The Middle East Channel

Egypt's Good, Bad, and Ugly

Many Egyptians are going to the polls this week to vote in a referendum on an amended constitution. Since the military ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, 2013, this is the first electoral test the military backed interim government will face. As such, both opponents and supporters are pitching the referendum as not a vote on a constitutional document, but on Egypt's new administration and the current road-map. As external observers and Egyptians await the results of the constitutional referendum held on the January 14 and 15, and the impending anniversary of the January 25 revolution, all wonder -- what next?

The state's forces are on the same side, but they're not all on the same page. Egypt's state is not a unified body, but a collection of institutions that are concerned with their own independence from each other. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has its own interests, which are distinct from that of the ministry of the interior, which are distinct from the interim cabinet of Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi. As a collective, the state enjoys support from most of the media apparatus that is permitted to operate in the country (private and state-run media differs little in this regard). But when that is broken down, it's clear that the interim cabinet enjoys the least amount of support from the media networks, where criticism of it can be tremendous.

On the whole, the state can count on the support of the majority of the populace for the continuation of the road map -- but that is tied predominantly to the popularity of the military establishment. Egypt's military has been vastly popular throughout the post Hosni Mubarak era until July 3, enjoying the confidence of between 80 and 95 percent of the population according to Gallup polls and others. Just prior to July 3, it was in the 90s -- since then it has likely dropped due to the loss of support from the Muslim Brotherhood that had backed the military up to that point. However, that still places the military in an advantageous position vis-à-vis any other force in the country.

The question is -- what happens to that support for the state, and for the military, in the event that General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi runs for the presidency? Should he do so, he is likely to win by a landslide, and then will become personally responsible for the conduct of the state as president. He may be the single most powerful person in the country at present, but he is not openly governing it. With a Sisi-presidency, that changes.

A President Sisi will have to face intense economic problems as well as security concerns that are only likely to intensify in the coming year. Militant attacks are likely to continue -- whether they intensify or not remains to be seen. That may be linked to increased and continued repression by the security forces. In either case, the attacks are disruptive, as are continued protests, which affect Egypt's image internationally and thus contribute to a sluggish return of investors. If the next president is unable to address these issues and concerns in a way that does not satisfy swathes of the population, will a critical mass organize against him?

If that were even to happen (and there is no guarantee it would, for a number of reasons): would that reflect badly upon the military establishment itself? Not necessarily -- Hosni Mubarak was a military man who became president, and his fall from grace was that of himself, not the military. The military does not directly and openly govern in Egypt, even while it is the most powerful institution in the country and has a veto on governance. As long as there are civilian faces to blame, the military can avoid scrutiny, with or without a Sisi-presidency.

The main source of opposition to the forces that back the state is the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Anti-Coup Alliance that it leads. The Brotherhood's first, second, and much of its third tier leadership is either in custody or in exile. Its main aim is to disrupt the state's road-map, in the hopes that disruption will lead to an improvement in the Brotherhood's political fortunes. It is unclear why dissatisfaction with the government would lead to a corresponding increase in popularity for the Brotherhood, however. Nevertheless, within the country, protests are the mechanism through which the Brotherhood seeks to disrupt the process from within the country. Outside of the country, different pro-Brotherhood networks and groupings are lobbying governments to put pressure on the Egyptian state and unsettle its international standing. It is not clear they are having much of an effect, as the international community does not generally see the return of the Brotherhood to power as a practical possibility, or the dislodgement of the current Egyptian power structure as feasible.

Moreover, the Brotherhood is handicapped in terms of attracting wider support inside and outside of Egypt. The Brotherhood already lost swathes of popular support during Morsi's tenure, and its support base just prior to the ouster of Morsi was between 15 and 20 percent. In a public arena where the media is polarized, and has described the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization for months, it will be difficult to regain popular standing, even if the government becomes more unpopular. The continuation of sectarian rhetoric from Brotherhood sources, and its equivocation (blaming the state or shadowy state-aligned forces) with regards to militant attacks, makes regaining popular ground difficult.

