On June 26, 2012, the Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a policy discussion with Omar Ashour, Visiting Fellow at the BDC and Director of the Middle East Politics Graduate Studies program at University of Exeter, Khaled Elgindy, Visiting Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, and Shadi Hamid, Director of Research at the BDC. The discussion focused on the challenges facing the new Egyptian government and ruling military council, as well as the international community’s evolving role in the country’s transition. The panel was moderated by Ibrahim Sharqieh, Deputy Director of the BDC, and was attended by members of Qatar’s academic, business, diplomatic, and media communities.
Omar Ashour described the environment during the weeks leading up to Egypt’s presidential runoff election, which pitted Muslim Brotherhood candidate Muhammad Mursi against Hosni Mubarak’s former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq. Ashour said SCAF had been threatening the Brotherhood, saying that the outcome of the election depended on the organization’s willingness to accept a supplementary constitutional declaration that restricted the role of the president and expanded the military’s powers. Morsi’s presidential win, in Ashour’s eyes, was the third instance when revolutionaries triumphed over the regime, citing the January-February 2011 uprising and this year’s parliamentary elections, which saw little support for the former ruling party.
Ashour explained that Morsi came to power largely through a coalition of Islamists and non-Islamists who hoped to avoid a return to Mubarak-era repression under Ahmed Shafiq. The Brotherhood was willing to make a number of concessions, including appointing female and Coptic vice presidents. Ashour said that the Brotherhood hopes to “sustain mobilization of Tahrir Square,” to hold the ruling military council accountable for its actions. At the present time, what Ashour referred to as “the psychology of the 1990s” is taking over, and encouraging conciliatory tone from the Brotherhood. Members of that organization and other opposition groups remember the repression and imprisonment in the 1990s and will do whatever it takes to avoid a return to that environment, he said.
Ashour said the military can move to alter the balance of power in Egypt in the coming period, citing three possible outcomes. First, a scenario like Algeria in the 1990s could emerge, where generals used oppressive means to suppress Islamists following their electoral gains. Second, a situation like Turkey in 1980 could be repeated, in which the military strikes a deal that allows it to maintain economic independence and control of high politics. Third, the most favorable outcome in Ashour’s eyes, would be a scenario like Spain when the military eventually came under full civilian control after it attempted to stage a coup in 1982 against the elected government. The ultimate test of a democratic transition, Ashour noted, is whether civilians have control of the armed forces and security apparatus.
Shadi Hamid began his comments by addressing speculation about whether the new Egyptian president has significant powers, considering SCAF’s supplementary constitutional declaration. Hamid explained that “what the Muslim Brotherhood is counting on is that it can use the office as a platform to confront SCAF.” The fact that Morsi was ushered into state television to give his acceptance speech, even after the state media had engaged in a smear campaign against the Brotherhood, demonstrates the symbolic importance of the office.
Hamid went on to say that the Brotherhood has evolved over the past year. After winning 47 percent of seats in parliament, the party “became overconfident and more aggressive.” In the process it alienated former revolutionary allies among leftist and liberal groups. This showed a different side of the Brotherhood, Hamid argued. The organization has traditionally been cautious, careful to focus on long-term gains rather than rushing to power. Hamid cited a number of “missteps” during this period, saying they could be explained by both self-interest and ideology. He stressed that the Muslim Brotherhood has a distinctly majoritarian understanding of democracy. Once it held a near-majority in parliament, it felt it had a strong mandate to rule, and became dismissive of other forces.
More recently, Hamid explained, the Brotherhood had shifted back to more conciliatory, consensus-driven approach driven by the need to build a coalition against Shafiq. During two weeks of campaigning, the Brotherhood offered more concessions to other parties, including the announcement of a unity front with liberal and leftist revolutionary forces. It remained to be seen, Hamid said, whether these pragmatic moves would evolve into a longer-term strategy emphasizing inclusion and consensus.
