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Egypt after Mubarak

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Egypt’s Enduring Challenges--Policy Recommendations

July 25th 2011

Egypt - cairo at night
Cairo at Night (credit: Hyo Lee)

This country is 7,000 years old. It has seen so many transitions … and our last transition was through the assassination of our former president [Anwar Sadat], and yet we were able to steady the course.
— Former Egyptian prime minister Ahmed Nazif, September 29, 2010

For the past thirty years, Washington has relied on Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, along with Israel, to form the foundation of its regional security architecture. While authoritarianism has contributed to growing resentment and ultimately instability at home, Egypt under Mubarak was a decades-long partner, helping the United States advance its core objectives of peace and stability in the Middle East. For Egyptians, the Papyrus Revolution and the end of the Mubarak era have been an unmitigated cause for celebration and optimism. For the United States, however, this period of transition is characterized by trepidation as well as hope.

Leadership changes in Egypt have been remarkably rare. Since the 1952 revolution, Egypt has essentially had only three leaders—Gamal Abdul Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and, for the past thirty years, Hosni Mubarak. Two of these transfers of power—to Nasser and Sadat—led to dramatic shifts in Egyptian policy. Mubarak’s departure comes at the nadir of Egypt’s regional influence and coincides with resurgent Iranian soft power in the Gulf and Levant.

In large part, Egypt’s diminished clout results from its long-stagnant domestic politics under Mubarak and his National Democratic Party (NDP). Mubarak’s departure provides an opportunity to emerge from the morass and reestablish the state as a dynamic regional actor. Yet even as the transition holds the promise of democratic reform for Egypt, it also threatens to retard if not reverse some of the hard-won economic reforms of recent years. It is not difficult, for example, to imagine how perceptions of inequity during the previous regime might dissuade a new leadership in Cairo from pursing necessary, if controversial, subsidy reforms.

Regardless of who inherits the Mubarak mantle, Egypt’s next government will face a host of regional and domestic policy dilemmas. And the pressure for the new government to solve these problems will be intense. In this context, pursuing any policies of the ancien régime, particularly those related to Washington or Israel, may spark a backlash. Should Cairo respond to such challenges with increased authoritarianism or with populism—à la Erdoğan’s Turkey—it would exacerbate the problems at home and undermine U.S.-Egyptian bilateral ties.

The new Egypt will face enduring challenges. Mubarak may be gone, but a series of other debilitating problems remain that, unless remedied, will continue to prompt public dissatisfaction, anger, and, potentially, instability.

Given the present situation, the trajectory of Egyptian politics remains unclear. The military’s transition plan could fail or it could seek to impose a modified version of the old system. More likely, the military will seek to conduct elections and return to the barracks as soon as possible, leaving the task of governing to civilians. If the liberal opposition prevails over the Islamists and a recalcitrant NDP political machine, Washington will need to embrace the new government and invest heavily and quickly in its success, lest the Islamists exploit its failure. In such a scenario, U.S. policy should look to capitalize on the change in leadership to improve Egyptian governance at home and reinvigorate Cairo’s traditional regional role. Despite deep political and continuing military ties, U.S. leverage with Cairo remains modest. Nevertheless, Washington can help stabilize the new regime while simultaneously encouraging positive change for the Egyptian people. As Egypt approaches this crossroads, Washington must take steps to nudge Egypt toward a better future in tandem with its U.S. partner. Among other things, an effective U.S. policy for this transition period in Egypt would:

. Encourage a transparent transition. In the coming months, Egypt will begin to dismantle the NDP’s political monopoly. This process will require extensive constitutional and legal changes that will almost certainly be opposed by former regime remnants and perhaps even the military. If these important changes are to be effected, then, it will be important for the process to be transparent.

The Obama administration has already weighed in publicly on the importance of transparency in Egypt’s political transition. In a December 2010 Washington Post op-ed, Michael Posner, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, argued that credible presidential elections—then slated for September 2011—would “bolster citizens’ confidence” in their government. More recently, in February 2011, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg said that the administration was working to ensure that political transitions were “deliberate, inclusive, and transparent.”

Although widely respected, the Higher Military Commission, which is managing the political transition from the Mubarak era, has not thus far proved a particularly transparent body. For example, weeks after the military takeover, names of all the officers and civilians sitting on the commission had still not been published. Moreover, Egyptian civilians did not themselves determine who would be involved in the tenday process of redrafting articles of the constitution. Worse, Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, who leads the military and oversees the transition, is not considered to be a supporter of economic or political reform.

