April 16, 2014

Op-ed:Morsi’s excellent adventure

President Morsi triggered controversy with his criticism of the Syrian regime at the NAM summit in Tehran.


What links China, Qatar and Iran? Yes, Herman Cain probably doesn’t know the names of their leaders, but it’s not that. There is a temptation to describe them as three “unlikely” foreign policy priorities for Egypt’s President Morsi, but then what were his likely priorities? He has already made his spiritual and political pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, and a visit to Washington D.C. when scarcely a month before Hillary Clinton was given a positively hostile reception in Cairoby objecting crowds would have been a domestic PR disaster. The likes of Libya and Tunisia would have been relatively sensible choices, both with similarly elected Islamist leaders after their own revolutions. Sensible perhaps, were Egypt not currently in an economic mess and in desperate need of a loan. When viewed from this angle, Qatar and even China at a stretch were both likely priorities. However, as well as the economics, the trio fit well within Morsi’s Foreign Policy “Venn Diagram” (it’s a working title). With Qatar, Egypt shares an ethnicity (Arab), with China, shared interests (economic) and with Iran, a religion (Islam).In truth, the visits to China and from the Emir of Qatar passed virtually without hiccup. Morsi managed to secure vital loans and appear statesmanlike, although he’s yet to shake off the portly-dad who-won-a-raffle-for-the-presidency look. One suspects that the numerous attendees of the Non-Aligned Movement conference, and never was a movement more fittingly named, suspected little of what was to ensue. Perhaps the day itself was a particularly humid one, or perhaps the insistent criticisms over his perceived lack of charisma had finally gotten to him, but Morsi abandoned any semblance of diplomacy in a moment reminiscent of a certain Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. And so began his tirade against Syria’s “oppressive regime” :“We all have to announce our full solidarity with the struggle of those seeking freedom and justice in Syria, and translate this sympathy into a clear political vision that supports a peaceful transition to a democratic system of rule that reflects the demands of the Syrian people for freedom”

Ahmedinejad, who had been busy trying to recall where he’d heard the phrase “oppressive regime” used before, snapped back startled at the sight of a delegation walking out of a conference when he wasn’t at the podium. For a moment, the look of panic froze on his face as he deliberated on whether there would be enough people left to walk out when his turn came.

Even more unusually, Morsi found a kindred spirit on the day in the unlikely form of UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon, who mustered enough courage to criticise Iran, in Iran, building on his previous triumph when he delivered a stinging criticism of Israel in his head. Oh, how he smirked to himself afterwards.

Like the previous two paragraphs, Morsi’s visit to Iran appears to have been a nonsensical tangent from what was an otherwise well executed beginning. Yet, it was well-calculated. What was the worst that could have come out of his lambasting of Syria in front of their closest ally? Iran and Egypt have no diplomatic ties to break and there are many other countries who could replace Iran in the “Islam” circle on Morsi’s Venn diagram. At this moment, Morsi stands to gain much more than he stands to lose from his public declaration of support for the Syrian uprising. Furthermore I don’t doubt that Morsi genuinely supports the Syrian uprising, that it happens to be a stance shared with Egypt’s current allies is not sufficient proof of pressure from abroad. There is no conspiracy here, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, albeit imported. However the NYT’s report on Morsi’s speech argued that he had “pointedly” not mentioned Bahrain in order to “avoid offending Saudi Arabia”. The irony here is that the authors “pointedly” ignored Morsi’s mention of Yemen (where many more were killed by a Saudi-backed regime) which I’ll also wildly speculate was to “avoid offending Saudi Arabia”.

Where many had expected Morsi to be naïve, he has thus far proven adept, securing important economic sustenance and sacrificing Iran’s blushes to enhance perceptions of him as a regional leader. Bold? Perhaps not. His affront to two countries with whom he had no real ties amounts to what Kurt Vonnegut once described as a man putting on full armour to attack a hot fudge sundae. Yes, it does count as analysis.

Nour Bakr is a British-Egyptian freelance writer on Middle East politics and currently serves as an Associate Editor with the digital newspaper Your Middle East. You can follow him on Twitter @nour_bakr.

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