Recent events in Egypt have proven once again that many of the Middle East “experts” out there are out of touch with the reality on the ground in Arab countries. Here are some of my own conclusions as to what these events mean for Egypt, the region and the world:
- Those who portrayed the initial victory of Islamists (in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood [MB] and the Salafi Nour party) as signs of an “Islamist Winter” presented a limited, inaccurate understanding. It’s true that Tunisia and Egypt initially saw electoral victories by Islamists. But Islamists were first stopped in Libya (where the controversial Political Isolation law recently passed is another divisive attempt to make political inroads which could backfire) and now in Egypt. It should not have been surprising to see the MB having initial electoral successes- they were the most well-organized and best-funded group running in the first democratic elections in Egypt’s history. After a year of rule however, their popularity was so eroded that they managed even their Salafi allies in government abandoned them.
- Recent events in Egypt highlight several key aspects of the Arab Spring movements: the importance of the economy and the realization that post Arab Spring countries must be accountable to their people. Fundamental issues here, beyond the battle between conservative Islamists and liberal democratic supports, are improving Egypt’s economy and Morsi’s usurping of power. Leaders of other post-Arab Spring countries should heed the warning of Egypt and focus on economic growth and improvement, while avoiding taking steps deemed unconstitutional or dictatorial. These factors also help explain the countries in which Arab Spring movements have taken hold (those in the worst economic positions) and those where they haven’t (Arab Gulf countries, where the economies are stronger despite the level of civil rights being no higher).
- The different roles of the military: Egypt’s military is both comprised of all Egyptians through compulsory national enlistment and distinct from the executive government. Libya’s army relied upon foreign mercenaries within its ranks and answered solely to Gadhafi, and the leadership of Syria’s army is primarily from the Shiite Baath elite who are part of Assad’s inner circle. In contrast to that, Egypt’s military has been central twice now in the last 2.5 years in overseeing a relatively swift and low-casualty transition versus other countries (Libya, Syria, Yemen) which have seen prolonged conflict as long-time dictators sought to stay in power at any cost.
- In Syria, the conglomerate of rebels and opposition groups fighting the Assad government and army stand to benefit from Morsi’s downfall. Firstly, critics claiming that the US and other Western countries should avoid helping Arab Spring opposition groups because they will only lead to anti-democratic, Islamist regimes have been muted. The Syrian opposition is in desperate need of outside support, and this could advance advocates of such an approach. Secondly, the Syrian opposition has lost significant momentum over the last two months due to a combination of Hezbollah’s combat involvement, Iranian and Russian-supplied weapon and battlefield defeats. The victory for the opposition in Egypt, which includes the youth who were central to the toppling of Mubarak, is a moral victory and momentum-changer throughout the region. Finally, domestically the Syrian opposition may point to the unity of Muslims, Christians, liberals, Salafis and the military in Egypt in seeking to recruit from the various minority groups in Syria who have yet to take sides against their government for fear of abuse.
- Egypt will turn inward—whoever leads Egypt going forward will focus on internal affairs, trying to improve an economic and development situation as well as (in the short-term) drafting a constitution which is acceptable to the nation, while withdrawing from the aggressive foreign policy aspirations of the Morsi-MB administration. As such, Saudi Arabia will only further entrench its position as the sole leader of the Arab world, challenged for leadership in the Sunni world only by Turkey. This could impact the American Middle East policy, which relied heavily upon its relationship with Egypt until recently.
- The US continues to look lost when it comes to the Middle East. After a baffling three years of repeated contradictions, missteps and a glaring lack of any coherent, consistent foreign affairs doctrine (contrast Libya and Syria for example), the US State Department and White House continued its direction-less approach in its immediate response to the changes in the Egyptian political scene. Despite a tumultuous year in which the long-standing close Egypt-US relationship seemed fragile, one would expect the Obama administration to be elated, or at least moderately happy to see Morsi ousted. Yet the opposite was true—as Egyptian protesters held signs expressing their dismay with the US government for supporting a leader who had overstepped his democratic and popular limits, the White House issued a number of lukewarm and even critical statements, ultimately depicting their displeasure with the military led ouster of an elected leader. The idea that America will fund a coup, but cut aid to a post-coup country is itself strange, but the mistake of continuing to side with oppressive leaders who are rejected by the vast majority of their citizens is an inexcusable error more than two years after the Arab Spring started. Popular opinion about America is already challenged enough in the Middle East; the current approach to foreign policy only figures to exacerbate the situation (and providing little advantages to the US as deposed MB leaders are unlikely to offer the US much benefit).
- US confusion here is even more inexcusable in light of the reaction of the various Gulf Arab governments: Saudi Arabia and the UAE have already pledged large sums (in excess of $8 billion, close to 4% of Egypt’s GDP) in support. Qatar remains the sole Gulf state to show support for the MB, and Qatar itself has been heavily criticized by the Arab Street (protests against Qatari intervention in Libya; mass resignations from the government-funded AlJazeera). Arab leaders were happy to see Morsi go, yet the US still struggles to get the memo.
- The aforementioned results spell bad news for Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist political hopefuls in the post-Arab Spring countries. Without economic results or by abusing executive powers they may too find themselves on the outside looking in.
- The Muslim Brotherhood itself in Egypt may be at a precipice as well. Although the country itself is unlikely to split into a civil war à la Syria or even Libya (military is stronger and more committed to stability, Egyptians have fewer sectarian or tribal differences and are mostly divided over conservative or liberal leanings), the MB itself finds itself in a defining moment, for which it can blame its own leadership. The Ikhwan in Egypt as an Islamist group has focused on gaining control of the government through populist support. But after decades lurking in the shadows waiting for a string of dictators to fall, the MB seemed to have their chance—and blew it. After the rapid fall from electoral success to being ousted by the clear majority of Egyptians within only one year, the Egyptian MB leadership has to be divided not only over who to lead the movement going forward and who to blame for their failures, but also on how to proceed going forward. Choosing to leave Morsi in office until the end was a strategic error which has set back their chances of returning to office. The possible fracturing at the top will be exacerbated by dissension within the ranks of MB supporters, who are split over those dismayed over the outcome but committed to non-violence and those who have already shown a preference for a violent approach to protesting political change. In light of the deadly clashes this week the chances for a passive MB retreat are further reduced, and indeed the MB has refused offers by the interim government to be given new positions in the government and a new chance. The MB at the leadership and grass-roots levels is likely to continue its path of fracturing, with the Salafi and more moderate groups most likely to stand to benefit.
- The overall effect of the MB decline in direct involvement in the Egyptian political scene will only exacerbate the security situations in the Sinai and Gaza, which were tenuous under Mubarak and have deteriorated ever since. Radicals who were kept moderate in hopes of achieving political appointments under an Islamist government are likely to flee to the Sinai, where terror groups take advantage of the security vacuum to move freely. Without a strong Islamist government in power, Egypt’s influence over Hamas in Gaza will also be reduced, and both Palestinian and Egyptian terror groups could take advantage to target Israel.
Overall, the situation is one that stands to benefit most Egyptians, residents of other Arab Spring countries and (more remotely) Western interests as well, although in some cases (e.g. Gaza-Israel) the security situation may constitute a negative side-effect. As always, the key is a proper, contextualized reading of the situation.
As my wife says, Egyptians have a new greeting this year: Ramadan Mursi! We can only hope that next year’s Ramadan will bring both greater economic and political stability, for Egyptians and all of us in the region.