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Advancing U.S. Interests and Values at a Time of Change in Egypt

Egypt riot

SOURCE: AP/Khalil Hamra

Egyptian riot police arrest a man during clashes with protesters near Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, January 30, 2013.

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Violent clashes in Egypt during the past week underscored how fragile the overall situation remains in the Middle East’s largest country. The deterioration in Egypt couldn’t come at a worse time of upheaval across the Middle East, as Syria’s civil war rages, threats from Al Qaeda-affiliated groups stretch from the Persian Gulf region to North Africa, and Iran moves to undermine regional stability.

The United States needs to remain engaged in efforts to influence the political and economic transition in Egypt, as well as bolster security there. Both actions will require continued support for a full range of U.S. policy tools—such as the approximately $1.5 billion per year in security and economic assistance—and a more robust diplomatic engagement with the multiple centers of power that have emerged in Egypt during the past two years. U.S. assistance and support for Egypt must be reformed in the long run to reflect new realities. As incoming Secretary of State John Kerry recently stressed, however, now is not the time to rashly cut off support to Egypt. Clearly, Egypt’s people and leaders will determine its trajectory, but the United States can play a positive role in shaping outcomes.

Perfect storm brews in Egypt—interlinked security, political, and economic crises

Clashes in the major Egyptian cities of Cairo, Alexandria, and Port Said were triggered by a combination of protests commemorating the second anniversary of the revolt that unseated then-President Hosni Mubarak and the sentencing of 21 soccer fans to death because of a riot after a soccer match more than a year ago that left 74 people dead. The challenge to the authority of Egypt’s ruling Muslim Brotherhood has become so severe that President Mohamed Morsi declared a state of emergency in Port Said and two other cities along the Suez Canal, while Army head Gen. Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi “warned Egypt’s new Islamist leaders and their opponents that ‘their disagreement on running the affairs of the country may lead to the collapse of the state and threatens the future of the coming generations.’” Egypt’s rival political leaders came together to renounce the recent violence, giving hope that however dysfunctional the transition process remains, we are not likely to see a systemic breakdown in the country.

These clashes are in great measure a response to the unresolved tensions within Egyptian politics and society that have built up in the two years since the overthrow of President Mubarak and the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood. The confluence of events—the anniversary of the 2011 protests and the soccer riot sentencing—have acted like a lit match on the tinder box of Egyptian dissatisfaction with the current state of the country. The simmering political and societal conflicts that have plagued Egypt since Mubarak’s overthrow—including a contentious constitutional referendum and a continuation of some of the Mubarak regime’s worst excesses—are boiling over, and they will continue to create problems if they are not genuinely addressed by Egyptian leaders. Egypt is facing three interlinked crises: internal security, political distrust, and economic uncertainty.

Insecurity and a breakdown of law and order

First and most immediate is a security crisis, illustrated by the failure of Egyptian police forces to maintain order in the country’s major cities. The security crisis goes much deeper, however, than a simple failure to maintain order in the wake of controversial court rulings and politically charged anniversaries.

Egypt’s new rulers have failed to reform the Interior Ministry and police, which have not adequately fulfilled their shared responsibility for keeping order and maintaining the rule of law. Egypt’s internal security services continue to operate with the same impunity they did under Mubarak. The police’s crisis of authority is so severe that the Muslim Brotherhood is reportedly drafting legislation granting the military power to arrest and try civilians until after the upcoming parliamentary elections.

The current violence is just the latest episode in a broader trend of insecurity that has been plaguing Egypt since Mubarak’s overthrow in 2011. Ordinary crime has skyrocketed while personal security has declined. Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula is growing increasingly vulnerable and has become a lawless breeding ground for arms smuggling, human trafficking, and violent Islamist extremism. Weapons from Libya and Sudan flow through Egyptian territory, providing the violent Islamist extremists and jihadists operating in the Sinai with added firepower. Many terrorists released in the chaos that surrounded Mubarak’s overthrow remain at large, plotting attacks against U.S. targets. One of those terrorists, Mohamed al-Zawahiri—brother of Al Qaeda central chief Ayman al-Zawahiri— has threatened attacks against France and its partners over the intervention in Mali. He remains at large.

