U.S.-Egypt Relations after Mubarak

A year after Mubarak’s fall, U.S.-Egypt relations are at an all-time low. Not, as many suspected, because of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, but because America’s supposed friends in the Egyptian military—recipient of $1.3 billion dollars in annual aid—have whipped up anti-American sentiment at a feverish pace. It may have started as a political ploy, a way to build support on the street and highlight the army’s nationalist credentials. But now, it appears, they’ve lost control. This month, the Egyptian government announced that 19 Americans—including the son of a top U.S. official – would be put on trial, facing up to five years in prison. Their crime, apparently, is working for American NGOs—the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute—that have offered support, funding, and election monitoring for Egypt’s uneven transition.

This episode, however worrying on its own, is reflective of something bigger and more troubling – the slow descent from last February’s euphoria into a nightmarish fog of paranoia, distrust, and rampant conspiracy-theorizing. Who is with the revolution, and who isn’t? The ruling military council and its subservient state media see “foreign hands” everywhere. And it’s not just the government; Nearly everyone else is playing the same dangerous game.
 
I recently spoke to a Muslim Brotherhood official, who complained about how liberals were constantly attacking the Brotherhood for betraying the revolution and being, among other things, lackeys of America. In a recent trip to Cairo, I met a top Egyptian official who speculated, rather imaginatively, that the United States had a master plan to install the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as far-right Salafis, in government. For their part, the Brotherhood has accused secular activists of taking Western funding to “create chaos” and “bring down the parliament.”

Indeed, the unity of last February’s revolution has given way to the practice of takhween—the act of making your countrymen into traitors. Foreigners must also tread carefully. In November, my Egyptian cab driver attempted to make a citizen’s arrest on me and dragged me into a police station for questioning (an unsettling yet illustrative experience which I wrote about here).

Is this cause for despair? Taking a longer view, I remain optimistic about Egypt. The difficulties of the transition are, in part, a function of a muddled political process which lacks both legitimacy and clarity. Within the regime itself, there are various centers of power and decision-making—the military, the vast bureaucracy populated by Mubarak holdovers, and the feared security services. The prominent yet murky political role of the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), Egypt’s premier spy agency, is particularly worrying. That said, however, Egypt now—finally—has an elected institution which can claim popular legitimacy. Through parliament, Egypt’s political parties will have a stronger, more effective platform to challenge the military’s hold on power. Outside the domain of formal institutions, Egyptians can and will continue to exert leverage through the street, extracting concessions through sheer will and numbers.

As polarized as Egypt’s politics are, consensus has been forged on the most crucial issue facing the country—the role of the armed forces. All major political forces agree that the military must go back to the barracks and cease interfering in day-to-day politics. There are differences on specifics—such as parliamentary oversight over the military budget and immunity provisions for senior officers—but, notwithstanding its ability to outmaneuver its opponents, the military’s influence in politics will be significantly curtailed.

Once the handover of power takes place later this year, the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest party in parliament, along with a newly elected president, will need to show they can do more than just play politics. Rather than simply reflecting public opinion, they should lead it, pushing their constituencies to grapple with and confront difficult realities. That will mean taking unpopular positions—on issues like subsidy reform and tax policy—and resisting the temptation to use scapegoats to distract from domestic woes. In a place like Egypt, where anti-American sentiment is pervasive, it remains to be seen whether the Brotherhood and rest of the Egypt’s new (and old) political elites will be able to refashion a new, mutually beneficial relationship with their American counterparts.

Egypt’s military rulers, through their cynicism and incompetence, have threatened to damage, perhaps irreparably, the U.S.-Egypt relationship. It would be ironic if Egypt’s ascendant Islamists could prove better allies. But, considering the remarkably low bar the military has set, it wouldn’t be altogether surprising.