Morsi’s Power Grab
The recent crisis in Gaza has confirmed that Egypt´s Mohamed Morsi is a new power player in the region. Everyone—including the United States, Israel and the Middle Eastern countries— paid almost as much attention to what he did or did not do than to the action on the ground and ultimately had to rely on him to bring about the ceasefire.
When the bombardment started, there was little open solidarity with Hamas even in the region. Only when Morsi sent his primer minister, Hesham Kandil, to the strip to show his support did others—Tunisia, the Arab League, Turkey—suddenly follow suit with high-profile visits and statements. Although in public the Obama administration sided with Israel, in practice the U.S. president relied heavily on Morsi to push for a truce—he spoke to his Egyptian counterpart six times. In the end, it was not Hillary Clinton´s visits to Tel Aviv but her trip to Cairo that sealed the ceasefire. Her statement saying that “Egypt´s new government has assumed the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone of stability” gives a sense of the perception that Morsi is now indispensable.
How do the United States and Israel reconcile this with Morsi´s open support for Hamas, a terrorist organization that both governments consistently shun? It´s simple: they have no choice. Israel is dead scared of a potential collapse of security in the Sinai peninsula and knows that Egypt is one of only two Arab countries with which it has a peace treaty. If Cairo were to allow the first to happen and the second to wither away, the consequences could be grave. The United States and Israel are both fully aware of this.
Both governments also know that Morsi has an incentive for Gaza to be run by Hamas in a way that is relatively peaceful and stable. Why? Because the last thing Cairo wants is to take charge of the strip directly. Its show of solidarity with Hamas at the beginning of the conflict was more a case of maintaining some degree of influence over the organization (and placating the militant side of Egypt´s domestic opinion) than of acting on real common interests between the two entities (even though Hamas is really an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, the party that runs Egypt.)
The resurgence of Egypt as the power broker in the region threatens to complicate matters for Turkey, which in the last few years has become very popular in the Arab world by confronting Israel and has signaled that it sees itself as the emerging power in that part of the world. It also brings down to scale the prestige that lesser but assertive powers such as Qatar have acquired by becoming involved with, and funding, part of the Arab spring. Egypt is thus attempting to bring things back to normal.
All of this, however, has now been thrown into question by a classic miscalculation on the part of Morsi, who decided, immediately after the ceasefire was declared, that it was the perfect time to grab near-dictatorial powers through a decree that puts him and the constituent assembly beyond the reach of the courts of law. He already controlled the executive and the legislative branches but was still under pressure from the judiciary. Morsi is right that the judiciary is still partly comprised of former Mubarak collaborators, but the real issue at stake is not so much the risk that the former regime will come back to haunt the new one but what kind of institutional framework will be set up in lieu of Mubarak´s dictatorship.
Morsi´s power grab has triggered a revolt not just by former collaborators of Mubarak but by liberals and groups linked to various churches that are terrified that the Muslim Brotherhood will replace the former dictatorship with an Islamist one. In that sense, the restitution of Egypt´s international role as a power broker in the Middle East, while bringing reassurance to other countries, has paradoxically reinforced among Morsi´s domestic critics the notion that the Muslim Brotherhood represents a new version of the old status quo.
The question now is whether Morsi, who seems to have been taken aback by the widespread reaction, will push ahead with the institutional takeover or will step back and give some relief those who want Egypt to finally transition towards something resembling the rule of law.