis of the mutual interests of the two states, and expansion of spheres such as coordinating policy and economic cooperation, since that will achieve strategic balance in the region. That is within my program of renascence.”
To the extent that Mursi has anything to say about it (and he may not be allowed to by the generals), Egypt is no longer going to cooperate with some specific programs of the Washington Project, even if he is unlikely to challenge its over-all architecture even if he were able to.
To the extent that Muslim religious parties are typically nativist, hostile to Western dominance, and supportive of the Palestinians, the wave of Muslim religious politics in the region could be bad for Washington. The fundamentalists in turn will take heart from Mursi’s victory, and may get practical support from him. This is true for Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco. Pro-Western monarchies such as Morocco and Jordan with their own Muslim fundamentalist movements will be unhappy with Mursi’s victory.
The silver lining for Washington is that the Middle East is moving away from a politics of dictatorship, repression and resultant terrorism. The burgeoning fundamentalist movements typically have enormous respect for the sanctity of private property and are often eager to promote business. They may not like Israel much, but they aren’t likely to challenge it militarily. Tel Aviv may cease always getting its way, and may have to give up the West Bank and the project of long-term blockade on Gaza. But Israel’s existence or even its military dominance are unlikely to be challenged. And the fundamentalists will be friendly enough with Saudi Arabia such that the Gulf oil won’t be threatened. Mursi and his colleagues will only change things at the margins for US policy, and even then the changes they seek may well be salutary (if they can push Israel into finally ceasing to prey on the Palestinians, they would be doing a big favor to the whole world).