Skip to main content
On the Record

Brookings Doha Center Head on Egypt’s Transition Period

Salman Shaikh

All eyes are turned to Egypt at a time of extreme tension and instability in the country. But there remains much confusion surrounding what exactly happened when former president Mohamed Mursi was removed from his post and where the country can go from here.

Beyond the lingering disagreements over whether Mursi’s ouster was a coup or a “course correction,” there is the question of what the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood can and will do following this severe hit to its influence. And with the after-effects of this sudden transition being felt across the Arab world, there is much confusion over how Egypt’s backers—and, indeed, the Brotherhood’s backers—will respond.

In the course of this exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, the director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, Salman Shaikh, highlights the complexity of the situation in Egypt and tries to answer some of these many questions.

Asharq Al-Awsat—Do you believe that what happened in Egypt is a second revolution, or a “course correction” for the first? Is this political unrest what Egypt needs right now?

Salman Shaikh: Certainly Egypt was not on the right path. There has been much debate about whether this was a coup or a second revolution. I think the point we should make is that Egypt was not on the right path. One year of Mursi rule had only further polarized the environment inside Egypt and it had taken us into a situation whereby the transition was becoming extremely difficult. It had become even more complicated. I think that’s what we have to focus on. Of course, this was reflected by the very large numbers of people [who took to the streets on June 30]. Even if we are talking about a coup, it was very much a popularly demanded coup. That’s not to say that this was the preferred way, but the fact was the transition was looking more and more difficult and that had been complicated by Muslim Brotherhood rule.

Q: Do you think there is any chance for Mursi to return as president? What do you think will happen next?

I think for the good of Egypt and for the good of the Muslim Brotherhood, there now has to be acceptance that there is no turning back to what has happened. Everyone now has to work on creating a new space to rehabilitate the democratic transition, to really get us to civilian rule, and to create a fair space for everyone to operate in, including the Muslim Brotherhood. I think violence and aggressive tactics from the military, as well as from the Muslim Brotherhood, are counter-productive to creating that new space.

Q: Would you advise the Muslim Brotherhood to give up their protests, reconcile with the interim government, and return to the political process?

I think they must try to return to the political process, but here, of course, the interim government and the military have a huge responsibility too. I think if there was strong sentiment against the Muslim Brotherhood, there is a danger that the military coup can overreach in going after the Brotherhood leaders and by putting some of their main figures inside prison. I think there has to be confidence-building measures where they start to release these people over a period of time and, as I said, the Muslim Brotherhood has to accept that this is now a new phase and they must work to strengthen the democratic transition.

Q: With Egypt as polarized as ever, do you think the Brotherhood has given up on reaching out to liberals and leftists, focusing instead on shoring up its own ranks and rallying its base?

That would be a mistake. The Muslim Brotherhood is still a very powerful political force inside the country, and as I said to some of its senior leaders right at the start, they have to focus on becoming a truly national party, and not just focus on a narrow base or constituency, even if that is considerable. They have to focus on becoming a truly national force, so it must learn from the past year and a half or so and present a manifesto and a vision that convinces many more people. This should be a lesson for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, as much as it should be a lesson for the Muslim Brotherhood movement across the region. I think this is extremely important for its vitality and for its continued political ambition in the region.

Q: What is the future for Islamic movements in the region, not just in Egypt, but also other Arab Spring states such as Libya and Tunisia? What about their emerging presence in Syria?

The future for them right now looks complicated; it looks as if it is diminishing or under threat. I think they should not just view this in existential terms. This is not just the fight for their survival and I hope that those who are working against them through extra-democratic means also understand that. But what the Muslim Brotherhood must do is to turn themselves into an effective party, one that represents many more people, but which is also effective at governing. After observing the Muslim Brotherhood over the past year, it is clear to me that they need to do much better in building their capabilities for governance, to build confidence among the population that they can actually deliver the kind of things that people are demanding and which they say they stand for, which is social justice, greater distribution of wealth, and rising prosperity and trade.

Q: What is your view of the massacre in Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square, with the Brotherhood accusing the government of purposefully killing Mursi supporters, and the interior minister denying that live ammunition had been fired?

I think there was a clear, disproportionate use of force by the authorities. Of course, there should be an independent investigation; I have not heard that one has been launched. I certainly think that the interim government should seriously consider this and in fact senior members of the interim government should push for it very strongly. I believe, as I said, a large number of civilians were killed through the disproportionate usage of force and I think it is to be regretted. Actions such as these close down new space for political activity and I think all sides have to be mindful of that, including the new authorities.

We must not have these kinds of incidents, otherwise I fear that Egypt will truly fall over the edge. Right now, Egypt is in a very dangerous situation; it is on the brink and all sides have a responsibility. The Muslim Brotherhood have a huge responsibility to act responsibly when it comes to the future of the country and not to agitate for further violence. On the other side, the authorities must exercise the utmost restraint, because otherwise they will get a situation that they don’t want which is an even more polarized and broken society. When it comes to Egypt, this is something that nobody wants.

When a country is on the brink, and when diplomatic and political efforts are happening, this is usually the best time to create an opportunity for something positive. But on rare occasions countries can fall off the edge and this can be very dangerous. It will be very dangerous for Egypt if that happens.

Q: Would you describe post-Mursi Egypt as a civilian state?

