Egypt’s new President Mohammed Morsi was in China last week, putting in an appearance at the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Iran on the way home – all before ever having stepped foot in the US. Several commentators have speculated that his movements herald a strategic realignment for Egypt away from Washington and towards Tehran. The Washington Post hailed the trip as “a major foreign policy shift for the Arab world’s most populous nation, after decades of subservience to Washington”. This seems very unlikely, if not disingenuous, for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the importance of foreign visits and their chronology can easily be overstated. Every reactionary from Doha to Downing St goes to China to do business, and China does not demand political allegiance in return; this trip in itself, therefore, signifies nothing about Egypt’s foreign policy. Likewise with Tehran; the Turkish foreign minister and the Emir of Qatar are also attending the summit, yet no one seems to be suggesting that this signifies any “major foreign policy shift” on the part of either of those countries. Neither should it be forgotten that, although Morsi has yet to visit the US, he hosted a visit from Hillary Clinton within a fortnight of coming to power, and his first foreign visit as President was to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia – the West’s number one Arab friend.
Secondly, Morsi’s government looks set to be deepening, not reducing, his country’s economic dependence on the West through a $4.5bn IMF loan currently under negotiation. As has often been discussed in these pages, the IMF do not do free lunches; they demand their pound of flesh in the form of privatisation of industry, the abolition of tariffs and subsidies and other measures to make life easier for foreign capital (and harder for the poor). Not that Morsi’s organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood, have any particular objection to such policies – their economic strategy document al-Nahda (“the renaissance”) is a model of the type of extreme neo-liberalism the IMF so adores. They have already pledged to abolish the £10billion annual food and fuel subsidy that is currently a lifeline for the country’s poor, and are committed to the emasculation of the trade unions which were such a potent force in last year’s uprisings. Opposition to such measures will certainly be blunted if the Brotherhood implement their commitment to end the current reservation of 50% of seats in the Egyptian parliament for workers and farmers. This reform would pave the way to a parliament stacked with corporate-sponsored middle-class career politicians based on the Western model – complete, presumably, with similar levels of subservience to the global neoliberal agenda. Interestingly, the IMF loan currently being negotiated was rejected by Egypt’s military leaders last summer as being politically unwise – in other words, likely to provoke massive popular outrage. In economic terms, the elites of Egypt and the West are definitely singing from the same songsheet.
Finally, Morsi is clearly playing the role of figurehead for the latest incarnation of the West’s regime change strategy for Syria. Long before his outburst against Assad in Tehran this week, Morsi had nailed his colours to the mast, claiming that the Syrian government must “disappear from the scene” because “there is no room for talk about reform”. Now he is proposing a new Contact Group for Syria involving Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran. That this plan was not immediately dismissed by Washington and London – as similar suggestions had been in the past – is indication enough that it has their backing. Morsi’s spokesman Yasser Ali explained that “Part of the mission is in China, part of the mission is in Russia and part of the mission is in Iran”. Presumably there will be some kind attempt to win Russian and Chinese acquiescence to some kind of NATO-imposed ‘no-fly zone’, as suggested this week by US general Martin Dempsey, before delivering an ultimatum to Tehran not to intervene.
Rather than a “strategic shift”, what is more likely to be happening is that Morsi is consciously allowing the idea of a “turn from Washington” to take root – with the backing of sections of the Western media – in order to gain credibility, allowing his Syria plan to be presented as an “independent regional initiative”, and thus undermine Russian and Chinese claims of Western imperialism.
We have been here before. Turkish President Erdogan gained huge prestige across the Arab world three years ago for the supposed ‘anti-Zionism’ he demonstrated walking out of Shimon Peres’ speech at the World Economic Forum, and his grandstanding over the Israeli attack on the Gaza flotilla the following year. Hw went on to use this prestige, however, to garner support for the West’s ongoing proxy war against Syria, the one Arab state that backs up its supportive words with material support for the Palestinian resistance. In so doing, he effectively placed himself at the vanguard of the Israeli-Western policy agenda for the region.
Morsi’s Egypt remains financially dependent on the US, and now also Saudi Arabia. The US famously provides $1.3billion military aid annually, whilst Saudi Arabia has been the only country to provide loans to Egypt – to the tune of $4billion – since last year’s uprising. Meanwhile, the country has been suffering under the double hammer blows of world recession and the loss of tourism. Egypt’s financial stability depends, in the short term at least, on keeping its two backers happy. In this light, Morsi’s comments this week that his commitment to Western-sponsored regime change in Syria was a “strategic necessity” is quite a candid admission. Morsi’s calculated posturing is an attempt to win credibility by appearing to distance himself from the US, whilst in reality working to win support for US goals both in Egypt – through the pursuance of an extreme neoliberal economic agenda – and in the wider region, by spearheading the latest incarnation of the West’s roadmap to Syrian regime change.