The Western press corps has clearly misunderstood the character of political change in Egypt. On January 25, 2011, the world’s television cameras were focused on Tahir Square. The images showed approximately five million people expressing their dissatisfaction with Mubarak. After days of protest, the government fell. It was a moment of national jubilation. But it was short lived.
The military establishment restored order and after several months an election was held. On these points, neither detractors of the revolution nor supporters disagree. Then the tire hit the road.
Although there were many interests represented in the election only one was sufficiently organized to take advantage of the accelerated desire for a national vote: the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). It was elected with five million votes, a plurality, but by most accounts a democratic victory. Although supposedly reluctant to run for the presidency, the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi did so and was elected.
Many in the West saw this as a triumph of electoral openness, albeit those with knowledge of MB history and tactics were apprehensive. One matter was transparently clear: the MB had no prior experience at governance. For some in the West, notably Hillary Clinton, this election was a test of MB popularity and, of most significance, reliability, since she contended the MB had elements that are “moderate” and could be a source of stability in the region.
Within a year all these notions were shattered. Morsi made it clear he wished to Islamicize a nation that had a rainbow of religions and political factions. From the standpoint of most Egyptians, he defied tradition imposing at will notions incompatible with Egyptian tradition.
For example, Morsi issued an emergency decree that his decisions were above those of the Supreme Court and in the process immunized himself from criticism. He summarily released 600 Hamas prisoners who had engaged in violence against Egyptians. He seized the public radio and television stations. On December 5, 2012, his MB elite guards killed twelve peaceful demonstrators in front of the presidential palace, wounding hundreds more, in a story completely ignored by the Western press. He lowered the age for marriage to nine from 15. He went to see al Qaeda leader Qawahari in Pakistan to discuss joint terrorist activity. He vowed to abrogate the peace treaty with Israel, despite its 30-year history. He visited Iran with the intention of fomenting a terrorist state within the Sinai. He suspended the Constitution. He wanted the MB to swear allegiance to “the pistol.” He wanted the MB to be a “separate government” within the government. And he had the government pay for the circumcision of females (cliterdectomies).
From December to June of the following year there were dozens of violent incidents promoted by MB guards until the nation, fed up with Morsi, took to the streets again. Thirty-three million people out of the 90 million population demonstrated for the ouster of Morsi. As demonstrators pointed out, there did not exist an impeachment procedure and the Constitution, which might have been modified to consider recall, had been suspended.
The Egyptian army was called to quell the June 30 uprising but General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, the hand-picked field general of the Morsi government, refused to fire on fellow Egyptians. Although the newspapers and press agencies of record called this event a “military coup,” it was different in substance and kind from coups in Latin America or Greece or Russia. This was in a meaningful sense a public cri de coeur. Thirty-three million Egyptians from every walk of life and with variegated political philosophies rose as one to say Morsi must go.
Despite the size and passion of these protests, many in the Obama administration and several Republicans refused to accept this account of events, arguing that a democratically elected government had been overturned by a non-democratic horde. They adamantly insisted that MB has moderate elements and maintained further that size and influence of the MB is greater than the estimate of protesters. Moreover, there is the question of whether this Egyptian society or any society can absorb two revolutions — convulsions striking at the very heart of the nation — in two years.
Clearly the events of June 30 had a profound effect on the economy. Unemployment for those under 30 is at 25 percent. The 20 million people in the tourist business have sought employment in other fields if they can find a job. In fact, one travel carrier told me his business has been reduced from $10 million a month to $300,000. Since the Egyptian population is growing at the rate of one million every 9 months, keeping pace with job needs requires a 10 percent GDP growth a year for 10 years, a very unlikely scenario.
Still the nation is buoyant, as my recent trip confirmed. The hidebound Islamic strictures imposed by the MB have been overturned. Optimism is in the air with the widespread belief that Field Marshal al-Sisi — the likely presidential winner in the next election — has the vision to lead the nation. His popularity is at an all-time high, but as he and others have noted, the day he is elected is the day his approval ratings will decline.
At this point national unity and a spirit of “Egypt first” is an asset that should not be underestimated. The economic challenges remain formidable, but if al-Sisi can achieve security at home and an environment for foreign direct investment, he could put Egypt on the pathway to success.
MB has been outlawed, but it still exists in various forms through independent parties and social service activity. Since its membership is about one million, there is little doubt about the potential for disruption. It is all a question of how MB plays its limited hand.
Al-Sisi, by his own admission, has a two-year window to turn around the economy and restore domestic order. If that doesn’t happen, the Egyptian people will insist that he leave office like Mubarak and Morsi before him. The new constitution has a provision for impeachment and it is also far more inclusive than the former document, a step towards national unification.
Still the Obama administration refuses to deliver the Apache spare parts desperately needed to crush the terrorist incubator in the Sinai. This has become a sticking point among Egypt’s elite with many now approving a likely purchase of weapons from Russia, a nation generally viewed with apprehension. Nonetheless, most would assert Putin is not as unpopular as Obama.
In fact, on my recent trip I was asked time and again why the U.S. sacrifices blood and treasure to fight al Qaeda, but supports the MB — the source of money and logistics for al Qaeda. It is a question that yields further questions. In Egypt there is the unequivocal belief that MB does not represent the sovereign interests of the nation, but rather a transnational desire for a caliphate from Spain to Asia. It may promote pious beliefs, but MB’s basic goal is an imperium.
For the most part, the streets of Cairo are safe and the society is stable. Signs of revitalization are in the air. There is an occasional MB fanatic who will throw a crude homemade bomb into a street crowd in order to elicit panic, but Egyptians have lived through a concentrated lesson in history during the last two years and are not easily intimidated. One of the nation’s demonstrated strengths is its resilience.
How this transition will shake out is anyone’s guess. But the path to the future has been paved: al-Sisi will offer a national unity plan after he is elected; steps will be taken for IMF and World Bank assistance; Saudi Arabia, UAE, and, possibly, the U.S. will be called on for financial aid and loans; the nation will attempt to develop several infrastructure projects in order to improve internal transportation and commercial opportunity and, most notably, create jobs.
Most significantly, this will be a period of good will, a period in which most Egyptians will be pulling for President al-Sisi and his government. That is a factor too easily overlooked in a pure economic analysis of Egypt’s future. At a recent meeting with al-Sisi he made it clear he is a reluctant presidential candidate. His words were said with sincerity. However, history sometimes taps someone on the shoulder saying it is your turn. Al-Sisi is the only man who can lift Egypt from the emotional doldrums of the Morsi government, provide solidarity and offer hope as the harbinger for change. There is much riding on his shoulders, but after hope was dashed by the overreaching of the MB, hope is on the rise again.
My colleague David Goldman describes Egypt as a “banana republic without the bananas.” That is true as far as it goes since the economy has been sinking since 2010, but it is notable that the Egyptian people appear to be ready for austerity and sacrifices if the leadership can provide some vision for the nation’s future. That is al-Sisi’s mission and belief. Now is the time to see whether it will work and how fast the results are visible.