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Dr. Josef Olmert Headshot

The Cairo Riots and the New Egypt

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The wave of anti-Americanism in the Middle East gathers momentum today, the Muslim day of prayer, and this was to be expected under the circumstances; but a close look at the situation in Egypt, where it all began, may indicate that there, at least, the current storm is on the wane. The riots are far from being a spontaneous display of mass popular outrage, more a subtle message sent to the U.S. by the newly-elected president, Muhammad Morsi. This is not to suggest that the anger shown in the streets is not genuine, as the movie which ignited it all is no more than a moronic display of the worst possible kind of religious bigotry.

What is striking about the Egyptian situation is the fact that the demonstrations are attracting relatively small numbers of people, and that is clearly in display in Cairo. It is also interesting that other cities in Egypt are quiet, and that no violence was as yet registered against the Christian Coptic minority in Egypt. That is a very welcome facet of the situation, and hopefully things will remain like that. The Copts have always been on the receiving end of popular outrage in Egypt, whenever unrest developed over religious frenzy. In this particular instance, it was to be feared that the revelation that the anti-Muslim movie was the product of, at least, one Egyptian Christian, perhaps an organized group, may have unleashed an anti-Christian reaction, which until now has not happened. Nor are there demonstrations outside of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, a popular target of Islamic anger in times of tension.

So, is there some logic behind all that? To me it seems that President Morsi's government is engaged in a sustained, well-planned campaign to distance itself from the U.S., as well as from Israel, but it does it in a way which keeps it all under control. First, the president committed an act of presidential coup when he dismissed Field Marshal Tantawi and General Anan, the two hitherto most formidable military figures in Egypt, known for close working relations with the Americans and Israelis, something which they did for many years under President Mubarak.

General Anan was in the U.S. in the beginning of the Egyptian revolution in 2011, and returned only after few days. It may seem conspiratorial, but is it really unrealistic to assume that talks which he conducted in the U.S. prior to his return led to the later coup de grace committed by the Egyptian military against Mubarak? For the new Muslim Brotherhood president, backed by democratic popular election, removing Anan and Tantawi was the first message to the Americans and Israelis that things will not be as they used to be.

Then came the introduction of Egyptian forces with heavy arms to Sinai, in order to crash the jihadist elements there, which attacked the Egyptian military and Israeli territory. Sure enough, Morsi did what any other sovereign state would have done under similar circumstances, and both Israelis and Americans could not complain about an action taken against pro Al-Qaeda elements, but a precedent was established whereby the new Egyptian president is ready to move his army in what can clearly be seen as a violation of the peace treaty with Israel and also as a subtle threat to her.

The Sinai operation was followed by the brief visit in Tehran, not a visit that led to bombastic statements, but still a declaration of independence by the new president directly addressed to the U.S. and Israel.

Now we are witnessing the fourth chapter of the act. The ill-fated movie provided the Morsi administration with a golden opportunity to show the Americans that these are new times. This is an Islamic Egypt, and its foreign policy is going to move away from the American orbit towards the old, Nasserist non-alignment orientation, which, in effect, was anti-American.

Nasserism and Islamism may not have too many meeting points, but anti-Americanism is surely one of them. Yet Morsi is not likely to push for a complete rift, as well as not going to break relations with Israel. He knows full well that it is too premature to do it, and he will do his best, at least for the foreseeable future, to navigate his policy along this course.

Ironically, Morsi will prove President Obama's statement, that Egypt is neither ally nor enemy, to be the more realistic expression of the post-Mubarak situation, and that is regardless of the somewhat pathetic attempts of the White House to "explain" and "put in context" this very true and sober assessment of the situation.