Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s speech to the country Wednesday night on the state of the nation failed to satisfy his critics, who are calling on the president to resign after a tumultuous and controversial first year in office. It seems as though Egypt is heading toward a showdown, as a national movement demanding that President Morsi step down is planning nationwide protests this weekend.
The fact that millions of Egyptians have signed a petition demanding that President Morsi step down and calling for new elections is just the latest sign of a political legitimacy crisis that has grown since Morsi’s election in 2012. The decreasing voter turnout in successive waves of elections last year, culminating in a constitutional referendum in December that left the country divided over the direction of the nation, was followed by a political deadlock. No serious steps were taken to hold new parliamentary elections, a reflection of the sharp polarization and decline in the trust of Egypt’s governing institutions.
This political legitimacy crisis has exacerbated the country’s serious economic problems. The lack of consensus about core policy issues has paralyzed Egypt and prevented it from advancing a clear agenda to address its growing economic problems. The country’s deadlock comes at a time of increased security threats undermining basic law and order in several parts of the country. Given the great uncertainty on the security, political, and economic fronts in Egypt, it is difficult to predict what will happen in the coming days.
In this complicated context, U.S. policy on Egypt has largely been in a crisis management mode characterized by tactical shifts reactive to events in Egypt. Syria’s civil war, along with continued concerns about Iran and its nuclear program, have dominated overall U.S. policy in the Middle East over the past few months, and Secretary of State John Kerry has invested considerable time and attention in efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. But events in Egypt will require top U.S. policymakers to renew their focus on Egypt, all at a time when congressional support for economic and military aid for Egypt is dropping, and public sentiment in the United States has become sharply negative about Egypt and the Middle East uprisings.
Earlier this spring, a Zogby Research Services poll of U.S. attitudes found that favorable opinions toward Egypt have dropped 22 points since 2011, from 58 percent at the start of Egypt’s revolution to 36 percent this year. This increased pessimism about Egypt tracks with a negative outlook on the Middle East uprisings as a whole, found in other public opinion polls. Last fall, the Pew Research Center found that a majority of Americans—57 percent—believed that the Arab Spring would not lead to lasting improvements. The United States doesn’t set its policy in the Middle East by reading public opinion, but the souring public mood toward Egypt makes it harder for U.S. leaders seeking to remain engaged in providing support for Egypt’s transition to democratic governance.
Congress has grown increasingly skeptical of supporting assistance to Egypt, as President Morsi’s rule has failed to achieve a national consensus and the country has witnessed a number of negative trends on the protection of basic rights and freedom. Egypt’s recent politically motivated conviction of 43 non-governmental-organization workers, including several Americans, for operating without proper government approval makes the case for U.S. support to Egypt even harder to make. In a speech earlier this month, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) argued that the U.S. foreign aid budget is shrinking, while demands are growing. “As a result, Egypt must show that it is a good investment of our scarce resources—that the return on this investment will be a freer, more democratic, more tolerant Egypt,” Sen. McCain said. “If not, Congress will spend this money elsewhere.”
In the two-and-a-half years since the collapse of the Mubarak regime, Egypt has been embroiled in a complicated series of political, economic, and security transitions. Yet the basic framework and overall policy tools that the United States has used to shape and influence events in Egypt has largely remained the same, with a few minor adjustments. In the past two years, the United States has not made major shifts in its security and economic assistance to Egypt and its methods for engaging Egypt, despite immense changes Egypt has undergone internally.
The United States must prepare for the possibility that it will need to implement a massive overhaul in its bilateral relations with Egypt based on events in that country in the coming days and weeks. A major shift in relations would have spillover implications for longstanding U.S. security strategy for the region on several fronts. Egypt continues to play an important role in advancing U.S. security interests in the region, including continued efforts to deal with security threats in the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. But Egypt’s political legitimacy crisis has grown, and the performance of the Morsi government during the past year has left Egypt more polarized and weaker economically, and less reliable as a partner.
The coming weeks could prove to be a pivotal period for Egypt. Ideally, the United States would continue to adapt its policy and attempt to manage the change in Egypt, but if the recent negative trends continue, the United States should be prepared to question the basic framework of its bilateral relationship with Egypt and conduct an overhaul of its current full assistance package.
Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow with the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress.