Marc Lynch

The Egyptian Treadmill

Why Washington isn’t panicking about Egypt’s latest crisis.


Cairo is having yet another crisis. This week’s dramatic storming of the Semiramis Hotel just off of Tahrir Square by unknown thugs, the massive unrest and bloodshed leading to the imposition of emergency law in the canal cities, and ongoing clashes in Tahrir Square are fueling a general sense of the collapse of public order. The immediate spark for the surge of violence was the verdict on last year’s soccer mayhem, combined with the aftermath of the Jan. 25 anniversary protest. But really, it feels like it could have been anything.

The latest manifestation of Egypt’s ongoing political and institutional crisis has many causes. The exceptionally clumsy leadership from the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohamed Morsy’s repeated attempted power grabs. The opposition’s rejection of the political transition but inability to offer any compelling alternative. The frustration of revolutionaries and the emergence of violent, anarchic trends on the streets. Intense social and political polarization that neither side seems capable of restraining. The economic crisis and security vacuum keeping everyone on edge. In this context, Defense Minister Gen. Abd el-Fattah el-Sissi’s widely quoted comment that the ongoing crisis "may lead to the collapse of the state and threatens the future of the coming generations" sounds more like sober analysis than veiled coup threat.

The U.S. response thus far has been characteristically low-key. There’s almost certainly a sort of crisis fatigue, a sense that the Egyptian political class has cried wolf about the sky falling a few too many times. Still, the White House and the State Department have condemned violence on all sides, and called for an inclusive dialogue to build a consensus that respects the rights of all citizens. As has been the case throughout the Arab Spring, the Obama administration has drawn a line at the use of violence. But it correctly continues to insist that the solution to the crisis must come from Egyptians.

For many Egyptians, and much of the Egypt policy community in the United States, this isn’t enough. The United States should do more, do it differently, and do it more boldly (for examples, see this new collection of comments by top experts just released by the Project on Middle East Democracy [PDF]). Most of the critics agree that Washington should do more to support Egyptian democracy (not all, of course — Mubarak nostalgia has made an ugly comeback, especially among those on the right who always despised the Muslim Brotherhood more than they cared for Arab democracy). This is a bit tricky, though, because the Muslim Brotherhood actually won reasonably free and fair democratic elections. Pushing to bring down this elected government in the name of democracy would ordinarily be viewed as a tough sell. 

The Obama administration believes that it is supporting democracy in Egypt, and it has a pretty good case to make. It isn’t just its (still contested) role during the 18 days in helping to nudge Mubarak from power. The Obama team can also point to its quiet role in pushing the Egyptian military to commit to the transfer of power to an elected government, to live up to that commitment, and to not tip the presidential election to Ahmed Shafiq, a retired general and Mubarak loyalist. The administration consistently stuck to its position even when faced with a blizzard of panicked calls for postponement over violence, institutional chaos, legal shenanigans, or the stated or unstated recognition of imminent defeat (even I went wobbly once during intense clashes just before the parliamentary election, when it appeared that an election couldn’t possibly be held amidst such chaos; I was wrong). Unlike the Bush administration, which gave up on Palestinian democracy when Hamas won elections, Obama did not back away when the Islamists won. The Obama administration has demonstrated in word and deed a commitment to supporting Egyptian democracy far beyond anything previously shown by an American government.

That does not mean that Obama wanted the Muslim Brotherhood to win the elections. It takes a pretty skewed view of American politics to see any advantage whatsoever for Obama in Islamist electoral wins. Nor does anyone in Washington have any illusions about the Muslim Brotherhood — if there’s anybody here who actually believes that the Brotherhood is made up of liberal, Israel-loving, free-market, evangelical democrats then I haven’t met them. Most just don’t think that’s the point. The Muslim Brotherhood has performed abysmally in power, and has many unattractive qualities, but it won the elections.  Many of Egypt’s problems are endemic to transitions from authoritarian regimes and almost every other player on the Egyptian political scene has contributed to the fiasco. Of course, Obama has worked with Morsy as the democratically elected president of Egypt. But that doesn’t mean he "supports" or "backs" Morsy, any more than diplomatic relations with Britain means that Obama "backs" David Cameron.

The Obama administration would pretty clearly like nothing more than for the Muslim Brotherhood to get thrashed in an open election. Indeed, it’s probably their strategic vision. What could be better for the long-term development of Arab political culture than Islamists entering into the democratic process and then, for the first time in their history, being called to account by voters for their mistakes and over-reach? Could anyone doubt the value of a genuine balance of power between opposing political trends in the presidency and the Parliament for the first time in Egypt’s modern history? There’s a reason outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized the crucial significance of the "second election" in democratic transitions.

It’s not a terrible bet. The mountain of troubles produced by Brotherhood rule, the movement’s relatively limited electoral base (probably around 25 percent, going by Morsy’s share of the first round of the presidential election), and the high levels of mobilization against them during the constitutional crisis, should have put the Brotherhood in a world of political hurt. Indeed, the opposition to the Brotherhood could not possibly have been better teed up for electoral success this spring: economic catastrophe, security vacuum, governance failures, a hostile media, a mobilized population, the Salafis feuding with the Brotherhood, a skeptical international community, temporary unity around the common cause of beating the Brotherhood. 

Of course, for the Brotherhood to lose, somebody will need to beat them. And it would be difficult to express how fully, completely, absolutely baffled and depressed Washington is by the ineptitude of the Egyptian opposition. The opposition appears intent on blowing its chance. The National Salvation Front, the leading coalition of opposition figures, remains bedeviled by personality conflicts and individual ambitions, incoherent strategy, real programmatic differences (particularly over economic policy) and an evident unwillingness to get down to the dirty work of building a political machine and winning votes. Their cause is not helped by the ongoing temptation to boycott or the ever-deepening antagonism to the entire system among many of the most motivated youth activists.