While the Egyptian army remains the most respected institution in the state, there are indications that the top brass may be resistant to a shift to civilian control over the military. In fact, the military has a lot to lose in this period of transition, and may try to preserve its privileged position in society by presiding over only modest changes to the political system.

The skeptical opposition is watching closely, hoping to keep the military honest. To sustain the pressure and its sole point of leverage, the opposition—as of late February—had not yet demobilized. In March and April, however, state security forcibly removed persistent demonstrators from Tahrir Square. During a large demonstration on April 1, held under the banner “Friday to Save the Revolution,” growing frustration with the military was palpable.

As with the revolution, Egyptians will be responsible for doing the heavy lifting to ensure the transition goes in a democratic direction. But Washington can play a role in making the process transparent. One way to engage in this effort would be to provide funding to the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, as well as to the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, to work with Egyptian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) during the complex period ahead.

These U.S. entities have experience in providing much-needed technical expertise and can share critical lessons learned from similar transitions for which achieving maximum public buy-in was a priority. Given Egyptians’ long experience with authoritarian government and dirty tricks, any experience that Washington can provide could go a long way toward building confidence among Egyptians that a credible process of reform is under way.

On February 17, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that $150 million in foreign assistance funding had been “reprogramm[ed]…to put ourselves in a position to support our transition [in Egypt] and assist with their economic recovery.” While this assistance offers a good start, it falls woefully short in both economic and humanitarian terms for a country of 83 million people.

. Reallocate financing for civil society. After the Papyrus Revolution, it might be tempting for a cashstrapped Washington to declare victory and reallocate or remove funds for democracy- and governance-related activities. Given Egypt’s 7,000-year history of authoritarian government, however, guarding against the retrenchment of authoritarianism in the state will be particularly important.

The U.S. trend in recent years has been to reduce funding for democracy- and governance-related activities in Egypt. In 2008—at the end of the Bush administration— democracy and governance accounted for nearly $55 million; in 2009 only $20 million was provided for these activities. At the same time, funding for the grants administration program was reduced dramatically from $32 million in 2008 to $7 million in 2010. More problematic still, in 2009 the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) obliged Cairo’s demand that only NGOs registered with the Egyptian Ministry of Social Solidarity— i.e., non-opposition-affiliated NGOs—be eligible for grants.

While in 2009 the State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) also administered civil society grants in Egypt worth $1.3 million, it is unclear whether these under-the-radar projects met even the low level of achievement of their higher-profile predecessors. 173 This present period of transition presents an opportunity for Washington to shift funding aggressively away from former regime/government NGOs (GONGOs) to local organizations not hand-selected by the former regime.

In addition to funding civil society organizations dedicated to promoting democratic development, Washington should focus on supporting other noncontroversial endeavors such as fighting corruption, a scourge estimated to have cost Egypt nearly $58 billion between 2000 and 2008.174 Other productive avenues for U.S. support include organizations concentrating on poverty alleviation and vocational education. It will also be increasingly important for Washington to support youth organizations in an effort to channel in a positive direction what almost certainly will be continued frustrations with the new government.

Some NGOs in post-Mubarak Egypt might be hesitant to accept U.S. funding. More than likely, however, the freer environment will result in a proliferation of organizations looking to partner with Western donors. Despite the obvious popular appeal of some of the causes just outlined, it may be difficult, given the military’s sensitivities, to marshal and deliver support for these emerging NGOs. In particular, as the military seeks to reestablish law and order and shepherd a return to economic normalcy in the state, it will likely remain preoccupied with possible Islamist inroads. The last thing the military wants is for Iran—or Saudi Arabia—to start funding Egyptian Islamist NGOs. As a result, the NGO funding climate may remain somewhat constrained.

Nevertheless, if Egypt is to move in the right direction, timely U.S. support for civil society will be pivotal. U.S. assistance to NGOs committed to reform can help prepare the Egyptian people, who have lived for more than a half century under military rule, for a transition to a democratic system.

. Defer cuts in aid. When the Carter administration started the aid program following the Egypt-Israel peace agreement, U.S. assistance accounted for nearly 11 percent of Egypt’s gross domestic product (GDP). Today, U.S. funding equates to just about a quarter of a percent. Clearly, Washington’s commitment to Cairo has been more symbolic than influential, but it still does tie Egypt to the United States. Most important, this relatively modest investment cements the countries’ military relationship, which is critical at this sensitive time.

Provided that a process of real political reform continues, Washington should at a minimum maintain its military and economic assistance at Mubarak-era levels. As Egypt enters this period of uncertainty, U.S. assistance can help move the state toward stability.

