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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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.