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
Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.