Hamid speculated that as long as SCAF remains the main threat to Egyptian democracy, the Brotherhood would continue to reach out and work with revolutionary forces. In some ways, the Brotherhood needs SCAF, he said, as it provides an enemy against which opposition forces can unite.
Hamid ended his remarks by speaking about relations between the United States and the Muslim Brotherhood. While there is suspicion about the U.S. role in Egypt, there is also a considerably alarmism in the United States over Mursi’s win, particularly in the media and popular discourse. Despite its traditional anti-Americanism, however, the Brotherhood has, over the past weeks, repeatedly stated that seeks economic partnership with the U.S. and European countries. Moving forward, Hamid said, the Brotherhood has two goals: to confront SCAF and to improve the economy. Within the Brotherhood leadership, there is recognition that the West will be critical in both areas, providing openings for greater cooperation between the two sides.
Khaled Elgindy began his address by saying that recent developments represented not the end, but the beginning of Egypt’s transition – which had so far not progressed beyond a protracted power struggle between Islamists, the military, and the revolutionaries. He echoed points made by Ashour and Hamid, saying that all groups had “overreached.” The Brotherhood and other Islamist parties are now reflecting on mistakes they made in interpreting their parliamentary supermajority “as a mandate for them and their philosophy,” he said. These reflections have been illuminated, Elgindy said, by a political map of voter preferences that had not existed before the recent period of elections. If the Brotherhood is “to rise to the occasion” and unify political forces it will need first to display a sense of humility, while President Morsi will have to “rise above his Brotherhood roots.” Both are big asks, Elgindy suggested, given the group’s recent arrogance, and Morsi’s loyalist background.
Turning to the impact of recent developments on U.S.-Egyptian relations, Elgindy said the White House had taken a cautious but positive stance on Islamists’ electoral success and the need to restore civilian rule. As the “underwriter” of the Egyptian military, Elgindy said the United States was facing pressure to act following SCAF’s recent power grab. He said, however, that we are unlikely to see Washington “back up its rhetoric” with a more activist approach given the extent of U.S. interests in both Egypt and the wider region. Elgindy explained that the United States had always seen events in Egypt not as a revolution but as a “regime managed transition process,” in which it was happy to accept military control.
One possible measure – imposing aid conditionality – was, in Elgindy’s eyes, a “double-edged sword” that could “inflame national pride, reinforce national humiliation, and make political actors less likely to accommodate [U.S. interests].” Despite U.S. influence on the Egyptian military, Elgindy pointed out, SCAF has not hesitated to “fan the flames of anti-Americanism” in recent months. Determining which aid to cut was another difficult question, given the strategic importance of military aid in ties with Israel, and the perceived unfairness of cutting civilian aid. Elgindy posited that the strategic partnership between the United States and Egypt would likely remain, though they would increasingly see each other as “frenemies,” in a model that reflects U.S. relations with Turkey and Pakistan.
Remarks from the speakers were followed by a question and answer session. One audience member asked how liberal forces would react to the election of a Muslim Brotherhood president. Omar Ashour argued that the alternative Shafiq presidency would have offered revolutionary and liberal actors much less space for movement. Given that Morsi does not control the security apparatuses and is under fierce international scrutiny, the “costs of entering into a conflict with him will be much less.” Shadi Hamid, meanwhile, lamented the strand of what he called “undemocratic liberals” who were unwilling to accept the electoral gains of Islamists and even welcomed the dissolution of parliament. The lack of a “large strong group” among the liberals that really believes in the democratic process had been a troubling development, he said.
One attendee asked whether political actors in Egypt would raise tensions with Israel in order to build support and assert control. Hamid and Elgindy argued that the incitement of anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment were tried and tested means of shoring up support, and would remain a feature now, especially given a general rise in xenophobic and nationalist sentiment. Ashour argued that the army itself, however, would be unlikely to use Israel as cause around which to rally support, given an unwillingness to jeopardize the advantages they currently enjoy. To maintain internal unity and external support, he said, the army would likely continue to stress other destabilizing threats, including Hamas, insurgents in Sinai, and even revolutionaries themselves.