Morsi in Tehran: strategic realignment or a safe pair of hands?

For now, Egypt’s financial stability depends on keeping the US and Saudi Arabia happy.

Egypt’s new President Mohammed Morsi was in China this week before putting in an appearance at the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Iran – all before he has even stepped foot in the US. Several commentators have speculated that this could herald a strategic realignment away from Washington and towards Tehran. The Washington Post hailed the trip as “a major foreign policy shift for the Arab world’s most populous nation, after decades of subservience to Washington”. This seems very unlikely, if not disingenuous, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the importance of foreign visits and their chronology can easily be overstated. Every reactionary from Doha to Downing St goes to China to do business and – unlike the West – China does not demand political allegiance in return. This trip in itself signifies nothing about Egypt’s foreign policy.

Likewise with Tehran: the Turkish foreign minister and the Emir of Qatar are also attending the summit, yet no one is suggesting that an end to their “decades of subservience to Washington” is on the cards anytime soon. Neither should it be forgotten that, although Morsi has yet to visit the US, he hosted a visit from Hillary Clinton within a fortnight of coming to power, and his first foreign visit as President was to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia – the West’s number one Arab friend.

Secondly, it is difficult to believe that Morsi’s election would have been received quite so enthusiastically in the Western media had he been seriously contemplating an end to the US alliance. Pundits from the Guardian to the Telegraph were falling over themselves to downplay Morsi’s "Islamism", hype up his “conciliatory” tone and moderation, and reassure the world that he was, in fact, a respectable statesman like any other.

Morsi received just under 25 per cent votes on a 43 per cent turnout in the first round of voting, and managed to just scrape a majority on a 50 per cent turnout in the second round. The “people have spoken” rhetoric in the Western media over this (hardly landslide) victory contrasted sharply with its scorn for the 63 per cent majority won by Iran’s Ahmadinejad (on an 85 per cent turnout) in 2009 – a victory which easily overshadow’s Morsi’s, even after possible anomalies are accounted for.

Third, Morsi’s government looks set to be deepening, not reducing, his country’s economic dependence on the West: a $4.5bn IMF loan is currently under negotiation. The IMF do not do free lunches - they demand their pound of flesh in the form of privatisation of industry, the abolition of tariffs, subsidies and other measures to make life easier for foreign capital (and harder for the poor).

Not that Morsi’s organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood, have any particular objection to such policies – their economic strategy document al-Nahda (“the renaissance”) is a model of the type of extreme neo-liberalism the IMF so adores. They have already pledged to abolish the £10bn annual food and fuel subsidy that is currently a lifeline for the country’s poor, and are committed to the emasculation of the trade unions which were such a potent force in last year’s uprisings.

The parliamentary opposition that might be expected to fight such measures will be neutered if the Brotherhood implements their commitment to end the long-standing rule that 50 per cent of seats in the Egyptian parliament be reserved for workers and farmers. Interestingly, the IMF loan currently being negotiated was rejected by Egypt’s military leaders last summer as being politically unwise – in other words, likely to provoke massive popular outrage. In economic terms, the elites of Egypt and the West are definitely singing from the same songsheet.

Finally, Morsi seems to be playing the role of figurehead for the latest incarnation of the West’s regime change strategy for Syria. Long before his outburst against Assad in Tehran this week, Morsi had nailed his colours to NATO’s mast, claiming that the Syrian government must “disappear from the scene” because “there is no room for talk about reform”. Now he is proposing a new Contact Group for Syria involving Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran. It can be assumed this plan has the backing of Washington and London – if indeed it was not initially drawn up by them – by the very fact they did not immediately dismiss the idea as they had in the past. Morsi’s spokesman Yasser Ali explained: "Part of the mission is in China, part of the mission is in Russia and part of the mission is in Iran”(presumably attempting to win Russian and Chinese acquiescence to a NATO-imposed "no-fly zone", as suggested this week by US general Martin Dempsey), before delivering an ultimatum to Tehran not to intervene.

What is more likely to be happening is that Morsi is consciously allowing the idea of a “turn from Washington” to take root in order to gain credibility, allowing his Syria plan to be presented as an “independent regional initiative” in an attempt to undermine Russian and Chinese claims of Western imperialism.

We have been here before. Turkish President Erdogan gained huge prestige across the Arab world three years ago for the supposed "anti-Zionism" he demonstrated walking out of Shimon Peres’ speech at the World Economic Forum, and his grandstanding over the Israeli attack on the Gaza flotilla the following year. But he then went on to use this prestige to garner support for the current proxy war against Syria, the only remaining Arab state to follow its verbal backing for the Palestinian struggle with actual military support. In doing so, he effectively placed himself at the vanguard of the Israeli-Western policy agenda for the region.

Morsi’s Egypt remains financially dependent on the US, and now Saudi Arabia. The US famously provides $1.3bn military aid annually, whilst Saudi Arabia has been the only country to provide loans to Egypt - $4bn worth – since last year’s uprising. Meanwhile, the country has been suffering under the double hammer blows of world recession and the loss of tourism. Egypt’s financial stability depends, in the short term at least, on keeping its two backers happy. In this light, Morsi’s comments this week that his commitment to Western-sponsored regime change in Syria was a “strategic necessity” is quite a candid admission.

