Egypt: The Deck Reshuffled (Pt. 3)

Egypt revolts against Britain in 1919.

Egypt revolts against Britain in 1919.

Cross-posted from the Colorado Progressive Jewish News. Read Parts 1 and 2.

The situation unfolding in Egypt is confusing to many Americans trying to follow the events. A number of questions have emerged in the aftermath of the Mohamed Morsi’s removal from power and the blow suffered thereby to the Muslim Brotherhood.

What are the questions people are asking?

Was the United States involved – in conjunction with the Egyptian military, supported by the vast masses of the Egyptian public in Morsi’s removal?

Isn’t the Muslim Brotherhood allied with the United States? Don’t they support U.S. Middle East policy economically (neo-liberalism) and politically (trying to bring down the Assad government in Syria)? And if indeed the Brotherhood is a U.S. political ally, why would the United States not just support, but actively participate (as they did) in Morsi’s removal?

The parameters of a somewhat clearer picture of the Egyptian situation are coming into focus.

At the outset, let us keep in mind that once again, as they did so two years ago, the people of Egypt have revolted against the political tyranny imposed upon them for most of their contemporary history. What is it that has provoked the revolutionary uprising in Egypt? The goals remain the same as in 2011: freedom, jobs, a more decent standard of living, healthcare, dignity. While the Egyptian people have been calling for an overall improvement of their lives at Tahrir Square, while unable to prevent the revolutionary upsurge, the Obama Administration has been busy orchestrating events that would ultimately contain it and prevent it from attaining its objectives.

The evidence is mounting that the United States was an active participant and deeply involved in Morsi’s removal. Taking advantage of Morsi’s (and the Muslim Brotherhood’s) political incompetence and crude political factionalism, the Obama Administration was able to encourage the Egyptian military unseat Morsi. The latter has all alienated growing sectors of the Egyptian population in the short year he was in power. While the Egyptian people had the power to remove Morsi, they did not yet have the program, in the name of which, radical change could take place. Thus, a reshuffling of the deck once again rather than a change of substance!

A clearer picture of what one may call ‘regime exchange’ in Egypt and the central role played by the United States in the unfolding saga is emerging. Recent events are instructive. To handle the increasingly complex Egyptian political situation the Obama Administration is ‘sending in the hawks.’ Two examples (among many) illustrate the point:

• The State Department is suggesting replacing US Ambassador Anne Patterson with Robert Ford. Patterson has been nominated as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. A protégé of John Negroponte, Robert Ford, a man who already has a good deal of blood on his hands elsewhere in the Middle East, is largely responsible for implementing the Salvador Option in Syria (the creation of death squads) and for helping the Iraqi Al Qaeda group under John Negroponte take shape.

• Sending two of the more hawkish U.S. Senators, McCain and Graham to help the Egyptian military out of what has come to be called ‘the democratic impasse’ adds to the picture.

Now reports are surfacing in the U.S. media of the Obama Administration’s direct intervention in preparing the coup. A July 6, 2013 NY Times article gives a good account of how deeply involved the Obama Administration was in the effort to remove Morsi. The article describes Morsi’s ‘last hours’ in office, awaiting his fate at the hands of the Egyptian military – a military that has been nothing short of a U.S. strategic asset for the past forty years. According to the report, an unnamed Arab foreign minister, claiming to be calling on behalf of the Obama Administration, telephoned to ask Morsi if he’d be willing to accept the appointment of a new prime minister and cabinet, that would in effect reduce Morsi’s role to that of a mere figurehead (as is Tunisia’s President Marzouki).

Morsi made a major miscalculation. Mistakenly believing that he had ‘tamed’ Egypt’s military, Morsi rejected the offer. He had his top foreign policy advisor, Essam Al Haddad, step out of the room to inform Anne Patterson, U.S. Ambassador to Egypt. Rather than speaking to Patterson, the advisor was on the phone with Susan Rice, Obama’s national security advisor in Washington who advised him that the coup was about to begin. What more evidence is needed that the United States was deeply involved in the Egyptian coup?

The United States and Its Middle East playthings: Qatar, Saudi Arabia…The Brotherhood and the Salafists.

