Middle East Notes and Comment: A Partnership for Egypt

The night Hosni Mubarak fell from power, Egyptians of all shades, sizes, and beliefs came together to celebrate the end of a fading dictatorship and the beginning of a bright new future. Amidst singing and fireworks, flag-wrapped Egyptians wept with joy.

As Egypt faces presidential elections this weekend, the future looks less bright and less new than any would have predicted three years ago. The military is clearly back, the economy is in shambles, and political space is constricting.

On a recent trip to Egypt, I met old friends who were triumphant that the Islamists had been set back. Yet I also saw palpable despair, not only among Islamists, but among liberals too. “I need to take stock this summer and decide if I have a future here,” said a friend, who had served in an interim government. “I just need a break from Egypt,” one political activist told me, gaunt-faced and weary.

On that night in February 2011, optimism was overflowing. Now, three years after Mubarak fell, what has really changed?

One thing that has changed is who has influence with the new government in Egypt. Several Gulf Arab States—in particular Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait—have emerged as Egypt’s chief international patrons. The United States has become more marginal after decades of occupying center stage. While many in the United States seem content to let Egypt drift into the arms of deep-pocketed Gulf monarchies, the smarter strategy is for the United States to prioritize finding common ground with those monarchies to steer Egypt in a more promising direction.

In the latter years of Hosni Mubarak’s rule, skeptics argued that Egypt had ceased to be relevant. Ideologically inert, and burdened by a creaky bureaucracy and crumbling infrastructure, the future of the region seemed likely to be decided elsewhere.

The last three years show otherwise. When Egypt swung into a revolutionary mood, the Middle East swung into a revolutionary mood.  When Egypt seemed to be drifting toward Islamism, the region seemed to be drifting toward Islamism. Even a weakened Egypt has a profound effect on the Middle East, if only for the fact that it is the one country to which almost everyone in the region feels a personal connection.

No wonder, then, that Gulf states have sunk more than $10 billion into Egypt in the last year and that they stand to invest billions more. As they see it, their future is intertwined with Egypt’s, and they have moved to save Egypt from hitting bottom. The United States agrees. Indeed, it poured in tens of billions of dollars itself to do  the same over the years. There is no U.S. desire to see Egypt suffer economically.

Yet Egypt’s woes are political as well as economic. It is here that the U.S. and Gulf instincts diverge. For the leadership of many of the Gulf states, the Muslim Brotherhood is the looming danger—a group they see as the slick, smiling front for a terrorist movement seeking power. Much as Hitler used the ballot box as the pathway toward a totalitarian order, many Gulf governments see the Muslim Brotherhood’s commitment to elections as opportunistic and fleeting. The United Arab Emirates has convicted dozens for membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, and Saudi Arabia criminalized membership in the group in March.

It is hard to imagine that these governments are not counseling Egypt to take a hard line on the Brotherhood. Likewise, Egypt’s need for Gulf largesse must tempt the country’s leaders to err on the side of excess in their zeal against the Brotherhood.

For many U.S. officials, the Egyptian strategy represents a turn in the wrong direction. They see efforts to destroy the Brotherhood as futile, and they worry that deadly attacks on demonstrators radicalize victims’ friends and relatives and persuade whole swaths of Egyptian society that they have no future in it. Many in the Egyptian leadership privately suggest the U.S. view comes from a White House with a misguided sympathy for the Brotherhood. U.S. officials offer a more utilitarian argument. They say a long and bloody insurgency will cripple Egypt’s economy—depriving it of both tourism receipts and investment—and radicalize Egypt’s population still further. While the U.S. government stops short of arguing for reconciliation with the Brotherhood, it argues for a more inclusive political environment that will tame the excesses of most Brotherhood supporters while isolating the minority of irreconcilables.

A sharp split between the United States and its Gulf allies would be catastrophic for all. It would polarize Egypt, dry up U.S. military and security support for Egyptian counterterrorism efforts, and encumber efforts to sustain a broad coalition to counter Iranian proliferation. Left unmanaged, though, that is precisely where the parties are headed. Senior U.S. and Gulf officials privately express exasperation at each other’s naïveté, yet complain that it is simply too hard to sway the other side from its misguided beliefs.

In fact, the United States and the Gulf monarchies have quite compatible, if not identical, goals for Egypt. Each is seeking to create security and stability, and each appreciates the economy’s role in that. The two sides also have complementary tools at their disposal. The Gulf states have cash in amounts that the United States cannot muster, and the United States has diplomatic ties, technical expertise, and counterterrorism equipment and know-how that Egypt sorely needs. In point of fact, it is hard to imagine how Egypt can be successful without the assets that both sides—the Gulf monarchies and the United States—bring to the table.

Success requires several things. First, the respective leaderships must prioritize Egypt—not only in their strategies, but also in their relations with each other. Second, they must arrive at a more shared understanding of the violent groups in Egypt broadly, and any links between the Brotherhood and those groups particularly. Third, they have to have a unified message to the new Egyptian leadership, and they have to not get played off one against the other.

Three years ago, Egypt’s future seemed bright. Now, Egypt is full of worry and uncertainty. A turnaround would require its allies, new and old, to come together. If they fail to do so, the consequences will likely be devastating for all.

Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program