President Mohamed Morsi had US support before dismissing Field Marshal Tantawi, who had worked with the US for decades. The US anticipated the step before it was taken. Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters, “We had expected President Morsi at some point to coordinate changes in the military leadership.” Morsi also changed many leaders within the armed forces, in order to control this important institution that had thrown hurdles in the way of his presidency. The Morsi decision is a clear reminder of Sadat’s move against his opponents in 1971. It can be argued that Morsi won a battle against the army to build Egypt as a civil state, but not the war to be a civilian president to all Egyptians.
The US shift in support from SCAF (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) to the Islamists and Morsi started with the sweeping Islamist victory in the parliamentary elections. The shift had become obvious in the recent visits of Clinton and Panetta to Egypt and their meetings with both Tantawi and Morsi. Clinton asked SCAF to hand power over to the elected president. Power then was divided between SCAF, who held legislative authorities, and Morsi as the executive authority. The angry reaction of Tantawi was that SCAF would not withdraw until stability prevailed in Egypt. The US, meanwhile, is keen on dealing with one institution, the presidency or the army. It opted for the president because Morsi and the Islamists will better serve their interests in the region.
Looking at the history of US foreign policy, the US focuses on its interests, even when those interests are served through cooperation with fierce enemies. I remember that Esam Al-Erian, the acting head of the Freedom and Justice Party, expressed his surprise to me at a conference at Al-Ahram that David Cameron did not invite the Muslim Brotherhood to a meeting Cameron held with different political forces after the January 2011 revolution. I told him that the UK and the US do not believe religion plus politics will lead to democracy. The only shift in this view would be a pragmatic one, when Islamists come to power and to a certain extent are supported by people. This is exactly what happened. American interests now lie with Islamists and Morsi as was the case with the mujahedeen and Bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1980s. It is the Islamists’ time and they have a golden opportunity to change their image in the West and live up to the expectations of Egyptians.
The US called for cooperation between the army and Morsi to build Egypt after the recent changes at the top of this apparatus that was in control of the country since Nasser’s era. Victoria Nuland, the US State Department spokeswoman, said that the civilian leadership and the military should work together to achieve the goals of the democratic transition. The new defence minister, Abdel Fattah El-Sissi, is known to the US and he comes from the ranks of SCAF.
American backing to Morsi and Islamists in Egypt was seen by some Christians as a betrayal of their aspirations. Some Copts do not trust Islamists and fear of Islamisation of both state and society. There have calls in churches to pray to God and not count on the US after the American blessing was given to Morsi’s move against the powers of SCAF. Other political forces, such as Farida Al-Naqqash of Al-Tagammu Party, think that Morsi will be another dictator because he holds both legislative and executive powers together.
It was a vital and calculated decision by Morsi, and he gained American support. The question is now about Morsi’s ability to lead a civil state without huge influence by the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi must distance himself from the group through championing civil institutions and not religious ones. He should build institutions that support his decisions in order to limit the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence on him. The US supports him now, but this is not guaranteed forever.