July 14, 2013
by Avi Melamed
In November 2011 I published an article entitled “The Arab Awakening: An Era of New Slogans” in which I focused on the Muslim Brotherhood movement (MB) in Egypt and the challenges it was facing now that Mubarak was gone and that their entry as a major player on the Egyptian political stage looked certain. In that article I wrote about the fact that during the political campaign, the MB political party eschewed the slogan used by the MB since their inception – “Islam is the solution” and replaced it with “We Will Do for Egypt’s Welfare.” I explained that the rationale behind that decision was that the movement understood that its historical slogan had become counterproductive. They understood that it was actually very doubtful that Islam in and of itself could provide the answers for the huge challenges Egypt was facing. The MB understood Egyptians were expecting real answers to their challenges – not slogans.
Looking forward I wrote: “…The Muslim Brotherhood benefits from the “Arab Awakening.” At the same time, their new status presents a major challenge for them, because eventually they will be evaluated not only by slogans, but by their ability to provide practical solutions…I think it is quite reasonable to assume that the policy of the Muslim Brotherhood will be characterized by a permanent inner-tension that stems from their need to bridge their rigid ideology and their need for pragmatism. And it is likely that this tension will create turbulence that will inevitably impact the region.” (End of quote)
A year and a half later, my predictions are fully and accurately realized. A massive public outcry and protest in Egypt resulted in a military coup and the overthrow of Muhammad Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate who was elected as the President of Egypt. The reason – a large sector of the Egyptian public gave Morsi an “F” grade – he failed to provide the cure to their challenges.
Where is Egypt, the biggest and most important Arab State heading?
Here is my brief overview of what I see to be the domestic environment:
• Instability and unrest in Egypt will continue. The combination of serious socioeconomic and political challenges, together with an ongoing battle over Egypt’s national, cultural and societal identity will continue and will generate a long, painful and challenging process which will inevitably result in ongoing turbulence. I have written and spoken about this process on many occasions (see for example my video briefing – “The Arab Awakening” from October 2011 or my video briefing entitled “Egypt’s Struggle for Consensus” posted on December 2012).
• A Syrian-style civil war in Egypt is unlikely to take place. Egypt is not Syria. Egypt’s major insurance policy in that context is the army – perhaps the only issue that Egyptians are not conflicted over. Egypt’s army enjoys the support of the overwhelming majority of the Egyptians across the spectrum. It is reasonable to assume that domestic and contained violent incidents will pop up in different parts of Egypt. However, I believe that the Egyptian army will be able to contain and restrain the violence and restore order.
• It is unlikely that the Muslim Brotherhood will adopt a policy of violence as a means to regain power. The Muslim Brotherhood leaders know that this could be a fatal mistake which could cause the Muslim Brotherhood substantial – even lethal – damage. I believe that the Muslim Brotherhood will take the time to reorganize and reevaluate their future direction and will rearrange their organizational structure. The Muslim Brotherhood came to power at the worst possible time. Objectively, they had no chance to provide a cure to Egypt’s challenges; it’s a mission that will likely take years. Yet, history teaches us time and again that it has a strong sense of irony; it may be that losing power now will play into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood in the future. In fact, I believe, that to a certain extent, the overthrow of Morsi plays into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood in that it helps the Muslim Brotherhood counter one of the main arguments that the critics of the MB often make, which is that the MB is undemocratic (that argument by the way, is not groundless – the Muslim Brotherhood does not accept the concept of Western style democracy). With Morsi’s ousting, the Muslim Brotherhood can now argue that their candidate was overthrown in spite of the fact that he was democratically elected. The Muslim Brotherhood will likely develop a narrative that emphasizes the fact that they were deprived of the right to rule which they gained in a legitimate and democratic way. It is likely that the MB will employ that narrative in order to win a bigger number of votes for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s next elections. Therefore, adopting violence as a policy is counterproductive to the Muslim Brotherhood’s strategy and will undermine their efforts to increase support for the party among the Egyptian people.
• Unlike President Morsi’s government, the new interim government in Egypt will enjoy three major supporting factors:
- First, it has the support of the army.
