Michael Wahid Hanna is a fellow at The Century Foundation. Prior to joining The Century Foundation, Hanna was a senior fellow at the International Human Rights Law Institute.
Why is Egypt so critical to U.S. objectives in the broader Middle East?
Well, I mean, demographically it’s the biggest country in the Middle East. Eighty-three million, and so just its demographic weight alone is out-sized. Historically, it’s had very significant political weight in the region.
It’s traditionally been the most important Arab country. That’s diminished to a great extent. It’s a long way away from the heyday of Nasser-ism, when Egypt really was the focal point of Arab politics and people in the region looked to Egypt for leadership; you saw the beginning of a really well developed sense of regional identity. We’ve come a long way since that. Egypt has been in a period of stagnation, adrift for many years, but you still see some hope that Egypt will again play a central part in the political life of the region. There’s a sense among many that the region is somewhat ‘unmoored’ and part of that has to do with the stagnation that we’ve seen in Egypt, particularly with respect to its foreign policy.
Egypt was one of the first Arab countries to sign a peace treaty with Israel, and for the U.S. that was a critical thing in terms of maintaining stability in the region. Could you talk a little about Camp David and why it was important?
Sure. As you mentioned, it was the first time that an Arab state had signed a peace treaty with Israel, and clearly for the United States it formed a centerpiece of regional strategy. Egypt became part of American security architecture and security planning for the Middle East. It was a big shift that began immediately after the October 1973 war, when Sadat began to reposition Egypt in the region and to move away from the Eastern Block and the Soviet Union. And that period between the ‘73 war and the signing of the Camp David treaty, saw Egypt realign itself with the United States and this has been a durable relationship.
It is not one without tensions and strains, and obviously there are many complaints about how the United States played its role with respect to this alliance, in terms of supporting what was an authoritarian regime. And some of that now is being played out, some of those frustrations and resentments about the past role of the United States in support of the Sadat regime and now the former Mubarak regime. Be that as it may, this has been a very important relationship with respect to regional stability in terms of conflict management, the fact that Egypt and Israel have maintained the peace treaty, the fact that war is no longer possible between these two nations; means a great deal to how one thinks about and conceives the possibility of conflict in the region.
You mentioned U.S. support for the two previous regimes in Egypt. How exactly did that support manifest itself?
Well, at times it’s overstated. I think that these regimes maintain their survival based primarily on domestic factors, and we saw that when the domestic factors shifted, these regimes fell. The Mubarak regime could not withstand the uprising that it saw take place in January of 2011, with or without U.S. support. That was a side issue at that point in time. That being said, clearly the United States was a strong backer; but again, I think it’s important to contextualize this and to understand that these regimes survived because they had domestic drivers and domestic sources of stability. When those were gone, U.S. support was no longer a relevant factor. It was one among many.
And so, it’s true then, that there’s now a great deal of resentment towards the United States, and much of that goes back to this longstanding support for the Mubarak regime. There is a sense that there is a real hypocrisy in the U.S. foreign policy; that there is lots of talk about democracy and reform, but in the end, the lure of stability has always trumped U.S. foreign policy in the region. So, that’s something that the United States is going to have to work very hard to overcome and it’s not something that can be done overnight.
What can you tell us about the initial U.S. response and how it’s progressed over the last year and a half?
I think one thing to note about the U.S. response to the Egyptian uprising last year is that it was incredibly swift. The shift with respect to the U.S. position on the Mubarak regime took place in a matter of days. The national security establishment doesn’t generally make such momentous shifts that quickly and so, I think, there was frustration at the time that the United States didn’t move quickly enough to basically cut ties with Mubarak, to make clear the transition would have to happen without him. I think if we look at this in terms of any other historical parallels, this shift was quite dramatic, quite sudden. I think what became clear within the administration, and I think it was a correct decision, was that if stability was important, stability could no longer happen without some degree of popular representation without the removal of Mubarak and the transition to something more democratic. And I think that’s an important consideration for Egypt and really for the entire region, that stability now cannot be ensured by one-man rule. That sort of authoritarian style holds the seeds for future instability and I think that’s a difficult dynamic to manage, but I think it’s an important point to understand going forward.
There are a lot of key players in the revolution that have different objectives. Things have evolved differently for each of these parties over the last year and a half. Could you walk us through some of those?
It’s been a chaotic transition. It’s hard to summarize what has happened succinctly. I would say that many, many outside observers and local commentators have long wondered why something like the January 2011 uprising, why that hadn’t happened in Egypt. All the danger signs had been there; the signs of discontent, the beginnings of the seeds of public protest. But this hadn’t ever manifested itself into anything that truly threatened the regime.
And so, what we saw in January of 2011 was finally a critical mass of protestors willing to go out into the streets, and I think on January twenty-fifth the protesters themselves were surprised. I think they came out, and they came out in such numbers that they looked around and understood that this was something different than the sporadic and limited protests of years past. That this could create a momentum all in and of itself. And it did. And we saw all this build-up over those very first few days when we saw violence being unleashed by the regime, by the Ministry of Interior, by the police forces. Very quickly thereafter, these forces were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers and geographic dispersion of protests. And the police force essentially collapsed and gave way to the military, which deployed in the streets. This is only the third time that the military had deployed since the 1952 Free Officers Movement. This was only the third time that the military had been seen on the streets; it had always been the silent guarantor but not an active participant in the sort of day-to-day lives of Egyptians.