But it raises valid questions: Was Morsi working against U.S. interests, so much so that Washington felt the need to work for his removal? If Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood  were so supportive of U.S. Middle East policy, why politically dispose of such a subservient puppet? Without an understanding of the regional context in which the Egyptian events are transpiring, not much of this makes sense, and yet there is an underlying logic at play

A cursory examination of Muslim Brotherhood policy during their first year in power in Egypt clearly dispels any suggestion that Morsi was working against U.S. policy. In power, Morsi cooperated closely with the United States and even played a key role in a number of events conducive to U.S. interests. He helped broker a truce between Israel and Hamas in 2012. Morsi and the Brotherhood were solidly behind the U.S. in the conflict with Syria and have wholeheartedly supported the U.S. effort to overthrow the Syrian state.

Despite the high hopes of those participating in the 2011 revolt against Mubarek for substantial change, Egypt’s revolution has been no more than a ‘regime exchange’ rather than a ‘regime change’.  Power has been rotated back and forth between the former pro-U.S. Egyptian, market economy power circles on the one hand and the conservatives of the Muslim Brotherhood on the other, with the military playing the role of political middleman. During the Mubarek era, Egyptians had to deal with the likes of the Sawari billionaires; during the Morsi era it was Brotherhood leader Khairat al Shater and his ilk, but for the general population nothing changed. Al-Shatir is the one who bankrolled Morsi’s election and was the person who supervised Jimmy Carter’s interview with Morsi upon his election.

This kind of power rotation has so far proven to be an effective mechanism in containing the revolution and derailing it away from its goal of establishing a new order. Washington is adapting to this “regime exchange” in order to prevent a “change in regime.” Successive U.S. administrations (and since the 1979 Camp David Accords) and Israel have nurtured Egypt as a strategic asset that they will not easily abandon.

If our assumptions that Washington could have lived with Morsi is correct, than why the change? To ascertain the answer we need to look at the shift and realignment of political power in the region, most especially the competition between Saudi Arabia and Qatar for regional hegemony within the Arab World, using their hydrocarbon money to buy influence.

There can be little doubt that Washington has shifted its regional support away from Qatar to its old and trusted Saudi ally after a flirtation with Doha. The sudden June 25, 2013 removal of the previous emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamid bin Khalifa Al Thani, replaced by his son, a 35 year old playboy, Tamin bin Hamid Al Thani, is a clear indication of the re-direction of the regional power centers. The latter, little more than a playboy, cares little about competing with the Saudis for regional power (unless it concerns soccer). The recent trip of the new Qatari emir to “pay homage” to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia supports our arguments.

The elder Al Thani was too successful in eclipsing Saudi regional influence. Qatari success became anincreasing irritant to the Saudi royal family. Qatar worked through and heavily funded the Moslem Brotherhoods – a long established predominantly Arab based international network – to extend their influence and weaken that of the Saudis who have long backed both Salafist and Wahabbist groups. The competition created a conflict of interest for the United States that was forced to choose between its two main regional allies – the Saudis and the Qataris. And choose Washington did and decisively so, its support going to its long-time allies in Riyadh, still the greatest single source of oil in the world.

The Saudis never supported Morsi and the Brotherhood in power in Egypt. To placate the Saudis, not only was the Qatari emir unceremoniously removed from power, but the US, acting upon Saudi insistence, had to drop Morsi simply because he was more aligned through the Brotherhood, with the old Qatari power center. Morsi, despite is faithful service, and the Muslim Brotherhood became the sacrificial lambs needed to appease the Saudis, with the added benefits that this ‘regime exchange’ in Egypt would accrue to Washington – temporarily responding Egyptian mass sentiment.

Granted that for the U.S., the Egyptian military is the most committed institution to the U.S. regional strategic vision and as a result, the military remains the Egyptian institution most committed to maintaining its strategic ties with Israel. Still the political polarization that appears to be shaping up between the military on the one side and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other, could result in a situation where the popular call for genuine change is sidelined and consequentially, the revolution aborted. How else, given the Brotherhood’s track record, can Washington’s incentive to orchestrate the Egyptian military coup to overthrow the Brotherhood’s rule be explained?

