The Egyptian crisis extends beyond Egypt and Egyptians in the complicated Middle East. It is not even merely about the deeply entrenched Egyptian military versus the Muslim Brotherhood. There are conflicted US economic and strategic interests in the region and an assertion of Saudi Arabian interests. Ever since the US dumped Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Saudi and Gulf monarchies have feared regime instability following the success of Muslim Brotherhood’s political Islam in overturning existing systems. There is sectarian conflict in Iraq and increasingly in Syria with the involvement of the Al Qaeda creed. The world generally overlooks the fate of the Kurds who live across four countries.
The July coup by Gen Al-Sisi had received assurances in advance from the Saudis and UAE of assistance worth US $6 billion to offset any cut off by the Americans. This was tantamount to challenging decades’ old US pre-eminence in Egypt and also brought the 68-year old US Saudi security arrangement under some stress. The latest outburst by King Abdullah accusing the US (without naming) of “ignorance” about Egypt and “interference” in the Arab world is a new low in Saudi-US relations. The financial guarantee from Arab monarchies also deflated US pressure on Egypt that IMF conditions would have to be met for additional financial assistance.
There were suspicions of contacts between Morsi’s Brotherhood with the Iranian Ayatollahs and there have been fresh allegations about the Brotherhood’s plans to resort to terrorism. No wonder then that the global response to the bloodletting by the Egyptian military as it removed President Morsi has been mixed, barring condemnation in the Muslim world.
The US has to deal with its global interests conflicting with interests of the regional powers. Qatar, the home to the US Centcom’s Forward Base and to US efforts to strike a deal with the Taliban had initially supported Morsi pouring in billions of dollars in Egypt, Syria and Gaza. However, the kingdom abruptly changed policy in July, the day Saudi Arabia decided to support the military coup in Egypt. The Qataris were thus acknowledging that when it was a question of regime survival, the Saudis were the bosses.
The US is caught in its own dichotomies of having to talk to the Taliban without militarily defeating them, of fighting against Bashar Assad in Syria on the same side as Al Nusra, the Al Qaeda franchisee in Syria or inability to prevent the sectarian civil war in Iraq. It still does not have an answer to the rising power of Iran nor the ability to adequately assure its ally Israel.
Possibly the lines that Sykes and Picot had drawn in the Middle Eastern sand are being redrawn brutally. One would think that the US is running out of viable stable friends in the region at a time when the Chinese and the Russians remain interested in strengthening their positions in the region. Russian military supplies to Syria are matched by American supplies to Jordan.
As with many global American interests, they are quite often defined by financial considerations. The US $1.3 billion military assistance to Egypt has a strong US connection as several companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon and others benefit from this assistance. Add to this the strategic importance of the Suez Canal to meet military and commercial requirements.
The Americans had supported Morsi and the Brotherhood last year hoping that they were the moderates who would help them stem the radical tide in the region. The US could not achieve this, nor could it support Morsi when he was deposed, nor condemn the coup and nor even support Al Sisi. In the end, America could only watch helplessly, paralysed by its own contradictions. The traditional US policy of picking pliant dictators and then plying them with dollars and weapons has been showing diminishing marginal returns. But some suggest an alternative possibility. This draws a deep Machiavellian plot where the US pretends to withdraw support in Egypt while the Saudis step in as the saviours, thereby portraying themselves as the new guarantors of peace and stability in the region.
Meanwhile, there are reports that Hosni Mubarak may be set free soon and the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood has been arrested. The banning of the Muslim Brotherhood would push them underground and into the arms of the Al Qaeda.
Is the Empire striking back or is this a case of overkill? The threat of retaliation by the Al Qaeda and its affiliates is going to keep all intelligence agencies working overtime.
The writer is a former chief of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)