Monday, September 24, 2012

Mr. Morsi flexes his muscle


IF THERE was ever any doubt that Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi means to be taken seriously as a player on the world stage, or that he would work his leverage as head of the largest-by-population nation in the Middle East, those doubts may have died on Saturday, before he landed in New York to attend the General Assembly of the United Nations, and the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative.

In a remarkably candid, even tough 90-minute interview with The New York Times, published on Saturday, Morsi showed himself willing to call into question certain geopolitical pieties vis-à-vis Egypt’s historical relationship with the United States; and in blunt language brought the idea of a Palestinian state front and center for discussion — an inevitable chafing point for Israel.

But Morsi’s style — which seems to embrace the realpolitik aspects of diplomacy and the Egyptian street — should make the White House, Israel and western powers generally take notice. Morsi’s unalloyed patriotism combines with a worldliness, a savvy about the United States that his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, never had. The markers laid down in his Times interview effectively change the terms of engagement between the West and an indispensable Middle Eastern nation of 85 million people.

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It was a piss from a great height. In the interview with David D. Kirkpatrick and Steven Erlanger of The New York Times, Morsi displays a masterful sense of the moment. He’ll be addressing the Assembly on Wednesday, but the Times interview was his opportunity to make his case in depth as Egypt’s first democratically elected president, and to put it in the public record before he even arrived.

He did not disappoint. Kirkpatrick and Erlanger report:

“Mohamed Morsi said the United States needed to fundamentally change its approach to the Arab world, showing greater respect for its values and helping build a Palestinian state, if it hoped to overcome decades of pent-up anger. ...

“He said it was up to Washington to repair relations with the Arab world and to revitalize the alliance with Egypt, long a cornerstone of regional stability.

“If Washington is asking Egypt to honor its treaty with Israel, he said, Washington should also live up to its own Camp David commitment to Palestinian self-rule. He said the United States must respect the Arab world’s history and culture, even when that conflicts with Western values.”

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IN THE interview, Morsi pushed back against early speculation that the true authority for the Egyptian military still lay in the hands of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the clique of Mubarak patrons who consolidated power in the wake of Mubarak’s ouster in February.

In a bold and decisive move hailed by Egyptian media as a “revolutionary decision,” Morsi in August fired Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the defense minister, and Sami Anan, the armed forces chief of staff, and scrapped a constitutional declaration adopted by SCAF on June 17, a document that effectively let the military usurp the legislature, Al-Jazeera reported.

So Morsi spoke with an obvious confidence to the Times. “The president of the Arab Republic of Egypt is the commander of the armed forces, full stop. Egypt now is a real civil state. It is not theocratic, it is not military. It is democratic, free, constitutional, lawful and modern.”

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One response in particular showed the kind of strategic self-possession that President Obama is often credited with. Morsi rebuffed criticism that he failed to move quickly enough in officially condemning the protesters who breached the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Sept. 11, in protest of a movie video trailer that disparaged the Prophet Muhammad.

The Times reports that Morsi said “we took our time” in framing a response to the violence, but then addressed the situation “decisively.”

“We can never condone this kind of violence, but we need to deal with the situation wisely,” he said. That methodical approach to decision-making is straight from the Obama playbook. Or seems to be.

Another reason for Morsi’s reticence to make an immediate statement of condemnation may be an understanding of the tightrope he walks as the democratic head of a nation with an autocratic history, and ultraconservative Salafists ready to call Morsi on any perceived weakness.


“Morsi loses whichever way he goes,” “If he aggressively condemns the protesters, he’s perceived as a lackey for the U.S.,” said Shadi Hamid, head of research for the Brookings Doha Center, to The Daily Beast. “And if he supports the protesters’ position against the film, he gets criticism from the international community.”

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MORSI’S boldness in opposing the military holdovers of the Mubarak regime is a frankly strategic act. One of Morsi’s big challenges is to prove his willingness to separate himself from the autocratic shadow of Mubarak with more overtures of democracy — governmental transparency among them.

One Egyptian, speaking to The Daily Beast, thinks Morsi has work to do in that respect.

“What kind of a message is he sending when he says nothing after the violence?” he said “He is weak and he is at the mercy of some of the more conservative Islamist groups.”

Aware of the damage potential of that kind of optics — being perceived as a servant of those conservative interests — Morsi in the Times interview appeared rock-solid in asserting an Egyptian identity that would no longer knuckle under to every western demand.

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“If you want to judge the performance of the Egyptian people by the standards of German or Chinese or American culture, then there is no room for judgment,” he said. “When the Egyptians decide something, probably it is not appropriate for the U.S. When the Americans decide something, this, of course, is not appropriate for Egypt.”

“Successive American administrations essentially purchased with American taxpayer money the dislike, if not the hatred, of the peoples of the region,” he said, by supporting despots over popular sentiments, and building a long history of backing Israel over the Palestinian people.

Those administrations, he said, “have taken a very clear, biased approach against something that [has] very strong emotional ties to the people of the region; that is the issue of Palestine.”

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WHETHER MORSI’S wire-walk between appeal to the West and continued appeal and nationalistic fervor at home can be sustained is anyone’s guess. But Egypt’s future relationship with the United States will be partly determined by a man with deep experience with life in America.

Morsi earned a Ph.D. in engineering at the University of Southern California, which he attended from 1978 to 1982. He was a professor at California State University at Northridge, from 1982 to 1985. When his academic history at USC came up in the interview, Morsi shouted “Go Trojans!” His ties to the Golden State are more than academic; two of his five children were born in California, Reuters reported in August.

It’s little things like that — biographical anomalies that run contrary to the American stereotype of the leader of a Muslim nation as insular and alien — that could help solidify American-Egyptian relations. Politics at the global level is all about finding common ground; Morsi’s biography suggests that, in dealings with the United States, that’s at least possible in a refreshingly non-political way.

But the devil’s in the details. Relations with Israel, and Egypt’s other, more fractious neighbors, are likely to be something else again.

When pressed in a recent interview in the aftermath of the U.S. Embassy protests, President Obama said he couldn’t be sure if Egypt was an ally or an adversary. When The Times reporters asked Morsi essentially the same question, Morsi was cagey in his response. “That depends on your definition of ‘ally,’ ” he said.

On the world stage this week, the new president of the Republic of Egypt can be expected to start spelling out his own definition of the word.

Image credits: Morsi: Associated Press. New York Times logo: © 2012 The New York Times Company. Sadat, Begin and Carter at Camp David, 1978: Public domain. USC Trojans logo: © 2012 The University of Southern California.

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