Many of Obama’s critics argue that democracy means more than elections and that Egypt falls far short of a democratic outcome despite its elections. This is almost certainly correct. A slim electoral majority does not give the Egyptian government carte blanche to impose a narrow Islamist agenda on an intensely divided population. The Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian democracy must be judged through a wider lens of pluralism, transparency, accountability, inclusion, and respect for minority rights. To the best of my knowledge, nobody in Washington disagrees about any of this. 

The disagreement is over how to best support such values. Most want the administration to speak out about these issues more often instead of just backing Morsy as an elected president. Presumably, they would like the administration to urge Morsy to "take steps at this historic time to advance national unity by reaching out to all parties and constituencies in consultations about the formation of a new government. We believe in the importance of the new Egyptian government upholding universal values, and respecting the rights of all Egyptian citizens — including women and religious minorities such as Coptic Christians." (Oh wait, it did.) Maybe they wanted to hear Clinton say that Morsy should "pledge to serve all Egyptians, including women and minorities and to protect the rights of all Egyptians" because "real democracy means that no group or faction or leader can impose their will, their ideology, their religion, their desires on anyone else," and to forcefully state that "democracy is not just about reflecting the will of the majority; it is also about protecting the rights of the minority." (Oh, wait, that was July 14 and in Alexandria on July 15.) If only the White House understood that "the principle that democracy requires much more than simple majority rule. It requires protecting the rights and building the institutions that make democracy meaningful and durable." (Yup, Dec. 25.)

So yeah, the Obama administration has said virtually everything its critics want it to say, consistently, repeatedly, and at every appropriate occasion. But few Egyptians (or Washington policy analysts) seem impressed. It may be that virtually everything which the United States says or does gets rapidly spun and processed in the hyperactive Egyptian public sphere. It may be that Egyptians just don’t want the United States involved in their affairs and have no interest in the leadership American pundits yearn to provide. It may be that they want to see deeds matching the words and simply don’t believe what the United States says about such things. It may be that they are more interested in receiving support for their own agendas than they are in abstract statements of principle. Whatever the case, the American words are there, but they aren’t having the intended impact. 

So what should the United States do? Here, we come to a core analytical difference about the nature of the problem facing Egypt. For one camp, the problem is the Muslim Brotherhood, which is entrenching its domination of state and societal institutions and revealing its true repressive face. The most popular solution based on this diagnosis would be to distance Washington from an inherently hostile Islamist government and do whatever possible to weaken its grip on power. Concretely, this might mean more support to liberal groups, though you have to wonder what form that might take, whether such groups really want the support and are willing to take it publicly, and how American backing would play in an intensely polarized and nationalistic Egyptian arena.  It might also be complicated by the open antipathy which many leading activists and liberals frequently express towards the administration. 

The other popular recommendation is the conditioning of bilateral and multilateral aid to force the Brotherhood to be more democratic and inclusive. That always sounds good, though just try telling a diplomat that it’s easy to implement this kind of leverage. Conditionality is a blunt instrument, poorly suited to micromanaging political developments, and a wasting asset that loses value each time it is threatened. Nobody in Egypt should get a blank check, of course –not the Muslim Brotherhood, not the military, not a future democratically elected Parliament. But such a nuclear option needs to be reserved for the big things, such as canceling elections, large-scale violence, violation of universal rights, or the return of military rule. 

For the other camp, the core problem is the economic crisis and failure of governance that fuels social and political polarization. Rather than an ascendant Muslim Brotherhood relentlessly establishing its domination everywhere, this camp tends to see a weak, ineffective and paralyzed government that doesn’t control the bureaucracy, can’t appoint a new minister of the interior, can’t enforce a curfew, can’t police the streets, can’t conclude a deal with the International Monetary Fund, can’t take the military’s support for granted, and can’t get anyone to take its prime minister remotely seriously. For this diagnosis, this is hardly the time for lengthy conditionality talks.  They would argue that the best way to help Egyptian democracy is to stop the bleeding, stabilize the economy, restore order, and give normal politics a chance. Rather than a tough line in conditionality talks, they would likely prefer to get significant economic aid into the system as quickly as possible to staunch the crisis and calm things down before the country spirals into an irrevocable cycle of collapse.

Ideally, the IMF/World Bank and Egypt would quickly come to an agreement that includes commitments on governance and democracy. But since when has the ideal happened in Egypt? Given the need to make choices, I generally fall into the latter camp: Stop the crisis, fix the institutions, stabilize the economy. That does not mean backing away from democracy, though — far from it. Morsy is not going to be able to overcome the recurrent crises without a more inclusive and real dialogue with the country’s political forces, a less polarizing way of governing, and (probably) a more respected government. I’d demand that the Obama administration to push for all that, except of course that’s exactly what it’s already doing. The reality is that Morsy, like Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki before him, isn’t going to become inclusive and accommodating because of American advice. He’ll do it when he feels that he has no other choice and that inclusion best serves his interests — a conclusion which should be hastened by this latest round of unrest. 

One of the Obama team’s key insights about the Arab uprisings has been that the United States should as much as possible avoid playing an active role in the internal political affairs of Arab states. U.S. officials often say that Egyptian political solutions must come from Egyptians, and they’re right. Washington should stand up for its values and for its very real interest in seeing Egypt make a transition to full democracy, but it should not be trying to micromanage Egyptian politics. Few Egyptians want it to try, and let’s face it: We’re bad at it.

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