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 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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The Middle East Channel

Turkey threatens Syria with military retaliation

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, has threatened Syria with military retaliation if their border is encroached upon. Erdogan said "Any military element that approaches the Turkish border from Syria by posing a security risk and danger will be regarded as a threat and treated as a military target." Turkish-Syrian ties have continued to deteriorate over the downing of a Turkish military jet on Friday. Ankara also claims that Syria deliberately targeted a search-and-rescue plane that was on a mission to rescue survivors from the downed jet. After Turkey convened an emergency NATO meeting to discuss the incident, the secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, strongly condemned the shoot-down and expressed support for Turkey. But Rasmussen said that NATO was not considering an armed response. Turkey's deputy prime minister, Bulent Arinc, emphasized that the country has "no intention" of going to war.

Turkey's southern border is a vital supply route for Syrian opposition activists, who move across weapons, communications equipment, field hospitals, and even salaries for soldiers who have defected. Meanwhile, Brigadier General Ahmad Berro, a former Syrian general who recently defected, said the country's armed forces were "destroyed physically and mentally." An official from the Free Syrian Army reported that eight more Syrian pilots had sought asylum in Jordan recently.

Syrian opposition activists have reported violent clashes in the suburbs of Damascus, near Republican Guard positions. The Local Coordination Committees of Syria report that 80 people were killed on Monday across Syria, 20 in Dara'a and 17 in Deir Ezzor. Meanwhile, Assad supporters in Beirut are suspected of perpetrating a series of incidents -- burning tires, shooting guns in the air, and erecting roadblocks -- in downtown Beirut, in addition to planting a land mine and grenades near a hospital.

Headlines

  • Egypt's president-elect, Mohamed Morsi, has started deliberating about the composition of his presidential team and cabinet.
  • Russian president Vladimir Putin traveled to Jerusalem to meet with Israeli leaders and discuss Iran's nuclear program and the Syrian revolt.
  • Israeli firefighters are battling two large fires at Motza and Kibbutz Ma'ale HaHamisha, near Jerusalem.

Arguments & Analysis

The Civil War in the Syrian Opposition: How Long Can the Free Syrian Army Hold Off Its Islamist Rivals?' (Tyler Golson, The New Republic)

"[There is] a larger clash that has mostly gone overlooked in the Western media-namely, the struggle between Syria's two main armed opposition groups, groups that represent two radically different visions for Syria's future. In that way, it's not enough to simply know-as a recent article in the New York Times pointed out-that Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with assistance from the CIA, are funneling arms and cash to certain Syrian rebel groups via intermediaries in Turkey. It's also important to know that the other rebel groups-those with an Islamist political agenda-that the United States and its allies have decided not to support are distrusted by the Syrian people themselves. Indeed, Washington's largely hands-off approach to the Syria crisis has so far been greatly assisted by the Syrian public's broad rejection of the hardcore Islamist rebels. But there's no telling how much longer America's strategic interests and the Syrian people's sympathies will remain in sync."

Can the Muslim Brotherhood Unite Egypt?' (Room for Debate, The New York Times)

Walid Phares: "The key for success is a massive reform from within the Islamist movement first, as a way to give rise to a liberal democracy. The next few years will depend on this historic decision."

Mustafa Akyol: "The upside is that the Turkish experience is in front of their eyes to take lessons. But the downside is that Egyptian Islamists - especially the hardcore Salafis - are much less modern than the Turkish Islamists to begin with. Moreover, they don't have the A.K.P.'s business-minded middle-class base - dubbed by some as "Islamic Calvinists" - whose interests lay in the making of a more pragmatic and cosmopolitan vision."

Joshua Stacher: "Morsi's position is unenviable. Yet, if a more pluralistic society is to emerge in Egypt, the Brotherhood will have to cut deals with society as well as generals. The fate of democracy or autocracy in post-Mubarak Egypt depends on which side Morsi and the Brotherhood end up drifting toward more frequently."

--By Jennifer Parker 

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