Immediately following the declaration of a cease-fire in Gaza, Egypt was plunged into a massive domestic crisis. Mohammed Morsi, elected in the first presidential election after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, passed a decree that would essentially neuter the independent judiciary by placing his executive powers above the high court and proposed changes to the constitution that would institutionalize the Muslim Brotherhood’s power. Following the decree, Morsi’s political opponents launched massive demonstrations that threw Egypt into domestic instability and uncertainty.
In the case of most countries, this would not be a matter of international note. But Egypt is not just another country. It is the largest Arab country and one that has been the traditional center of the Arab world. Equally important, if Egypt’s domestic changes translate into shifts in its foreign policy, it could affect the regional balance of power for decades to come.
Morsi’s Challenge to the Nasserite Model
The Arab Spring was seen by some observers to be a largely secular movement aimed at establishing constitutional democracy. The problem with this theory was that while the demonstrators might have had the strength to force an election, it was not certain that the secular constitutionalists would win it. They didn’t. Morsi is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and while there were numerous claims that he was a moderate member, it was simply not understood that he was a man of conviction and honor and that his membership in the Brotherhood was not casual or frivolous. His intention was to strengthen the role of Islam in Egypt and the control of the Muslim Brotherhood over the various arms of state. His rhetoric, speed and degree of Islamism might have been less extreme than others, but his intent was clear.
The move on the judiciary signaled his intent to begin consolidating power. It galvanized opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood, which included secular constitutionalists, Copts and other groups who formed a coalition that was prepared to take to the streets to oppose his move. What it did not include, or at least did not visibly include through this point, was the Egyptian military, which refused to be drawn in on either side.
The Egyptian military, led by a young army officer named Gamal Abdel Nasser, founded the modern Egyptian state when it overthrew the British-supported monarchy in the 1950s. It created a state that was then secular, authoritarian and socialist. It aligned Egypt with the Soviet Union and against the United States through the 1970s. After the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who was later assassinated by Islamists, shifted Egypt into an alliance with the United States and signed a peace treaty with Israel.
This treaty was the foundation of the regional balance of power until now. The decision to end the state of war with Israel and use Sinai as a demilitarized buffer between the two countries eliminated the threat of nation-to-nation war between Arabs and Israel. Egypt was the most powerful Arab country and its hostility to Israel represented Israel’s greatest threat. By withdrawing from confrontation, the threat to Israel declined dramatically. Jordan, Syria and Lebanon did not represent a significant threat to Israel and could not launch a war that threatened Israel’s survival.
Egypt’s decision to align with the United States and make peace with Israel shaped the regional balance of power in other ways. Syria could no longer depend on Egypt, and ultimately turned to Iran for support. The Arab monarchies that had been under political and at times military pressure from Egypt were relieved of the threat, and the Soviets lost the Egyptian bases that had given them a foothold in the Mediterranean.
The fundamental question in Egypt is whether the election of Morsi represented the end of the regime founded by Nasser or was simply a passing event, with power still in the hands of the military. Morsi has made a move designed to demonstrate his power and to change the way the Egyptian judiciary works. The uprising against this move, while significant, did not seem to have the weight needed either to force Morsi to do more than modify his tactics a bit or to threaten his government. Therefore, it all hangs on whether the military is capable of or interested in intervening.
It is ironic that the demands of the liberals in Egypt should depend on military intervention, and it is unlikely that they will get what they want from the military if it does intervene. But what is clear is that the Muslim Brotherhood is the dominant force in Egypt, that Morsi is very much a member of the Brotherhood and while his tactics might be more deliberate and circumspect than more radical members might want, it is still headed in the same direction.
For the moment, the protesters in the streets do not appear able to force Morsi’s hand, and the military doesn’t seem likely to intervene. If that is true, then Egypt has entered a new domestic era with a range of open foreign policy issues. The first is the future of the treaty with Israel. The issue is not the treaty per se, but the maintenance of Sinai as a buffer. One of the consequences of Mubarak’s ouster has been the partial remilitarization of Sinai by Egypt, with Israel’s uneasy support. Sinai has become a zone in which Islamist radicals are active and launch operations against Israel. The Egyptian military has moved into Sinai to suppress them, which Israel obviously supports. But the Egyptians have also established the principle that while Sinai may be a notional buffer zone, in practice the Egyptian military can be present in and responsible for it. The intent might be one that Israel supports but the outcome could be a Sinai remilitarized by the Egyptians.
