For region's Islamists, Morsi win in Egypt expands sense of the possible

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which now controls both the presidency and much of parliament, has counterparts and allies across the region who are expecting President Morsi to bring change.

HOPD/Egyptian Presidency/AP
In this Wednesday, July 11, photo, Egyptian President, Mohamed Morsi, center left, walks with Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, center right, at the al-Salam palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Morsi chose Saudi Arabia as his first destination abroad, a Mubarak ally that strongly disapproved of the uprising that ousted him.

Just a year and a half ago, Mohamed Morsi was a member of a banned organization, arrested in his home as protests swelled against then-President Hosni Mubarak. Yesterday, he made his first official visit abroad as president of Egypt. (Editor's note: This sentence has been edited to correctly state the day of President Morsi's visit.)

President Morsi chose as his first destination Saudi Arabia, a Mubarak ally that strongly disapproved of the uprising that ousted him. Morsi is seeking to preserve Egypt's longstanding ties with Saudi, even though the monarchs there harbor deep suspicion of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement that nominated Morsi as a candidate.

Yet some observers expect that  Morsi – Egypt's first Islamist president – will bring changes not only in Egypt's relationship with the Gulf heavyweight, but with the rest of the region. While Egypt's military retains extensive power and remains a strong force for the status quo, the ripple effects of Morsi’s rise will be felt across the Middle East, both symbolically and practically.

Morsi’s win holds symbolic value for Islamist groups, says Michael Hanna, a Middle East analyst at the New York-based Century Foundation. “It validates in a very big way the turn to organized politics by Islamist groups and it obviously marks a moment of ascendance,” he says. “It probably sets a benchmark for the other Muslim Brotherhood affiliates and Islamist groups in the region … in terms of their expectations. It expands the notion of the possible.”

Pressure to be more than a symbol

In Libya, which just held its first election since the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, the local Muslim Brotherhood affiliate claims it has secured a respectable bloc of seats in the new national congress, based on preliminary results. Islamist party Ennahda in Tunisia took a plurality of seats last fall in elections for Tunisia’s constitutional assembly, the first post-uprising vote there. And in Gaza, Brotherhood offshoot Hamas has ruled since 2007.

Even in the Gulf, Morsi’s win may inspire some Islamist groups to reach higher, says Sultan Al Qassemi, a political commentator based in the United Arab Emirates.

“The Islamist movement in the UAE probably feels empowered by the rise of the Brotherhood in Egypt and may attempt to strengthen ties with the group in the hopes that pressure is put on the local authorities,” Mr. Qassemi says, adding that such a move would prompt a “severe backlash” from authorities.

For Israel, Morsi’s win is less than encouraging. But he has promised to respect international accords, and there is unlikely to be any change to the peace agreement with Israel. What is likely to change is Morsi's tone, as he comes under popular pressure to take a harsher stance.

But some expect more from Morsi than encouragement. Given the ties between the Egyptian Brotherhood and Hamas, officials of the Gazan organization are hoping Morsi’s win translates to changes in Egyptian policy toward Gaza. Under Mubarak, Egypt was hostile to Hamas and participated in Israel’s blockade of Gaza, keeping the border crossing at Rafah largely shut for years. The crossing has been opened to a limited flow of people, but Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader, says he expects Morsi to open the border to goods as well as people, and allow trade between Egypt and Gaza.

“The Egyptian people made their revolution against Mubarak’s policies internally and externally,” he said in a phone interview. He says he expects a change within a few months. “We spent many years suffering from the previous administration … so a few months is not a long time” to wait, he said.

Syrian partner poses a particular challenge

In Syria, where an uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has turned into a drawn-out armed conflict, many members of the opposition coalition known as the Syrian National Council (SNC) are from the Syrian Brotherhood. They also hope Morsi’s win will mean tangible assistance from Egypt.

“We the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria feel that this is going to be an advantage for the Syrian people,” says Molham Al Drobi, a member of the SNC and the Syrian Brotherhood. “We expect support from the Egyptians to help our revolution in Syria.” 

The SNC wants Egypt to prevent Russian and Iranian ships believed to be carrying arms for the Syrian government from using the Suez Canal. “We hope and expect that this should be done immediately. And then we expect political support, logistical support, and financial support for our own people in Syria. When I say that, I mean all Syrians, not just the Muslim Brotherhood,” Mr. Drobi says.

But Morsi’s victory also poses a potential challenge for the Syrian Brotherhood. If Morsi’s presidency is seen as inclusive, it could boost the reputation of the Syrian affiliate; if he pursues an Islamist agenda and alienates non-Islamist forces, it could reflect badly on the organization, boosting critics of the Syrian Brotherhood's role in the SNC.

“It's challenging because President Morsi and the team with him, the Muslim Brotherhood, need to prove to the world that the Muslim Brotherhood are a threat to nobody, that the Muslim Brotherhood are capable of running a country like Egypt, and the Muslim Brotherhood are inclusive, they do not exclude any Egyptians, they do not exclude based on religion or race or gender,” Drobi says.

Mr. Hanna says Syrian Brotherhood leaders expressed dismay to him after the Egyptian Brotherhood took nearly half the seats of parliament in elections last year and promptly alienated many non-Islamists by acting in a way that belied its promises of inclusiveness, particularly by partnering with ultraconservative Islamists to dominate the constitutional assembly. 

The Syrian Brotherhood leaders “definitely felt they were being tarred by the actions of the Egyptian MB,” says Hanna. “I'm sure that they'll be watching [Morsi] closely because perceptions about the Syrian MB are to some extent shaped by the Egyptian experience.”

Will Morsi's influence be merely symbolic?

Yet for all that some expect of Morsi, and despite the domestic pressure to turn away from some of Mubarak’s policies, it is unclear how much control he will actually have over Egypt’s foreign policy. Before he took office, the military council ruling Egypt amended Egypt’s interim constitution, limiting the president’s power and extending its own. The generals rescinded the president’s ability to declare war without their approval, and also reactivated a dormant national security council to help steer the country in times of crisis.

“Foreign policy is going to be one of those areas, particularly in terms of sensitive regional issues, that is going to be zealously guarded by the military,” says Hanna.

While Morsi theoretically has the authority to appoint government ministers, in reality he will cede some ministries to the generals. He has not yet appointed a cabinet, and it is unclear which side will control the foreign ministry. Regardless of who the foreign minister is, the most sensitive regional files – like Gaza policy – have for years been handled by Egyptian intelligence, and it is unlikely that will change immediately.

Yet Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, says the military’s power over foreign policy doesn’t mean policy will be completely static. In the case of Hamas, for example, “even if Morsi doesn't control foreign policy, the symbolic aspect of the office is important,” says Dr. Hamid.“The Brotherhood will certainly try to have a say in foreign policy, so I don't think we should underestimate that.”

Many will be watching closely to see how Morsi manages relations with Gulf countries, where he faces strong skepticism. Saudi Arabia hosted members of the Brotherhood in exile in the 1950s and 1960s, during the crackdown of former president Gamal Abdel Nasser. That welcome ended as offshoot Islamist groups demanding political reform, as well as some violent Islamist groups, were established in the Gulf, threatening the monarchs' power. 

The wealthy monarchies' promises of hefty aid packages for Egypt’s ailing economy are likely to compel Morsi to do what he must to assuage the monarchs’ fears this time around. 

Mr. Qassemi says how Gulf-Egypt relations will play out depends on the overtures the Brotherhood makes in the next few weeks. In choosing Saudi Arabia for his first visit, and promising, soon after his election, not to “export the revolution,” Morsi appears to be making those efforts.

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