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Managing Change in Egypt Was Never Going to Be Easy

Latest Developments Require a Steady U.S. Hand

SOURCE: AP/ Amr Nabil

Egypt’s unresolved struggle for power presents serious threats for U.S. security interests requiring carefully calibrated responses.

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The United States faces tremendous challenges balancing the need to support genuine political reform in Egypt with broader regional security interests. The latest developments in Egypt—a chaotic cascade of events that includes the court-ordered dissolution of the recently elected parliament, the issuance of a new addendum to the March 2011 Constitutional Declaration regulations by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and the second round of the presidential elections—creates greater uncertainty about Egypt’s political transition at a time when the troubled economic and security environment in Egypt requires greater clarity about who leads the country. 

As long as the question of who truly rules Egypt remains unresolved, the country is unlikely to see significant progress in dealing with the enormous challenges ahead. This requires the United States to fundamentally reassess its current policy on Egypt, as the Center for American Progress detailed in its recent paper, “Managing Change in Egypt.” The Obama administration should examine all levers of influence and work with other countries around the world to send the message that the political transition must move forward for Egypt’s government to have legitimacy and the capacity to play a constructive leadership role in the region.

A divided, weak, and undemocratic Egypt is a recipe for even more instability in the Middle East, which is bad for Egypt’s security interests, and bad for U.S. security interests. But on one level, this past week’s political events are par for the course in a transition that began in February 2011. Claims that the fall of long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak constituted a “revolution” have always been overstated given the military’s deep and ongoing role in Egyptian political and economic structures. What happened last year was essentially a military coup, and what transpired this week is a reaffirmation of what key elements of Egypt’s security establishment have been saying since Mubarak’s ouster: We are in charge of key aspects of Egypt’s policy, and we won’t give these powers up quickly.

While the ways in which the Egyptian military intervened in the political transition process over the past several days has been remarkably overt, its leading role in the transition so far—effectively ousting Mubarak early last year and setting the overall parameters for the transition process itself—indicates it intends to protect its own position and advance what it perceives as the interests of Egyptian society. Ultimately, the Egyptian military and security establishment remain the largest and most influential of the multiple centers of power competing to determine the scope and course of Egypt’s political transition.

What is different in post-Mubarak Egypt, however, is that the military and security establishment must compete with other power centers offering their own visions of a new Egypt. These groups include the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist forces; nonreligious activist groups; liberals; civil society members; an increasingly assertive judiciary; and political leaders with links to the former regime. Different portions of this constellation will align with each other at different times in accordance with their perceived interests. Case in point: Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court ruled a key part of an election law unconstitutional and dissolved parliament as a result, allowing the military to take legislative power into its own hands.

These alignments are and will be unpredictable going forward, creating a lengthy transition fraught with incomplete steps forward and setbacks as these power centers seek to advance their priorities through tactical alliances with other groups. The fractures within these power centers—the divisions between various Islamist groups, for instance—will only serve to exacerbate this dynamic and complicate Egypt’s transition.

As a result, the United States should not overreact to setbacks in Egypt’s transition. Responding to these setbacks by cutting aid to Egypt will likely prove ineffective and leave the United States without tools to influence either Egypt’s power centers or wider society as the transition process moves forward.

A more calibrated approach aimed at forging a new relationship across these multiple centers of power and multiple issues beyond security, as the Center recently recommended, will be critical. Military aid should be primarily conditioned on U.S. regional security objectives, such as maintaining the Egypt-Israel peace treaty and continued cooperation on regional security. In some cases, such as maintaining security in the Sinai Peninsula in the face of cross-border attacks into Israel, curtailing aid in the absence of intentional neglect will harm rather than help U.S. security objectives.

But at the same time the United States needs to recognize that the assistance it provides to Egypt’s security establishment has an impact on how the political transition unfolds. Over time the balance of U.S. assistance should shift away from the military and toward efforts to help Egypt build a more productive economy and open political system.  

Political reform, the evolution in civil-military relations, and civil society should be encouraged and supported in new ways. The messages that the United States sent yesterday in reaction to these new political developments are a step in the right direction, but fast-moving events in Egypt will require a clearer and more specific response in the coming weeks. To develop this response the United States needs a comprehensive and well-coordinated interagency strategy.  

What’s more, Egypt is in critical need of an internationally coordinated plan to revive a lethargic economy at a time of scarce foreign assistance budgets around the world. None of this is possible should the United States simply cut aid in the face of undesirable developments in Egypt’s political transition, as some have suggested.

Recent negative political events in Egypt are cause for concern, but not rash action or excessive pessimism. With multiple centers of power competing to determine its future, Egypt’s political transition was always going to be far more complicated, messy, and lengthy than celebrations of its “revolution” implied. U.S. policy should acknowledge this reality and work to manage the inevitable disorder of Egypt’s transition—and do so in a way that avoids the false policy choices of the past. 

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst at the Center.

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