The Middle East Channel

America’s Egypt quandary

With the seating of a new Egyptian president, it is tempting to focus on the forward momentum of that country’s transition and an imminent return to civilian rule. Indeed, over much of the past year, Washington has banked on the idea that the military council ruling the country since Mubarak’s ouster is eager to relinquish ...


With the seating of a new Egyptian president, it is tempting to focus on the forward momentum of that country’s transition and an imminent return to civilian rule. Indeed, over much of the past year, Washington has banked on the idea that the military council ruling the country since Mubarak’s ouster is eager to relinquish power sooner rather than later. Its mishandling of key aspects of the transition were largely dismissed as amateurish bungling by soldiers unaccustomed to wielding executive authority. But in the drama leading up to the presidential runoff, there were plenty of signs suggesting that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is not going away anytime soon, even if — as they claim — power will be handed over to the new president by the end of this month.

Over the past fortnight the SCAF has presided over the dissolution of the country’s only popularly elected institution, the National Assembly, and reclaimed the legislative mandate for itself. It has also stipulated significant limits to the powers of the newly-elected president and assumed new security powers that rekindle aspects of the draconian Emergency Law that permitted Mubarak to curtail expressions of political opposition for so long. And the revised sequence for the political transition, in which legislative elections will not be held until a new constitution is in place, means that Egyptians will go without an independent, popularly elected political institution for the foreseeable future.

SCAF-skeptics have decried these recent actions as tantamount to a military coup. And they dismiss the presidential succession as all smoke and mirrors on the part of the military: the advent of an executive associated with the revolution provides the illusion of forward progress — and draws scrutiny away from the military — even as the SCAF takes measures to ensure that, at least for the time being, ultimate authority with respect to Egypt’s finances and security remain firmly in its grip. At the very least it is clear that the generals — faced with the prospect of a parliament and presidency dominated by Islamists — felt the need to make a clear statement to the effect that they remain in charge. But as with their actions at previous critical junctures in the transition, this one too looks to be an overstatement. There is also a good prospect that these moves will establish the SCAF as the shared enemy of political forces that heretofore have tended to focus on their differences.

The Muslim Brotherhood and the political course it chooses will be key. While many of Egypt’s revolutionaries — not to mention key external actors such as the United States, Israel, and America’s allies in the Gulf — remain skeptical of the Brotherhood’s ultimate motives, Mohammed Morsi’s victory in the presidential runoff opposite a leading figure from the previous regime will burnish their revolutionary credentials in the eyes of many Egyptians. Yet the Islamists now have their own dilemma. Having been short-changed at the hands of the SCAF by losing both their legislative power base and the prospect of full executive authority, they possess an unprecedented opportunity to rally popular sentiment to their cause. But doing so would lead inevitably to a direct confrontation with the generals, and it is not clear how far the Brotherhood is willing to push in this direction. The military as an institution remains broadly popular, and the Islamists know that at the end of the day, they will need to accommodate themselves to a political environment in which the military holds ultimate sway over matters of national security for some time.

In this messy fray, relatively little attention in recent days has been paid to the fate of Egypt’s constitutional process. After months of vociferous debate and politicking over the composition and process for establishing a constituent assembly, a deal was struck on the assembly’s membership by which a plurality of parliamentarians — dominated by Islamists — would sit alongside a majority of nominally independent experts and public figures from various walks of Egyptian life (law, unions, religious institutions, minorities, etc). On its face, this arrangement seemed to ensure greater diversity in the constitution drafting, but recent moves by the SCAF once again throw the integrity of the process into doubt. With the dissolution of the parliament the mandate of nearly half the members of the constituent body is now ambiguous. Furthermore, a new decree provides the SCAF with a broad warrant to intervene in the constitutional process. It stipulates, rather vaguely, that if the current assembly is unable to complete its work, then the SCAF will form a new constituent assembly that would have only three and a half months to write and subsequently submit a new constitution to a popular referendum. The generous interpretation is that the SCAF is simply trying to concentrate the minds of those charged with the responsibility of giving Egypt its new constitution. Others see a tactic designed to ensure the SCAF gets the constitution it wants once the current, hobbled assembly inevitably declares failure.

