Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi this week pulled off an Islamist coup, issuing a decree banning anybody from challenging any of his personal decisions. He placed himself, and the Muslim Brotherhood (from which he hails), above any kind of independent judicial or legislative oversight, something even deposed President Hosni Mubarak had not dared to contemplate.
Mr Morsi’s move came hours after he played a crucial role in brokering a ceasefire betwen Israel and Hamas that had won him plaudits from Washington, Tel Aviv and their Middle East allies. Here was a moderate, responsible international statesman, refusing even to reassess the decades-old Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.
Western pundits were sent into a tailspin: How to explain Mr Morsi’s apparently contradictory actions?
However, the only oddity was the Western media’s continued confusion regarding how the Brotherhood’s
long-term radical domestic agenda squares quite perfectly with the group’s continuing warm relations, in the short term, with Israel and the West.
Mr Morsi and his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood had repeatedly made it clear that they had no interest in confronting Israel. With Egypt’s battered economy more dependent than ever on financial handouts from the United States, the International Monetary Fund and reactionary Sunni Gulf monarchies, any move regarding Israel deemed confrontational would have amounted to economic catastrophe at home, and international political isolation.
Mr Morsi himself, meanwhile, understands that the Egyptian masses, hungry and exhausted after almost two years of revolutionary turmoil, have neither the energy nor the political will to defend either the Palestinians, or to rise up in massive anti-Mubarak style demonstrations against increasingly dictatorial edits.
While Western critics of Israel vented their spleen during the military assault on Gaza, anti-Israeli demonstrations in Egypt and other Arab countries were remarkably small, drawing just a few thousand.
Nor has there been, or will their likely be, anything that could sensibly be described as a revolutionary uprising in reaction to Mr Morsi’s dictatorial ways.
Yes, the liberal, secular groups will cause periodical mayhem in and around Tahrir Square, as they have this week. But both the parliamentary and presidential held elections since Mr Mubarak’s ouster have shown that they do not have significant support among the Egyptian masses.
Indeed, the majority of Egyptians did not even bother to cast a ballot.
What they crave is not Western-style democracy, but security and economic growth. The latter seems increasingly to be at odds with the former. After months of social and political chaos, Mr Morsi’s statement, carefully couched in the rhetoric of national unity and stability, resonated.
Yes, there will be minor concessions on his part; but Egypt is now effectively an Islamist theocracy. The Brotherhood will continue to quietly implement its most important agenda: radicalising Egyptian society from below while purging state institutions of secular influence. Israel is an afterthought.
Washington and Tel Aviv can live quite happily with all this, so long as the peace treaty with Israel is not threatened. Hence the Obama administration’s remarkably tepid response to Mr Morsi’s bold power-grab.
What is also clearer than ever is that the Brotherhood is never quite as inept as the so-called Western foreign policy experts who championed the Arab Spring and have embraced the Brothers as committed democracts. The former, as always in it for the long-haul, play the latter opportunistic careerists like a fiddle.