It is with this in mind that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s defense of the Egyptian military takeover (which he defended on a trip to Pakistan) becomes understandable. Kerry even went a step further, speaking Thursday in Islamabad, commenting that the Egyptian military was “in effect…restoring democracy.” According to the Wall Street Journal’s Matt Bradley, Kerry was quoted as saying “The military was asked to intervene by millions and millions of people, all of whom were afraid of a descent into chaos,” That is how many Egyptian analysts see the events of early July, when millions of protestors clearly desired military intervention. But Kerry added, more controversially, “the military did not take over, to the best of our judgment…to run the country. There is a civilian government.”

It is within this framework that the U.S. refusal to label the Egyptian military’s latest intervention on July 3rd as ‘a coup’, not because it may cause the Obama Administration to be obliged by law to cut U.S. aid to Egypt but as not to alienate the Saudis further. Similarly, given the new regional political alignment, one can understand why it was that Qatar , which had sponsored the Morsi-led Muslim Brotherhood  government, originally offered Morsi’s government $7 billion  and why once Morsi was overthrown, Saudi Arabia offered Egypt some $12 billion (along with UAE and Kuwait) within 48 hours of this latest “regime exchange” in Egypt, which, in light of the U.S. strategic alliance with the three countries, could not have been so promptly forthcoming without a U.S. ‘green light’.

Ibrahim Kazerooni, originally from Iraq, just received a joint PhD in Religion and International Studies from the Iliff School of Theology and the Korbel School of International Studies of the University of Denver. More of his work can be found at the Imam Ibrahim Kazerooni Blog. Rob Prince is a Lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies and publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

  • Michael J. McNeal

    Why would Washington grant the Saudi’s demand for a US supported (engineered?)
    ouster of Morsi when regional instability and the invigoration of the MB throughout
    the MENA region was a likely outcome? And while the Saudi’s have handed
    billions of dollars in direct aid over to the junta leaders in

    Cairo since the coup (>$12b according to some accounts, as you note), in order
    to “stabilize” Egypt, that is a mighty high price to pay just to
    spite the Qataris for their recent success.

    It is more likely that the Saudi’s, who fear democracy and the MB (re: Arab
    populism) as much as any of the tyrannical regimes in the GCC, supported the
    ouster of Morsi irrespective of any competition with Qatar or its rising prominence
    in the region, or US support vis-a-vis Saudi – Qatari competition

    for influence.

    This blog entry implies that the US is somewhat capriciously manipulating the
    region according to its whim, and I think that is an inaccurate (and implicitly
    orientalist and neo-imperialist) view of the

    situation that attributes more influence to Washington than it is capable of wielding.
    It is clear that the U.S. (at least) tacitly supported the coup in Cairo, which
    is likely to prove a serious policy blunder. But If the Saudis had been willing
    to prop up a military junta in Egypt with billions of dollars, why would they
    not have engineered Morsi’s ouster themselves? Do the authors really believe
    that the Saudis think they need Washington’s permission for everything they do
    in the region, particularly when their interests align? Or that the US would
    destabilize Egypt to “placate” Riyadh for having supported Qatar?
    That is a bizarrely conspiratorial assertion. Do they really imagine that the
    Saudi’s oil motivates us as it once did? That geo-strategic calculus has
    changed profoundly in the last five years, so I’m quite skeptical of this old
    chestnut.

    Is it not far more probable that Egypt’s neo-liberal elites and military had
    been scheming to execute this coup for some time, if not all along, and that
    the Obama administration was simple too craven and/or uninformed of the coup
    leaders’ intentions to effectively intervene? There is ample evidence that this
    is the case: Egypt’s military did little at all over the last year to combat
    militants in Sinai as other vested interests strove to foster the appearance
    that Morsi was ineffectual and incompetent via power shortages, erratic garbage
    collection, etc. Whatever the case, a distillate of the former Mubarak regime
    is back in power and now fatuously praises itself for “saving”
    Egyptian democracy in a “fight against terror” while it murders its
    peaceful opponents in the streets of Egypt’s cities. And it is equally clear
    that Washington and Riyadh are pleased.