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Spring storm

In the struggle for the Arab political soul,Egypt is key. Delhi must reach out to Morsi

Written by C. Raja Mohan |
September 14, 2012 3:30:36 am

The brutal killing of the US ambassador to Libya,J. Christopher Stevens,in Benghazi and the storming of the American embassy in Cairo following the release of a film in the US that is seen to be offensive to Islam underline how unpredictable the consequences of the “Arab Spring” have been. Last year,the popular upsurge in the Arab street against the ruling regimes was widely heralded as a definitive turn of the Middle East towards democracy.

The surge of Islamists in the elections that followed and the recrudescence of violent anti-Americanism in the region have begun to disillusion many in the US who offered strong support to political modernisation in the region. The violence in Benghazi and Cairo has encouraged the sceptics to declare that the end of the “new beginning” in the Middle East is at hand.

If the international celebration of the Arab Spring last year was breathless,its condemnation amidst the awful incidents of this week is entirely premature.

Change was inevitable in the long stagnant Middle East. But political change does not come in neat,predetermined lines that ideologues of our age fondly hope for. In the West,the framework of “democracy versus dictatorship” has become the simplistic,but entirely unhelpful,device to debate the unravelling of the old Middle East.

Both liberals and neoconservatives in the US have long claimed that democracy is the answer to all the problems in the Middle East. America is not the only one with a blinkered view of the Middle East. India has its own shibboleth: the preference for secular regimes in the region.

India’s fear of religious extremism in the Middle East and its impact on the subcontinent,and the platitudes on non-intervention,have muddled the debate in Delhi on the Syrian crisis.

The Middle East will not evolve according to American or Indian preferences. It has a political motor of its own. Given the pivotal nature of the region,change in the Middle East will have significant consequences for the rest of the world.

The pace and direction of this change will be influenced by many factors. But none of them is more important than the future of Egypt’s orientation under its first elected leader,Mohamed Morsi. It is in Egypt that the current struggle for the Arab political soul will be won or lost. Much like the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 that altered the geopolitics of the Middle East,the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is bound to have a lasting impact on the region.

Unlike Iran,which is Persian and Shia,Egypt is at the very heart of the Sunni Arab world. As the champion of Afro-Asian solidarity and one of the founding members of the non-aligned movement,Egypt was indeed the Arab voice in the post-war world. Under Hosni Mubarak,though,Egypt’s prolonged economic and political stagnation at home was matched by Cairo’s steady marginalisation in the Middle East and beyond.

In the few weeks that he has been Egypt’s president,Mohamed Morsi has quickly consolidated his position at home and signalled his determination to reclaim Egypt’s natural leadership in the region. Having pushed aside the old guard in the military that tried to limit the scope of his presidency,Morsi now enjoys as much power as Mubarak did.

By asserting an independent foreign policy,Morsi has restored the sense of Egyptian pride and won more than 75 per cent of popular approval. He defied the US by travelling to the non-aligned summit in Tehran last month. As the first Egyptian leader in Iran in more than three decades,Morsi challenged the Iranian position on Syria by arguing that it is the moral duty of the world to support the fight of the Syrian people against the oppressive regime of Bashar al-Assad. At the same time,Morsi recognised the importance of drawing Tehran into a regional initiative by proposing a contact group on Syria that includes Egypt,Saudi Arabia,Turkey and Iran.

In his first trip outside the Middle East,Morsi travelled to China and won Beijing’s promise to support the economic development of Egypt. There is speculation that Beijing might help modernise Egyptian armed forces. This week he is in Brussels engaging the leaders of the European Union. In a few days,he will be in New York addressing the United Nations General Assembly and outlining the new Egypt’s international policies. He will also meet US President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the UN gathering.

While his diplomacy has been impressive,Morsi will need to quickly put Egypt on the path of rapid economic growth and tackle the country’s manifold challenges of development.

Morsi will face even bigger problems in preventing the extremist forces in Egypt from pushing their divisive agenda at home. After the latest incidents in Cairo,Morsi will have to demonstrate the will to stand up against those who want to undermine his plans to reorder the relationship with the US on the basis of mutual respect.

Unlike other major powers,India has been slow in its outreach to the new Egypt. The end of the Mubarak era,which saw growing distance between Delhi and Cairo,is a historic opportunity for India to restore the old political warmth in the bilateral relationship and inject it with substantive economic content.

Beyond the bilateral,strategic cooperation with the new Egypt will be critical to the pursuit of India’s broader interests in a rapidly changing Middle East — in strengthening regional security,promoting political moderation and economic modernisation.

Delhi’s first step is to arrange Morsi’s visit to India at an early but appropriate occasion and begin a productive conversation with him on reinventing the old partnership between India and Egypt.

The writer,a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation,is contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’,

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