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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