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Egypt’s Uncertain Revolution

Where the Country Stands a Year Later and How the United States Should Respond

SOURCE: AP/ Amr Nabil

A full year after uprisings in Egypt forced out President Hosni Mubarak, much uncertainty still remains on the country's future direction.

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A year ago widespread street protests prompted Egypt’s military leaders to oust Hosni Mubarak from the presidency and set in motion a political transition that continues to unfold. Competing centers of power have emerged and the debate over reshaping Egypt’s political system continues at the ballot box and in street protests.

Egypt started renegotiating the basic framework of government, but this negotiation is likely to remain incomplete for years to come. End results probably won’t be clear until the end of this decade, but they will likely mean a major transformation inside of Egypt that will have spillover effects in the region.

As a result, U.S. policy on Egypt and the Middle East will need to make major changes as well. Further, the allegations and potential court cases involving more than a dozen American NGO workers in Egypt distract both countries from the enormous challenges Egypt faces. The United States needs to make a broader reassessment of its Egypt policy that’s not solely based on hot-button issues such as these. A wider reexamination is required.

Egyptians own the changes in their country

Change in Egypt has come from within the country, a result of the breakdown of an old order that failed to respect the basic dignity of a growing number of its people. In the nearly two decades since I first lived in Egypt, I witnessed an increasing awakening among Egyptians—a realization that the system that controlled the government and large parts of the economy were failing the people, especially future generations. Egyptians of all walks of life—and not outside forces—brought about these changes, which is an important point sometimes forgotten in the analysis of Egypt’s uprising.

The popular revolution ended up being a military coup, and in its aftermath ideologues and polemicists from across the globe sprung to life to claim credit and brand Egypt’s change for their own purposes.

The theocratic dictatorship in Iran, for example, tried to claim these changes were an “Islamic awakening” that it had inspired, even as Iran brutalized and murdered its own people in plain view of the world.

Regressive conservative voices in the region—including some in Saudi Arabia—were fearful of change in their own countries, and they blamed outside actors like the Obama administration for “throwing Mubarak under the bus.” This leads one to wonder what these critics wanted to see a year ago: Egyptian forces using weapons supplied in part by the United States mowing down thousands of their own people with gunfire?

Still other voices, like some in Russia, claimed that Saudi Arabia duped the United States into supporting an Islamic revolution in Egypt.

But some of the most unhinged debates about Egypt are here in the United States. Neoconservatives, for example, attempted to take credit for Egypt’s changes, with some saying they were the direct result of the George W. Bush administration’s rhetorical push for freedom. This perspective ignored the fact that the Bush administration, for all its talk of freedom, did very little when Mubarak cracked down on his own people.

In yet another example of the general confusion and internal intellectual disarray on national security plaguing conservatives these days, some peddled the myth that the Obama administration somehow “double crossed” Egypt by not standing by Mubarak and calling for a peaceful and orderly transition of power.

Some on the left argued that the changes in Egypt were the result of a speech President Barack Obama delivered in Cairo in 2009.

Again, what all of these voices forget is that Egyptians owned the change in their country. They saw a government that failed its people by keeping Egypt stuck in the past while the world around them changed. The country was falling behind, and its people knew it.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

Make no mistake: The same basic group of military leaders that has ruled Egypt since 1952 still runs the country. The fundamental structures of power remain intact even after the departure and ongoing court cases of former Mubarak government leaders, innumerable street protests, a constitutional referendum, and parliamentary elections that saw Islamist political parties win a majority in the lower house.

It’s true that one year after Mubarak’s removal, new centers of power have emerged and much has changed. But one thing remains the same: A close circle of military rulers still governs the country even though it is feeling pressure from many different angles.

The negotiation over power involves a complicated mix of actors that can be lumped into five broad categories for the sake of basic analysis.

