x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Cairo's loose cannon, Essam El Erian, comes under fire himself

Latest gaffe of deputy head of the Brotherhood's political arm – in which he criticised the UAE's education standards and warned the Emirates would be enslaved by Iran – may be his most serious yet. Analysis by Youssef Hamza

Essam El Erian, vice-chairman of the Freedom And Justice party, during a session at the Shura Council building in Cairo.
Essam El Erian, vice-chairman of the Freedom And Justice party, during a session at the Shura Council building in Cairo.

CAIRO // Essam El Erian has in recent years built up a reputation for being a maverick politician, perhaps even a loose cannon.

His latest gaffe, however, is his most serious yet.

During a televised meeting this month of a parliamentary committee, the deputy head of the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm - the Freedom and Justice party - sarcastically admonished Egyptian school teachers employed in the UAE for not doing a good enough job teaching Emiratis. Adding insult to injury, he went on to warn that the Emirates will be enslaved by Iran.

The comments caused outrage among Egyptians, including the 400,000 who live and work in the Emirates.

In a larger context, they are indicative of a malaise in Egyptian foreign policy under Mr Morsi and are likely to harm relations between Egypt and other heavyweight Arabian Gulf states beside the Emirates, such as Saudi Arabia.

"There is no vision and no strategy when it comes to dealing with foreign policy under Morsi," said analyst Khalil El Anani, an expert on political Islam from Durham University in north-east England. "There is a duplication of policies between Morsi and the Brotherhood and that is causing a great deal of tension with the Gulf."

"For one thing, it is negatively impacting on Gulf investments in Egypt," he said. "They are putting at risk millions of Egyptian expatriates living in the Gulf whose remittances make up a significant portion of Egypt's foreign currency earnings."

Mr El Erian has shown no sign of remorse for his comments. In fact, he later boasted on his Facebook page that for a lawmaker like him to cause such a storm is evidence that democracy has arrived in Egypt.

Significantly, the head of the Freedom and Justice party and Brotherhood stalwart Saad El Katatni distanced the party from Mr El Erian's comments, but did not condemn them. The UAE government has remained publicly silent on the issue. A source close to the government there said it was "beneath" authorities to comment. "We have much more serious things to worry about," said the source who spoke on condition of anonymity. However, Mr El Erian's remarks triggered a flurry of comments on social networking sites reflecting the indignation of the nation. Newspaper commentators also took up the issue.

Mr El Erian's disparaging comments were triggered by the announcement last week by judicial authorities in Abu Dhabi that 30 citizens of the Emirates and Egypt would be tried for an alleged coup plot linked to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Eleven of the 30 are suspected members of the Brotherhood in Egypt, from which Islamist President Mohammed Morsi hails.

The Brotherhood has closely monitored the case of the 11 Egyptians, who have been in detention pending the completion of the investigation. Their families have been frequently demonstrating outside the UAE embassy in Cairo, clearly with the blessing of the Brotherhood and the government. However, dozens of Egyptians also demonstrated outside the embassy last week, this time to denounce Mr El Erian's comments.

Significantly, Egyptians who have had no direct contact with the Emirates were outraged by Mr El Erian's comments given the Emirates' record over decades as one of Egypt's most reliable economic and political backers and its reputation as a comfortable haven for those seeking a better life than in their native Egypt.

Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in uprising in 2011, enjoyed close ties with Arabian Gulf leaders throughout his 29 years in power; that is not the case with Mr Morsi. He and other Brotherhood leaders have frequently hinted that the Emirates was bankrolling the opposition in Egypt, but they have never produced any proof to back up their allegations.

Mr Morsi's handling of relations with the Gulf region has been something of a roller coaster.

Soon after taking office, he strongly denounced Iran for backing the embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, but he later began forging close ties with Iran on the grounds that there could not be a peaceful settlement in Syria without Tehran.

He set up a four-nation working group on Syria comprising Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis soon pulled out. They gave no reason for their decisions, but diplomats in the region spoke at the time of Riyadh's scepticism about whether the group could yield any results. The Egyptians insist that the Saudis continue to back the group.

For Mr El Erian, his comments were the latest in a string of ill-advised statements. Last year, he caused a stir when he said all conversations taking place in the presidential palace are recorded. In January this year, he called on Israeli Jews of Egyptian descent to return to Egypt because the Jewish state, he explained, was destined to disappear and their country of origin was now a democracy.


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