03 September 2012

Mursi’s Policies: Bold or Symbolic?

Written by 
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi (l.-r.) attend the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran, Iran, Thursday. Majid Asgaripour/Mehr News Agency/Reuters United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi (l.-r.) attend the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran, Iran, Thursday. Majid Asgaripour/Mehr News Agency/Reuters http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2012/0831/NAM-summit-Iran-attempts-to-prove-Western-efforts-to-isolate-it-have-failed

For the first time in its 84-year-old history, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has its man, Mohammed Mursi, running the state. And now, after many months of tense wrangling with Egypt’s military rulers – who, it should be said, expedited President Mubarak’s exit and made the people’s revolution a reality – Mursi astonished everyone by forcing the top officers to retire. The executive is now in charge and the commander-in-chief is a civilian.

In another bold move, Mursi went to Teheran – the first Egyptian leader to set foot in Iran since the 1979 Revolution – and to all of the delegates of the Non-Aligned Movement gathered there, he declared that the Syrian uprising was “a revolution against an oppressive regime.” The Egyptians got rid of their “Pharaoh” (the Qur’an’s biggest villain aside from Satan himself) – it’s now time for the Syrians to do likewise. His host, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, likely turned livid, and on cue, the Syrian delegation walked out.

Here I unpack Mursi’s foreign policy in light of his actions in Teheran, leading me to explain a bit more about the Non-Aligned (or Nonaligned) Movement and Iran. Then I come back to Egypt with some remarks about islamists, globalization and the economy (reminder: I write “islamists” with a lower case ‘i’ because it’s an ideological stance, not primarily religious). As you might guess, a country’s foreign policy and its economic philosophy are deeply interwoven. In the end, Mursi’s policies may not be as bold or new as they seem.


Who are the “Non-Aligned”?

Historically, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) was birthed at the Bandung (Indonesia) Conference in 1955. Leaders of Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Burma and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) invited leaders from twenty-five other developing nations to discuss how they might band together to resist a world dominated by two superpowers. As it turns out, Egyptian president Gamel Abd Al-Nasser was a key player and his joint initiative with India’s Nehru led to the first Non-Aligned Nations conference in Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1961.

The twenty-nine nations in Bandung officially supported the Algerian struggle to oust the French and called for a peaceful settlement of the Palestinian crisis according to existing UN resolutions. Though the movement quickly grew in importance (it has 120 members today) and its goals seemed clear enough, it remained stymied by internal divisions.

No doubt, the fall of the Soviet Union created even more inner turmoil. Some felt that the NAM had outlived its usefulness. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and especially India and Egypt (which still receives $2 billion annually in aid since the 1978 Camp David Accords) have close ties with the USA. Still, reason a majority of nations, the United States and its allies continue to dominate the world politically and economically. Also, the issues of globalization, debt, the destructive effects of neoliberal capitalism on developing nations and the rise of international crime – these issues continue to be discussed.

But, you say, isn’t it the role of the UN to address such problems? It is, of course, but a disproportionate amount of power is invested in the Security Council, which because of its five permanent members with veto power can easily be dominated by the western powers (the US, France and the UK), though China and Russia in the case of Syria oppose them. Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, spoke for many others during this last NAM conference when he declared that the U.N. Security Council is “an illogical, unjust and defunct relic of the past used by the United States ‘to impose its bullying manner on the world.’”


Iran’s balance sheet at the NAM conference

The NAM has neither constitution nor permanent secretariat. Decisions can only be made at the Conference of Heads of States or Government, meeting once every three years. This Teheran conference marks the passing of leadership from the Egyptians to the Iranians. NAM chairs in this century have been Malaysia, South Africa, Cuba, before Egypt took over in 2009.

Iran stood to gain immensely from this transition. They were hosts in 2012 when four sets of UN sanctions have been passed against them and most nations, led by the US and Israel, have taken a firm stand against their nuclear program believing it is for the purpose of developing nuclear weapons – something still vociferously denied by Iran.

How did they make out in the end?

First, on the positive side for Iran, the New York Times had this to say:

“The 120-nation Nonaligned Movement handed its host Iran a diplomatic victory on Friday [Aug. 31, 2012], unanimously decreeing support for the disputed Iranian nuclear energy program and criticizing the American-led attempt to isolate and punish Iran with unilateral economic sanctions . . . The Tehran Declaration document not only emphasizes Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy but acknowledges the right to ownership of a full nuclear fuel cycle, which means uranium enrichment — a matter of deep dispute.”


Admittedly, this was a big victory, but not without paying a heavy price all the same. First, though initially pleased that Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, had accepted to attend, the Iranian leaders had to endure two sets of stern public reprimands by him. At the conference itself Mr. Ban urged Iran to prove their peaceful intentions by allowing the UN complete access to their nuclear facilities and full cooperation with all their demands. Then he castigated their attitude toward Israel in these words,


“I strongly reject threats by any member states to destroy another or outrageous attempt to deny historical facts such as the Holocaust, claiming that another state, Israel, does not have the right to exist or describing it in racist terms.”


Then the next day, while addressing Iran’s School of International Relations, Mr. Ban openly criticized Iran’s human rights record and told them he had privately urged Ayatollah Khamenei to release all political prisoners.

Yet the most painful rebuke to the Iranian leaders came from Egypt’s President Mursi (sometimes spelled "Morsi") who in his official speech transferring the chairmanship of the NAM to Teheran compared the Syrian people to the Palestinians who were both “actively seeking freedom, dignity and human justice.” Egypt, he continued, was “ready to work with all to stop the bloodshed.”