Political legitimacy crisis

Egypt’s security crisis, however, is in many ways a product of the broader crisis of political legitimacy that the Muslim Brotherhood-led government and state now face. The quality of Egypt’s political transition from the Mubarak dictatorship progressively deteriorated over the course of 2012 through a complicated series of twists and turns that resulted in serious questions about the Muslim Brotherhood’s true commitment to pluralism and democratic principles. Three key markers underscoring the international concern with last year’s political transition include:

  • Parliamentary elections in the beginning of 2012 that produced a legislature stacked with Islamist political parties. Nearly half of its seats were in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood, and almost a quarter of the seats belonged to the even more conservative Salafist party.
  • Presidential elections in the middle of the year that saw sharp divisions in the results. In the first round of the elections, no single candidate won more than a quarter of the vote. In the second round, Egyptians elected the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi president with just less than 52 percent of the vote.
  • The approval of a new constitution at the end of the year by a 64 percent to 36 percent margin—with only 30 percent voter turnout. In Cairo, Egypt’s capital and largest city, the constitution was rejected by 57 percent of voters. This increased voter disengagement from the formal political process reflected growing popular concerns about the lack of legitimacy of the moves taken by President Morsi and his allies to try to shut down a more inclusive dialogue on drafting Egypt’s new constitution and shaping the future of its political system.

The divisions exposed by this flawed political transition highlight the political-legitimacy crisis that still looms and remains unresolved in Egypt. Adding to the growing discontent were a divisive June court decision to dissolve the elected parliament and the constitutional drafting process itself, which opened much deeper fissures in Egyptian politics. The first Constituent Assembly, elected by the Islamist-dominated parliament, faced boycotts from liberals, leftists, and al-Azhar University for being unrepresentative—a charge that Cairo’s Administrative Court upheld when it suspended the Assembly in April 2012.

A new, purportedly more representative Assembly was appointed in June, but it faced similar perceptions of Islamist domination. This led to another set of boycotts and withdrawals, which reached critical mass in November amid perceptions that Islamists were rushing work on the constitution. Lawsuits questioning the new Assembly’s constitutionality are currently pending decision by the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court.

In order to preempt the anticipated dissolution of the second Constituent Assembly, President Morsi issued a decree on November 22, 2013—which he later revoked—granting himself wide-ranging powers and immunity from judicial oversight. The decree provoked protests from opposition political forces over the next two weeks, and clashes instigated by Muslim Brotherhood cadres left at least six people dead. Under the cover of Morsi’s decree, the rump Constituent Assembly pushed through a constitution, which was put to a referendum just two weeks later.

The process by which the Muslim Brotherhood has governed lends credence to the serious doubts about the organization’s ultimate goals and motivations. Instead of organizing a constitutional process based on national consensus and widespread societal support, the Brotherhood has pursued an inherently divisive course that puts its own objectives first.

When given the opportunity to select members of a constitution-drafting body, the Brotherhood-dominated parliament stacked it with Islamists. Given a chance to be more inclusive after this Assembly was dissolved, the parliament simply repeated its mistakes. President Morsi’s decree protecting this second Assembly from dissolution and the decision to push through a new constitution in a remarkably short period of time following the withdrawal of many non-Islamist Assembly members was worse still, provoking widespread protests that Brotherhood cadres subsequently physically attacked. All in all, the Brotherhood’s behavior throughout the constitutional framing process has been the behavior of an organization committed to securing its own narrow interests instead of encouraging democratic inclusion.

In short, the events of 2012—and in particular the Muslim Brotherhood’s dangerously inept management of the constitutional framing process—demonstrated the fragmentation of Egyptian politics into multiple centers of power. Despite its domination of parliament and its ascent to the presidency, the Muslim Brotherhood could not impose a constitution on Egypt without creating or deepening political and societal fissures between these centers of power. These power centers—from opposing political groups to Egypt’s judiciary—repeatedly sought to assert themselves in 2012, and they will continue to do so going forward despite their past defeats and forced retreats. With parliamentary elections scheduled to take place some time after February 25, 2012, Egypt’s political legitimacy crisis is likely to persist for the foreseeable future.

Continued economic meltdown

At the same time that Egypt faces crises of political legitimacy and deteriorated security, it is coping with an ongoing economic crisis. Egypt’s economy has suffered from a rapid decline in foreign reserves—from $35 billion down to $15 billion since the revolution—and a subsequent loss of value of the Egyptian pound, which has led to a spike in inflation. The political and economic uncertainty in Egypt has driven away 92 percent of foreign direct investment and led to a 30 percent drop in tourism, one of Egypt’s most important industries. These economic problems have ballooned Egypt’s budget deficit to more than 10 percent of GDP. Worse still, Egypt faces 12 percent total unemployment and 41 percent youth unemployment.

