Nearly a year has passed since the huge crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square rallied to overthrow former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Yet, the Egyptian public remains loathe to articulate a coherent vision for Egypt, and “that is the challenge going forward,” says Steven A. Cook, CFR’s top Egypt expert. He says that the next crucial step will be choosing a hundred-person group to write a new constitution, which could to lead to a crisis between the interim military-led government and the newly elected Islamist parliament. Meanwhile, the United States, which has been a close ally of Egypt for decades, finds itself having to deal with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, and as a result, Cook says, “there’s going to be a divergence between Egypt and the United States over time.”
Interviewee: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
With the anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution [January 25] only a couple of weeks away, do Egyptians think they are better off now than they were when Mubarak was in charge? What about U.S. officials, are they happier or more worried?
For the most part, Egyptians are happy to see the end of the Mubarak era, which was not an era of prosperity. It was not an era in which they could participate. It was an era of corruption and authoritarian politics. There remain supporters of the old regime, although they are a relatively small minority. The big question is what does the so-called silent majority–that the Egyptian Armed Forces consistently looks to–want? It’s unclear without major nationwide polling, but you do get a sense that what these people want is change. They came out in large numbers to vote in the now-concluded parliamentary elections. They want change. They want prosperity. They do not want the authoritarianism of the previous regime, but beyond that, it’s entirely unclear what Egyptians want. And I think that that is the challenge going forward.
There is supposed to be a hundred-person constitutional assembly created to write a new Egyptian constitution, which is to be followed by a presidential election. Is that going to be easy?
The challenge in the constitution-writing period is divining a vision for Egypt that the vast majority of Egyptians agree upon. And I think that that’s been and remains a problem.
Is Washington content to watch this uncertainty unfold?
The challenge in the constitution-writing period is divining a vision for Egypt that the vast majority of Egyptians agree upon.
U.S. policymakers find themselves in an unknown environment. Egyptian politics have been quite scrambled. The party of the Muslim Brotherhood–the Freedom and Justice Party–is slated to win somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 percent of the seats in the new People’s Assembly, followed by the Salafist al-Nour Party, with some 25 percent. Neither of these groups has historically held worldviews that conform to American interests in the region. So there’s going to be a divergence between Egypt and the United States over time. And that’s due not only to Islamist politics. People associate Egypt’s strategic relationship with the United States with Hosni Mubarak, even though it began before him, and people don’t believe that it served Egypt very well. As a result, I think there are going to be changes, and I think that that is certainly cause for concern. American policy makers are aware of the changes in Egypt, and they’re struggling to find a policy that adjusts to this new era.
The parliament that’s now been elected, as you point out, is predominantly led by the Muslim Brotherhood and the more conservative Salafists, but there’s no single individual who stands out for president. The people who are running for the presidency are more or less people we knew from the Mubarak days. Does it alarm you at all that there is no clear leader?
It is evident that Egypt, which through the years has had very strong leaders [Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak], now seems to be lacking someone who can give the revolution some sort of leadership and coherence. People are vying for the leadership role, but the uncertainty at the top ultimately may be a good thing over the long run. Egypt has suffered from executives with too much power. I would bet that if this constitution is written in a relatively free and unfettered environment, that the tendency will be to reduce the powers of the executive.
There are some newcomers to the field of would-be presidential candidates, but the ones that are known more broadly are people that are not surprises. It remains to be seen how they will fare. Mohamed El Baradei [former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency] had a hard time gaining traction among the broader public. The supporters of Amr Moussa [former head of the Arab League] insist that he has the broad, public support that would be required to carry him to the presidency. Nobody really knows. Does Abdel Moneim Fotouh, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, who is a charismatic figure, tip the scales as the new leader? There are a number of other potential presidential candidates: Ahmed Shafiq–whom Mubarak appointed as prime minister during the uprising and remained for a short period afterwards, resigning in March–is seen as someone [who] might command significant numbers of Egyptian votes.
When will the presidential election take place, after the constitution is written?
That’s the way it’s supposed to happen, but we’re in a compressed timeline now because the military, as a result of public pressure, has indicated that it will hand power over at the end of June or beginning of July of this year, rather than in 2013 as originally planned. The constitution’s supposed to be written in six months. So the question is: Can the constitution be written, a presidential election held, and the military [hand over power by] June-July? That does not seem to be feasible. So there’s going to have to be a reshuffling of the timeline.
What about the constitutional assembly?
There’s already some dispute over where these hundred people will come from and who will choose them. There was some thought that it would come from the parliament, then it was argued it would come from a combination of people from the parliament and outside the parliament. It is uncertain whether the parliament will choose the outsiders, or [whether the] military [will] do so. Or will the parliament and military both do the choosing?
There’s the potential for a significant struggle between a newly elected parliament that can legitimately claim a popular mandate and a military that retains executive authority and would like to continue to be the ultimate authority and source of power in the political system. That is setting things up for what is likely to be a clash between the parliament and the military.
The Brotherhood and the military are not beyond making short-term tactical deals with each other to advance each other’s interests at particular moments, but ultimately they are competitors.
The military will continue to be watchful and want to oversee things, but it needs to make a deal with someone about its economic interests, about its post-transition role. If that deal is made, perhaps there won’t be a decisive showdown with the parliament.
What happened to the liberal young people, the people who were in Tahrir Square back in January 2011 who inspired the revolution? Have they been pushed to the sidelines with the rise of the Islamists and the Salafists?
Yes and no. There’s a difference between the revolutionary groups and the political parties. The revolutionary groups have had quite obviously a hard time gaining traction. In some ways, they’ve turned themselves into a permanent revolution against the military, which they see as an extension of the Mubarak era. But that kind of permanent protest seems to have had diminishing returns. They don’t have the kind of momentum that they had coming out of the uprising. That’s not to say that they haven’t been able to make their voices heard and their weight felt. You had big protests in late November; you had this terrible kind of battle between revolutionary groups and the military police in downtown Cairo in mid-December.[Revolutionary groups] were not very interested in party politics and as a result didn’t organize in parties. In the elections, secular, liberal parties haven’t done very well. Many liberal, social democratic parties recently set up are redundant. They have very similar programs, but they’re divided along leadership and personalities. There’s one bloc of political parties–the Free Egyptians, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, and the Tagammu party–that ended up in the 15 percent range. They’ll have a voice in the parliament along with a smattering of independents, but by and large the elections have favored the Brotherhood, which had an eighty-year head start, had the benefits of having for a long time a mechanism of political mobilization through the provision of social services–and has a vision of Egyptian society that resonates with people.
Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. A leading expert on Arab and Turkish politics, he is author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square.
This article appears courtesy of CFR.
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