Facing unprecedented deficits and a Republican Congress sworn to financial discipline, cutting U.S. foreign assistance programs is gaining appeal in Washington. Yet a drastic move in that direction vis-à-vis U.S. assistance to the Middle East could fuel cynicism in the region about U.S. commitment to democracy, weaken a presumably fragile new government, and cause an already wary Egyptian population to turn fundamentally against the United States.

Of particular importance in this regard is continued U.S. funding for the Egyptian military, which at present stands at $1.3 billion per year. Clearly, the past thirty years of U.S. funding did not provide Washington with the kind of insight into the inner workings and sentiments of the army that would have been useful in February 2011. But according to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the military’s “restraint [during the demonstrations] was a dividend from decades of U.S. investment in training and mentoring Egyptian military officers.”

Given the uncertainties related to the transition— and the military’s role in it—continuing to invest in the military-to-military relationship is a must. The revolution is far from consolidated, and preserving influence at a time when few have any leverage to speak of is critical to ensuring a smooth landing for Egypt both politically and economically. Also, despite economic hardships at home, Washington should be prepared to offer immediate humanitarian and economic assistance for the people of Egypt that exceeds the $250 million appropriated last year.

Hard times are ahead for Egypt. During the revolution, the stock market bottomed out, foreign capital fled, and Standard and Poor’s downgraded its Egypt investment rating. Since Mubarak’s departure, dozens of worker strikes have beset the state, slowing the resumption of economic normalcy. Making matters worse, tourism, the state’s second largest source of revenue and a key driver of the domestic economy, will likely not rebound for some time. Given the scope of the need, the $150 million promised by Washington in February—presumably the largest part of an international fund for Egypt—is clearly not sufficient to help Egypt maintain stability through this critical period.

During the Papyrus Revolution, the U.S. administration’s statements—at times supporting Mubarak, at times supporting the demonstrators—diminished Washington’s standing with the Egyptian people. While provision of wheat alone will not likely succeed in burnishing the U.S. reputation in Egypt, it will go a long way toward reestablishing a positive connection between the United States and the Egyptian people. Washington can further demonstrate its commitment to the people of Egypt by helping Cairo track down and repatriate the ill-gotten assets of former regime cronies. When returned, these funds—which undoubtedly run into the billions—will provide an important short-term boost to the new government. Until then, Washington should consider providing Cairo with an advance on theses funds. Whether by freezing assets or engaging a firm like Kroll Associates to investigate and trace pilfered state funds, the United States being seen as a partner in this endeavor can only but shore up its bona fides with the Egyptian public.

. Emphasize government performance. The events that led to the current revolution were rooted in the poor governance of the previous regime. In recent years, Egyptians have staged an unprecedented number of protests—both political and labor oriented— and such expressions of public dissatisfaction are sure to continue, unless and until the government of Egypt takes effective steps to ameliorate local conditions— most importantly by improving the provision of services to the Egyptian people.

Washington has a keen interest in seeing the new government succeed where Hosni Mubarak failed. Yes, economic reforms in the last seven years produced an impressive increase in Egypt’s GDP. But little trickledown has occurred. Indeed, as noted, according to an authoritative 2009 report published by the Board of Trustees of the General Authority for Investment and Free Zones in Egypt, the benefits of economic expansion failed to trickle down to the poor, creating a growing gap between the very rich and everyone else.

In the first instance, for Cairo this means not only tackling the corruption of the former regime, but establishing mechanisms to prevent and hold to account new perpetrators of corruption going forward. Perhaps more important for the next government, though, this will entail more effectively addressing the problem of poverty. Rather than merely continuing to treat the symptoms of dispossession by distributing subsidies, Washington should encourage Cairo to concentrate on empowering the 40 percent of Egypt’s population who earn less than two dollars a day by creating higherpaying jobs and improving the overwhelmed education system. During this period, the administration should itself reorient U.S. assistance away from fiscal sector reform to meeting the basic needs of impoverished Egyptians.

No doubt, the consensus issue driving the revolution in Egypt was a desire to end the corrupt, capricious, and oppressive Mubarak regime. But unemployment and poverty were also leading factors in the frustration and dissatisfaction motivating the demonstrators. Expectations, therefore, will be high for Egypt’s next government to improve standards of living in short order. Even marginal progress on this front would be considered a success. If the next—presumably secular liberal—government that takes office does not succeed, however, the sentiment that “Islam is the solution” could grow.

In the near term, combating the appeal of Islamism may mean deferring further economic reforms. Given the potential for Islamists to capitalize on the mistakes of a failed first-term liberal government, now may not be the time to worry about eliminating subsidies.

