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Egypt’s Political Transition Takes a Step Forward Amid Much Uncertainty

We Need to Prepare for More Challenges There in 2012

A thick haze hung over the Nile River this morning, a historic day as Egypt’s parliament met for the first time since former President Hosni Mubarak stepped down nearly a year ago. Broadcast live on Egyptian television, the opening session of parliament marks a step forward in Egypt’s political transition, a transition with an ambitious calendar of more elections and constitution drafting in the coming months, just as the country’s economic troubles mount.

In the past year the Obama administration responded fairly nimbly to the fast-moving events in Egypt. But 2012 will present even more challenges to advancing a policy in Egypt that balances the complexities of offering support for Egypt’s political and economic transitions while advancing U.S. security interests for stability in the broader region.

Islamist parties dominated the elections for the lower house of parliament, as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party won nearly half of the seats, and the more conservative Salafist Nour party took one-quarter of the seats. It remains unclear how much real power this new parliament will have—the current temporary constitution gives the ruling military council considerable powers.

The debate over the proper checks and balances within Egypt’s new governing system will take center stage in the coming months as Egypt moves to write a new constitution. Egypt is full of rumors about a possible deal between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood on the constitution, including the sensitive issue of how much oversight the civilian government will have over the military. In addition to drafting a constitution, Egypt is set to hold elections for the upper house of parliament, which will begin next week, and a presidential election in June. This adds up to a crowded agenda for Egypt’s political transition in the first six months of 2012.

The most immediate uncertainty, however, is what will happen this Wednesday, the first anniversary of the January 25 protests that toppled the Mubarak regime last year. Protest groups unhappy with the political transition and wanting a faster transition to civilian rule are calling for mass rallies to mark the anniversary.

On top of this political uncertainty is a dangerous economic crisis: Egypt’s foreign currency reserves fell to $10 billion from a pre-revolution level of $36 billion, and Egypt has reopened discussions with the International Monetary Fund to increase the inflow of foreign funds that had been reduced due to political turmoil. Rumors of changes in fuel subsidies prompted a panic that led to gas shortages in Cairo, and bigger questions about unemployment and inflation remain unresolved.

One year into the transition in Egypt, the Obama administration has struck the right balance in dealing with the complex security, political, and economic issues related to the transition. In 2011 the administration pushed the ruling military to bring clarity to the political transition, and it engaged a wider range of political actors as Egypt moved through a series of elections. It called out the human rights abuses of the security services in Egypt, and it stood behind regional allies like Israel when it was faced with attacks on its embassy in Cairo and territory from the Sinai Peninsula.

Looking ahead to the rest of 2012, the United States needs to remain vigilant in balancing its core security interests while promoting its values in Egypt’s ongoing political transition. Egypt is undergoing a major transition, and the United States has adopted important tactical shifts. Now is the time for the United States to conduct a more comprehensive strategic review of its Egypt policy, similar to the one the Obama administration conducted on Afghanistan in late 2009.

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at American Progress.