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.