Pragmatism will rule President Morsi's new foreign policy in Egypt

The current threat to western power is not from the Muslim Brotherhood but from ongoing revolutionary dynamics in Egypt.

If you’re in any doubt about the significance of Egypt’s foreign policy orientation, then consider some of the history. In 1956, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s bid for independence from the west drew Britain, France and Israel into an act of aggression over Suez, the failure of which marked a watershed in Britain’s decline from imperial power to lowly “spear-carrier for the Pax Americana”. By smashing the Egyptian military in a few days in June 1967, thus ending Nasser’s extensive capacity for regional subversion, Israel sealed its position as Washington’s number one cop-on-the-beat in the Middle East. And when Nasser’s successor Anwar El Sadat dramatically switched sides in the Cold War, and signed a separate peace treaty with Israel, he earned Egypt both the opprobrium of the rest of the Arab world and access to billions of dollars in US aid.

Barack Obama’s refusal to describe Hosni Mubarak as an authoritarian ruler (“I tend not to use labels for folks”), and Tony Blair’s gushing praise for him as “immensely courageous and a force for good”, reflected the value that western leaders placed on the Egyptian patriarch’s ability to maintain Cairo’s position as a cornerstone of the conservative, regional order. After Mubarak’s downfall, the hope must have been that the US-bankrolled military overseeing the transition period would insulate the key areas of foreign and defence policy from any danger of popular interference. But when the struggle between the junta and the Muslim Brotherhood culminated last month in President Mohamed Morsi’s mass removal of leading generals and nullification of the decree they had issued to limit his powers, a degree of nervousness among Western leaders would certainly have been understandable.

Less justified is the melodramatic response from some quarters to Morsi’s first steps on the international stage. Last week, the New York Times’ leading foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman scolded Morsi for planning to attend the meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran, and thus “helping to sanitize” the Iranian regime (this from a man who once described Bahrain as a “progressive state”). A few days earlier, a current and a former member of the neo-conservative Washington Institute for Near East Policy writing jointly in the Los Angeles Times, noted Morsi’s visits to Tehran and Beijing, and warned that the Egyptian President could be poised to defect to the East in a move comparable to Sadat’s in the 1970s. At the same time, Iranian state media were also furiously spinning Morsi’s impending arrival as a rejection of the US and its allies.

Hindsight is of course a wonderful thing. But when Morsi used his summit speech to denounce the Syrian regime supported by Iran and China - painfully embarrassing his hosts by equating the struggle of the Syrian people to that of the Palestinians – it needn’t have been too much of a surprise to anyone. For one thing, the position had already been stated. Moreover, with the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood heavily represented in that country’s opposition, and with an economically crippled Egypt still reliant on the largesse of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Morsi was only ever going to support one side in the Syrian conflict, which in turn could only preclude a move into the Moscow-Tehran-Beijing camp.

And there were scarcely any other grounds to cast Morsi as a latter-day Nasser or a Khomenei. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood have consistently been at pains to reassure Washington that they have no intention of severing relations (irrespective of who wins the US presidential elections in November) or of abandoning the treaty with Israel. This conservative approach is predictable enough from an organisation whose leadership (putting the rank and file to one side) comprises of businessmen and upper-middle class professionals who have shown a preference for caution, pragmatism and, as Egyptian revolutionaries would (correctly) argue, cynical accommodation with power.

Where some developments in Cairo’s foreign policy are concerned, the west should have no objections, or at least is in no position to complain. Given the recent militant attacks on its southern border, Israel ought to welcome any amendment of the peace treaty that allows Egypt’s military the necessary freedom of movement to secure the Sinai peninsula. Morsi’s attempt to include Iran in regional talks on the Syrian crisis is merely an act of realism given that no negotiated settlement is feasible without the involvement of the key actors (although whether Cairo is any better placed than Washington to bring the parties together, after the Tehran speech, remains to be seen). As for Morsi’s trip to China in search of investment for Egypt’s broken economy, Western complaints are likely to fall on deaf ears. The IMF-approved structural adjustment programs imposed under Mubarak proved devastating for ordinary Egyptians, and did much to create the conditions that led to last year’s uprising. Cairo may currently be too weak to extricate itself from the West’s economic grip, but it can hardly be blamed for wishing to at least diversify the range of actors on whom it depends.

If anything, Washington ought to be relieved that the effects of the Egyptian revolution on Cairo’s foreign policy have been so limited up until now. Seventy-nine per cent of Egyptians currently view the US in unfavourable terms. Sixty-one per cent see US military and economic aid as having a negative impact on their country. Sixty-one per cent favour overturning the peace treaty with Israel, with support for that measure surging recently amongst college-educated young people. A slight plurality believe relations with Washington should be less close (38 per cent) against those who think the status quo should be maintained (35 per cent), with this latter number clearly resting on insecure foundations. (See the Pew Global Attitudes Project report here (pdf).)

Commentators such as Friedman and his neo-conservative fellow travellers have made much of their claimed support for the democratisation of the Arab world. But the prospect of Egyptian foreign policy aligning itself with the views of the people is one they are likely to find hard to stomach. The current threat is not from the Muslim Brotherhood, an essentially conservative force, but from ongoing revolutionary dynamics in Egypt which have deep social, political and economic roots. If those processes continue to unfold, western power really will have something to worry about.

David Wearing is a postgraduate researcher on British foreign policy in the Middle East at the University of London. Find him on Twitter as @davidwearing.

President Morsi shakes hands with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Photograph: Getty Images
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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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