The sad thing is that these end runs and heavy-handed meddling by the military were probably unnecessary when it comes to securing their ultimate goals. If, as has long been assumed, the SCAF mainly wants to protect the army’s budget, its share of the national economy, and its unique privileges in the realm of national security, most key players in Egypt were already ready to accommodate such provisions. The United States, too, had signaled that it was comfortable with — indeed, that it perhaps even preferred — such an arrangement despite the clear downsides for democracy in Egypt. So the question now is whether the game has changed for the SCAF. Are they signaling that they now prefer a more entrenched role in Egyptian politics, perhaps reminiscent of Turkey’s army until recently? If so, how should the United States respond?

U.S. policy towards Egypt over the past year has alternated between expressions of support for the revolution and lasting democratic reform, and a series of actions that have signaled to many in the region that old ways of doing business are still very much in place. The State Department’s use earlier this year of a national security waiver to avoid congressionally mandated democracy conditions on U.S. military assistance is probably the most egregious example of the latter. The dilemma for the United States can be summarized quite succinctly. While popular revolutions in the region have provided new space for the United States to push hard for democratic reform, there are key obstacles on both the demand and supply sides that keep such aspirations firmly on the ground.

First of all, the United States’ track record in the Middle East is such that most people in Egypt understand this country to have been the chief underwriter of the very regime their uprising cast off. This makes it difficult for the United States to be perceived as a friend of the revolution and ensures that American efforts to support democratic transition in Egypt — through NGO partnerships or political party training activities — ends up being perceived as unwanted meddling.  The second factor here speaks to a more fundamental problem with U.S. policy in the Middle East. Despite a new rhetoric of support for democratic transition, when push comes to shove, the United States has appeared to privilege its vested relationships in status quo security actors over genuinely new ways of doing business. Bearing in mind these instincts, it is not difficult to imagine that Washington would take some comfort in an Egyptian military well placed — as it now seems to be — to keep a vigilant eye on a presidency and, eventually, a parliament dominated by Islamists.

But such actions and attitudes do not actually serve the long-term strategic interests of the United States. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already addressed the heart of the matter: "If — over time — the most powerful political force in Egypt remains a roomful of unelected officials, they will have planted the seeds for future unrest, and Egyptians will have missed a historic opportunity." So what should the United States do at this particular juncture with the little influence it still wields?

Washington needs to make it clear to the SCAF that despite a successful presidential election, their current course of action will impede Egypt’s transition and, ultimately, its stability. The military council should be strongly encouraged to hold parliamentary elections sooner rather than later — or, in the event the current constituent assembly fails, to ensure that any new constitution-writing body reflects the popular will in some good measure. Even in the absence of clear legislative powers, elected parliaments and constituent assemblies provide crucial forums for airing and resolving political differences. Tunisia’s recent experience is illustrative here. The sooner Egypt’s fractious political forces figure out how to work together to solve problems, the better off the country will be. Mubarak-era security powers also need to be rescinded.

Second, our technical and governance assistance needs to concentrate less on NGOs and political party training, and focus more on building capacity in Egypt’s bureaucratic, judicial, and law enforcement institutions — the best way to guarantee effective, accountable, and sustained governance going forward. New tools, such as the U.S. administration’s proposed Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund, will be a crucial part of delivering on these needs.

But how to achieve this when threats to use the best stick Washington would appear to have at its disposal — withholding Egypt’s annual $1.3 billion allotment of military aid — ring hollow or are ultimately unpersuasive in Cairo? The idea of the $1.3 billion as a key point of U.S. policy leverage has been little more than a chimera for years. But it is part and parcel of a close working relationship that provides Washington with regular, direct, and trusting access to Egypt’s senior military leaders. So this is a case not of threatening or cajoling, but of using sound policy logic to persuade the SCAF that it is in the best interests of the country and the military as an institution to set Egypt on a course of genuine and lasting democratic transition.

Peter Mandaville is director of the Ali Vural Ak Center for Islamic Studies at George Mason University and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is also a former member of the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning Staff.

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