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Egypt: Difficult challenge for US policymakers post-Arab Spring

January 29, 2014 at 3:40 pm

Like a political tsunami uprisings swept across much of the Arab world, toppling in rapid succession the entrenched autocratic regimes of Zeinul Abedin Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Muammar Qaddafi in Libya and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen. They discredited conventional wisdom concerning Middle Eastern democratic exceptionalism by demanding reforms in Morocco, Algeria, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman. These historic events have also challenged US (and EU) policymakers to pursue a new narrative and policy in Egypt and the Middle East.

The predominance of autocrats and authoritarian governments in much of the Arab world, whose stability relies on an entrenched security apparatus and the loyalty of the military establishment, had led many, including their citizens, to question whether democratic change would occur in their lifetime; many experts asserted that Arab and Muslim culture was incompatible with democracy. Thus, despite growing discontent, few predicted or expected that popular non-violent uprisings by pro-democracy movements would topple the governments in Tunisia and Egypt.

The toppling of the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak and others struck fear in the hearts of many Arab monarchies. Egyptians young and old, women and men, Muslim and Christian, the lower, middle and upper classes, Islamists and secular Muslims joined together in Tahrir (Liberation) Square and across Egypt to call for Hosni Mubarak to resign and leave so that democracy and civilian rule could begin to take root.

The Obama administration, like most experts and governments, was caught off-guard. Initially hesitant to speak out forcefully, it seemed to walk on both sides of street, expressing support for its long-time allies but concerned about regime violence and human rights abuses.

The US and many EU governments had followed the maxim, “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.” Autocrats like Mubarak warned that the promotion of a democratic process risked furthering Islamist inroads into centres of power, threatened stability and security, and jeopardised US national interests such as access to oil, the security of Israel and strategically important Arab locations.

Thus, as the George W. Bush administration had acknowledged, despite America’s claim to promote democracy and human rights, America had a record of “democratic exceptionalism” in the Middle East. This was seen by many as a “double standard”: American promotion of democracy globally, but support for Arab authoritarian regimes like that of Hosni Mubarak.

An Egyptian Spring or Winter?

The process of democratic state building in Egypt has proven to be a rocky and rough road that has often seen the government of President Mohamed Morsi and its opposition pitted against each other in unproductive ways. The Egyptian situation constitutes a difficult challenge for US policymakers.

The Morsi government inherited a Mubarak legacy with many problems and challenges that would have been daunting for any newly-elected administration: long-term economic failure and high employment; weak government institutions; a political elite bent upon a restoration of its power and interest; elements of the political opposition that refused to accept the reality of their defeat; a Supreme Judicial Court, many of whose members were appointed by Mubarak; and, most importantly, a military that wished to preserve its power, privilege and vast economic interests.

Egypt’s interim military rulers (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces SCAF) moved so swiftly to assert and extend their power that a growing number of lawyers and activists questioned the military’s willingness to submit ultimately to civilian authority. Some asked, “Is Egypt transitioning from Mubarak authoritarianism to a new military-security regime using a democratic facade?”

Despite Morsi’s accomplishments in dealing with the military and his assertion of civilian rule, his performance in office has raised questions not only for many Egyptians but also for US and EU policymakers. A number of policies and actions have produced a growing chasm of distrust between the government and diverse opposition groups, fed increased sectarian disaffection, and triggered street protests and violence. As a result, Morsi has alienated potential allies, democratic elements of the Arab Spring’s revolutionary factions as well as many of those who voted for them. He has not been helped by Muslim Brotherhood leadership that has been seen as rigidly conservative with little experience or effectiveness in building cross-ideological partnerships or making alliances and compromises.

Among the major issues that have divided Egyptian politics and inflamed opposition to Morsi is the widespread perception that the new government is Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi dominated. Core issues are the powers of the presidency and its relationship to other state institutions and the new constitution. The constitutional debate has been highly charged and acrimonious: Muslims, secularists, liberals, Copts, rich, poor, military and non-military all wanted their interests represented. A fundamental issue was national identity and the role of religion in Egypt’s new civil state. Is Egypt to be a civic state with separation of religion and the state or a civic state with an “Islamic reference”; that is, “a state that will have Islam as a frame of reference for its laws”? The 1971 constitution, which remained in force under Mubarak, had contained an article that enshrined state laws around the Shari’ah. Would this article be jettisoned, amended, or revised? If not, could Shari’ah be used to qualify or limit equality of citizenship, the rights of religious minorities and women and other basic human rights by stipulating that they must be in accord with its principles?

After heated debate, the constitution’s Fundamental Principles (articles 2 and 5) and more explicitly in article 6, which stipulates that Egypt is a democratic state and its citizens have equal rights and equal duties, were passed.