In essence, the islamist leader was framing the Arab Spring as a classic “third-worldist” resistance movement against colonialism and dictatorship:


“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.”


As a result, not a word was said about Syria in the final conference declaration. Persian and Shi’i Iran, which is rumored to have sent military advisors and weapons to help President Asad, turned out to be deeply out of step with its Arab brethren. So on two counts, the Iranian hosts received stinging censures.

But what do all these events say about Egypt’s President Mursi?


Egypt’s tightrope foreign policy act

Mursi’s visit to Teheran and rebuke to his Shia hosts drew praise from many Egyptians. In fact this may have been his primary motivation, besides the fact that he, as a Muslim Brother, genuinely hates President Bashar al-Asad, whose father in 1982 massacred over 12,000 mostly islamist opponents of his regime in Hama. Just like at home, those standing most to gain from regime change in Syria are from his own ranks. Still, Mursi has some formidable challenges at home and building political capital has to be top on his to-do list. As an Associated Press article put it,


“Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s international debut made its biggest splash at home. After he publicly denounced Syria’s regime while being hosted by Damascus’ top ally Iran, Egyptian supporters and even some critics are lauding him as a new Arab leader that speaks truth to power.”


He also scored points with the ultraconservative Salafis at home when he began his speech by praising Muhammad’s first two successors, Abu Bakr and Umar, who for the Shia were simply impostors since they stood in the way of Ali, the Prophet’s cousin, who they see as his only rightful heir.

Many other countries applauded his anti-Asad stance as well. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell spoke of Mursi’s word on Syria as “very clear and very strong,” particularly considering the speech was in Teheran. But that is the point. Apart from the fact that he was the first Egyptian president to go to Iran, his speech was not particularly bold. He was only saying what all other Arab leaders would have said in his place.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman interviewed Mursi and other islamist leaders some six months before the June 2012 presidential election (“Political Islam Without Oil”) and noted how cautious Mursi and his colleagues seemed to him. A Mursi administration would honor all passed treaties, including the Camp David Accords with Israel (in fact, in August 2012 it was vigorously fighting the radicals in the Sinai Peninsula who had attempted an attack on Israeli soil). Friedman was right: Egypt’s dire economic troubles mean that it cannot afford to jeopardize in any way the yearly inflow of $2 billion in US aid. The islamist party in power knows the handwriting on the wall:


“Egypt is a net importer of oil. It also imports 40 percent of its food. And tourism constitutes one-tenth of its gross domestic product. With unemployment rampant and the Egyptian pound eroding, Egypt will probably need assistance from the International Monetary Fund, a major injection of foreign investment and a big upgrade in modern education to provide jobs for all those youths who organized last year’s rebellion. Egypt needs to be integrated with the world.”


Indeed, Egypt has been in conversation with the IMF and World Bank, as Mursi knows only too well that his party’s political future hangs on his ability to deliver on the economic front.

But, you may be asking, don’t islamists talk about social justice in a way that undercuts capitalism? And what about Islamic banking, and the like?


The paradox of islamist economics

Egypt’s post-revolutionary foreign policy will not be very different from that of the Mubarak era. It literally cannot afford it. But here are three other reasons why I think the economy dictating an islamist state’s foreign policy is so paradoxical – and I will list these in bullet form with more information coming in a future blog:

Let’s start with Tom Friedman’s obvious point about globalization: no one state can survive long term independently from the world economy. That is the reasoning behind the sanction regime trying to pressure Iran to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency. (Ironically, its chairmanship of the NAM is not likely to help). Mursi’s party was consulting with international agencies months before his election. This was the main point of my blog, “Is ‘Political Islam’ Over?”. President Mursi has to find a way to rebuild an economy in shambles and therefore attract foreign investment.

What is more, there is no such thing as “Islamist economics.” I can show you writings from the 1970s and 1980s (and even today) that call for “the middle path” between capitalism and socialism, and even Islamic socialist manifestos. But the fact is that there is no consensus on these issues. I will write more about “Islamic banking” at a later date. Suffice it to say that in practice it changes little from the capitalism you see applied elsewhere. For an idea about the gap between the slogans and the reality of poverty alleviation in the Islamic world, see my blog about zakat, one of Islam’s five pillars.

Finally, whereas the puritanical Salafis draw their support from the urban poor, the Muslim Brotherhood has always been an urban middle class phenomenon. True, their people have dominated many of the professions like the doctors’ and lawyers’ unions in Egypt. But their core constituents come from the small businesses. Sociologist Khalil al-Anani, a keen observer of Egypt’s recent developments, wrote an insightful article on this, "Islamists in Power Adopt Economics of the Old Regimes." For an even more critical commentary, consult noted Egyptian journalist Wael Gamal who argues that the Brotherhood is beholden to the richest industrialists (he uses the Occupy slogan, the “One Percenters”) who clearly favor the neoliberal strategy of “public-private partnerships” (PPP), which in the end, he believes, will only widen the gap between the rich and the poor.

So when all is said and done, Mursi’s speech in Teheran was not all that bold. His taming the military, I believe history will show, was indeed an act of courage and foresight. But we shouldn’t expect much independence or “nonalignment” in his foreign policy – or in his domestic policies. Perhaps Egypt will need another revolution for that.