 

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attend the opening session of the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran (Photograph: Getty Images)

Dan Glazebrook is a History/ Politics teacher and journalist who has written for The Guardian, Counterpunch, Z magazine, the Morning Star and Al Ahram amongst others.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Two referendums have revived the Tories and undone Labour

The Scottish vote enabled the Conservatives' rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted Theresa May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

In the final week of the Scottish independence referendum campaign, as the Union appeared in peril, David Cameron pleaded with voters to punish his party rather than Scotland. “If you are fed up with the effing Tories, give them a kick,” he said. Cameron’s language reflected a settled view: the Conservatives were irredeemably loathed by Scots. For nearly two decades, the party had no more than one MP north of the border. Changing the party’s name for devolved contests was discussed.

Since becoming Conservative leader, Theresa May has pursued a hard – she prefers “clean” – Brexit strategy that Scots voted against and the Conservatives have achieved a UK-wide poll lead of 20 points.

Yet rather than regressing, the Scottish Conservatives have resurged. On 22 April, a Panelbase poll put them on 33 per cent in Scotland (a rise of 18 points since 2015). A favoured Labour barb used to be that there were more pandas (two) in Scotland than Tory MPs (one). The poll would leave the Tories with 12 seats and Corbyn’s party with none. Tory aides confess that they were surprised by the figures but declare there are “no limits to our ambitions” in Scotland.

The roots of this recovery lie in the 2014 independence referendum. The vote, and the SNP’s subsequent landslide victory in the 2015 general election, realigned Scottish politics along unionist and nationalist lines. Led by Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservatives have ably exploited the opportunity. “We said No. We meant it,” the party’s official slogan declares of Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a second referendum. Under Ruth Davidson, the Tories have already become the official opposition at Holyrood.

Labour is torn between retaining unionists and winning back nationalists. It has been punished for its equivocation, as it is being punished over its confused response to Brexit. In April 2016, the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, said that it was “not inconceivable” that she could back independence if the UK voted to leave the EU (and earlier suggested that MPs and MSPs could be given a free vote). Jeremy Corbyn recently stated that he was “absolutely fine” with a second referendum being held.

“For us it’s a badge of honour but there are some people in Scottish Labour who are quite queasy about that word [unionist] and I think Jeremy Corbyn would be very queasy about it,” Adam Tomkins, a Conservative MSP for Glasgow and public law professor, told me. “Don’t forget the Northern Ireland dimension; we’ve all seen the photos of him rubbing shoulders with leading republicans. The Scottish Union is very different to the Irish Union but the word migrates.”

The irony is that Corbyn allies believed his anti-austerity, anti-Trident platform would allow Labour to recover in Scotland. Yet the pre-eminence of the national question has left it in a political no-man’s land.

In contrast to the rest of the UK, Scots backed Remain by 62 per cent to 38 per cent. Far from protecting EU membership, as David Cameron had promised in the referendum campaign, the preservation of the Union now threatened it. Theresa May has since yielded no ground, denying Scotland both a second independence referendum on terms dictated by the SNP and single market membership. But polls show no rise in support for independence.

Conservative aides believe that Sturgeon miscalculated by immediately raising the prospect of a second referendum following the Leave vote last June. Families and communities were riven by the 2014 contest. Most had little desire to disrupt the uneasy peace that has prevailed since.

Nor are the politics of Brexit as uncomplicated as some assume. Thirty-six per cent of SNP supporters voted Leave and more than a third of this bloc have since turned against independence. As elsewhere, some Remainers have accepted the result and fear the instability that secession would cause. Scotland’s trade with the UK is worth four times as much as that with the EU. Davidson, who was one of the most forceful advocates for Remain, says that pursuing independence to counter the effects of Brexit would be “stubbing your toe to then amputate your foot”.

Theresa May, who spoke of the “precious” Union when she became Prime Minister, has devoted great attention to Scotland. Cabinet ministers are instructed to develop a “Scottish plan” when they formulate policy; buildings funded by the UK government now bear its insignia. Davidson’s influence was crucial to May’s decision to retain the 0.7 per cent foreign aid commitment – an emblem of compassionate conservatism.

After a decade of SNP rule, Tory aides believe that their rival’s poor domestic record, most notably on education, is “catching up with them”. More than a year has elapsed since the Scottish Parliament passed new legislation. “We’ve got a government that simply isn’t very interested in governing,” Tomkins said. “I thought that Nicola [Sturgeon] would change that. I was wrong.” What preoccupies the SNP is the constitutional question.

Shortly after the remarkable Scottish polls, a new survey showed the Tories on course to win the most seats in Wales for the first time since 1859. For some former Labour supporters, voting Ukip is proving a gateway drug to voting Conservative.

Two referendums have now realigned politics in the Tories’ favour. The Scottish vote enabled their rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

Before the 2015 general election, Labour derided the Tories as a southern English force unworthy of their official name: the Conservative and Unionist Party. Partly through accident and partly through design, May and Davidson are now reclaiming it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496