Egypt claims to be the oldest sovereign state in the world, going back to 3100 BC. Now that is debatable, as Egypt has also been ruled by foreign powers, including, more recently, by the French and British. The Egyptians also claim that their land is the birthplace of monotheism. That claim is also questionable, as Pharos believed in many deities. Prophet Abraham, credited to be the key figure in our transition to monotheism, lived in Iraq, Turkey, Palestine and Hejaz. Egypt also believes to be the oldest civilisation in the world. President Sadat in his autobiography says that Egypt is the birthplace of mankind. I am in no position to question or endorse that.

Apart from its long history, Egypt is the biggest Arab country in terms of population. It is located at the confluence of Asia, Africa and Europe. It has led the Arab world in media, films, theatre and education. Its Ikhwan-inspired our Jamaat-e-Islami though the Arabs do acknowledge Maudoodi’s own contribution to the modern Islamic thought and practice. I went to Egypt to learn Arabic in 1974 and could see many similarities with Pakistan. Egypt too was an agricultural country where the Nile provided the economic lifeline. Indeed, bulk of the Egyptian population lives on the Nile banks or its delta. It is a developing country like Pakistan where the armed forces have dominated the political scene for six decades. The Suez Canal and proximity to Israel add to the strategic importance of Egypt and its defence forces.

When the Tahrir Square attracted huge crowds from the Egyptian youth January last year, the Ikhwan were not very visible. They were late entrants to the so-called Arab Spring. Ikhwan even declared they would not field any candidate in the presidential elections and revised that decision later. Despite a strong base in the Egyptian middle class, the Ikhwan have been controversial and persecuted from the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser to Hosni Mubarak. Their alleged role in President Sadat’s murder put a question mark on their objectives and tactics. The Egyptian military establishment particularly viewed them with disdain.

Secular liberal votes in the first round of presidential poll were far more than the total votes polled by Engineer Mohammad Mursi. But the liberal vote got divided, as Air Marshal Ahmed Shafik, Hamdeen Sabahi and Amre Moosa all espoused anti-Ikhwan views. So I do not anticipate a smooth sailing for the first ever Ikhwan-led dispensation in Egypt. Educated and influential Coptic Christians have never been comfortable with the Ikhwan either. The rotten eggs and tomatoes that Hillary Clinton faced in Alexandria last month came from the liberals. While we (and the US) felt comfortable with the like of Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri in 1980s, the Egyptians had their deep doubts. I transited through the Cairo Airport in 1982 and we were not allowed to disembark from our PIA aircraft. And all this while the Egyptian security personnel, fully armed, kept standing near our aircraft. The Egyptian misgivings about our security policies proved right when their mission in Islamabad was attacked by Al-Qaeda in 1995.

In this deeply divided society, the generals, who had played a key role in transition to democracy, again had their doubts about the Ikhwan just before the runoff election. Smelling Mursi’s victory, they moved quickly to clip presidential powers. Mursi has now gotten even with the generals by restoring those powers unto himself. But what came as a greater surprise was his decision to retire a number of generals, including the most powerful Mohammed Hussein Tantawi. Tantawi had been Mubarak’s Defence Minister, in addition to being the Army Chief. Mursi’s move was sudden and took everybody by surprise. It had all the ingredients of a coup, this time a civilian one.

In Turkey too, President Ordgan’s government has sacked a number of generals. But the two situations are very different. In Turkey, the generals were allegedly planning a coup, but, in Egypt, they were not. Moreover, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had waited for years and established his performance legitimacy before reining in his powerful generals. Mursi, following the folk cunning, decided to bell the cat in the very beginning. Since Egypt, like Pakistan and Turkey, has a tradition of Bonapartism, this decision can boomerang on Mursi. The only way to escape it is to give Egypt high growth rate and good governance like Turkey.

Ever since the Camp David Accord, Egypt has been one of the largest recipients of US assistance. The bulk of this assistance goes to the Egyptian armed forces. Will Mursi allow the armed forces to monopolise US aid? It would be interesting to watch this. Iran wants to restore diplomatic relations with Egypt and indications are that a rapprochement may be realised, sooner than later. The hatred between Sadat and Mubarak’s Egypt and the Ayatollahs-led Iran was deep-seated. Sadat offered asylum to the late Shah when nobody was prepared to host him. He lies buried in Cairo. The signing of the Camp David Accord had earned Ayatollahs’ ire. They expressed it by naming a street in Tehran after Lt. Khalid al-Islambuli, the army officer who killed Sadat. With Mursi’s arrival, the chill appears to have gone out of their bilateral relations.

Can Mursi revise the Egyptian policy towards Israel? I think the reply would be in the negative for such a decision could affect US assistance. Mursi, a US educated engineer, has already demonstrated his pragmatism, in some ways. Egypt earns billions of dollars every year from tourism. The new government has not banned the sale of alcohol, as that could have inhibited tourism. Egypt has economic problems of its own. Its agriculture is dependent on a small area around the Nile. Rest of the country is desert. With a fast growing population, Egypt has started importing cereals and its food needs will keep growing.

Mursi is vulnerable and if he does not perform well in this challenging situation, the generals would only be too tempted to intervene to “save the country”, yet again!

 The writer is a former ambassador with several Middle East postings. Email: javedhafiz@hotmail.com