- Second, it has the support of powerful factor – the Al-Azhar Theological Center (the leading Sunni theological authority). The relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Azhar’s leader Sheikh Ahmed Al- Tayeb were tense due to Morsi’s attempt to strengthen the MB’s clergy at the expense of Al-Tayeb. It is no wonder Al- Tayeb – in the name of “public interest” – rushed to give his blessing to the army coup.
- Third, the Egyptians do not expect this government to provide a cure – they merely expect it to set the stage for the new elections. Thus the new government will enjoy – at least for the coming months – more maneuvering space – a benefit Morsi did not have.
Egypt’s future government/s foreign policy will be influenced by the following major guidelines:
• Egypt will clearly and unequivocally position itself on the Sunni side of the evolving Sunni-Shiite conflict in the Middle East.
- The immediate manifestation of that will be the end of the short and strange Egyptian–Iranian honeymoon. Morsi’s smiling face to Iran was one of the reasons for his declining popularity and the growing discontent in Egypt and the Arab world.
- In addition, for too long Morsi kept strangely quiet regarding the war in Syria. When he recently – finally – announced the cutting of diplomatic relations with the Assad regime it was too little too late – his image in Egypt had been crushed beyond repair.
• Egypt will continue to keep the peace agreement with Israel (in that regard please read my article “Is the Israel – Egypt Peace Treaty in Jeopardy?”)
• Another issue related to Israel and as an outcome of its desperate need for stability, Egypt will continue to pressure Hamas in the Gaza Strip to maintain stability and to refrain from military confrontation with Israel. Egypt’s policy in that regard is also part of a comprehensive policy aimed to generate stability along the Egyptian-Israeli border and in the Sinai Peninsula. Egypt will continue its attempt to try and regain control in the Sinai Peninsula and to substantially limit the activities of Salafi-Jihadist groups in Sinai who present a real threat to Egypt’s national security.
• An arena of utmost importance for Egypt is the Gulf States and mostly Saudi Arabia and Qatar. For Egypt, the financial support of both of these states is crucial. However, with that, Egypt is also the stage for a power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Qatar; both states are competing for the position of the leader of the Sunni Arab world – a position, by the way, Egypt still claims for itself.
- The Saudi–Muslim Brotherhood relations were never a love story to say the least. The Saudis shed no tear over Morsi; it is no wonder that the Saudi King rushed to compliment Egypt’s new president and to wish him good luck. Moreover, the Saudi king ordered 5 billion dollars of support for Egypt – 2 billion in currency 3 billion dollars of oil and gas.
- On the other hand there is Qatar. Qatar’s relationship with the MB is much warmer. That being said, it should be noted that Qatar’s new Amir (ruler) Tamim, thus far has not made any formal statement regarding the events in Egypt. He does however, signal his discontent with the military coup – Yususf Al-Qardawi, the prestigious and most influential Sunni cleric in Qatar (who by the way is of Egyptian origin) issued a religious ordinance – a Fatwah – calling upon the Egyptians to stand by the overthrown President. However, since Egypt is far too important to be abandoned by Qatar, it is likely that Qatar’s new ruler will find a way to cooperate with the new government in Egypt.
Any Egyptian government will have to manage its relations with these two states very delicately and maintain good contact with both.
• Another significant arena Egypt’s future government will have to focus more and more on is Africa. Of the different challenges presented by Africa, two of the most immediate and substantial challenges Egypt must confront are:
- The growing presence of Militant Islamic groups in North Africa and in the northern belt of the Sahara Desert. These groups present a growing threat to Egypt. The trafficking of weapons (including advanced weapon systems), militants, and the accompanying criminal activity (narcotics traffic, commodities smuggling, kidnapping, etc.) present a tangible threat to Egypt.
- The other issue is the growing tension between Egypt and its southern neighbors – and mostly Ethiopia – regarding the issue of the Nile water quotas. This evolving conflict has a serious potential to deteriorate.
In closing, about a week before the military coup in Egypt I wrote an article entitled “Egypt: Countdown to June 30, 2013” in the concluding part of the article I wrote: “…However, no matter what the army does, it cannot protect the Egyptian people from doing what they need to do. The Egyptian people must go down the path of building their consensus and they will have to endure the challenges that go with that journey. The turbulence involved in that process will keep on coming.”
I believe it is the best way to answer the question “Where is Egypt Heading?”