Eyes on the ball, folks. In strategic terms, the most important thing that has happened in the last 10 days is that Mohammed Morsi has assumed dictatorial powers in Egypt. Courageous Egyptians are protesting that move, but Morsi has less compunction than Mubarak did, and we can expect the protests to be dealt with effectively.
So, those of us who said Morsi was an Islamist extremist who would quickly reestablish authoritarianism in Egypt – with a sharia flavor – were right. Those who said Morsi was a moderate were wrong.
And his Napoleonic self-crowning event changes the calculus for Gaza and Hamas, among other things. The universal interpretation of the ceasefire brokered by Egypt this week puts the responsibility for preventing attacks by Hamas against Israel squarely on the Morsi government. (Not all analyses refer to “frantic” diplomacy on the part of the United States.) Far from making Egypt anyone’s partner in repressing Hamas, this move effectively hands Hamas over to Morsi – and with Hamas, the Gaza Strip.
Hamas is a terrorist group whose independence of him is an inconvenience for Morsi. Hamas is the finger of Iran in the Levantine “pie” situated on Morsi’s northeastern border. Hamas lies between Morsi and Jerusalem. Morsi is not going to “work with” Hamas; he is going to give Hamas the choice to work with him, or be rendered insignificant.
Hamas can be useful to Morsi, if that’s what its leaders choose to do. There may or may not be a “break” with Iran; it would probably be better from Morsi’s perspective to keep Iran on a string with Hamas, and prevent a divergence of objectives – i.e., between Egypt and Iran – for as long as possible.
But do not be deceived.
Iran has just taken a big strategic hit from the terms of the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire. Iran may still have Qods Force operatives in the area, but Morsi has established a veto over Iran’s activities there. There may be a few more attempts by Hamas at independence from Morsi – although frankly, I doubt it – but the die is cast: what happens from now on will happen on Morsi’s timeline and his say-so.
That, at least, is what he intends. He has been rather transparent in the last few days. Immediately upon getting the ceasefire on terms advantageous for his intentions, he declared himself all-powerful in Egypt. This was not a coincidence. His pursuit of the ceasefire was part and parcel of his overall planning. He was happy to accept the vaguest of commitments on Israel’s side, as long as the understanding was that Egypt would guarantee Hamas’s behavior.
That was the prize Morsi sought.
Now he has started clearing the way to make good use of that prize. Morsi is on the move. He is moving very quickly to consolidate power, and position Egypt as a force to be reckoned with in the “race to Jerusalem.” No longer a sleepy, despotic backwater, Egypt is now ready to play on the same field as Iran and Turkey. We can expect Morsi to play off Turkey and Iran, remaining on good terms with both as he will seek to do with the US and Europe. It won’t be time for a “break” with anyone until Morsi has acquired an advantageous position for inducing the fall of Jerusalem – the denouement sought eagerly by the Muslim Brotherhood, and hollered about often by Morsi himself.
In the near future, Morsi may well be able to keep Hamas in check in Gaza, a condition that might make some Israelis and Americans complacent about the turn of events. I think we’ll know in the next month whether Hamas and Iran will try to restore the status quo ante, by recovering strategic independence from Egypt. If they wait longer than that, their opportunity will have passed them by. My guess is that they won’t make the attempt, however, and that Morsi has established himself as a new fact of the geopolitical landscape.
This will not have the effect of making him more moderate or conventional. It can be said, meanwhile, that his ascent could not have happened, and certainly not so quickly, without the assistance of the United States. At each step along the way, the US could have shown the kinds of useful leadership that we simply have not shown since the beginning of the Arab Spring.