At the time when idealizing and romanticizing the Arab Spring was the dominant narrative for the masses, neighboring governments and western analysts worried about the Islamists filling in the vacuum. The elections in Egypt caused the most concern as Mohammed Mursi became the country’s fifth president enchanting his supporters while leaving many others greatly concerned and suspicious of his ‘religious agenda.’
However, and despite long-held fears and assumptions about the destructive consequences that would arise if an Islamist came to power, very little of these concerns actually materialized. Mursi’s actions thus far, indicate that Egyptian foreign policy continues to follow a practical and rational approach and not an ideological one, and that much of the concerns regarding President Mursi’s radical ‘Islamic agenda’ are without merit.
Outside observers often point to extremist Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda or the Tunisian Jihadi Salafi’ who advocate violence while waving the banner of Islam, as a reason for their concern about the Arab Spring.
However, the “radicals” are not the ones who ran in the elections, and won victories. Because doing so, would have required them to go against everything they preach. The Islamists in power today are politicians first, and not much different from their secular counterparts. They don’t wish to abolish secular institutions and laws. After all, it was through these secular systems which enabled them to finally gain influence.
Neither is the agenda of the Islamists particularly threatening. Once in power, the PJD in Morocco, Tunisia’s Ennhada and the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt did not seek to impose Sharia law. Instead, they adopted safe issues, like fighting corruption and inequality, promoting women’s rights and vowing to cooperate with authorities in fighting terrorism.
The Western education obtained by these Islamist, their connections to top western universities, Washington’s influential think-tanks and elites facilitated their raise to power. This exposure provided the Islamists with a realistic and practical experience, far from mere ideologies.
In fact, many of the people in power today in Egypt have friendly relations with the U.S. The Egyptian defense team that took power last August is made up of officials who have trained in the U.S. and are known to the Pentagon. Egyptian Defense Minister General Abdul Fattah Al-Sissi took an infantry training course at Fort Beginning, George in 1981 and maintained good relations with U.S. intelligence agencies ever since. President Mursi himself obtained a PhD in engineering from the U.S.
President Mursi has everything to gain from maintaining friendly relations with the US and the GCC and everything to lose if that relationship crumbles. Losing Egypt to the ‘other side’ would be an unfortunate blow for the U.S. and the GCC, but doesn’t constitute a serious threat to their survival. However, an end to the backing of the GCC would be a severe financial blow for Egypt which it simply can’t afford. While forsaking the alliance with the U.S., could easily lead to its destruction.
Thus far, Islamist-led Egypt continues to value its relationship with the U.S. and there are no indications of this changing any time in the near future.
As far as Israel is concerned, President Mursi has publically and privately made it clear that Egypt doesn’t seek an ideological war with Israel and that business will continue as usual. The last concern is the fear of a new axis that would link Egypt to Iran. In the mind of top U.S. policy makers, there was never a serious concern that President Mursi would move towards an alliance with Tehran, otherwise, the process would have taken a very different turn. The U.S. was sure that both Mursi and runner up Ahmed Shafik would have followed a near identical policy when it comes to core foreign policy issues.
President Mursi’s participation in the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Iran, once again proved his critics wrong. President Mursi’s address made it diplomatically clear that “new Egypt” is not prepared to risk angering the Americans in exchange for warming relations with Iran. Even though the summit witnessed the representation of 150 nations, which helped rebuke the myth of Iranian isolation, it nonetheless made it clear that the Arab Spring did not fundamentally lead to a change in the regional order.
But the biggest blow for the Iranians was President Mursi’ blatant attacks on the Syrian regime, an important Iranian ally. It seemed as if the Egyptian leader went out of his way to appear zealous and firm on the Syrian question. He legitimized the uprising in Syria by viewing it as “an extension of the Arab Spring.” He denounced the Assad regime, calling it “oppressive and illegitimate.” A message that was no doubt appreciated by the US and ‘moderate’ forces in the region, and completely contradictory to what proponents expected. Mursi’s action once again indicates the pragmatism of the Islamists, and proof that as far as international relations are concerned, business under the Islamists is proceeding as usual.
(Dina Khanat is a political analyst and instructor at Zayed University, UAE)