Egypt’s transformation

Neither the US nor the Saudis seem willing or able to confront Egypt’s Islamists.

August 21, 2012 22:49
3 minute read.
Protesters chant against Clinton's visit to Cairo

Egypt protest against Clinton (R370). (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Shortly after Egypt signed the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, Tehran’s newly installed Ayatollah regime broke off diplomatic ties with Cairo. For three decades Egypt was one of the few Arab countries – if not the only one – without an embassy in Iran.

But relations are warming between the most populous Arab state in the Middle East and the Islamic Republic. In April of last year Iran appointed an ambassador to Egypt for the first time in over 30 years as a gesture designed to express Tehran’s desire for improved relations in the wake of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.

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Now Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy has announced that he will be attending the Non-Aligned Movement’s conference, taking place in Tehran at the end of the month. It will be the first visit to Iran by an Egyptian president since Egypt’s recognition of Israel.

It appears there is very little the US or “moderate” Arab states like Saudi Arabia can do to persuade Morsy from pursuing a foreign policy that puts Egypt on a course of confrontation with the West.

Internally, Morsy has succeeded in consolidating the Muslim Brotherhood’s control over Egyptian leadership.

In the latest and most dramatic shakeup of the country’s political system since the Tahrir Square demonstrations, Morsy sacked Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, forced out Army Chief of Staff Sami Enan and other top military officials, and scrapped amendments to the constitution that would have limited his power.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, headed by Tantawi, was supposed to restrain the Muslim Brotherhood and ensure the continued enforcement of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. Now Morsy faces no major internal challengers. Egypt’s decision to move tanks and aircraft into the Sinai Peninsula without notifying Israel for the first time since the Yom Kippur War – in an apparent violation of the peace accords – appears to be the direct result of an unrestrained Muslim Brotherhood leadership.


Morsy knows that the vast majority of Egyptians are opposed to the peace treaty with Israel. The Islamic Republic has garnered a tremendous amount of popularity among Arabs across the region for refusing to back down to the West’s demand to halt its nuclear program.

At the upcoming NAM conference, during which Egypt will hand over the chairmanship to Iran, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is expected to push an agenda advocating the right of developing countries – including Egypt – to pursue programs of uranium enrichment and nuclear capabilities.

Both Iran and Egypt are interested in creating alliances with Islamist movements in Arab states that were empowered by the Arab Spring. As a Sunni state Egypt is much better positioned to do so. There are burgeoning Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated movements in Jordan, Syria, Tunisia and Libya. If Tehran can improve relations with Cairo, the Shi’ite regime could capitalize on what has been a Sunni uprising.

True, Morsy has no interest in hurting his relations with Saudi Arabia, which is at odds with the Islamic Republic for stoking a Shi’ite uprising in Bahrain.

Indeed, Riyadh was the first city Morsy visited after winning the presidential elections. With dwindling economic support from abroad and a severely troubled economy, Morsy cannot afford to alienate his Gulf State patrons. Egypt also desperately needs the $1.3 billion in annual aid it receives from Washington.

But neither the US nor the Saudis appear to be willing to confront Egypt.

When Morsy confirmed his participation in the NAM conference, US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland issued a lukewarm response. She essentially admitted there would be no repercussions and expressed hope that “those who choose to go will take the opportunity of any meetings that they have with Iran’s leaders to press them to come back into compliance... to come clean about their nuclear program.”

It is abundantly evident that Egyptian foreign policy under the Muslim Brotherhood has deviated radically and dangerously since Mubarak’s ouster and neither the US nor the Saudis seem willing or able to confront Egypt’s Islamists. None of this bodes well for Israel.

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