Egypt is a state in transition; I’m not sure whether I would use “civilian” or another term. It is a state in transition—it is a state in a very unstable transition. For it to become more stable Egypt has to become a more democratic civil state that doesn’t just represent or reflect the wishes of a minority and an elite, but rather as many Egyptians as possible. Those Egyptians have already made their voices clear: the so-called Kanaba Party [“Couch Party,” i.e., the silent majority] has come out from their office sofas and couches and demonstrated that they care about their country. This is the responsibility that all Egyptian leaders have in taking this very unstable transition into something that is much more stable, towards a democratic civil state.

Q: Will the Brotherhood’s principal foreign backers, Qatar and Iran, have been disappointed by Mursi’s ouster? What will their future approach to Egypt be?

Firstly, I would not put Qatar and Iran in the same bracket. The Iranians are, of course, pursuing a different political agenda when it comes to the situation in Egypt. I believe that they are perhaps trying to exploit some of the tension and they are very good at it; I call them the most valuable player of chaos.

With regards to Qatar, I think the Qatari response, at least initially, was restrained. They wanted to see how the situation would develop. However, I would make a broader point here: There is a very big responsibility, and I think a very big capability, among the key regional players, especially the Gulf states such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait, to work together to stabilize Egypt. I think there is a desire for them to strengthen relations with each other, and I think it is within that spirit that they should try to persuade all parties not to further polarize the environment, not to exclude certain parties. They also have economic wealth, which they can share with the Egyptian people, not just for the short term, but to help them build a really viable economic plan and vision to avert the collapse of the Egyptian economy and to help its recovery. However they must, in the first instance, work together to help their Egyptian brothers to end the social polarization as much as they can and to help build a new space for dialogue.

Q: The last ten days of Ramadan are traditionally called the I’tikaf, or collective seclusion, during which worshipers gather and spend nights in mosques and open areas. Will this help the Muslim Brotherhood’s public mobilization campaign, particularly in light of the authorities’ attempts to evict them from Rabaa Al-Adawiya?

Well, first of all I hope there is no more violence. I hope there is a diffusion of the situation. As you know, Ramadan can be a traditional time for more heightened emotion and tension; people are very much full of the spirit of their fasting and many can even think of martyrdom and the like. I hope that we get a more defused situation over the next few days. The people in that square have made their point; they have protested as they should be allowed to do, peacefully, about what they feel is an injustice. But at the same time, I think they have to look to the future now. They have to look to the future of their country and their leadership has to look to the future of their country. On the other hand, if there is an attempt by the authorities to forcibly remove these people and to use disproportionate force against their own people again, it is time therefore to rehabilitate the political transition and create that new space where all sides can join in moving to a new democratic process which will lead to elections in the near future.

Q: During the Nasser era, many Islamists and Brotherhood figures fled Egypt, many of whom later settled in Qatar. Do you think they will spend the rest of their life there?

I don’t think we can turn the clock back. Yes, I know even the Muslim Brotherhood would be using 1952 to 1954 or the 1980s or the 1990s as an example, but I don’t think we can turn the clock back. I think we have an opportunity here to move forward, especially since the people now desire a new situation in their country. At the same time, I think there is a fear that the Brotherhood will again decide to go underground. It is the responsibility of their leadership not to do that, but to rather find ways to engage, and also for the current governing authority to make sure that they try to be as inclusive as possible.

The other fear I have is beyond the Muslim Brotherhood, many Islamists in Egypt could conclude that we need to go extra-system and exploit the situation to try to go beyond democratic norms and principles and engage in activities. I think that would be very dangerous, and this is why it is important that mainstream political Islamists, including those in the Brotherhood, are brought back into the process.

Q: Would you agree that Iran has an interest in playing up the jihadist threat to use as an international scarecrow?

Yes, although we must note that there is a new president, Rouhani, who is perhaps offering a new pragmatic vision. The traditional role of the Iranians has been to see how they can gain political benefit from situations of chaos in the region. I hope that’s not going to continue. Iran, too, can play a useful role, especially if they follow a more pragmatic approach as has been expressed by Rouhani.

Q: US policy has historically claimed to be one of supporting and promoting democracy around the world. Are such claims true in terms of Egypt and the rest of the Middle East?

Well, in rhetoric terms it mirrors American values, but there has always been a kind of tension between American values and American interests. As the former National Security adviser Condoleezza Rice said, the choice between stability and democracy is a false choice and so I think the Americans have to show a much more principled approach. They surely want stability in Egypt, but they have also determined that an ordinary democratic transition is perhaps not the best way to achieve that in Egypt. It is noticeable, of course, that the Americans have come across as looking more reactive in this crisis rather than helping to shape the outcome. That role, for now, seems to be much more in the hands of—if there is a third-party Western role—the Europeans, with Catherine Ashton’s second mission coming to an end.

Q: How has US foreign policy changed post-Arab Spring?

There seems to be a much greater focus, at least rhetorically, on supporting democratic transition. But there has also been a desire not to get too deeply involved, because the determination has been that ‘we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t,’ and many would point to what has been going on in Egypt.

But I think one important point, and one for which there has been a cost, is what is perceived in the region as an absence of US leadership and real resolve, at least on some of the main issues that matter, particularly of course regarding Syria. That perception of a lack of leadership and the view that America wants to turn away from the Middle East has not helped US interests at all in the region and it has not given confidence to its traditional friends and allies in the region, either.

Get daily updates from Brookings