It took a couple of weeks for the crisis to come to a head. But the origins of the Morsi government’s crisis lie in Morsi’s radical call for a regional holy war on 15 June, when he cut diplomatic ties with the Assad regime in Syria, and proposed to throw Egypt’s weight behind the Sunni salafist opposition.
Although this move was widely reported at the time, Western media for the most part took no special note of it. A number of outlets did report, two days earlier, on a policy announcement from the Morsi government authorizing Egyptian citizens to join the fight against Assad. Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and a long-time associate of Mohammed Morsi and his senior advisors, had called on Muslims a few days before to go to Syria and fight Assad.
According to the Irish Times, the Egyptian military was having none of this:
Mr Morsi … called for foreign intervention in Syria against Mr Assad, leading to a veiled rebuke from the army, which issued an apparently bland but sharp-edged statement the next day stressing that its only role was guarding Egypt’s borders.
“The armed forces were very alarmed by the Syrian conference at a time the state was going through a major political crisis,” said one officer, whose comments reflected remarks made privately by other army staff. …
For the army, the Syria rally had crossed “a national security red line” by encouraging Egyptians to fight abroad, risking creating a new generation of jihadists, said Yasser El-Shimy, analyst with the International Crisis Group.
There is still, in other words, a responsible power group in Egypt that sees these developments in conventional geopolitical terms, as opposed to jihadist ideological terms. Egypt’s military has no intention of being backed, unresisting, into a regional conflict whose burdens it would have to shoulder. Like most militaries with longstanding conventions and strategies, it favors promoting stability, and is very leery of having ill-defined tasks handed to it by ideologues.
Frankly, the Egyptian military is fighting a rear-guard action here. For the reasons I outlined in a series on the Middle East in 2009, the geopolitical conditions of the region are going to change anyway. I do not predict that Egypt will revert to a post-Mubarak version of the Mubarak regime if Morsi is removed from office. That barn door has been open for over two years, and the cows long since dispersed.
But the popular dissatisfaction with Morsi indicates that he does not have the support of the Egyptian people in his proposed holy war. It appears that he jumped the gun in calling for it. His power has not been consolidated enough for him to wield the state’s might in the people’s name for ideological escapades, with his internal opposition silenced and a semblance of unity imposed on the political landscape.
This doesn’t mean he is fated to be ejected from power in a coup. But it does mean that he will probably have to turn his gaze inward for now, and deal with the decisive opposition to his policies inside Egypt. The Egyptian people did not sign up to be foot soldiers and a resource sump in a holy war. That’s good news.
The Egyptian army may not get help from the United States in reining Morsi in. But it will get help from elsewhere. From their various perspectives, everyone from Russia to Iran to Israel to Turkey to Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and from China to France, Germany, and the UK, has a motive for arranging to rein in Mohammed Morsi’s ambitions. Of one thing we can be sure: contacts are being made between foreign capitals and the senior military staff in Egypt.
In the worst case, Egypt will be plunged into a civil war. If the military is against him, however, Morsi doesn’t have the means to outlast his opposition – at least not in the short term. He has trimmed his sails before, or at least purported to do so, and my strongest expectation is that he will try to do it again: remain in power by making key concessions to the military, even if he has his fingers crossed behind his back. It remains to be seen whether Egypt’s top brass has the strength of mind and staying power to beat Morsi in the internal smackdown he will inevitably launch.
If it comes to that. It being well and truly 2013, all bets are off. Egypt’s future will not wear deeper ruts in an old path. Neither will anyone else’s. If only we had a president who cared to take advantage of opportunities, there is much to be made of the wide-openness of Egypt’s future. There are aspirations to work with; ways to do the Egyptians, and America and our allies, some good. Sadly, we have instead a president who warns Africans that if they get air conditioning, the planet will boil over.