Egypt’s Troubled Road

by Wayne White

The arrest of many senior Muslim Brotherhood (MB) leaders and the banning of the organization are the latest blows in what appears to be a relentless campaign by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government to deny the Brotherhood any future role in Egyptian politics. The MB’s continued defiance has driven the military to bear down even harder, but the new regime can do little to divest the Brotherhood of its popular base. Also of concern are various moves that smack of a calculated effort to return to Mubarak-style military rule, this time centered upon el-Sisi. Meanwhile, despite generous Arab Gulf financial support, a deeply troubled economy, poor governance, and repression will most likely cause many Egyptians to become weary of the new regime as events play out.

President Obama stated in his September 24 UN General Assembly address that future US support for Egypt “will depend upon Egypt’s progress in pursuing a democratic path.” Yet, despite several sharply negative developments along those lines over the past two weeks, Obama so far has resisted cutting off US military assistance. Key administration officials believe all such aid should be suspended except for a portion related to bolstering security in Sinai, and such a recommendation reportedly has been with the President since August. Reluctance to crack down on the new Egyptian regime on the part of not only Washington, but the West more broadly, probably has emboldened el-Sisi.

For now, Egypt’s foreign aid situation is relatively rosy thanks to lavish financial assistance from Arab Gulf states like the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia since Morsi’s fall. In fact, el-Sisi felt comfortable enough financially to return $2 billion to Qatar in a pointed gesture of dismay over Doha’s generous assistance to the Morsi government (the exact amount transferred to Egypt yesterday by Kuwait). In contrast, however, violence and uncertainty continue to discourage investors. With so many multi-national corporations (including Chevron, BP, General Motors, and BASF) closing operations in Egypt or taking investments elsewhere, roughly 25 percent of Cairo’s best office space is now vacant.

The Brotherhood and its popular following have done little to encourage el-Sisi & Co. to ease up. The MB’s core leadership is unlikely to abandon its disciplined focus on the establishment of Islamist rule. This ideological agenda almost certainly led to MB excesses under Morsi. Despite occasional pragmatism during Morsi’s tenure in office, for the most part the Brotherhood revealed its intent to ram home its doctrinal goals, shoving opposition aside.

Since Morsi’s ouster, the outbreak of Muslim extremist violence against army and police cadres in Sinai (and some in Egypt proper) has probably infuriated senior military commanders. Attacks on Coptic Christians, their businesses, and churches, plus reports of localized threats of more should security forces drop their guard, could sustain sufficient public outrage against the Brotherhood for el-Sisi’s government to retain substantial support for quite a while despite its own increasingly authoritarian behavior. Pro-Brotherhood students have revived anti-regime protests since the opening of the school year on the 21st, warning of a return to the days of Mubarak. Still, the Brotherhood’s own credibility has been reduced because Morsi too allied himself with the military. And, quite simply, many Egyptians at this point just yearn for the return of some semblance of stability and “normalcy” after over two years of turmoil.

Permitting Morsi to chat with his family for the first time earlier this month has been of little consolation to the Brotherhood amidst other harsh measures. Morsi apparently is still to be tried for inciting the killing of protestors as well as potential charges relating to alleged slander against judges and supposed involvement in Hamas prison attacks during the anti-Mubarak uprising back in 2011. Additionally, 18 members of the MB’s most senior “Guidance Bureau” (along with its high profile spokesman), hundreds of mid-level cadres, most of its legislators and provincial governors under Morsi, plus over half of Morsi’s planned legal defense team have been taken into custody.

And then on the 25th, two days after an Egyptian court banned “all activities” of the Brotherhood on the 23rd, security forces closed the offices of the MB’s flagship newspaper “Freedom and Justice,” confiscating equipment and furniture. State owned al-Ahram printers claimed it would continue to publish the Brotherhood’s daily (which apparently has not been produced in the building seized), but only if its length is reduced by half and its circulation cut ten-fold.

Despite el-Sisi’s July statement that he has no political ambitions, a group of professionals and former army officers initiated a petition on the 23rd urging him to run for president. A major effort to create an al-Sisi personality cult has been underway for quite some time with huge al-Sisi posters plastered everywhere, fawning TV coverage, pro-military pop songs and videos, as well as talk shows featuring discussions on whether el-Sisi should run for president (with positive conclusions). And a military spokesman did say back in early July that doing so would be possible if el-Sisi retired. Amidst all this, there have been arrests of Egyptians for spraying anti-Sisi graffiti and even a farmer for naming his donkey el-Sisi and riding it through his village.

Plans also are in motion to draft either a new constitution (or substantial amendments to the one passed hastily by Brotherhood parliamentary representatives) that seem to include doing away with the ban against Mubarak-era officials serving in public office. And the new or revised constitution will be prepared by a 50-member committee chaired by former Mubarak Foreign Minister Amr Moussa. The committee contains only two Islamists–neither from the Brotherhood.

Over the short-term, el-Sisi and the military obviously will be in the political driver’s seat. Western condemnations have been relatively restrained (probably hoping—so far in vain–for el-Sisi’s behavior to improve). And, with extremists on the rampage in Sinai, the Brotherhood also having ruled abusively, and the extremist problem growing in places like Syria, East Africa, and Iraq, many governments could view watching & waiting as the least risky option at the moment.

Farther out, however, the situation in Egypt could worsen once again. The military’s current path seems to lead back to neo-Mubarak authoritarian rule. If so, Egyptians will gradually sour on el-Sisi, as military-dominated governance entails a return to restrictions on freedoms, rampant official corruption, institutional dysfunction, and lack of transparency. Right now, the Brotherhood is reeling from the multiple blows it has suffered since July 3, and its leadership has been seriously disrupted. However, hundreds of thousands of its most fervent adherents might not remain on the sidelines under such a regime (especially after having tasted national power). So, if al-Sisi cannot be persuaded to change course, economic stagnation, various other ills, rising popular dissatisfaction, and eventually yet another major Egyptian political crisis could lie ahead.

Photo Credit: Mohamed Azazy

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.