Egypt has been garnering a lot of attention of late and even Syria has taken a back seat. Most of the focus is on its internal situation and scantly on how change in Egypt impacts the region. It is in fact the geopolitical significance of this strategically important nation, located at the intersection of Middle East and Islamic Maghreb (northern Africa), which will determine the direction it is allowed to go in, and not necessarily if majority of the people liked Morsi or not.
The Gulf States for the most part have put their weight behind the Egyptian military and US also appears reluctant to suspend military aid to the country, even after the violent rampage that has left more than 900 people dead in the last couple of days. The EU has taken a harsher line initially but is likely to fall in line later.
One of the key reasons for supporting the Egyptian military has to do with the just initiated Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the continuation of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. This point is not in any way intended to convey that the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) affiliated Mohamed Morsi had endangered the peace treaty; in fact Israeli officials have themselves admitted their surprise and contentment to the level of cooperation he offered. On the other hand, in his recent message, Ayman al-Zawahiri blamed Morsi for the policy of appeasement towards Israel and the West for the predicament his regime now faces.
The question is what really changed that brought the quick demise of Morsi. Was it really his non-inclusiveness or were there external causes at play? It was more Morsi going all out in offering support to Sunni opposition fighters in Syria, after his initial foreplay with Iran. This triggered wider anxiety about his intentions. But, how would this be any different from the backing being given by other Gulf regimes, and the West, to the Syrian opposition fighters.
Egypt, Gulf States and Syria
As oppose to Morsi, the other Gulf States present themselves as secular. Morsi’s support base is derived from Islamists (MB) whose ideology is premised on reviving the Khilafat. While the offer of support to Syrian opposition may have meant simply sending the Egyptian jihadists, two dangerous trends could have emerged. One of them is: the coming together of Islamists from Egypt with those of its long lost brethren, which are assembling in Syria from other hot spots, such as AfPak. Secondly, this policy could have inadvertently influenced the fabric and balance of the Egyptian military. These prospects are hardly what Israel can afford at this juncture, especially when Al Qaeda affiliated groups have been gaining traction in Syria and northern Africa.
Furthermore, the outpouring of support from Saudi Arabia for the Egyptian military reflects on the threat perception of many Gulf monarchs. By going out of the way in repressing even the moderate Islamist elements, Saudi Arabia is setting it self for a dangerous backlash for interference in both Syria and Egypt. If the brutalities against civilians continue in Egypt, sooner or later, cracks might start to appear with in the Egyptian military with serious repercussions for the region.
The Salafist experience with democracy is certainly not going well at all. After the failure of the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front during the 90s, and Hamas in 2006, the ouster of Morsi represents the third time and Islamist party has been prevented to rule after having won the elections. This will now convince some factions of MB to pick up arms, vindicating and rehabilitating Syed Qutb’s school of thought that the replacement of the near enemy was more important than the more distant enemy. In the present circumstances, the improvisation could be to wage a fight against both the near and the distant adversary simultaneously.
Western Interests, Egyptian Army, And Extremist Groups
Keeping intact the moderate outlook of Egyptian military is of utmost importance when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel and US rely on Egyptian intelligence to manage the complex MB, Hamas and Fatah dynamics. It should be emphasized how Hosni Mubarak had kept the Rafah border closed, to pressure Hamas in Gaza. On the other hand, Iran, Turkey and Qatar, have continued to make inroads there. After criticizing the Egyptian military for routing Morsi, Erdogan’s visit to Gaza was promptly cancelled, and reportedly, Egypt has also now suspended its ties with Qatar.
The nations that have criticized the recent Egyptian military actions as a ‘massacre’ i.e., Iran, Qatar and Turkey, are pretty much the same polities that have stood up against the Israeli blockade of Gaza. They have offered economic support, and arms to Hamas in case of Iran, to rebuild Gaza. Others have been critical of this assistance to Hamas as it may jeopardize the ‘two-state’ solution. In the aftermath of military action in Egypt, Gaza based Salafi groups have reportedly declared jihad against the Egyptian military which is increasingly facing attacks in Sinai Peninsula. This volatile situation could easily lead to the closure of Suez Canal.
Under these circumstances, US, Israeli and Saudi dependence on Egyptian military would only grow and it is unlikely the American military aid to the country will be cut-off. The call for return to democracy will prove to be merely rhetoric. However, this will further hurt American credibility in the region and strengthen the message of extremists.
In essence, the actions of Egyptian military are now pushing moderate Islamists to join hands with the extremists. If they do, the Egyptian military will be able to justify the extension of its state of emergency. Nonetheless, this could on the one hand lead to a regional backlash against secular outfits, and on the other, it could morph into a front against Shiites. This pattern is already playing out in Syria where Shiite Hezbollah and Sunni jihadist, including Al Qaeda, are now clearly going at each other. The trends unfolding on the ground can no longer be contained with in the confines of arbitrarily drawn borders.