The Brotherhood has another challenge, which is to hold its membership and support in check. The repression of the state's security forces and the McCarthy-like hysteria about the Brotherhood in much of the media has consequences. The Brotherhood's modus operandi is not a terrorist one, and non-Brotherhood groups are claiming responsibility for the political violence underway. However, it is unclear what effect continued repression may have in Egypt and with the Brotherhood. Plausibly, Brotherhood supporters and members may desert it in droves as they choose to take up arms against the state, bolstering the efforts of existing militant groups, and fundamentally reducing the relevance of the Brotherhood in terms of opposition to the state. 

The "good" in the story of the "good," the "bad," and the "ugly" in Egypt's epic power struggle and political scene probably finds support among no more than 5 to 10 percent of the country's population. Under Mubarak, a small community of journalists and civil rights activists agitated for change -- and found a catalyst that led to the January 25 protests in 2011. Over the past three years, their numbers swelled, and they are a notable force. Human rights groups, certain media outlets, significant figures in different political parties, some intellectuals, civil society organizations, and a few umbrella political movements make up this "maverick middle."

Consistently critical of both the state as well as the Brotherhood, they are under pressure from both camps. Supporters of the authorities tend to regard these mavericks as seditious, against the backdrop of a "War on Terror" which all are expected to fall in line behind. Backers of the Brotherhood perceive these figures as insufficiently against the military establishment as they do not back the Anti-Coup Alliance, preferring to remain as independents, join the umbrella political movement called "The Way of the Revolutionary Path," or work for change from within other political parties.

This middle group does not enjoy the potential to become a potent political force in the near future -- it is too disparate, and does not possess sufficient popular support to be able to compete with either the Brotherhood or the forces currently backing the road-map. It is, however, the main force in Egypt that is pushing for reform, and rejects the current polarization. It is persistent, as it always has been -- but effects from this portion of Egyptian society are likely to show themselves over the medium to long term, and not in the immediate future. There may be another revolutionary moment that presents itself, as it did in January 2011, but under these current circumstances, that is not apparent on the horizon.

There are reasons why the Egypt portfolio has dropped in importance within the Obama administration. One of them is the feeling of impotence to effect much change in the country. The irony of this is that the Muslim Brotherhood feels the United States has huge influence on how the Egyptian authorities proceed, and many forces backing those same authorities criticize the United States for "backing" the Brotherhood. The truth is somewhere between these positions -- the United States has more leverage than the administration admits, but has far less than what it is accused of by Egyptians writ large.

Bilateral attempts by the United States to engage constructively with the Egyptian authorities do not have much hope of success in the short to medium term, and perhaps even in the long term. A multilateral one, however, may. An effort that involves the United States, as well as countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and European Union member states, may have a different outcome. The "War on Terror" paradigm the authorities are operating within is ultimately not a source of stabilization for the Egyptian state. The repercussions of it, as they intensify, have knock on effects on the economy and civil rights in Egypt. It will take a special kind of conglomerate of countries to constructively advise Egypt on these issues, without being ignored or dismissed.

The Egyptian state's desire to ensure violence remains the purview of official institutions needn't be questioned, and there is a genuine militant threat that must be tackled. However, many of the ways in which the state pursues its goals, particularly with regards to the excessive use of force, and disproportionate penalties on the press and political movements, are contrary to its international agreements. They not only fail to deliver stability, but also could result in "blowback" that invites further instability. Certainly, they do not do justice to the noble efforts of many Egyptians over the past three years to build a genuinely pluralistic and just system to replace the old, corrupted one.

H.A. Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Project on U.S.-Islamic World Relations at the Brookings Institution, and ISPU, is a specialist on Arab politics. Follow him on Twitter: @hahellyer.

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The Middle East Channel

Egyptians Vote in Key Constitution Referendum Amid Tensions

Egyptians have begun going to the polls in a two-day referendum on a new constitution backed by the military-led government. The draft is expected to pass easily, with no campaigning against the constitution. However, opposition activists say they have not been free to campaign against it, and the Muslim Brotherhood has planned to boycott the process. The new constitution would replace the charter drafted under Mohamed Morsi, but is not radically different. The new text removed disputed Islamist language and would strengthen state institutions including the military, police, and judiciary. It also includes some increased protections for women's rights and religious freedom. The military-backed government is pushing for a yes vote, as an endorsement of the July 3, 2013 ouster of Morsi that could pave the way for army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's presidential bid and elections as early as April. The polling is taking place amid high security with about 160,000 soldiers and over 200,000 police officers deployed across the country. However, an explosion struck near a court building in Cairo's Imbaba district, causing no injuries. Additionally, a Muslim Brotherhood supporter was killed in clashes between the Brotherhood and security forces at a protest in Beni Suef, about 70 miles south of Cairo. Another pro-Morsi supporter reportedly died from wounds sustained in clashes in Giza.

