Cautious Optimism on Egypt
October 23, 2012
Everyone expected Egypt to be working out better by now, especially Egyptians. Spending a week in Cairo earlier this month, there was barely a whiff of the euphoria of early 2011, when the country united to bring down the government. Even so, there is an energy in Egypt that wasn’t there before. Egypt’s “new normal” isn’t quite normal, but it still gives cause for optimism.
That may seem a strange thing to say, because few Egyptians are especially optimistic. Immediately after Hosni Mubarak’s downfall, loose talk about the supposed $70 billion embezzled by the president and his family led many to believe that the end of Egypt’s problems was nigh. Repatriation of those funds, and plugging the leaks in the economy that had let the ruler amass a fortune, would soon make Egypt a middle-income country, they thought. Ending the corruption that had enriched Mubarak’s entourage would free billions more.
Yet, there were no billions to be found. Money has become harder to come by rather than easier, as wealthy Egyptians stash funds overseas and foreign investors cautiously wait for a clearer political picture. Foreign tourists are also waiting for a clearer picture before they return in large numbers, and the police remain a shadow of what they once were. Strikes seem to be a daily occurrence. Altering multibillion dollar subsidy programs without devastating tens of millions of Egypt’s poor will take years to do; repairing the rest of the rot in the Egyptian economy will take years more.
Politically, the seemingly endless cycle of elections and referenda that began shortly after Mubarak’s fall have not let up. Many more rounds are to come. To the consternation of many, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political prominence seems likely to be a permanent feature of Egyptian politics. Not only are their organizational skills and discipline unsurpassed in Egyptian life, but they seem to be the only institution that emerged from 60 years of authoritarian rule with a sophisticated political sensibility.
The Brotherhood’s governing skills have been somewhat less impressive. President Muhammad Morsi made a litany of promises for his first 100 days, but according to the independent “Morsi Meter,” he was able to fulfill just over 15 percent of them and make progress on another third. New government officials continue to make rookie errors, and veteran officials wonder about their own futures. Meanwhile, the economy is still ailing, and a deal with the International Monetary Fund—which all agree is an essential foundation for economic recovery—remains elusive. The saga of creating a new constitution continues to drag on, with colorful disputes grabbing headlines amidst uncertainty over whether the current constituent assembly drafting the constitution will ever finish its work or be pre-empted by the president appointing his own committee.
And yet, amidst all of this is good news.
The biggest part of the good news in Egypt is that no group is under the illusion that it can govern alone. Whatever its electoral strength—some of which is comparative rather than absolute—the Brotherhood understands it needs a coalition to rule the country. Further, it appears to have concluded that liberal and independent voices make more durable political partners than the other religious parties, which by their nature challenge the Brotherhood’s religious legitimacy. This dynamic began to play itself out in parliament before it was dissolved, and it continues to play itself out in the constitution-writing process. There is no Islamist supermajority.
The Brotherhood has also proven cautious in its dealings with the military. The headlines in August were over the dismissal of Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, Chief of Staff Sami Anan, and Director of General Intelligence Murad Muwafi, but closer observation suggests that the military has returned to its traditional role more than it has suffered a defeat. Egyptian policy toward the United States and Israel, which was the foundation of the U.S. relationship with the Egyptian military, has changed only modestly. The elected government seems to have little appetite for taking on the United States, Israel, or the military itself.
Economically, the government needs all the help it can get, and it has sought allies rather than enemies overseas. Closer to home, there have been no massive expropriations or nationalizations. Anticorruption prosecutions have been limited to the highest echelons of the former regime. Tellingly, there is no massive exodus, among businessmen or anyone else. Panic seems absent in Egypt, and virtually all Egyptians seem to feel there is a possibility that they will be able to protect their interests in the new order.
Even the dysfunction in the constitutional drafting process has its silver lining. A swift and bold constitution process that deeply engaged the public would almost certainly polarize the population and set off pitched political battles. The more drawn out and uncertain process Egypt is undergoing now holds out the prospect of grudging acceptance with less risk of violence.
Almost all of Egypt’s problems still lay in front of it, and some seem insurmountable. Yet, among the most dangerous outcomes of the last 20 months would be a process in which a large swath of Egyptians had concluded there was no way politics could meet their needs and their only options would be to take up arms or leave the country. That has happened in neighboring countries, but it has not happened in Egypt. Instead, expectations have been lowered and timelines expanded.
Political tensions in Egypt are not a sign of failure, but rather a sign that politics are working. Politics, after all, are about juxtaposing contrasting views as much as about unifying a constituency. Even more important, the defining characteristic of a democratic system is not people’s willingness to win. Instead, it is their willingness to lose, because they have faith that they just might win the next time.
Many have lost in Egypt. So far, they are behaving like democrats. Their legitimate concern is that the winners behave like democrats, too.
(This Commentary originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of Middle East Notes and Comment.)
Jon B. Alterman holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy and is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.