On Sunday, June 24, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was announced as the winner of Egypt’s presidential runoff against Ahmed Shafiq, the former prime minister under Hosni Mubarak. Brookings scholars Martin Indyk, Tamara Cofman Wittes, Khaled Elgindy, and Shadi Hamid weigh in what the result means for the future of Egypt’s transition and for U.S. policy in Egypt and the broader Middle East.
The announcement of Mohamed Morsi as the winner of the presidential election means that Egypt has narrowly avoided going off a cliff. If the Egyptian military had essentially imposed its own candidate by selecting Ahmed Shafiq it would have been widely understood as a counter-revolution and would have provoked the masses in Tahrir Square, leading to a bloody and prolonged confrontation. At worst, we could have witnessed violence on the scale of the conflict that erupted in Algeria during the 1990s after the military prevented Islamists from taking power when they had won a free and fair election.
Instead, now the people can feel empowered again and the military and the Muslim Brotherhood will enter into a new round of negotiations to share power. That outcome is uncertain. The military may choose to confine its demands to protecting its own extensive business interests, its control over the military budget and national security issues, and its immunity from prosecution for any alleged crimes during the revolution. Or it may seek to constrain the broader powers of the presidency and parliament so that the military serves as the would-be protectors of secularism and the Brotherhood is effectively neutered, following the Turkish model.
Meanwhile, the Brotherhood potentially has the worst of all worlds. It will bear all the responsibility if it manages to retain control of the parliament as well as the presidency, but will have limited power to deliver on the needs of the people. But the people know the way back to the square and that means that if the military is to avoid a bloody confrontation, it will have to yield some significant powers to the Brotherhood.
For America, the days of dealing with the ruler and getting him to do our bidding are over – not that it was ever easy even before the Arab Spring. That necessarily means a loss of U.S. influence not just in Egypt but region-wide. It’s not at all clear to me that we can reconcile Brotherhood interests with our own, particularly when it comes to Israel. And I remain suspicious of their real intentions especially because they are so eager to tell us what we want to hear. Relying on a feckless military to constrain them is a weak reed. Thankfully, we’re less dependent on Middle Eastern oil now so the strategic consequences are less severe but there can be no doubt that this is a setback for U.S. interests. It is true that we have no choice but to engage with the new forces, but we shouldn’t imagine that there’s no cost to our influence.
Yet again, the military council attempted an overreach that was constrained by a combination of internal political forces threatening unrest and external pressure threatening to withhold desperately needed economic and other support. The result reminds us that America’s influence in Egypt is declining but by no means irrelevant.
That said, there is good reason to be unnerved by the underlying distrust of the United States among the Egyptian population, extending well beyond the Brotherhood. Unfortunately, it is deeply rooted in the history of our patron-client relationship and unlikely to be dislodged by anything the U.S. might or might not do during this transitional period. Every action the U.S. takes, no matter how innocuous, is interpreted within a framework of suspicion.
Naturally, this limits the extent to which U.S. policy can affect the future course of Egypt’s transition. If we are lucky and play our cards right, we might be able to help a more stable and democratic Egypt emerge from the mess left behind by Mubarak – but we will not get credit for it with Egyptians and should not try. To deal with the mistrust, the best our government can do is be up front about our interests and priorities in Egypt without cloaking them in high-minded rhetoric or professions of common values. By being measured and patient, avoiding seeing every incremental development in Egypt as evidence of ultimate triumph or failure for the U.S., we can minimize our chances of becoming a political football in the volatile Egyptian political system.
America will still have to fill the vital role of managing and maintaining working relations between Israeli and Egyptian officials to prevent inevitable incidents from becoming bilateral crises. The Brotherhood will be tested in its ability to moderate and constrain its own cadres who have volatile views on the issue. But it is first and foremost a political movement with political goals. Even Hamas, to suit its own interests, was pragmatically willing to enforce and defend a ceasefire with Israel after the conflict of 2009.
It is true that the Brotherhood could be a channel for anti-Americanism, but that’s not how its leaders have positioned themselves politically inside Egypt so far and that’s not where their interest lies now that they are responsible for domestic governance. If the economy tanks, then populist nationalism could well become much more attractive. But it’s worth noting that the political actor in Egypt with the greatest interest in stoking mistrust of the U.S. and using it against us is not the Brotherhood but the military council. It’s already wielded this weapon with significant success in the prosecution of American NGOs. The case prevented us from mobilizing economic aid for Egyptians, and had the effect of delegitimizing and sapping support from the very Egyptian civil society institutions that can help hold the new government accountable, support pluralism and basic rights, and promote coalitions amongst political factions.