And that set in motion the events that followed, whereby the SCAF, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces which until very recently was the interim ruling authority of Egypt, essentially pushed Mubarak aside; at the time essentially invoked revolutionary legitimacy to ensconce itself in the governing role as the caretaker of Egypt’s transition. That obviously has been a very difficult, convoluted transition, and it’s been quite fluid and hard to manage really. We’ve seen this cacophony of voices, a lack of real direction, and a real fragmentation of the political scene. And what that has meant is that the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been by far Egypt’s most potent opposition force, its most organized opposition force; we’ve seen them take on a preeminent political role, much of that has been focused on managing relations with the military. This has been perhaps the key dynamic of Egypt’s transition, that this negotiated, and at times outright conflict, between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military; this has been the sort of central dynamic that has governed how Egypt’s transition has transpired.
So when folks actually started flooding into Tahrir Square in January 2011, who were these people? Who were these protesters that came out? Are they being represented now in government?
The issue of what happened to the revolution and the revolutionaries has been a perennial question; it’s been recurring ever since the fall of the Mubarak regime. It’s clear that the young activists who played a disproportionate role in the early days of the uprising have not been able to translate that, sort of vanguard-like role, in kicking off the momentous events in Egypt. They haven’t been able to translate that into political influence.
Now, part of that is disposition – some of them are not inclined to participate in formal politics — is also a reflection of how difficult it is to organize politically. You know, national campaigns require canvassing, require deep and broad organizations; they require funding. These are all things that are very difficult to stand up overnight. And in a hierarchical society like Egypt, I think it presents an additional challenge to many of the young activists who did play such a disproportionate role in the initial days of the Egyptian uprising.
What we saw after those first few days is a broadening of the players involved, and while the Muslim Brotherhood wasn’t there on the first day – for several days officially — once they realized that this uprising was something quite different and represented a historic opportunity, they did join in full force. And they were there playing a very important role as part of the uprising in Tahrir Square and the other locales in Egypt. It’s always been something of a sore spot for many of the more dedicated activists that the Muslim Brotherhood was not there on day one. This has laid the groundwork for a recurring theme with respect to how other political forces view the Brotherhood, with some degree of suspicion; they are opportunistic, not fully committed to other revolutionary causes, but are constrained by institutional self-interest. The seeds of this type of narrative to describe the Brotherhood began with the early days of the uprising and I think has played out fairly consistent since that time.
What are the general middle people, who weren’t out in Tahrir Square amd who aren’t part of the Muslim Brotherhood?
I think there is much greater fragmentation than anybody had anticipated on the political side. When we look at the political elite, they had been cursed by fragmentation; what that meant is the revolution never really ruled itself from day one. When we look at comparable cases such as Tunisia, we see that the revolution took power from the start and guided the transition. In Egypt, this was a much more mediated process, with the military involved and a fragmented political class, that dissipated much of the initial energy and potential that was there immediately after the fall of Mubarak.
Now when we go from the political elite to the general public, we also see great divisions. If we look at the most recent presidential elections that brought President Morsi to power, it was fifty-two percent of the vote against forty-eight percent for someone who was a regime stalwart. Ahmed Shafik was the last prime minister in the dying days of the Mubarak regime and so clearly there are deep divisions within Egyptian society. There has never been a real consensus about what January twenty-fifth meant. And that has been reflected in the country’s politics since that time.
There are a couple of events or challenges to the new government that I’d like to address: one is the inclusion of the Christian minority (Coptic) and the second is security on the Sinai Peninsula. Security has been an issue at large, with the disappearance of the police from the streets essentially for months and the assumption of the policing function by the military – a military not trained in civil policing. There was a deterioration in security. This fed a narrative about what was happening in the country that was quite deleterious to the prospects of real change; it fed a narrative that instilled fear and concern about what was happening in the country, as opposed to hope about the possibility for a better future. So you saw this play out in terms of how people conceived of the revolution, the resentment of continued protests, and a suspicion that in the end all of this had made people’s lives worse. That was, and still remains, a huge challenge for forces who are seeking to keep that sort of flame of reform alive.There is a huge distrust now that is built up within Egyptian society to the prospect of protest and to the very notion of fundamental change. There is a fatigue that now wants to see a modicum of stability restored and people in certain segments that really just want their lives back. And so, that remains and continues to be a huge challenge to those forces within Egyptian political life that are still trying to push for systematic root and branch reform.
Who is seeking to destabilize the situation in the Sinai? What are the forces or factors there that might not want to see that kind of stability?
