The latest American crisis with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president, Muhammad Morsi, came out into the open on January 14, 2013, when the New York Times published a report on its front page that three years earlier he used blatantly anti-Semitic motifs for describing “Zionists” as “…bloodsuckers who attack the Palestinians, these warmongers, the descendants of apes and pigs.” The interview was videotaped and distributed by MEMRI, which has been documenting and translating from Arabic the statements of leaders across the Middle East for many years.
To make matters worse for Morsi, he was also filmed addressing a rally in 2010 in the Nile Delta at which he declared: “We must never forget, brothers, to nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred for them: for Zionists, for Jews.” This video clip was actually broadcast on Egyptian television.
Then the crisis over Morsi’s anti-Semitic statements seemed to only get worse in the aftermath of a meeting he recently held with a delegation of seven U.S. Senators, led by John McCain (Rep.–Arizona). According to Senator Chris Coons (Dem.–Delaware), Morsi only dug deeper into the hole he created for himself when he tried to explain the crisis that was unfolding by using more anti-Semitic references: “Well, I think we all know that the media in the United States has made a big deal of this and we know the media of the United States is controlled by certain forces and they don’t view me favorably.”
Senator Coons told Foreign Policy after the meeting that the senators had no doubt that Morsi was implying that the American media was under Jewish control. Coons concluded: “I thought it was impossible to draw any other conclusion.”
What has made the revelations about Morsi’s comments especially problematic was that during January, the U.S. supplied four F-16 fighter aircraft to Egypt, out of a total package for 20 such fighters that was originally signed when President Mubarak was still in power. The U.S. will also be supplying 200 Abrams tanks to Egypt.
As a consequence, when Senator John Kerry appeared before Congress prior to the vote on his confirmation as the next secretary of state, he was asked how the U.S. could provide advanced arms to a country led by a president, like Morsi, who had such values that were antithetical to everything for which the U.S. stood. More practically, Senator Rand Paul (Rep.–Kentucky) asked Kerry if the new U.S. warplanes would be a threat to Israel or even to America.
For decades the U.S. has developed means to preserve Israel’s qualitative military edge, even as Washington supplies advanced weapons to the Arab states. In the latest sale to Egypt, a publication specializing in the U.S. defense industry points out that at this point, Egypt will not receive the same advanced air-to-air missiles that Israel deploys on its F-16s, thereby assuring Israeli air superiority vis-a-vis the Egyptian Air Force.
Undoubtedly, there will be U.S. officials who will argue that arms sales to Egypt will at least keep the Egyptian armed forces friendly to Washington. In his first major struggle with the Egyptian army, however, Morsi showed that he was willing to challenge its general staff when he forced General Tantawi to retire. Every senior Egyptian officer now knows that his advance up the chain of command will be dependent on the approval of the Muslim Brotherhood regime.
Some Egyptians are reading into the completion of the F-16 sale a political signal from Washington towards the Egyptian regime and its opposition. It is being seen as a kind of vote of confidence in Morsi and his government. Ambassador Hussein Haridi, a former assistant foreign minister, told the Egyptian newspaper, al-Ahram, in mid-January that the sale indicated that the level of support for Morsi and the Brotherhood was continuing, despite the demonstrations against his regime that were already underway in mid-December.
But there is a more fundamental issue that needs to be addressed in this discussion about advanced arms for Egypt. Morsi’s statements point to the fact that he is still strongly tied to the hard-line ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood , which it must be remembered is a revolutionary movement that could down the line put at risk important Arab allies of the U.S.
Indeed, during 2011, Jordanian officials accused the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood of being involved in growing street disturbances in Amman. In December 2012, security forces in the UAE uncovered a Muslim Brotherhood plot to overthrow its government. Egyptian nationals were arrested and imprisoned. Cairo sent a high-level delegation, including Morsi’s intelligence chief, to Abu Dhabi to help reduce tensions with the UAE, but they came back empty-handed. Both the UAE and the Saudi press have been notably critical of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in recent months.
Indeed the Muslim Brotherhood over the years has been seeking to overthrow existing Arab regimes, replacing them with a unified Arab state. The Arab Spring has provided new opportunities for the movement to realize its long-term goals. Eventually, the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood seeks the re-establishment of the caliphate, whose global regime will cross current state borders.
There is a history of Egyptian adventurism towards neighboring states that could be rekindled in the future if it were to have the backing of a strong Islamist ideological orientation. Take for example the case of Saudi Arabia. In the 19th century, during the rule of Muhmmad Ali, Egypt dispatched an expeditionary force into the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, occupied the capital of the first Saudi state, and sent its Emir to Istanbul for execution. In 1962, when Egypt was led by President Nasser, it intervened in the Yemen Civil War with tens of thousands of troops and even used its air force to strike border towns in Saudi Arabia, which was backing the opposite side.
Right now, Egypt has too many troubles at home to follow this kind of aggressive political agenda. Morsi just declared a state of emergency and a curfew in Suez, Ismailia, and Port Said after escalating violence in those cities. But in the long-term, if Egypt adopts the Muslim Brotherhood program in its relations with the rest of the Middle East, then Israel will not be the only state that should be concerned.
Arms transfers do not change the balance of power overnight, especially if only a few aircraft are involved. The present sale represents a qualitative upgrade for Egypt, which until now has only received older models of the F-16. However, it would be more advisable to build up Egypt’s ability to assure its internal security in places like Sinai, where al-Qaeda affiliates have built up for themselves a substantial foothold.
But investing in weapons for projecting Egyptian military power over long distances should be re-thought until its leadership clarifies what its intentions are with respect to its Middle Eastern neighbors.