Egypt’s Revolution at an Inflection Point

Al-Katatni of the Muslim Brotherhood, speaker of Egyptian People

It is wearisome when observers of the Middle East want to begin conversations with a debate about whether what we are seeing is an Arab “spring” or an “awakening;” whether the unrest that has taken place should be called a “revolt,” an “uprising,” or a “revolution;” whether it is proper to refer to Arab “transitions” when we do not know what the ultimate destination will be. Call these developments what you like. Whatever is going on, there is a wave of change in the Arab region that will be measured ultimately in years and decades, not in months. And that means that it is far too soon to say whether the Egyptian revolution has failed or succeeded.

But it is fair to ask where Egypt is one year after the January 25, 2011 “day of rage” planned by youth activists snowballed into a full-fledged uprising within a few days. And in fact this is a particularly interesting time to ask that question, because affairs in Egypt are now bending in a new and somewhat unpredictable direction as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party takes a controlling share of the People’s Assembly.

Perhaps surprisingly, the healthiest and most encouraging developments have been on the political side of Egypt’s transition:

  • The restrictive political parties’ law was revised and some 50 political parties have been formed. Twenty-seven ran in the People’s Assembly elections (some in coalitions) and 15 gained seats.
  • The People Assembly elections that took place between late November and early January were largely a positive experience for Egyptians. While far from perfect from a technical point of view, they were completely different from previous elections in that there was real competition and what seemed to be a sincere effort to run them cleanly.
  • Results of the elections are broadly accepted as reflecting the sentiments of the roughly 60 percent of eligible voters who turned out: 47 percent for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, 25 percent for the Salafi Nour Party, 9 percent each for the centrist Wafd Party and the liberal Egyptian Bloc, and smaller shares for various parties including other Islamists and remnants of the old ruling National Democratic Party.

The good news is that there is now an elected assembly that enjoys (at least for now) a strong popular legitimacy and thus will be able to assert itself vis-à-vis the executive power, in this case the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The bad news is that it appears that the strongest force coming out of the elections, meaning the Brotherhood, will now negotiate with the SCAF over a set of extremely important issues—how the constituent assembly will be selected, when a president will be elected, what the new constitutional will say on critical questions such as presidential powers and civilian oversight of the military– that should have been discussed in a broader roundtable process. But the SCAF refused to let that happen.

Meanwhile, there are troubling developments in the economy and society:

  • There is a looming economic crisis. The SCAF-led government has spent more than half of Egypt’s foreign reserves (perhaps two-thirds) in one year, rebuffing loans from the IMF and World Bank on easy terms in summer 2011 because they were holding out for grant aid from Gulf Arabs and other G20 donors. They are now reengaging with the Fund and Bank, probably on less favorable terms, but the alternative is dire: budget crisis, capital flight, collapse of the currency, hyperinflation—leading to unpredictable political consequences.
  • Serious internal security problems continue, due to the SCAF’s failure to undertake reform of internal security and police forces. Apparently this failure is due partly to the absence of any viable approach yet to the issue of police or military culpability for the more than one thousand Egyptian demonstrators killed in the last year. Meanwhile, the continued deployment of military troops to perform internal security functions means they are not patrolling borders and the Sinai, always restive and now growing increasingly wild.
  • Sectarian problems have declined since a series of clashes leading to the horrific Maspero incident in October 2011, and fortunately Coptic Christmas passed without serious incident for the first time in three years. One wonders whether the Salafi preoccupation with elections since November accounts for this relative quiet. But in any case, the underlying issues of intolerance, prejudice, and competition over scarce resources have not been addressed and therefore it is likely that sectarian tensions will return.
  • The unprecedented campaign against civil society led by Minister Aboul Naga, who clearly enjoys strong SCAF backing, appears at first glance baffling. It can only be understood within the context of a Mubarakist insistence that the government and the government only—not independent organizations formed by Egyptian citizens, and certain not organizations that might serve as watchdogs over government performance—should receive and benefit from foreign funding. There is a link here to the economic crisis; both reflect a profound sense of entitlement, that foreign donors somehow owe their taxpayers’ funds to the Egyptian government. The fact that this campaign has been targeted particularly, though not exclusively, at American organizations and Egyptian groups receiving US funding is what has finally brought the patience of the US Congress with the SCAF to an end, resulting in conditions placed on 2012 military assistance.

For the United States, Back Again to an Old Question

All of these developments put the United States into what at first appears to be a new conundrum: how can it show support for the Egyptian people in the new course they are charting without giving the SCAF carte blanche to wreck the transition? Actually this is not a new dilemma but just another expression of the very same test the United States faced—and failed—repeatedly during the Mubarak era. Will things be different now, a year after the Egyptian people pressed for Mubarak’s overthrow and the SCAF committed itself—let’s not forget—to a transition to full democracy?

The administration faces a test in the coming weeks, as it struggles with whether to certify SCAF compliance with two of the three conditions—facilitating a transition to civilian rule, protecting freedoms, and maintaining the peace with Israel—contained in legislation. If the administration fails this test, American credibility in supporting democratization will be severely damaged. And should the administration pass this test, the mid-term exam is not far off: the entire US-Egyptian relationship needs re-imagining and the balance of military and economic assistance needs rebalancing. The SCAF and current government are certainly incapable of that task, as show by their inability even to re-imagine assistance in the post-Mubarak era to include direct foreign grants to civil society organizations serving the very goals the SCAF itself pretends to share. But it is time for the United States to start thinking in terms of a much broader change, preparing for the advent of an Egyptian government that can do so as well.

Michele Dunne is director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Photo credit: Reuters Pictures.

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