Region Responds to Egypt's Coup

The way its neighbors reacted says as much about them as it does about Cairo.

The reactions to Egypt’s July 3 coup came in fast and furious. The Saudis and Syrians, for obviously different reasons, were quick to welcome Morsi's ouster. By contrast, Turkey furiously condemned it. Others were more measured or silent.

It may be too early to make an assessment of the regional implications, but it remains the case that every single state and nonstate actor is busy running mental simulations trying to understand the ramifications. Each individual state or actor interprets the change in regime in Egypt from its own immediate interests. Some thus may focus on state-to-state relations; others may be motivated by their own particular circumstances.

For Syria, Morsi was a foe, and anyone who replaces him provides the Assad regime with the hope of change, even if remote. For Turkey, where the military has over the years intervened liberally and overthrown governments willy-nilly, the ruling AKP party has interpreted Morsi's ouster as a sign that it too can fall victim—however unlikely this may be—to a military coup. The subdued reactions of both the United States and the European Union to the Egyptian coup further underscore Ankara's sense of vulnerability, especially after a recent bout of street protests and unrest.

Still, there is another set of consequences, far more subtle and of longer duration, which need to be considered. These are not always obvious and deal with second-order effects. At the heart of these is the stability of the Egyptian system. Will the Muslim Brotherhood become more radicalized after having been denied what it thought was its rightful chance at governing? What if the Salafists, who in many ways are more unprepared to assume power, win the next elections?

What we do know is that coups, including one that was triggered by possibly the largest mobilization of people ever seen in world history, are highly destabilizing events in a country's political development. They bring about a great deal of opaqueness as the rules of the new game are never made clear; they interrupt the natural evolution of political processes, namely learning from one's mistakes, which is especially true for the citizenry. Most importantly, coups engender an expectation that in the future when politicians go awry, the officers will step in to fix things. This is a case of moral hazard: politicians will find it expedient to be irresponsible if they think that the army is always there to clean up the mess.

Israel, which analysts think is one of the few beneficiaries of Morsi's departure, may find that it was far better off with the Muslim Brotherhood in power than with a regime that is unsure of its identity and always be afraid of alienating the extremes in its society. As odious as some of Morsi's past statements on Israel or the Jews may have been, it is with the Brotherhood base that Israel needs to make peace. In their deluded conspiratorial view of the world, Morsi's supporters will harden their attitude towards Israel, blaming it for their leader's ouster. A Muslim Brotherhood government that contained its brethren Hamas is a far better partner than a government fearful of a mobilized Islamist base.

Syria's Assad may think that the new governments in Cairo will be far less opposed to his continued rule; but they may be more willing to push against him precisely because of the reason suggested above; it may appeal to the Brotherhood base and become a way to galvanize and unite diverse segments of society.

Turkey's foreign policy may also have received a blow in the form of the loss of a kindred spirit. Yet how much damage is done really depends on the ruling AKP government's attitude. Morsi's failure is not an indication of the imminent collapse of other such governments. In many ways, Morsi's fall will further enhance Erdogan and AKP's reputation in the region. Their steering of Turkey's political economy has been largely successful and despite the authoritarian governing style that was the target of the demonstrations last month, the Turkish system remains solid. Turkey in effect can demonstrate that it alone has the right mixture of politics and policies.

Still, it all depends on the AKP's reaction; if it were to once again lose control of its rhetoric as it did following the Gezi protests and end up blaming invisible and imagined enemies, thereby alienating its interlocutors at home and abroad, then Morsi's exit will undermine its stature. If, on the other hand, Erdogan were to show equanimity and continue steadfastly in his reform attempts, then Turkey will emerge as a winner.

Morsi made mistakes—too many of them, for sure. It would have been far better if his departure had not been made possible by the army. But this is the legacy Egypt and region have to live with.

Henri J. Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Vyacheslav Stepanyuchenko. CC BY 2.0.