Well, if we look at the Sinai specifically, it’s an issue that has come out into the public attention very recently with the killings of sixteen Egyptian military personnel on the border with the Gaza Strip. This is not a new issue. We’ve seen militancy in Sinai before. There were major bombings that happened in the Peninsula in 2004, and so this is a long-term process of neglect. Clearly, there’s a cross border dimension with respect to the smuggling economy that has grown up alongside the closure policies with respect to the Gaza Strip. So these are long-term factors that have fueled this militancy in Sinai and with the security vacuum that opened up after the fall of the Mubarak regime, I think we’ve seen groups increasingly exploiting that vacuum. It’s resulted in greater militancy and the potential for a lot of trouble for the Egyptian state.
The question of pluralism and the role of Copts in Egyptian society is not a new one. Much like when we talk about the issue of Bedouin in Sinai, these are long festering problems that came out even more so in the open during the initial days after the fall of the regime, when the initial sort of solidarity that had been manifested in protests throughout the country and instilled a sense of sectarian harmony, that belied the much deeper troubles that exist within Egyptian society. And a lot of that came out very quickly thereafter, when sectarian strife and sectarian incidents became much more common. And of course, I think this fueled a backlash and real fear among Egypt’s Copt population about what this all meant for them, what change would mean for Egypt’s Christian minority.
Of course, this goes alongside any longstanding suspicion of the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood, and rightly so. Many of the initial and guiding ideas of the Brotherhood are distinctly anti-Christian, in the sense that Christians have long been viewed as second-class citizens. And these were enshrined in many of the sort of platform documents of the Brotherhood, that until very recently stated that women and Christians could not become president of the republic. So there was a real fear of what the political empowerment of the Muslim Brotherhood would mean for Egypt’s Christians. This is a long-term societal problem. There has not been a great degree of honesty in terms of dealing with the very real sectarian problems in Egyptian society. That’s something, frankly, that’s going to take years to work out. And it doesn’t necessarily have to have a happy ending.
I think the United States has been retooling its relationship with Egypt; trying to catch up and compensate for failed policies in the past. This is an adjustment that is dictated by reality. The United States had long been wary of engaging with the Muslim Brotherhood. That’s not an option any longer, it’s simply a fact of life when dealing now with democratically empowered societies; societies in which people are electing their own representatives. There’s little room to maneuver in terms of making distinctions between those you will and you will not engage with. And so, for the most part, a sort of limiting factor of U.S. foreign policy has disappeared. Those who have chosen to engage in the political process and who have eschewed violence; in addition to that decision, have been or are being treated as political actors. The United States, however reluctantly it is doing so, I think understands the need for engagement with the wide spectrum of Islamist political actors and others who have been repressed previously under the Mubarak government.
That being said, to re-establish a working and functioning relationship, I think is a work in progress. There are still channels of communication between the United States government, the United States military, and the Egyptian military; that has been a constant channel of communication. We’ve also seen that the Muslim Brotherhood themselves and President Morsi have been cognizant of international opinion and have been interested in seeking out engagement with the United States as a way to ratify their own political existence. It’s been something of a seal of approval. And so they have been keen to try to cultivate that.
That being said, there are limitations to how far that can go. I think the real question now for the United States is: Can the United States move away from a model that looked at Egypt as a client state to a model that sees a U.S.-Egypt bilateral relationship built on some degree of shared interests. I think if those shared interests do not exist, it’ll be incredibly difficult to build any sort of robust relationship going forward.
Now a lot of attention has been focused on Camp David, and I think here is one of those instances where we do see shared interests. Camp David exists because Egyptian leaders made a very distinct decision that this was in their national security interests. I think it remains because Egyptian leaders, including those of the Muslim Brotherhood, understand that Egypt’s international legitimacy rests on maintaining the treaty. Also, I think at heart, is an understanding that a war between Egypt and Israel would not benefit Egyptian interests. So these are the types of possibilities where we see a convergence of interests. It’s a much more difficult relationship to manage and there will have to be some degree of tolerance for those instances when interests do not align. That’s something quite different in terms of how the United States has typically and traditionally managed its relationship with Egypt.
How critical is the aid that goes along with the Camp David agreement? Does anything really change?
Well, I think the question of U.S. aid to Egypt is one that the administration is now just beginning to think about, in terms of whether the existing aid package, which is heavily skewed towards the military, makes sense at a time of transition when the United States is eager and interested to see the establishment of civilian government and democratic governance in Egypt. I think this is going to be an ongoing discussion in the United States within the administration as to how best to package U.S. aid to Egypt. And so, it’s also quite important to understand the limitations that go along with that aid.
There is often a sense that this provides an unlimited degree of leverage, and I think what the past eighteen months of transition have shown us to date, is how limited that leverage really is. This isn’t a situation where the United States can simply dictate political outcomes based on the mere fact of this aid relationship. There is now a realization that perhaps this aid is not quite as significant as we have previously understood it and is perhaps not suitably tailored to this moment of transition. And so, I don’t think there is any move afoot to cut aid, but I do think at a time of fiscal stress here at home that justifying that aid is going to be something that is going to require a bit of work and perhaps refashioning. Aid and retooling it for these emerging circumstances might be something that the administration is going to take up.