A remilitarized Sinai would change the strategic balance, but it would only be the beginning. The Egyptian army uses American equipment and depends on the United States for spare parts, maintenance and training. Its equipment is relatively old and it has not been tested in combat for nearly 40 years. Even if the Egyptian military was in Sinai, it would not pose a significant conventional military threat to Israel in its current form. These things can change, however. The transformation of the Egyptian army between 1967 and 1973 was impressive. The difference is that Egypt had a patron in the Soviet Union then that was prepared to underwrite the cost of the transformation. Today, there is no global power, except the United States, that would be capable of dramatically and systematically upgrading the Egyptian military and financially supporting the country overall. Still, if the Morsi government succeeds in institutionalizing its power and uses that power to change the dynamic of the Sinai buffer, Israel will lose several layers of security.
A New Regional Alignment?
A look at the rest of the region shows that Egypt is by no means the only country of concern for Israel. Syria, for example, has an uprising that, in simple terms, largely consists of Sunnis, many of which are Islamists. That in itself represents a threat to Israel, particularly if the relationship between Syria and Egypt were revived. There is an ideological kinship, and just as Nasserism had an evangelical dimension, wanting to spread pan-Arab ideology throughout the region, the Muslim Brotherhood has one too. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is also the most organized and coherent opposition group in Syria. As Morsi consolidates his power in Egypt, his willingness to engage in foreign adventures, or at least covert support, for like-minded insurgents and regimes could very well increase. At a minimum Israel would have to take this seriously. Similarly, where Gaza was contained not only by Israel but also by pre-Morsi Egypt, Morsi might choose to dramatically change Egypt’s Gaza policy.
Morsi’s rise opens other possibilities as well. Turkey’s Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party is also engaged in a careful process of reintroducing Islam into a state that was militantly secular. There are fundamental differences between Egypt and Turkey, but there is also much in common. Turkey and Egypt are now engaged in parallel processes designed to create modern countries that recognize their Islamic roots. A Turkish-Egyptian relationship would both undergird the Egyptian regime and create a regional force that could shape the Eastern Mediterranean.
This would, of course, affect American strategy, which as we have said in the past, is now rapidly moving away from excessive involvement in the Middle East. It is not clear how far Morsi would go in breaking with the United States or whether the military would or could draw a line at that point. Egypt is barely skirting economic disaster at the moment because it is receiving a broad range of financial aid from the West. Moving away from the United States would presumably go well beyond military aid and affect these other types of economic assistance.
The fact is that as Egypt gradually evolves, its relationship with the United States might also change. The United States’ relationship with Turkey has changed but has not broken since the Justice and Development Party came to power, with Turkey following a more independent direction. If a similar process occurred in Egypt, the United States would find itself in a very different position in the Eastern Mediterranean, one in which its only ally was Israel, and its relationship with Israel might alienate the critical Turkey-Egypt bloc.
Prior to 1967, the United States was careful not be become overly involved in protecting Israel, leaving that to France. Assuming that this speculation about a shift in Egypt’s strategic posture came to pass, Israel would not be in serious military danger for quite a while, and the United States could view its support to Israel as flexible. The United States could conceivably choose to distance itself from Israel in order to maintain its relationships with Egypt and Turkey. A strategy of selective disengagement and redefined engagement, which appears to be under way in the United States now, could alter relations with Israel.
From an Israeli point of view — it should be remembered that Israel is the dominant power in the region — a shift in Egypt would create significant uncertainty on its frontier. It would now face uncertainty in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, and while unlikely, the possibility of uncertainty in Jordan. Where previously it faced hostile powers with substantial military capabilities, it would now face weaker powers that are less predictable. However, in an age when Israel’s primary concern is with terrorist actions and uprisings in Gaza and the West Bank, this band of uncertainty would be an incubator of such actions.
The worst-case scenario is the re-emergence of confrontational states on its border, armed with conventional weapons and capable of challenging the Israeli military. That is not an inconceivable evolution but it is not a threat in the near term. The next-worst-case scenario would be the creation of multiple states on Israel’s border prepared to sponsor or at least tolerate Islamist attacks on Israel from their territory and to underwrite uprisings among the Palestinians. The effect would be an extended, wearying test of Israel’s ability to deal with unremitting low-intensity threats from multiple directions.
Conventional war is hard to imagine. It is less difficult to imagine a shift in Egyptian policy that creates a sustained low-intensity conflict not only south of Israel, but also along the entire Israeli periphery as Egypt’s influence is felt. It is fairly clear that Israel has not absorbed the significance of this change or how it will respond. It may well not have a response. But if that were the case, then Israel’s conventional dominance would no longer define the balance of power. And the United States is entering a period of unpredictability in its foreign policy. The entire region becomes unpredictable.
It is not clear that any of this will come to pass. Morsi might not be able to impose his will in the country. He may not survive politically. The Egyptian military might intervene directly or indirectly. There are several hurdles for Morsi to overcome before he controls the country, and his timeline might be extended for implementing changes. But for the moment, Morsi appears in charge, he seems to be weathering the challenges and the army has not moved. Therefore, considering the strategic consequences is appropriate, and those strategic consequences appear substantial.