  • The military and interior security forces. Egypt is ruled by the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces, a group of generals who continue to hold executive power and call the shots. In addition to controlling the armed forces, they are in charge of setting the political transition calendar. Separate but connected are internal security forces, part of the Egyptian deep state that has run Egypt and brutalized thousands of Egyptians in repressive campaigns throughout the years. At times, these forces also have been a crucial partner in rooting out some of the most militant Islamist groups that terrorized Egypt with violence—groups with links to the global radical Islamist movements. Murad Muwafi, the current head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Directorate—a main body dealing with internal security—wields considerable powers in the shadows of today’s Egypt.
  • Political leaders who are holdovers from the Mubarak regime. A group of leaders exist who were part of the old order and are separate from the first group. The best example is Fayza Abul-Naga, the current minister of planning and international cooperation, who is increasingly vocal in sending messages to the United States and the world about Egypt’s future direction.
  • Islamist political forces and institutions. This broad group has received the most attention in recent analysis, largely due to the strong showing of the Freedom and Justice Party, the party of the Muslim Brotherhood, in recent parliamentary elections. A more hardline Islamist political party, the Nour Party, also surprised most analysts with a strong showing. Also in this category is Al Azhar University, the oldest university in the Sunni Islamic world, an institution that reemerged in trying to play a mediating role in the political transition—most recently last month with a set of constitutional principles agreed to by a broad range of leaders. There are substantial fissures within this broad category of Islamists both in terms of institutional roles and ideological and policy splits.
  • Activist groups, liberals, and civil-society groups. This is an even broader category that includes a disparate and disorganized set of groups that were one of the key forces behind the street protests. This group’s contours are fairly ill defined, but they are unified by two factors: One, they call for a more rapid transition for civilian rule; and two, their lack of cohesion and inability to craft a common strategy leaves them weak when it comes to the formal political transition and electoral politics.
  • Egypt’s judicial branch. This group is more defined and smaller than the four other categories, but it is playing an important role influencing Egypt’s political transition by administering the elections, ruling on election disputes, and dealing with cases like the charges against foreign nongovernmental organizations. The judiciary is also playing an important role in the trials of former regime leaders, including Hosni Mubarak. As the renegotiation over Egypt’s system of checks and balances continues and a new constitution is written, this center of power is likely to play an even more crucial role in the years to come.

These thumbnail sketches are intentionally oversimplified, and there is a diversity of views and key fissures within these groups. But these are the centers of power that will likely shape Egypt’s political transition for years to come. Economic leaders, the increasingly free and open media, and other groups also will play a role in shaping this transition.

The renegotiation over sharing power has only just begun, and the battle for legitimacy in the eyes of the Egyptian people will take years. That means we need to avoid simple, snapshot analyses at particular moments that make grand conclusions.

A recent example of this came after the parliamentary elections, when a spate of articles argued that the Islamists are taking over and will radicalize Egypt. This view ignored the reality that the current lower house of parliament—where Islamist parties dominated in the elections—lacks meaningful powers. It’s not clear what the lower house will actually accomplish because so many other pieces of the Egyptian political transition puzzle need to come into the frame.

A new constitution will be drafted this year that will aim to set new checks and balances, and presidential elections are set for June. But even after these formal political processes, the battle over how much control and legitimacy the various centers of power in Egypt have will continue through the rest of this decade.

Distractions from the bigger challenges of reform

Making matters even more complicated is a new crisis in U.S.-Egyptian relations: the cases of more than a dozen American NGO workers in Egypt threated with prosecution for working without proper registration and funding partner organizations working on political reform, human rights, and civic activism. This case has prompted a broad range of U.S. leaders to threaten cutting off billions of dollars of aid to Egypt.

I have worked in Egypt for two of the groups targeted in these investigations—the National Democratic Institute, or NDI, and Freedom House. In 1998 I set up a small NDI presence in Cairo and helping provide training and assistance to Egyptian civil-society groups pushing for political reform. In 2004 I worked with colleagues to do some research for Freedom House on Egyptian popular attitudes on women’s rights and reform.

There is nothing nefarious about what these groups do. They are part of a decades-long global effort to build networks of support among those who work to advance basic political rights and civil liberties. In terms of actual impact on the ground, their work ranges between modestly helpful to sometimes marginal.

I don’t know the exact details of the current allegations, but I understand from some of the groups that they have tried many times to register according to Egypt’s law and they meet regularly with Egyptian officials to inform them of their activities.

At any rate, these allegations and potential court cases are a distraction from the enormous challenges of reform and change. Some of the former powers that be may be using these charges in a desperate attempt to cling to power by distracting the Egyptian people from the bigger issues of reform and stirring up nationalist sentiment.

Whatever the motivations, it is not in Egypt’s interest to drag these cases out because the country is going to need all the help it can get from around the world to have a successful political and economic transition. Pressing these cases will likely undermine the political support in the United States and worldwide for offering much-needed assistance. It sends the wrong signals; that Egypt that is turning inward, abandoning people who want to offer constructive support, and closing itself off from the world.

These issues aside, the United States needs to prepare itself for a very different relationship with Egypt. It must conduct a top-to-bottom review of its bilateral relationship with Egypt and prepare for a major shift in how our two countries work together. And that broader reassessment needs to take place comprehensively—not just based in the heat of the moment on allegations against American NGOs.

The reassessment should include a complete review of the full range of assistance and cooperation that the United States currently provides to Egypt, including military funding and cooperation, economic assistance, regional security, and diplomatic cooperation.

A year into Egypt’s transition, the Obama administration has made some important tactical shifts in its economic assistance to Egypt. But with major economic difficulties looming, Egypt is going to need substantial support—particularly in increasing economic growth that creates jobs. The United States, in turn, is going to need continued cooperation on counterterrorism and regional security issues from Egypt.

But the bottom line is that Egypt is changing, and U.S. policy on Egypt will need to change, too.

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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