US President Barack Obama is keeping an anxious eye on Cairo as he puts together a coalition for his ambitious, complicated plan to rearrange and tidy up the Middle East. If the Egyptian street keeps up its call for President Mohamed Morsi’s head, a key wing of the Obama plan is in danger of collapse.
Tuesday, Nov. 27,Asharq Al-Awsat, the Saudi royal family’s London mouthpiece, pointed to the White House’s silence on the Egyptian president’s grab for dictatorial powers by a constitutional decree he issued Nov. 22 and offered this explanation:
A US State Department source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, revealed to the paper that President Barack Obama is “betting” on Morsi not just to emerge from the current crisis with the Egyptian opposition, but to help bring together the Arabs and Israelis. The source further disclosed that “during the war of the rockets between Israel and Hamas, presidents Obama and Morsi spoke on numerous occasions over the telephone for long periods of time. It appears that Obama is not only grateful to Morsi for his role in mediating between Hamas and Israel, but he wants him as an ally over the next 4 years.”
According to the same State Department source, “Obama is optimistic regarding Morsi’s role in Gaza. I believe that Obama liked what he saw of Morsi in terms of viewing him as a moderate Islamist figure, a doctor in engineering in America, whilst some of his children are American citizens.”
Obama’s Sunni Egyptian linchpin wobbles
At home, Obama’s high opinion of the Egyptian president has done him more harm than good. After five days of clamor for his ouster spread to the main Egyptian cities and left more than 450 people injured, the street turned its anger on the US embassy in Cairo.
The parties opposing the Muslim Brotherhood, disappointed in their hopes for the Tahrir Square revolution to bring secular, democratic and liberal rule to Egypt, started their protest by walking out of the Constitutional Assembly drafting the new Egyptian constitution. They refused to be party to a charter imposing a strict form of Islamic law, labeled by some as close to the Taliban brand. Nonetheless, unless the courts intervene, the assembly is preparing to submit its draft by the deadline Sunday, Dec. 2, ready for a national referendum and the next stage of Egypt’s chaotic transition.
When Morsi then awarded himself powers overriding the judiciary, hundreds of thousands of protesters, the opposition parties and the judges all rose up demanding that he back down.
Their rancor was further incensed by Obama’s approval. This places a major obstacle in the path of the US president’s future plans for a Sunni Muslim coalition to back his Middle East policies that would hinge on President Morsi, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and Qatari ruler Sheikh Al-Thani.
Of the three, Morsi was the most visible when he stepped forward to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas at the end of the eight-day IDF operation (Nov. 14-21), based on a Hamas commitment to halt its long rocket offensive against Israel.
This ended Part One of Obama’s plan.
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 566 of Nov. 23 which analyzed the strategic aspects of that operation in depth)
Obama caught with two large projects in mid-air
However, the operation itself was a cooperative effort by Obama’s new coalition. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s task was to start severing the Hamas-Iran military connection in the Gaza Strip and pave the way to the shutdown of Iran’s weapons smuggling operation for its Middle East allies – largely from Libya and Sudan via Sinai.
After setting these objectives in train, Obama turned quietly to Part Two of his extremely hazardous and delicate Middle East enterprise with two steps:
1. The first US troops and weapons systems for the Turkish-Syrian border are due to arrive within days. (See a separate item in this issue on the latest turn in the Syrian conflict).
By this step, the US starts tightening the stranglehold on Bashar Assad's neck while also pushing Russia and Iran and their Middle East policies into a corner.
2. Washington embarks on the major gamble of direct talks with Iran on its nuclear program, starting Saturday, Dec. 1 (See the opening item in this issue).
For both these extremely high-risk moves, President Obama had counted on a solid Sunni Muslim coalition behind him, the Egypt-Turkey-Qatar lineup that worked well for the Israeli miniwar in Gaza, with a substantial military and intelligence contribution from Israel.
Their instability was not in the cards. Obama was therefore caught unawares by Morsi’s sudden dizzy plunge and fearful of the effect on his plans – especially after he came out of the triple leadership challenge posed by the Gaza hostilities with flying colors.
Morsi forfeits kudos with a rash act
For the first time since his election in June, the Egyptian president stood high at home, on the Arab scene and on the world stage, a canny broker able to de-escalate a tricky crisis. General skepticism of his abilities gave way to admiration for his success in restoring Egypt’s historic standing as a potent Arab power.
Despite his inexperience as a negotiator, Morsi displayed good sense and fine judgment in bringing Hamas and Israel to accept a ceasefire Thursday, Nov. 21. Washington was impressed by the way he rose above the doubts about him.
However, in less than a day, he rashly forfeited all those kudos by a single act, a decree awarding himself absolute powers over and above Egypt’s powerful judiciary, to arm himself for the diplomatic and military steps ahead.
The Obama administration discovered to its dismay that the Tahrir revolution, which overthrew Hosni Mubarak last year and was in abeyance during the eight-day Israeli operation in Gaza, was very much alive and ready to kick its new president out rather than accept another dictator.
Both Morsi and the American strategists with whom he cooperated underestimated the change wrought by the anti-Mubarak revolution in popular political culture and how much the Egyptian people was ready to sacrifice to guard the country’s sovereignty in their longing for truly representative government respecting the rule of law.
Face-savers won’t help the Egyptian President
The Egyptian president will therefore not get away with claiming that his excessive powers are temporary until the new constitution goes into effect after a referendum. The Egyptian masses will not accept a ruler who puts himself above the law. They refuse even to recognize the Islamic credentials of this Muslim Brotherhood representative.
Reminding him of his predecessor’s fate, the protesters shouted this week, “Morsi thinks he’s a prophet… but even the Prophet never deemed himself worthy of this much authority…”
The president will have to go the extra mile and rescind his decree altogether to have any hope of quelling the increasingly violent protests, led by all ten opposition parties, demanding his resignation. A face-saver won’t do. As the protests spread, his time is running out.
His fall would leave the big plans he and President Obama shaped together at the mercy of the angry street and rising anti-American sentiment – and not only in Egypt. Obama’s Sunni Muslim coalition, which briefly rode high on the Egyptian president’s shooting prestige, is therefore one hand short.