Egypt's extraordinary coup and the future of the Middle East
by Omar Kassem on 13 Jul 2013 3 Comments
We live and learn, especially in the world of Middle-Eastern politics. On November 21, 2012, I wrote an article titled, ‘The Syrian Puzzle and the future of the Middle East’. Life, it seems, is full of puzzles.


That article described the fact that after Gamal Abdel Nasser’s crushing of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1954, and the latter’s search for sanctuary in Saudi Arabia, this led to them helping to shape and run the new institutions of the Saudi state, given that the indigenous Wahhabi religious establishment, as a traditional doctrinal culture, was unprepared for the social and economic upheavals that were to come in the wake of the oil boom from the late 1960s onwards.


It went on to discuss how in the course of a series of crises, the royal family sought the support of the Wahhabi establishment, and survived thanks to it. The crises were: the seizure of Mecca’s sacred mosque and the call to overthrow al-Saud in November 1979, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, and al-Qaeda’s 11 September 2001 attacks in New York. If in each case the régime became embattled, the Wahhabi establishment also increasingly came to be seen as out of touch.


The thesis of the article was that the Muslim Brotherhood became the shrill voice of criticism in the Kingdom, not only in the case of the handling of these crises, but also because of failed economic policies towards the poor. From this state of affairs arose the policy of support for the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria as an attempt to export their relentless energy and relieve tensions internally, while creating client states in the Arab world dependent on the Gulf nations for funding and support.


A corollary of this thesis was that the US and the UK having harmed the interests of their principal ally in the Middle East, namely Saudi Arabia, in the course of their invasion of Iraq, they were now obliged to follow a policy of containment of Iran, which had grown more powerful as a result of the action. In addition, the perceived loss of Iraq to its Shi’a majority after the institution of democracy there, had Saudi Arabia seek as a foreign policy priority the bringing of Syria out of the Iranian ambit, into the Sunni fold, to compensate.


The failure of those efforts led to a bitter personal enmity between King Abdulla of Saudi Arabia and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. This was followed by the exploitation by Saudi Arabia of the first ‘Arab Spring’ demonstrations in Syria to put in place a terrorist incursion. The rest is now history.


Upsetting the Assad régime in Syria and containing Iran clearly had the backing of the US, UK, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Traditionally Israel had been quite comfortable with the Assad régime in Syria. But with the demonstrated strength of Hezbollah during the 2006 Israeli attack, and given the important link between the Hezbollah and Iran that the Assad régime represented, a new view emerged which saw as beneficial the installation of a new Sunni régime in Syria, under the influence of Saudi Arabia.


Given all of this, the role of Saudi Arabia in the July 4 coup which removed Mohamed Morsi (who had become President only a year earlier on June 30, 2012) and the Muslim Brotherhood from power is quite astonishing. In fact, it turns out that throughout Morsi’s Presidency, Saudi Arabia had orchestrated a withholding of petroleum products to Egypt, along with Kuwait and the Arab Emirates, which had made life increasingly difficult, with long queues forming at all petrol stations lasting not hours but sometimes days.


While Egypt does have oil, its refining capacity does not cater for all of the demand in the country. Morsi’s government sought alternative resources for these products and eventually signed a deal with Iraq. It was with the first arrivals of the shipments under that deal that the latest massive demonstrations against Morsi began, and the army clearly began taking sides with the anti-Morsi demonstrators in respect of the tone of their announcements.


There was nothing new in having anti-Morsi demonstrators gather in Tahrir Square the Sunday before the coup, except that the ‘baltagiyya’, the thugs who are criminals on probation under police control and who do the bidding of the Ministry of Interior, had taken off the balaclavas they had been using over the previous year in their destructive forays on persons and property intended to destabilise Egypt’s economy. They instead donned smart T-shirts and jeans and joined the anti-Morsi protesters and formed the ‘shock troops’ that are always ready to cause grievous harm to any pro-Morsi demonstration that gets close. That and the army helicopters flying over Tahrir square with Egyptian flags was a sign that things were not right.


In fact, ElBaradei had met Ahmed Shafiq, the contender for the Presidency against Morsi who was in exile in Abu Dhabi, escaping Egyptian justice over theft and corruption charges, and they had agreed to launch a massive demonstration under the name of the ‘second revolution’ – odd given that Morsi had been democratically elected. Whatever the problems with the running of the country, and we know that Morsi was clearly being undermined by Saudi Arabia and the police force in every way that they could, it is normal in any democratic country to have ‘mid-term blues’, a time when the ratings of all presidents and prime ministers fall. It is not usually an excuse for elements of the country to rise up, remove them from office, and put them in jail.


But the judiciary was a much more formidable foe to Morsi than anybody else. The Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) were all buddies of Mubarak and Tahani el-Gibali, who drafted the first ‘Constitutional Decree’ which Field-Marshall Tantawi had issued to give the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces (SCAF) superior powers over Morsi, literally the minute he was elected President. El-Gibali was the personal lawyer of Suzanne Mubarak, wife of the deposed Hosni Mubarak.


Morsi eventually manoeuvred out of that particular bind by using his new Presidential powers to annul the SCAF decree. However, immediately that happened, the Supreme Constitutional Court invalidated Parliament on a technicality. One third of the seats in the Egyptian Parliament, which were reserved for independent candidates outside party lists, had been voted by incorrect procedures. Instead of invalidating those seats, or calling for immediate re-elections in regard to those seats, Parliament was dissolved entirely and Morsi was left without a legislature.