Improving governance also implies that Cairo must do more to demonstrate that the state is a place for all its citizens. In this regard, Washington should continue to press Egypt to rectify its atrocious record on religious freedom—particularly regarding the everdwindling population of Coptic Christians—a record documented in some detail in the State Department annual report on religious freedom. Instead of praising Egypt as a model of religious coexistence—a longstanding practice for American diplomats in Cairo—Washington should challenge the Egyptians both publicly and privately to end its de jure and de facto policies of discrimination. Several leading liberals as well as Islamists have already pledged to do so. They should be kept to their word.

. Support liberal democracy. The Obama administration should make clear that the United States seeks to promote democracy and liberal democrats. Indeed, the gains of the revolution will only be consolidated if those committed to lasting democracy win. There is little doubt that Washington will be branded hypocritical for expressing a preferred flavor of opposition, but the message is coherent: Egyptians will be ill served by a new government with autocratic tendencies, be it the Islamists or the military.

Although support for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt is significant, the organization hardly qualifies as a proponent of liberal secular democracy. First, there is the MB view of minorities, which does not promote the notion of Egypt as a state of all its citizens. To wit, historically, not only did the organization advocate the imposition of a jizya tax on Christian and Jewish residents of Egypt, the MB Supreme Guide argued that the top officials in the army “should be Muslims since we are a Muslim country.” More recently, a senior MB official stated that the organization’s platform did not accept Copts—or women—serving as president.

The MB’s own March 2004 reform initiative document provides perhaps the best representation of the group’s view of a “civil state.” This paper lays out the organization’s proposed policies on a broad range of issues, including women, education, culture, and politics. Among other things, the MB proposes reinstituting the Islamic system of hisba, which entrusts the state with ensuring the observance of sharia (Islamic law).

Consistent with this framework, the MB reform document also bans the practice of ribh (usury), advocates censorship of the cinema and theater “in accordance with the principles and values of Islam,” and stipulates that women should only hold positions that “preserve [their] chastity and dignity.” Most problematic for democratic societies, perhaps, the MB suggests that, if in power, it would censor media content to ensure its consistency with “the provisions of Islam.” Taken as a whole, the 2004 MB document lays out a vision more consistent with an Islamic state than a vital democratic society.

Since 2004, the policies advocated by the MB have changed little. In its 2007 platform published in the Egyptian daily al-Masry al-Youm, the organization stated that “the principles of Islamic Sharia law … represent the governing policy in determining the priorities of goals, policies, and strategies [of the government].”

The MB has not yet had a chance to implement this vision. But with Mubarak gone and the domestic security apparatus seemingly adrift, Egypt’s Islamists are experiencing a renaissance. Yusuf al-Qaradawi—perhaps the most popular Muslim preacher in the region and a detractor of the Camp David treaty—returned briefly from his longtime exile to Egypt, and will surely gain a following during subsequent trips. More ominously, according to al-Masry al-Youm, al-Gamaa al-Islamiyah (Egyptian Islamic Group)—responsible for dozens of terrorist attacks in Egypt in the 1990s—met publicly on February 14 for the first time in decades. The Gamaa may even attempt to establish a political party.

The hysteria surrounding the potential that Islamists could immediately “take power” in Egypt is unwarranted. But the MB’s impressive infrastructure, provision of services, funding networks, and longstanding informal associations give it a clear leg up in a state previously ruled by a single party.

Recognizing Washington’s limited influence in determining the rules of this transition, the Obama administration can help level the political playing field, for example, by advocating a longer period of transition. Such an extension would allow more time for new, liberal political parties to be established. Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei has articulated support for an extended transitional phase, and so should the United States. Of course, absent Egyptian consensus behind an extension of the transition period, U.S. support for continued martial law in Egypt would come across as problematic. Still, a longer transition period would seem to favor the prospects of the liberals.

This entire dynamic begs the question of why the military is moving so quickly to cede political power when such a hand-off threatens to tip the political balance in favor of the Islamists. While such an approach seems counterintuitive—given the common wisdom that the military views the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat—the Mubarak regime pursued the same tack for decades. For the military’s part, it may just be most comfortable with the Mubarak-era situation in which the Islamists served as the dominant opposition force. Not only did this symbiotic relationship free the state’s hand to repress the (liberal and Islamist) opposition, it also made the authoritarian regime more palatable to the world. To the degree that the MB-military dynamic exists, breaking the connection should be a U.S. priority.