The Morsi government must now seize upon an historic opportunity to build an inclusive polity that integrates all Egyptians, including Copts, women, ethnic groups, secularists and others, more fully into Egyptian politics and society, overcoming ideological polarisation, entrenched sectarian perspectives and mutual suspicions. A framework must be set up that formally recognises the personal and religious status of non-Muslims as equal citizens. The Constitution does exactly that and more, as it gives non-Muslims the right to manage their religious and social affairs – article 3.

US – Egyptian Relations

President Barack Obama’s inaugural address and his Cairo speech in June 2009 stunned many, even cynics, in that it seemed to signal a new era in US-Arab/Muslim world relations. Muslims around the globe welcomed the speech, but waited to see the corresponding changes in US policies and actions. Major polls reported a significant spike in positive attitudes towards America. The MENA region saw the largest and fastest improvement (in particular in Egypt from 6 per cent in 2008 to 37 per cent in 2009) in approval ratings for the new US leadership; it was short-lived.

By October 2010, Gallup’s: “Measuring the State of Muslim-West Relations: Assessing ‘The New Beginning’” reported that Obama’s approval rating decreased from 37 per cent to 18 per cent in Egypt and similar dips were found in other MENA countries. In 2011, US credibility in the Arab world continued to plummet. Many perceived a gap between Obama’s vision and rhetoric and his policies and actions, and thus the administration’s failure to deliver on Obama’s New Way Forward. Critics saw little difference between Bush policies and the Obama administration’s failure to close Guantanamo and end military courts; end the use of drones; the significant increase of US troops in Afghanistan; Obama’s retreat from his firm stand on an end to illegal settlements in Palestine-Israel; his opposition to Palestine observer status at the UN; and continued US support for authoritarian regimes.

A new framework for US-Arab world relations?

The challenge for American policymakers today is to replace a failed paradigm and faulty conventional wisdom. They must move beyond their past policies that equated protection of national interests with the stability and security of regimes, driven more by fear of the unknown, of a process whose outcome it cannot control, than to support Western principles of self-determination, democracy and human rights. As major polls by Gallup, PEW, Zogby and others show, this policy, while attractive to authoritarian regimes and their entrenched elites, has fed anti-Americanism and fears of Western intervention, invasion, occupation and dependency.

If Obama’s early espousal of a New Way Forward in his inaugural and Cairo speeches was not implemented sufficiently, his policy post the Arab Spring has been criticised for its lack of clarity, drive and consistency. Support for Egyptian and Tunisian transitions accompanied a deafening silence regarding Bahrain, forcing a stalemate in Yemen and hesitancy and equivocation regarding America’s involvement in Syria. What some defended as a new policy of “leading from behind” has been seen instead as ineffective due, among other things, to a failure to articulate and implement with clarity and consistency the principles of America’s foreign policy.

President Obama’s major policy speech on May 23, 2013 could have the potential to provide the basis and framework for an American foreign policy in Egypt, the Middle East and beyond. He stated clearly and unequivocally that while continuing to dismantle terrorist organisations, the 12 year US state of “war on global terrorism” must come to an end: “But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. It’s what our democracy demands.” The president expressed the need to roll back some of the most controversial aspects of the Bush and Obama US war on terror. It would remove the rationale for support for authoritarian regimes as a bulwark against global terrorism and authorisation to intervene and invade countries globally and the idea of the United States deciding who will run countries. Gone too would be the justification for the use of torture in US interrogations, indefinite detention without charges and the targeted killing of terrorist suspects with accompanying heavy civilian casualties from drone attacks. It would also provide a rationale for the administration’s fresh attempt to close the Guantanamo Bay military prison which, as Obama noted, “has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law”.

The excessive use of hard power with its extraordinarily high financial cost, destruction of the infrastructure of countries and human toll in death and casualties could give way to a greater reliance on American soft power.

The implications for US-Egyptian relations are many. A fresh perspective in foreign policy would not expect or attempt to export or insist upon a “made in America” brand of liberal democracy with its version of separation of church and state. The realities of current Egyptian society, and major polls support this perspective, are that a majority of Egyptians want democratisation but many also favour a government and society that reflect their religious values. Thus, Islam and religious issues will for the foreseeable future be part and parcel of Egypt’s political landscape. As we have seen in modern Egyptian political history as well as other Arab and Muslim countries, Islamic movements, nationalist political parties, monarchs and other rulers, have, like it or not, often acknowledged and accommodated this reality.

