A week since the Egyptian military removed Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Mohamed Morsi from power in the wake of massive anti-Morsi protests across the country, much remains unclear about Egypt’s political future. Egypt’s complex constellation of political actors is reconfiguring itself in a highly uncertain political environment with an unsettled and contested path forward. In these volatile circumstances, the United States should not make rash decisions and announce major shifts in policy. Instead, it should examine a wide range of policy options for creative incentives that encourage constructive steps forward in Egypt’s political, economic, and security transitions.
The events of the past week prove that none of Egypt’s multiple power centers—including the coalition behind the anti-Morsi Tamarod campaign, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the military—is going away. No one faction can attempt to dominate Egyptian politics the way the Muslim Brotherhood attempted this past year without facing an equal and opposite reaction from the other factions to check their power. The sooner Egypt’s political actors understand this reality of post-Mubarak politics, the sooner a stable and viable post-Mubarak political order can be built. At every stage in Egypt’s transition since former President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011, the different power centers that emerged have overreached and overplayed the strength of their hand in Egypt’s attempts to reorder its political system.
Nonetheless, there are some signs that Egypt can avoid a descent into further chaos—if all parties start to adopt a more conciliatory approach. The military has refused to take power directly, transferring executive power to Adly Mansour, head of Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court. Moreover, members of the Tamarod coalition such as interim Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei have stated the necessity to include the Muslim Brotherhood in the political process moving forward, and interim Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi has offered the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party cabinet posts in the new government.
For every indicator of hope for consensus, however, there is a pessimistic one. The Muslim Brotherhood has remained obstinate, rejecting Beblawi’s offer of cabinet posts and demanding Morsi’s reinstatement. In this instance, the Muslim Brotherhood seems wedded to an idealistic position with demands that appear disconnected from the realities of the balance of power inside of Egypt’s politics today. For its part, the military—through interim President Mansour—issued a new constitutional declaration that has created deep concerns across Egypt’s political spectrum. The crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and failure to prevent violence between pro- and anti-Morsi protesters creates doubts about the Egyptian security forces’ role going forward. This rigid adherence to maximalist positions by key centers of power in Egypt could deepen the chaos in the country. A better pathway forward is to seek consensus on building a more inclusive political system that respects the basic rights of all Egyptians.
Recommendations for U.S. policy
The United States has a limited but important role to play in this new phase of Egypt’s political transition. Egypt’s political leaders and citizens bear the primary burden of building a sustainable and inclusive political order amid intense internal political polarization. The United States, however, should still seek to encourage the development of a regular, open, and inclusive Egyptian political process based on the rule of law and democratic principles.
Moving forward, the United States should publicly and privately make known that it expects an inclusive political process that respects the basic human rights of Egypt’s citizens. The United States should also continue to stress the urgency of a quick return to a democratically elected government, as the White House statement on Egypt last week indicated. But it should not just focus on the immediate political road map under discussion; it needs to press the case for broader respect by all Egyptian actors for the full range of political rights and civil liberties. U.S. representatives should make the case to the Egyptian public and political actors that President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood failed in power because they failed to adhere to these comprehensive standards. The United States is unhappy that the military rejected its attempts to mediate a solution within Egypt’s constitutional and legal framework. But what is done is done, and the United States needs to encourage Egypt to move forward.
To promote these principles for democratic governance, U.S. diplomats and leaders should expand and deepen their relationships with Egypt’s broad and diverse political spectrum. In order to maintain a strong relationship with Egypt, the United States will need to navigate this complex array of political rivals who will alternatively oppose and cooperate with one another in the next phase of the transition.
The next U.S. ambassador in Egypt should broaden U.S. engagement. The contacts that U.S. diplomats have in Egypt should not be limited to just political parties and elements of the government and military, but should also include constituency-based civil-society groups, such as labor unions, business associations, and professional syndicates—all of which will likely play an expanded role in Egyptian politics. This effort will be a much larger and more difficult task to manage for even the most capable American diplomats, and will need political and bureaucratic support at all levels of the executive and legislative branches.
While helping Egyptians build an inclusive and democratic post-Mubarak political order should remain the priority of American policy, Egypt also faces a myriad of near- and long-term economic challenges. These challenges—including a 13 percent unemployment rate, a growing annual budget deficit, fuel shortages, and an inefficient and expensive food and energy subsidy program—helped fuel the popular protests against the Mubarak regime in 2011, and the Morsi government’s failure to address these problems undoubtedly contributed to public frustration with his rule.
The United States can play a key role in helping stabilize Egypt’s economy—especially in concert with other prominent countries—but only if Egypt’s new leaders decide to take the politically difficult steps to shore up its crumbling economic infrastructure. Continued U.S. support for a proposed $4.8 billion loan to Egypt from the International Monetary Fund, or IMF, has been crucial. Nonetheless, domestic Egyptian politics remain central: The IMF loan is deeply unpopular among Egyptians, who oppose the tax increases and subsidy cuts included in the economic reforms that would accompany the loan. While Egypt’s economic problems are deep and troubling, controversial assistance programs such as the IMF loan should not be pushed without obtaining domestic Egyptian political consensus first—implementing cuts in subsidies for fuel will be doubly difficult in Egypt’s polarized political landscape.
Finally, the United States should continue to work to safeguard its security interests in Egypt. Though the U.S. debate on this issue often focuses on the stability of the Camp David peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, the reality is that it is not in Egypt’s self-interest to alter this deal. During his year in power, President Morsi did not move to change the treaty and even attempted to position himself as a broker between Hamas and Israel. The United States’s real security concerns in Egypt pertain to the general breakdown in law and order across the country and the emergence of extremist violence in the Sinai Peninsula.
In the wake of the coup against Morsi, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and others have called for the United States to make an immediate cut in its military and economic aid to Egypt, as required by U.S. law against countries which have undergone a military coup to remove a democratically elected government. Doing so, however, is unlikely to advance U.S. objectives of helping Egypt move forward toward an inclusive political transition to democracy while encouraging stability. The United States might look to suspend portions of this assistance in the short term to safeguard against any further abuses of basic rights by the security institutions, but a complete halt appears impractical at this stage.
It is clear that the U.S.-Egypt security relationship is in dire need of reform; this relationship has been on autopilot for years. Bilateral training exercises should focus on new security challenges and threats. The United States should also utilize ongoing bilateral military-cooperation discussions and efforts to encourage Egypt’s military leaders to create a plan to transform their institution into one in which civilian oversight of its institution is promoted.
The future of Egypt’s post-Mubarak political transition remains uncertain. Its intricate web of political actors will continue to compete with one another to gain political power and advantage, with none able to dominate the political system as the Muslim Brotherhood attempted to do over the past year. U.S. policy should remain cautious in the immediate future, aiming to prod Egyptian political leaders to learn from their earlier mistakes and construct an inclusive, democratic political order. At the same time, the United States should safeguard its security interests in Egypt while helping Egypt remedy its difficult economic problems.
If U.S. leverage is applied with savvy and skill, it can help Egyptians move their country forward in this complicated political transition.
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 Associate with the National Security and International Policy team at the Center.
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