When Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Mursi, was elected in June he was presented in Western media as an Islamist menace. He was associated with religious intolerance, authoritarian rule and anti-democratic values. It was said that Mursi would isolate Egypt internationally.
Yet now he is being hailed as a courageous leader who backs democratic change and has restored Egypt’s place as a leading state in the Middle East. What happened?
Mursi recently attended a meeting in Iran where he backed the Syrian uprising. In effect he warned the Iranian government against supporting the regime of Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad.
The US government was thrilled. State department spokesman Patrick Ventrell welcomed Mursi’s view on Syria as ‘‘very clear and very strong”. He was especially delighted that it had been expressed in Tehran ‘‘to some people who need to hear it there”.
The US has led a campaign to isolate Iran, imposing sanctions and threatening further action on the grounds that its government is developing nuclear weapons.
At a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Tehran, Mursi said that the Assad regime “had lost all legitimacy”. He added that it was not enough to show sympathy towards the Syrian people, the time had come to act upon this sympathy.
The Syrian delegation promptly left the conference hall. Iranian leaders who had sponsored the conference were furious that he had spoiled their party.
Newspapers in North America and Europe applauded Mursi. According to the Guardian, his speech was “as eloquent as it was piercing” and “typically courageous”. Mursi was said to be a “wonderfully unpredictable president”. But his speech was not so surprising.
For decades his predecessor Hosni Mubarak adopted a low profile in Middle East politics. His main aim was to contain Palestinian struggles. He largely ignored the NAM, which had been founded by leaders of the “Third World” current in the 1950s, including Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Mursi feels compelled to adopt a higher profile in international politics. He was elected with a small majority after being challenged not only by supporters of Mubarak’s regime but also by radical nationalist candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi.
Parliamentary elections are on the way and the Egyptian population is highly mobilised, demanding further change.
So Mursi wants to strengthen the case for his Freedom and Justice Party—the party representing the Muslim Brotherhood—by raising his international profile. The NAM provides an ideal platform.
Mursi also wants to please supporters of the Brotherhood among the Gulf regimes. They have backed his organisation for years and expect payback. Attacking Syria and reprimanding Iran hits two targets that Gulf rulers see as implacable enemies.
One leading conservative cleric in Saudi Arabia commented, “Let all Arab leaders go to Iran if they will speak the truth like President Mursi did.”
But Mursi’s speech raises more questions than it answers. He wants to be seen as a champion of Egyptian independence, breaking the link with Mubarak’s servile backing of the US.
In Tehran he praised the NAM and Nasser’s support of the movement in the 1950s as “expressing the will of the people [of Egypt] to defy colonisation”.
Is he now merely re-running Mubarak’s policy by joining the Americans’ alliance against Iran? Some Syrian activists are sceptical about Mursi’s support, asking just who is he trying to please.
Mursi also equated the Assad regime in Syria with the Israeli occupation of Palestine. He referred in his Tehran speech to “the struggle for freedom by the Palestinian and Syrian peoples”.
Where does this leave his support for the Palestinians? Despite the rhetoric and notional backing for the Hamas government in Gaza, Mursi’s government has stuck to Mubarak’s Palestine policy.
This means recognition of Israel, suppression of the Palestinians and closure of the border with Gaza. Millions of Egyptians view this as “Egypt’s shame”. The Tehran speech points up a mass of contradictions in the Mursi agenda. It will come back to haunt him.