Unfortunately, the major structural problems of Egypt’s economy make the short-term fixes for these problems even more difficult. A historically overvalued currency makes halting inflation and balancing Egypt’s accounts challenging. An imbalanced private sector comprised of large, well-connected corporations and off-the-books microbusinesses—with too few small-to-medium enterprises in between—makes rapid job growth unlikely. And with 40 percent of Egyptians living on less than $2 a day, making government food and energy subsidies more effective and sustainable will prove a difficult but necessary political task. Combined with Egypt’s political and security problems, the country’s multifaceted economic crisis presents Egyptian politicians with extraordinarily formidable governance challenges.

U.S. policy going forward

As much as the United States would like to shape events in Egypt in directions that are favorable to its own interests and values, it should recognize the limits of its power and influence. Responsibility for Egypt’s political, economic, and social evolution rests first and foremost with Egyptians, not with the United States. Given the complexity of Egypt’s political, economic, and security transition, Egyptians will undoubtedly continue to make mistakes and blunders going forward. American policymakers, however, have limited ability to correct these missteps—and no one should expect otherwise.

Nonetheless, the United States does have some ability and leverage to influence outcomes in ways that protect core U.S. interests and objectives—specifically, an Egypt that is a foundation of stability and progress in the broader Middle East, as well as at peace with its neighbors. To that end, there are six major steps the United States can take to achieve optimal outcomes:

  • Maintain contact with Egypt’s multiple power centers. At a time of fluidity and political upheaval, the United States should avoid the appearance of picking favorites or being on the side of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian military, or other political actors, instead striving to maintain or establish close diplomatic and security ties with Egypt’s multiple centers of power. The United States should continue to diversify and cultivate its set of contacts in Egypt as the country’s shaky transition continues.
  • Maintain support for the full assistance package. With tight foreign aid budgets and growing doubts over the ruling Muslim Brotherhood’s behavior and intentions, some members of Congress have attempted to limit U.S. economic and military assistance to Cairo. But at this sensitive juncture it would be imprudent to make dramatic changes to the nature of the U.S.-Egyptian aid relationship. The overall aid package should be mutually renegotiated with Egypt over time—not suddenly cut off in a moment of crisis.
  • Support Egypt in international financial institutions. One place where the United States has considerable leverage is in international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund—where Egypt is still negotiating a $4.8 billion loan. Finalizing the International Monetary Fund loan is critical to relieving much of the short-term pressure on the Egyptian economy. Furthermore, U.S. support for Egypt in these forums will send a strong message to the international community about the viability of the Egyptian economy, increasing the likelihood that other major investors such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey will commit the resources necessary to get Egypt’s economy back on track.
  • Offer assistance for police reform. Currently, the majority of the $1.3 billion in security assistance the United States gives each year to Egypt is funneled through the Foreign Military Financing program to provide funds for the purchase of U.S.-made weapons. Some of this funding could be reprogrammed away from heavy weaponry and toward finance assistance to reform the police and Interior Ministry. These internal security services have gone largely unreformed since the fall of Mubarak, and they remain a major cause of popular discontent. Reforming the police to serve and protect the Egyptian people—rather than allowing them to remain an unaccountable source of trouble for average Egyptians—will help ease the political and security crises facing Egypt.
  • Undertake more and better public diplomacy about U.S. values and interests. With the rise of multiple centers of power in the wake of Mubarak’s fall from power, it is more important than ever for the United States to communicate with the broader Egyptian public. The United States should make clear where it stands on critical issues and articulate its support for Egypt’s political and economic transition. The United States should also make it clear that support for transition does not entail support for any one group at this juncture. The muted U.S. response to President Morsi’s decree in November 2012 ultimately did not serve U.S. interests and values.
  • Improve regional communication. Similarly, the United States should make it clear throughout the Middle East that its support for political reform does not equate to support for the domination of politics by the Muslim Brotherhood. The United States could do this in part by more strongly and clearly holding President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood accountable for actions and rhetoric that harm the prospects for an inclusive political transition in Egypt.

Egypt remains in the early stages of what will likely be a protracted period of change. With so much uncertainty and change in the broader region, the United States must continue to invest in building a stronger foundation for an ongoing, mutually beneficial partnership with Egypt.

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst at the Center. Ken Sofer is a Research Assistant with the National Security and International Policy team at the Center.

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