The United States should also look to promote reform in Egypt’s security sector, where the state security apparatus has long functioned under undemocratic conditions. In the aftermath of the revolution, Egyptian state security was devastated and discredited and can no longer provide adequate and appropriate security for the population.

At the same time, Washington should encourage both Muslim-majority states and states with significant Muslim minorities with experience making similar transitions—like Indonesia and perhaps India, respectively—to provide technical assistance during the transition process. East European countries that deposed their own dictators could likewise serve as compelling models for a new Egypt. Regardless of which states help out, the process of building democracy in Egypt is sure to take years, requiring U.S. attention throughout. Even though Egypt’s liberals stand to do well in the first post-Mubarak elections, they must deliver—including by developing democratic institutions—or else the Islamists may win the second contest.

At a minimum, as the project of building a new and representative polity begins, Egypt and Washington should aim high. No one knows how the experiment will ultimately end, but Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian Turkey should not be a model. Notwithstanding its impressive economic performance, under the Islamist Justice and Development Party, Turkey is moving away from its sixty-year involvement with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, constricting freedom of speech, and hacking away at the secular liberal idea of the state enshrined in the Turkish constitution. Liberal democracy in Egypt is the goal.

. Reestablish Egypt as a regional actor and shore up the bilateral relationship. With the exception of a few notably stressful years, the U.S.-Egypt bilateral relationship has been solid for decades. Indeed, putting aside issues of governance, Washington and Cairo have shared a broad range of regional interests and concerns—from the peace process to the prospect of a nuclear Iran—that underpin the long-term strategic relationship. In recent years, however, as Egypt’s regional influence has waned, Washington and Cairo have increasingly struggled to pursue a shared regional vision. Egypt, the United States, and the international community would be well served by Cairo playing a reinvigorated regional role.

Egypt may be poised to embrace such a role sooner than many might have expected. Should Amr Mousa—the presumed presidential front-runner— be elected later this year, his nationalist inclinations may prompt him to work to establish a robust role for Egypt in the international community. He might even adopt a harder-line stance toward Egypt’s rival Iran. Owing to its geographic location, Egypt is also set to play an important role in addressing two-and-a-half failed-state scenarios on its border: those of Northern Sudan, Libya, and Gaza. Egypt already has troops in Sudan and, if necessary, could deploy soldiers to Libya to facilitate a smooth post-Qadhafi transition. The same is true for helping alleviate the humanitarian problems in Gaza and helping prevent further war between the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood (i.e., Hamas) and Israel. More than Europe or the United States, Egypt is in a position to take on these responsibilities.

Notwithstanding the prospect of an Amr Mousa administration, it may be difficult to cajole an inwardfocused Egypt into adopting a more assertive foreign policy. In fact, even maintaining the traditionally close U.S.-Egypt working relationship may prove a challenge, as the next government of Egypt—whether liberal or Islamist—will almost certainly look to reorient its relations with the United States. Indeed, the credibility of Egypt’s first post-Mubarak leadership will rest, at least in part, on its repudiation of the longtime president’s policies, creating headaches—and policy difficulties—for Washington. In effect, Egypt stands a good chance of looking like Turkey—minus, at least for now, the Islamist aspect—an important, albeit unreliable, friend.

For this reason, each of the policy elements outlined above should be calibrated with the core goal of sustaining the bilateral relationship at this critical moment. Though maintaining close relations with the new Egypt will entail obstacles, Washington must find ways to clear them, especially given the strategic realignment of Turkey, a surging Iran, and the widespread regional perception that the United States is withdrawing from the region. The trajectory of the revolution in Egypt may well look promising, but its continued success is far from certain. Considering the remarkable events in Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere in the region, it would be easy to lose focus on developments in Egypt. Yet more than ever, Washington must stay actively involved.

Egypt is a regional bellwether—the most populous Arab state and formerly the most influential. If the democratic experiment succeeds there, other states in transition will fall into place. The Papyrus Revolution was a remarkable achievement for the people of Egypt, but the hard work of consolidating democracy in Egypt remains to be completed. Washington has a strong interest in the outcome and should not pretend otherwise. Its influence should be used to help Cairo manage change while maintaining stability. The fate of more than 80 million Egyptians and quite possibly the region as a whole depends on it.

David Schenker is the Aufzien fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute, from where this monograph, of which this is part 6, is adapted. Previously, he served as Levant country director, the Pentagon’s top policy aide on the Arab countries of the Levant, in the Office of the Secretary of Defense; in that capacity he was responsible for advising the secretary and other senior Pentagon leadership on the military and political affairs of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories.

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