Written by Prof. Hillel Frisch
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has proven himself to be a dictator in the footsteps of his predecessor Hosni Mubarak. He has consolidated his power by sacking the military leadership and by granting himself extensive powers over the judicial system. It is not coincidental that his most recent dictatorial decree (overriding the judiciary) was issued following his successful brokering of a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Morsi seeks to further strengthen his control over Egypt while continuing to benefit from Western aid.
President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt has struck again.
In August this year he surprised everyone by sacking Egypt’s venerable minister of defense and the heads of the army – the chief-of-staff and the heads of army, navy, and air force – and replacing them with generals of his own liking. He used the massacre of 15 border police by a jihadist group near the Egyptian-Gazan border as his excuse for the purge. The senior military command, which had until that point ruled Egypt with almost an iron hand, caved in without a whimper. To press home their defeat, Morsi did not even bother to invite the former minister of defense and the chief-of-staff to the traditional memorial events surrounding the “victory” of the October 1973 war, even though they were its most prominent living veterans.
On November 22, 2012, Morsi struck again in no less surprising fashion. Under the camouflage of an unimportant trip to a conference on economic development in Karachi, Pakistan, he issued a presidential decree (dubbed the “Revolution Protection Law”) that forbade the dissolution of the constitutional drafting committee from which most of the liberal, secular, and church representatives have withdrawn. He also assumed powers that allowed him to dismiss the unpopular general prosecutor and to retry Mubarak and his aides. These decisions, he announced, were not subject to judicial review.
The United States and its European allies, despite their democratic rhetoric, responded with feeble censure. They noted their “concern” over the decree but did not express outward opposition. Significantly, the decree came on the day after Morsi garnered international acclaim for his successful effort to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.
The timing raises the following question: What is the relationship between Morsi’s proclamation of powers, which his critics claim makes him a new Pharaoh, and the Gaza ceasefire? It sounds like a riddle but in fact the connection is compellingly logical.
President Morsi, long a senior and radical member of the Muslim Brotherhood before being elected to the presidency, committed himself through the Gaza ceasefire to something that former President Mubarak never sought, let alone achieve. Mubarak, depicted wrongly by the media as an ally of Israel’s, never pressured Hamas to stop the devastating trickle of rockets and mortars it had continuously fired on Israel’s south. Instead, Mubarak used Hamas to bleed Israel.
(Mubarak slightly altered his position after Hamas breached the Egyptian border in January 2008. The breach led to an inundation of hundreds of thousands of Gazans into northern Sinai, including dozens of jihadists and Hamas terrorists. The latter subsequently played important roles in the weakening of Egyptian control in the area).
Unlike Mubarak, Morsi has now obligated himself to stop all Hamas rocket fire towards Israel, essentially putting an end to Hamas’ muqawama (resistance) that distinguished the Hamas government from the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas, whom Hamas accused of collaborating with Israel.
Morsi, however, is hardly the person to deliver this without a hefty price tag. The timing of the ceasefire and Morsi’s assumption of dictatorial powers over the judiciary more than suggests a connection with Gaza.
Essentially, Morsi is trying to force the United States and its European allies into a deal that runs something like this: “Render me what is Pharaoh’s in the land of Egypt, and I will deliver you stability on the Israeli front. You and your local allies, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the other Gulf states, can then focus on Syria and Iran.” In short, what Morsi is saying is “Give me my kingdom and I will give you and your allies primacy in the area.”
For Morsi, the test whether the United States, Europe, and the Gulf states accept the deal is as simple as this: Will the IMF loan Egypt $4.8 billion, along with five billion euros of aid, and additional funds from the Gulf money? Will these funds rescue an Egyptian economy beset by domestic turmoil that Morsi’s own moves begat? (After his decree, the value of shares on the Cairo stock market plunged by 10 percent).
United States foreign policy always has been plagued by the tension between Jeffersonian ideals of spreading democracy and a more hard-headed Hamiltonian realism. One can wager that the United States, despite democratic rhetoric, will come up with the aid that Morsi seeks. However painful the deal may be, the Iraqi experiment and many other examples suggest the primacy of America’s interests over high-minded principles. After all, this is exactly how Morsi resolved his own dilemma.
Prof. Hillel Frisch is a professor of political studies and Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University, and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
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