The Obama administration has attempted in both Egypt and Tunisia to signal and demonstrate that it is ready to work with democratically-elected Islamists. At the same time, in the contentious and uncertain process of nation building, equal attention to alternative or opposition political parties and groups remains important.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s strong leadership, grassroots network and experience in running political campaigns, so effective in the past, may indeed enable it to become a long-ruling dominant force in post-Mubarak Egypt. However, the movement is not necessarily the only political force likely to hold power in Egypt. It is useful to remember that Ahmed Shafiq, a key figure from the Mubarak regime, barely lost the presidential election in June of 2012. The failure of the Morsi government to meet the unrealistic popular expectations for a quick turnaround in Egypt’s intractable economic problems and a significant improvement in the quality of daily life could well undermine its credibility and drive voters to an alternative party or coalition.

The US should learn from its past and not put all its eggs in one political basket. Both now and in the future, its credibility and effectiveness will depend on its ability not only to work with an elected government but also to engage other sectors of society, in particular the political opposition. Just as it is important to see the diversity of Islamists (Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis and others) in politics, policymakers will need to do the same with the opposition. The struggle in Egypt as in Tunisia is not simply one between a monolithic group of Islamists and of secularists.

Al-Noor, Al-Wasat , Al-Watan, Al-Raya (Abu Ismail), etc. (Non MB/FJP Islamic parties) are Islamists but opposition parties that fall into the category of “loyal opposition.” They do not question Morsi’s legitimacy or call for early presidential elections. One exception is Masr Al-Qawiyya (the party of Abol Fotouh, a former senior Muslim Brotherhood leader) that recognizes Morsi’s legitimacy but calls for early presidential elections. That said, it is important to remember that the Salafist Noor party, given the percentage of votes (25%) they obtained in the past election constitutes the largest portion of Egyptian opposition.

The so-called secular opposition, consists of liberal secularists, those who are committed to democratization and illiberal secularists, those who want gain power by any means: both challenge Morsi’s legitimacy AND call for early presidential elections. Secular parties include Mubarak loyalists (or what is called folool, remnants of the Mubarak regime’s ruling party, political bureaucracy, military, security forces and as leaders of political parties like Amr Musa and Ahmed Shafik).

Egypt’s secular opposition leaders and parties have often proven weak and fractious in part due to Egypt’s authoritarian political legacy. The National Democratic Party (NDP), founded by Anwar Sadat and then led by Mubarak, enjoyed uncontested power in state politics. At the same time, the government controlled the creation and functioning of political parties; it registered political parties and could and did intervene. The net result was that the Muslim Brotherhood, though technically illegal and not a political party at all, was the main opposition movement.

The emergence after the fall of Mubarak of so many new political parties has been less positive than first impressions suggested. The new parties often revolve around a single elite personality, many self-absorbed and with few concrete proposals to solve the country’s most serious economic and political problems. Very few have strong organisation, a substantial membership, grassroots base and party network. The inability of opposition parties to form effective coalitions was a significant factor in Morsi’s election and continues to inhibit the opposition. Hardline factions in the opposition, that often seem more driven by trying to bring down the government at any cost rather than to work for and demand democratic reforms, must demonstrate that they accept the role of a loyal opposition, one that is loyal to the nation and committed to work with the elected government to build a strong democracy. They have lost in two democratic elections because most have not transcended narrow self-interest nor been willing and able to mount an effective opposition coalition.

Given the divisions that have surfaced in Egypt, the faults and failings of both the Morsi government and the opposition, the US will have to navigate carefully. US policy in the past brings some very heavy baggage and concerns and sensitivities about US intervention remain.

The US cannot dictate outcomes to Egyptians. The interests and credibility of the US (like other Western governments) are best served by an emphasis on democratic principles, constitutional processes and legitimate institutions. There should be measured support when these are adhered to but also criticism of government and opposition groups’ failures to respect these values. As with any nation, the US will pursue its national interests but also emphasise that it does not seek to intervene in domestic politics or attempt to control or impose its will. The importance of this approach is reinforced by major poll reports post-Tahrir Square which indicated that two-thirds of Egyptians surveyed think the US will try to interfere in Egypt’s political future as opposed to letting the people of the country decide alone. [Click here to see the poll]

In the political transition that follows, emerging governments and reformers in Tunisia and Egypt will be challenged to form a national unity government and to demonstrate commitment to political liberalisation, civil society and human rights by fostering the development of those civil institutions and values that support democratisation. The litmus test will be the extent to which their policies and actions reflect an acceptance of basic democratic freedoms, diversity of opinion, multiple political parties and civil society organisations, as well as an appreciation for the concept of a “loyal opposition” rather than viewing alternative voices and political visions as a threat to the political system.

US policy and relations with Egypt and elsewhere have an opportunity to reclaim and build upon Barack Obama’s Cairo message. Recognising Egypt as a centre of gravity for the Arab world, Obama went to Cairo and affirmed his commitment to democratic freedoms and human rights: “no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.” At the same time, he stressed, “That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people… I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.”


Prof Esposito is President of the American Academy of Religion and Founding Director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in the US.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.