Syria

NGOs have pledged $400 million in humanitarian assistance for Syria ahead of an international donor conference to begin Wednesday in Kuwait. The conference aims to help the United Nations raise $6.5 billion for assistance for Syria and neighboring countries hosting refugees from the conflict that is now approaching its third year. The U.N.'s World Food Programme (WFP) delivered rations to a record 3.8 billion people in December, however it remains concerned about people living in eastern provinces and besieged areas who remain out of reach. On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Syria is prepared to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid to some areas under siege, including East Ghouta, where residents have been cut off for nearly a year. Meanwhile, an official from the opposition Syrian National Coalition said the United States and Britain have warned they may reconsider support for the group if it fails to participate in a peace conference slated to begin on January 22 in Switzerland.

Headlines

  • Turkish police raided the offices of an Islamic charity, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), accused of trying to ship arms to Syria, in part of an operation in six cities against al Qaeda suspects.
  • A series of car bombings in Baghdad killed an estimated 26 people as U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon met in the capital with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki urging leaders to address the "root causes" of violence.
  • The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced that a meeting with Iran on its nuclear program set for next week has been postponed to February 8.
  • Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon reportedly called U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts obsessive and "messianic."

Arguments and Analysis

'Hey General, It's Me, Chuck. Again.' (Shadi Hamid, Politico Magazine)

"Since the July 3 military coup in Egypt, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has spoken to General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi -- the country's charismatic strongman -- more than 25 times. The two men reportedly first bonded somewhat over a two-hour lunch in April. Apparently, Sissi liked Hagel's 'bluntness.' Their relationship, forged during one of the worst spells of violence in Egypt's modern history, provides an interesting, if unsettling, window into the strategic drift of U.S. policy in Egypt as well as the broader region.

Since that first lunch, Hagel and Sissi have spoken often. Out of the 30 or so total calls, the U.S. government has provided 15 official readouts over six months, each with a similar set of messages to Sissi: Try to be less repressive and more inclusive. Egypt is the only country where Hagel has a regular, direct line of communication not just with the minister of defense but also the (effective) head of state, since Sissi happens to be both. With each passing month, the readouts become more surreal, with Hagel asking what has become one of the region's more brutal, repressive regimes to be 'democratic.' Although there are certainly competitors -- Syria and Israel-Palestine come to mind -- it is difficult to think of another case where U.S. policy is so completely divorced from realities on the ground."

'Egypt's Quest for Itself' (Peter Harling and Yasser El Shimy, Orient XXI)

"Egypt's fear of generalized conflict or collective collapse appears to prompt a collective purging instinct, in which society consolidates around the need to rid itself of one of its components, perceived as threatening to the whole. Typically, this category is first re-categorized as foreign. The Brotherhood set themselves up to being treated as such, not least by encouraging jihad in Syria -- a provocative break with a more cautious and mature foreign policy for the pure sake of rallying an Islamist base. But there is a pattern here that runs deeper, albeit on different scales.

Before protests gained decisive momentum in the early days of the 2011 uprising, many Egyptians saw demonstrators as paid agents provocateurs that deserved no better than to be crushed. This sentiment has returned at various stages of the transition. Coptic Christians suddenly faced frantic government and communal violence as they marched past the Maspero state television building in October 2011. Sudden spikes of xenophobia -- against Westerners, Palestinians or Syrian refugees accused of the most outrageous plots against the country's integrity -- fit into the same pattern. Egyptians compulsively seek a scapegoat to blame for the country's ill fortunes. Most media outlets, both state-controlled and privately owned, whip up campaigns of intolerance that the public largely buys into, finding comfort in groupthink."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

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