In order for him to be able to have a legislature, he would need to have a new set of parliamentary elections, irrespective of the fact that the entire Egyptian nation had already elected a Parliament, in a free and fair election, at the cost of two billion Egyptian pounds, a few months earlier. In order to do that he would need to issue a new electoral law. This in turn needed a Senate which didn’t exist to draft it, and this Senate he would have to appoint somehow by himself, in the extraordinary circumstance of the absence of any legislators at that time on the political scene apart from him.


Now comes the big crime that according to many put Morsi ‘beyond the pale’. Intending to issue a decree to set up the Senate and begin the process of issuing the electoral law that would allow elections of a new Parliament, and realising that his decree would be immediately invalidated by the SCC, on November 27, 2012, Morsi issued the famous decree giving himself unlimited powers to ‘protect the sovereign matters of the state’.


The SCC could now not do anything to invalidate his next actions. Despite the fact that on December 8, 2012, Morsi annulled this decree, having achieved what he wanted to achieve, the November 2012 decree took on the proportion of a crime on a scale of Adam eating the apple. The real crime was that Morsi had managed to get the machinery of state going, appoint a Senate, and issue an electoral law. The SCC obviously had a lot to say about that particular law, which went backwards and forwards between the Senate and the SCC, until finally a few weeks ago it was approved and the possibility of new Parliamentary elections were now close to materializing.


That and the fact that Morsi’s government had started getting petroleum product deliveries from Iraq was the last straw – the conspirators huddled – it was time to make a serious move…


Morsi’s nemesis - all told - was Saudi Arabia. I have previously said that Saudi Arabia supported Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. I was wrong, and I will explain why.


Saudi Arabia as a government was (as I said) keen to export the Muslim Brotherhood, but it was not keen for it to gain a major political platform abroad which would eventually give it pretensions in Saudi Arabia. Actually it was the Saudi private sector along with the Muslim Brotherhood in Saudi Arabia that gave Morsi support, not the Saudi Government. As a matter of fact, the major contributor to Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood was Qatar, well above Saudi, for reasons I shall discuss shortly. The Saudi government actually funded the Al-Nour Salafi party which won 27% of the seats in Parliament (which the SCC dissolved on a whim). It is this al-Nour party, funded by the Saudi regime, which essentially caused all problems.


The success of al-Nour at the polls, which was attained by brazen distributions of cash and meat to the poor, and a promise that normal Salafi disgust at ?ufi shrines and rituals would be suspended for political reasons, meant that the Muslim Brotherhood had a strong contender for the Islamic franchise in Egypt. It therefore made the mistake of having its parliamentary party (the Freedom and Justice party, FJP) form an ‘Islamic alliance’ with al-Nour to draft the Constitution, which was eventually voted on December 26, 2012, and passed with 64% of the national vote.


This Constitution was unpopular with the liberal and secular element in Egypt because clause 2, which said Egyptian law is grounded in Shari‘a, was strengthened somewhat to say that it is grounded in the principles of Shari‘a. And although article 219 was added to say that it was al-Azhar University that would be the final arbiter of interpretation on Shari‘a, in order to avoid any extremist Salafi getting involved, it was very unpopular in non-Islamic circles. Truth be told, there is actually little effective difference with the wording of the previous Constitution, but it was the fact that there was a large Islamic alliance that seemed to be getting its way in everything that upset people.


Given the Muslim Brotherhood’s interest in social and welfare matters, which is very well reflected in the Constitution in clauses regarding social welfare and national insurance contributions, the Muslim Brotherhood, through the FJP, could have easily made an alliance instead with the left and the trade unions. The problem is the ideological fact of the atheism of Marxism, which would have meant that the Muslim Brotherhood would have been undermined further by al-Nour in its Islamic franchise.


But this was a mistake, possibly the biggest mistake, for in January 2013 al-Nour left the alliance, possibly under instructions from Saudi Arabia. This left the Muslim Brotherhood and the FJP exposed to a massive alliance of forces against them. One of those forces alongside Saudi Arabia was the Emirates.


Regarding Qatar’s role, where the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual guide Sheikh al-Qaradawi lives, the Brotherhood provides this tiny country of 20,000 people, which is also the richest in the world, with horizons it otherwise could not possibly have. A rivalry exists between the Emirates and Qatar. Qatar was planning to invest at least $10 billion to launch a $100 billion container terminal – the biggest in the world – on the Suez Canal. This, the Emirates saw as a potential threat to the entrepôt business in Dubai, and led to its bitter and open opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood and its plans. In fact, one of the problems that Egypt currently faces is the building of the Renaissance Dam on the Nile in Ethiopia, which puts Egypt’s water supply at risk. It turns out that the Emirates has a $4bn stake in the dam.


What are we to make of all of this, with Egypt’s elected President in jail? Whatever one thinks, he doesn’t deserve that, and neither does Egypt. The fact is Egypt doesn’t deserve the latest SCC special – the Dr Frankenstein Constitution – which an appellate court has issued unilaterally without consultation with anybody except the generals of the junta (see


Politics is a hard business; revolutions are even harder. It took France 100 years to get democracy after its revolution. But I think that this is not a bad development for the country, because Morsi had had to compromise with the military and the last Constitution had granted it too much independence.


Now the gloves are off, and it’s clear that it’s the military that is the problem and will always be the problem. There is a chance for progress in their future (almost certain) failure to rescue the nation from economic collapse. (Can you believe that they have closed down an entire I-pad factory just because it was started by the Muslim Brotherhood?). When that happens, it will be the military which will have to negotiate with the populace at large for its survival, America or no America.


Dr Kassem is an Egyptian currently living in London; a Cambridge graduate in theoretical economics, post-graduate and Ph.D. from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) 

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