Morsi’s fall

For Israel there are both dangers and opportunities in the wake of Morsi’s ouster.

July 4, 2013 21:12
3 minute read.
A protester opposing Egyptian President Morsi during clashes near Tahrir Square in Cairo, Jan 25

Anti-Morsi protest in Egypt 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The speed of Mohamed Morsi’s fall, just a year after his dramatic rise to power, underlines the unpredictability of Egyptian politics. For Israel there are both dangers and opportunities in the wake of Morsi’s ouster.

The renewed dominance of the military could be a positive development for Israel. It is, after all, the military that monopolizes force and is a stabilizing factor.

It was the Egyptian military, for instance, that was instrumental in bringing about the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas last November. It is the military that seems most likely to protect the Camp David peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. And it is the military that has a vested interest and the capabilities to maintain control in the near lawless Sinai Peninsula.

The humbling of the Muslim Brotherhood’s seemingly inexorable expansion not just in Egypt but also in Tunisia and potentially in Syria and perhaps even in Jordan is another positive development, at least in the short term. And this setback for the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to have a moderating effect on Hamas.

We might, however, see a faceoff between the military and the Brotherhood. A particularly bleak forecast holds that Egypt will descend into a civil war similar to the one that ravaged Algeria starting in the early 1990s and continuing through 2002. The circumstances are similar.

In December 1991, a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated party, the Islamic Salvation Party, buoyed by public support, performed well in the first round of national elections in Algeria. Fearful it would lose its hold on the leadership, the ruling National Liberation Front canceled elections.

The military took control. The clashes between Islamists and forces loyal to the military in the 10 years that followed resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands.

In Egypt, too, there is real concern that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist parties will refuse to back down. From their point of view the ouster of Mohamed Morsi was unlawful and the Muslim Brotherhood was voted into power in fair, democratic elections. Technically speaking, they are right. The Brotherhood might even enlist Hamas in its struggle.

Still, while the deposition of an elected leadership with the help of the military is hardly a promising start for Egypt’s post-Morsi era, the speedy intervention of the military on behalf of a coalition of opposition forces with little in common besides the desire to depose Morsi probably prevented a lot of bloodshed, at least in the short run.

Much hinges on how the Obama administration interprets developments. US law requires the White House to suspend its aid to any country whose elected leader is ousted in a military coup. Obama has requested more than $1.5 billion in military and economic assistance to Egypt for the US federal fiscal year that starts in October.

It would be unfortunate if Washington decides to back Morsi’s right to continue to rule, a step the US failed to take in 2011 after the military staged a coup to depose Hosni Mubarak. Indeed, a strong argument can be made that what happened this week in Egypt was not strictly speaking a military coup, because the military did not take control. Rather, it backed a popular uprising against Morsi. After facilitating his ouster, the military then created a civilian council to govern the country headed by the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court.

Though Washington’s influence on Egypt has been greatly compromised, the Obama administration still can have a critical impact. The US could make its continued economic support conditional upon concrete headway toward building a more democratic, pluralistic government that does more to defend embattled minorities such as the Coptic Christian community and the smaller Baha’i and Shi’ite populations. More thought should be given to saving Egypt’s catatonic economy. And aid in the form of both funding and political know-how should be provided to help harness the energies expended on the streets of Cairo and channel them into political parties and institutions.

Unrest in Egypt has generated much unpredictability and the potential for instability and even disaster.

Morsi’s fall, however, also presents new opportunities and can lead to positive developments in the Middle East’s most populous country, and in the region in general.

The outcome depends, at least in part, on the US’s response.

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