Analysis |

Egypt's Sissi Had No Time to Kill ex-President Morsi – He Has a Few Countries to Run

Could deposed leader's courtroom death be Cairo's Khashoggi affair?

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi on a visit to Bucharest, June 17, 2019.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi on a visit to Bucharest, June 17, 2019.Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

"Did they murder him? Yes, but why?" That was the headline chosen by Yasser al-Zatara, a Jordanian journalist of Palestinian origin, as published by several Arab media outlets.

Who was murdered? There’s no longer any need to answer that. Everyone knows it means Mohammed Morsi, the deposed president of Egypt who died this week while testifying in court. Zatara says President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi and his security forces “had” to get rid of Morsi because he had too much information about them and “the plot being hatched ever since [Sissi] rose to power about how to get rid of” Morsi.

>> Morsi symbolized the triumph of Egypt's revolution – and its collapse | Analysis ■ Awaiting impact of Morsi's death, Israel closely watching events in Egypt | Analysis

The veteran journalist provides a few examples about how it was possible to kill Morsi the way the Mossad tried to kill Hamas’ Khaled Meshal by poison injection back in 1997, like the way the Russians have poisoned their rivals.

The details aren’t important, but the murder label has stuck in Egypt, at the United Nations, at human rights groups and of course in Turkey, whose president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had been a close friend of Morsi’s.

Only one question remains: If the Egyptian authorities wanted to kill Morsi, why did they wait so many years? He had been in detention since July 2013; six years is long enough to choose the heart attack route or have him die of food poisoning.

The Morsi affair threatens to become Sissi’s Khashoggi affair. Along with the accusations that Morsi was killed, Egypt is being condemned for ordering a secret funeral for the late president that has been dubbed the “funeral of shame.” The Egyptian media has been banned from covering the event or writing about Morsi and his term in office.

Egypt’s strong denials have been taken as lies, so Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry is heading a campaign to clear his government’s name around the world. After all, if the slightest bit of evidence is found that Morsi was murdered, this could have a big impact on Egypt’s ties with Western countries, especially the United States.

Former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in custody in Cairo, 2015.Credit: Ahmed Omar

The sanctions on Saudi Arabia, whose arms deal with Washington has been on hold due to the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, could wind up being Egypt’s lot as well. Global financial institutions that provide Egypt with generous support, and that often applaud Sissi’s economic reforms, would reconsider their ties with the country. In short, Sissi would have to be a particularly foolish leader to have ordered Morsi’s demise, and he’s far from that.

Sudanese squeeze

Sissi has too much on his plate these days. To his south a volatile conflict threatens in Sudan, and Egypt was apparently involved in the regime change there, as was Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both of which are trying to stabilize the regime of the military council under Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.

On the eve of the ouster of President Omar al-Bashir in April, Sissi warned against his removal before preparations were made for an orderly transfer of power. But after the ouster, Sissi promised to help the military leaders in their relations with other countries. Also, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have committed to supply $3 billion in aid, of which some $500 million has already been deposited at Yemen’s central bank.

Burhan recently visited Egypt to discuss with Sissi ways to handle the civil uprising in which more than 100 people have been killed in a matter of days. According to some media outlets in Sudan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are pressing the military leaders to disperse the protesters by force and use Sissi’s methods for firming up one's rule.

The latter three countries have a great strategic interest in the military council staying in power, which could ensure continued Sudanese cooperation with the war against the Houthis in Yemen and help work out the issue of the dam Ethiopia is building on the Nile. Egypt, which sees the dam as an existential threat, and Bashir differ greatly over the division of the Nile’s waters.

The Sudanese military elite, which is close to the Muslim Brotherhood, has stood behind Bashir and is being tough on the water issue. But Egypt hopes the military regime will be easier to negotiate with due to its need for international legitimacy to obtain the money to finance its government.

Sudan isn’t Sissi’s only focal point. To its west, in Libya, Egypt seeks to unite the factions and strengthen the position of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army, which is trying to take the capital Tripoli. Egyptian and UAE advisers are working with Haftar, who has defeated the Islamic State in the areas under his control. The general often visits Egypt to “exchange views” about combat strategies and discuss the common interests of the Arab troika in Libya.

Egypt has long been the address for many Western leaders seeking to persuade Haftar to drop his aspirations of conquest and recognize Libya’s “authorized” government, one of two governments running the country. The Arab League and the United Nations haven’t been handling either the Libyan or Sudan flash points, and they appear incapable of doing so.

These conflicts come on top of the Syrian and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. Other than Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE, no countries in the region have the influence to effect some kind of movement. But this troika isn’t necessarily an arm of the United States in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia, feeling the strength of American rejection especially in Congress and among the wider public, is forging a security belt with China and Russia. The UAE is trying to compete with Qatar and can’t rely on U.S. President Donald Trump. Egypt is dependent economically on the Saudis and the United States but has bought planes and other military equipment from Russia, while China is deeply invested in civilian projects in Egypt.

What about Iran?

If the economic vision of Gulf states and Egypt speaks of a diversity of income sources to break free of a dependency on oil, it seems this vision represents their political aspirations as well. To them, Trump is an excellent president, but they have to prepare for when he's no longer president – something that could happen in a year and a half.

A decade ago, any plans for forging strategic, diplomatic or military alliances with Russia and China were buried deep in the drawers of these countries’ national security councils. Today such cooperation seems not only realistic, but essential.

Also, this week a senior Saudi commentator, Khaled al-Dahil, tweeted a particularly interesting question that went viral. He asked what’s Egypt’s stance on Iran, and noted that since 2013, when Sissi came to power, we haven’t heard a clear Egyptian position on Iran.

Dahil complained that large Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Morocco haven’t managed to form a bloc. A short time later it was reported that Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi had visited Egypt.

According to the article, Araghchi asked Egypt to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia due to the rising tensions in the Gulf. Egypt didn’t respond but it was no coincidence that the story was published. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said this week that the Saudis aren’t interested in a war in the Gulf, and Iran released a similar statement.

Can Egypt be an arbiter in the Middle East’s most dangerous conflict? It certainly wants to, though its ablity depends on the Saudis’ conditions. But if Iran has approached Egypt, this could show how Iran and maybe the Saudis are ready for diplomacy to neutralize the danger of war.

The other anchor that gives Egypt strategic standing is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its role in recent years has been mainly to stifle the clashes between Israel and Hamas. It hasn’t launched any steps or shuttle diplomacy to renew negotiations.

The country considered the Arab flagship of Trump’s planned “deal of the century” is Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince Mohammed’s kingdom was supposed to pressure the Palestinians to accept the deal and get Jordan on board as well. Saudi Arabia had the mandate to propose its own formulations of the American proposals, and it was given a solo role at the conference in Bahrain.

Now it seems Washington’s decision to assign Saudi Arabia these last two tasks has blown up in its face. The conference has turned into a sideshow, the Palestinians won’t be there and Jordan is seething with fear and anger. Without declaring so publicly or leveling any criticism via the media, Egypt again looks like the only partner that knows how to read reality.

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