Incidentally, Morsi’s designation as the victor has let the White House avoid a very awkward situation. Had Shafiq been declared the winner, the Obama administration would have been thrust back into full-on confrontation with the Egyptian military – but having handed Egypt military aid only in March, it would have had very weak cards to play.
It must be remembered that the struggle over the presidency became more symbolic than real when the military council abrogated many presidential powers and effectively established the military as a separate, independent branch of the Egyptian government. The real struggle now is over the constitution that will replace this system of military declarations. To roll back military power, the Brotherhood will have to work closely with other political forces far more faithfully and successfully than it has done so far and abandon its majoritarianism that was on full display earlier this Spring.
Looking ahead, the next phase of the transition can follow one of two paths. The optimistic scenario is that this represents a sort of “reset”, a “do-over” of the transition. If Morsi and the Brotherhood hold true to their word of building a broad-based executive coalition, then Egypt could end up with something akin to the “presidential council” that many, including Mohamed ElBaradei, were calling for at the time of Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011. In other words, for the first time in 16 months, a civilian component with electoral and revolutionary legitimacy and representing a wide spectrum of political forces would be in a position to manage the transition jointly with the military. This is the scenario hoped for by a significant number of the Egyptian revolutionaries who reluctantly backed Morsi in a desperate bid to save their revolution.
The more pessimistic scenario would see the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the Brotherhood continue to seek mutually beneficial accommodation in a largely bilateral manner while marginalizing liberal and revolutionary voices. In other words, we would see a continuation of what took place throughout most of the first phase of the transition. This is the scenario that many skeptics and critics of the Brotherhood – including many prominent voices in the liberal and revolutionary camps – are expecting, and why many of them boycotted the presidential runoff or spoiled their ballots. Were Morsi to go down this path, however, it would all but eviscerate what remaining support he and the Brotherhood have among non-Islamists.
In short, Morsi must walk a fine line between antagonizing a powerful and recalcitrant military junta that has the ability to make or break the Brotherhood and the much weaker and already distrustful pro-democracy forces that helped elect him. Either way, the new president has been set up to fail, at least from a governance standpoint. The SCAF has hollowed the presidency of much of its authority. And with no parliament to fall back on, Morsi will find it difficult to move on the country’s two most urgent needs, economic stabilization and internal law and order. Thus, not only will the SCAF continue to rule Egypt, but the ability of Morsi and his civilian cabinet even to govern effectively will be severely curtailed. Although Morsi would still retain the power of the bully pulpit, this will require a consensus-building approach that the Brotherhood is not really known for.
Over the past couple years, I had the opportunity to meet with Mohamed Morsi and discuss a range of issues with him. I was particularly struck by his over-the-top anti-American rhetoric, which I discussed in a Foreign Policy article earlier this month. For example, like most Egyptians, Morsi is a 9/11 “truther” who believes in a deeper conspiracy behind the attacks. Despite (or perhaps because of) his time living in the United States, he seems to view American society as morally corrupt. All that said, the Brotherhood won’t have much influence on foreign policy or national security issues, at least in the short term. As president, Morsi will likely use anti-American and anti-Israel rhetoric to rally his base. But beyond this, with everything else on his plate, he has little interest in getting bogged down in controversial foreign policy issues. Another way to look at this is that the Brotherhood has less of a need to wrap itself around the flag because its nationalist credentials are already well established (unlike Egyptian liberals who sometimes feel a need to overcompensate).
I might differ with some regarding what this means for the United States. I don’t think the election result necessarily entails declining American influence in Egypt. In some sense, Morsi needs us more than Ahmed Shafiq would have needed us. The Brotherhood knows that external pressure on SCAF will be critical as the long struggle for power with old regime elements ensues. In a recent interview, Khairat al-Shater, the Brotherhood’s lead strategist, spoke of the need for a “strategic partnership” with the U.S. Morsi knows he has to deliver on the economy and Western aid, loans, and investment will be critical to this end. With the Brotherhood in the presidency, the Obama administration, if it plays its cards right, could have more leverage with SCAF, which fears the advent of closer relations between the U.S. and the Brotherhood. From that perspective, the rise of Islamists actually provides an opportunity to re-engage on the Arab spring. That, however, will require a real re-think and re-orientation on the part of American policymakers.