For hundreds of years Egypt has been the focal point of the Middle East and North Africa region. However Egypt’s role in the region has developed and adapted to its surroundings and since the birth of Israel 65 years ago the dynamics changed dramatically. Suddenly Egypt became more than just another colonial conquest.
The peace deal signed by Anwar Sadat damaged Egypt’s status among its Arab neighbors, a betrayal of the Palestinians and the Arab cause. A big change from Gamal Abdul Nasser’s Arab nationalism.
Aided by the US, Egypt came out the other side and reclaimed its position in the region and then Egypt stagnated under the rule of Hosni Mubarak. The US asked no questions as long as Mubarak’s Egypt remained stable.
Since the Arab Spring the rules of the region changed, Egypt’s role was vulnerable and the rentier states from the Gulf began to see an opportunity that was more than just a good investment. Morsi’s handling of the deadly spat between Hamas and Israel in November 2012 gave him a boost in the eyes of the West. However, Morsi’s performance both domestically and regionally does not reflect the title awarded him by Time magazine: The Most Important Man in the Middle East.
Morsi unlike his predecessors has had to deal with a whole lot of scrutiny from the West. At least once every two weeks the words concerned and Egypt appear in the same sentence during the US State Department daily press briefings. The US is no longer turning a blind eye and Morsi is struggling to keep it together, the economy is failing, sectarian violence continues, freedom of expression is constantly under threat and the group he came from is showing itself to not be as progressive and accepting as it had been portraying in recent years.
Qatar has jumped at the opportunity to usurp Egypt’s position at the head of the region and has begun its quest for regional dominance by outdoing Egypt at every give opportunity.
The Muslim Brotherhood coming to power gave hope to the Gazans and the Hamas led government, which was born from the Brotherhood all those years ago. Surely the Brotherhood would help.. well … their brothers. However this would not be seen as a positive step given that Hamas is viewed as a terrorist organisation by the US. Egypt’s involvement in Gaza is as a mediator and guardian of the tunnels. Sadat’s peace agreement has meant that Egypt’s regional foreign policy is caught between a rock and a hard place (the US and Israel). Morsi did announce that aid would be going to Gaza and would not stop, however there is little information about the value of this aid.
Qatar on the other hand swooped in with a generous aid package acting like the patriarch of the Gazan people. Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani arrived for a short visit to Gaza along with an aid package worth $254 million. His visit held more political power because he became the first Arab leader to visit Gaza since Hamas took power.
Qatar has also taken regional politics into it’s own hands by hosting a number of important regional and international meetings, most notably the Doha conference on Syria, during which the Syrian National Coalition was formed. Qatar and the other Gulf Cooperation Council countries were the first to recognise the SNC as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people, while Egypt waited for its cue the West. Doha also hosted the Arab Summit in March, during which Morsi and his foreign affairs A-Team (Mohamed Kamel Amr and Essam El-Haddad) were snapped having a snooze. Obviously this was an important meeting for them they had stayed up all night preparing.
Morsi’s quartet initiative for the Syrian crisis began well. He had Turkey and Saudi Arabia on board and he even managed to reach out to Iran, the pariah of the region but then again crucial to the situation in Syria. However, since the quartet’s creation there have been only a few meetings and Saudi Arabia haven’t attended most of them. Many have forgotten about the initiative but Morsi’s team is currently in Iran attempting to revive it. It will be interesting how far Morsi can take this initiative without having to check with the US, at which point Iran could walk away. It will take some careful diplomacy just to have a proper meeting let alone solve the crisis, but at least Iran would be at the table and that is an achievement in itself.
It has become clear that Egyptian foreign policy is not Egypt’s. It remains in the pocket of the US State Department. Egypt under Morsi has continued as it always did, accept the military aid and maintain stability. This difference this time is that Morsi is having trouble keeping up appearances, there is little money to give, domestic problems are distracting and he clearly does not have the same charisma like his predecessors did. It takes a certain man to run a ship like Egypt and maintain its position at the head of the fleet and Morsi has yet to show the qualities necessary for his role.
The whispers of a regional coup come from the East and there is very little that can be done; the Qataris are coming.