What next for Egypt?
February 19th, 2014
11:09 PM ET

What next for Egypt?

By Avi Asher-Schapiro

This month marks three years since Hosni Mubarak resigned as Egypt’s president. But what does the future hold? GPS intern Avi Asher-Schapiro speaks with Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center and author of the forthcoming book Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East, for his take on what to look out for.

What do you make of the current political climate in Egypt? Are we in the midst of a democratic transition or witnessing the return of authoritarianism?

You have to be patient with democratic transitions in general. The problem in Egypt is that there is no democratic transition at all. So there’s really nothing to be patient for. If you believe that autocracies like the current military backed government in Egypt are by their very nature not permanent, then yes Egypt will eventually get better. But there’s no real reason for optimism at this moment; I don’t think patience is much in order.

So we have to start asking: how bad can things really get in the short term? How long can a military regime in Egypt last? And how ugly will its removal or fall be?

Was the optimism that surrounded the overthrow of Mubarak misplaced?

Three years ago, many Egyptian were understandably optimistic about their political future. In retrospect too optimistic, but they had good reasons to be that way. It was going to be difficult and messy, but the basic trajectory was in a positive direction. But once the military coup took place over the summer [when the military deposed Muslim Brotherhood elected President Mohammad Morsy] it was inevitable that you would see the subsequent events: mass killings and repression.

What do you make of the head of the Egyptian armed forces Field Marshall Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi? Many are predicting he will run for President of Egypt. What’s your take?

El-Sisi has no choice but to run now. He will face a public backlash if he chooses not to. There’s so much desire for a strongman figure, for him not to run would undermine his popularity and long-term credibility. This, of course, is the danger with populist sentiment.

El-Sisi himself is responsible for drumming up a frenzy of popular support and he actively pushed and encouraged the myth-making. He created his own monster. The problem when you play with public sentiment is: what happens when you lose control?

But really his candidacy is inevitable and there are no civilian alternatives who people are excited about.

So should we expect a military government in the long-term?

The current popular sentiment in Egypt goes something like this: a military government is not ideal but we have no other alternative. In my view, there’s a real political culture problem here. Egyptians tend to look to the military as a kind of savior in tough times and there exists an obsession with the state – capital S. Egyptians see a lack of stability and they turn to the state as a protector, in particular to the military. This is all despite the fact that the Egyptian military has registered very few tangible successes since the 1950s. You would think after decades of failure, Egyptians would wean themselves off this notion. But that hasn’t happened yet.

Just a year ago, the Muslim Brotherhood governed Egypt. Now many of the group’s leaders are in jail while the rank-and-file protest the military-backed government. What’s next for the movement in Egypt?

It’s clear that the Brotherhood has no short term future in Egyptian electoral politics because the new military-backed regime will not let them back in. In my view, the Brotherhood is beyond the point where it will accept a few seats in the next parliament as consolation. They were in power, that’s the baseline here.

I do see a potential gap between the leadership of the Brotherhood and the grassroots rank-and-file. Many of the latter see continued protests as their only way going forward. Even if the leadership wanted to tell the grassroots to give up the fight, to stop protesting, there’s a degree of inflexibility on the street level.

But I don’t think the Muslim Brotherhood can be destroyed. Historically, it’s a largely cohesive hierarchical organization with strong loyalty on the part of its membership. They have a tradition and mythology of self-sacrifice they are willing to do that for many years to come.

Egypt’s economy is struggling. Tourism is faltering and this past week the Ministry of Finance reported that overall investment was down 7.3 percent. GDP growth has fallen to just 1 percent. Does the current government have a plan to fix the economy?

We know that the Egyptian military isn’t good at running an economy. We’ve seen that under military rule in 2011 and 2012. Part of the problem is the military is bound by populist sentiment, and it’s just too risky to go against it. It’s very unlikely that the sitting government will feel comfortable angering a broad swathe of Egyptians when it comes to tough issues like subsidy reform and structural adjustments. The big picture here is we can’t separate the economic issues from the political. If you have political instability, it undermines the government’s economic policy and visa-versa.

In the meantime, Egypt has been leaning on Gulf countries for economic support. While that aid is critical, it’s not a solution for long-term development. Gulf aid is just budgetary support which plugs the short-term gap. Egypt needs strong, confident, bold leadership to address its economic problems and I don’t’ see that coming anytime soon.

How would you rate the Obama administration’s approach to Egypt?

First of all, the U.S. hasn’t had an Egypt policy to start with. There isn’t even a semi-coherent approach to Egypt and there’s no willingness to develop one. This stems from the administration’s overall philosophy. They don’t want to be more involved in the region; they want to be less involved. Their thinking is: engage where we must and disengage when we can.

We know that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has called Field Marshall El-Sisi over 30times since the coup last summer. But those calls are divorced from any broader agenda. The Obama administration has never been serious about applying real pressure on Egypt and that’s why we have yet to see a discussion about suspending any significant amount of aid for any reasonable amount of time.

What should be U.S. policy objectives going forward?

A less autocratic, less repressive, more inclusive Egypt should be a priority not just because of the moral aspect; a more autocratic Egypt means a less stable Egypt in the medium to long-term. Egypt can only be stable if the government is inclusive, responsive, and accountable to its own people. Autocracies can seem stable. But that is an illusion that won’t last forever. It’s only a matter of time until these “stable autocracies” begin to fall apart. That should have been the main lesson from the Arab Spring, but unfortunately that lesson hasn’t yet been learned.

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Topics: Egypt

soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. Joseph McCarthy

    I don't know what's next for Egypt but I do know what should be. Egypt is in dire need of a Socialist Revolution designed to lift the people out of their poverty since poverty was the primary cause of the 2010 uprising against the horrific Mubarak regime. Hosni Mubarak cared absolutely nothing for the plight of his own people as he himself was an Islam aristocrat who catered to Washington D.C.

    February 20, 2014 at 4:45 am | Reply
    • sgtrock101

      Exactly how did he cater to the USA?

      March 4, 2014 at 2:25 am | Reply
  2. j. von hettlingen

    "What next for Egypt"? Unfortunately the generals, especially Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi don't have a good answer. They seem to lack a long-term strategy for their country and opt for short-term gains – to secure the military power. And to irk Washington!! Sis visited Putin last week! He might want to give the impression of rekindling the ties that Egypt and the former Soviet had during the Cold war. While in Moscow, Putin gave Sis his support in running for president.

    February 20, 2014 at 8:54 am | Reply
  3. Drew

    Morsy should be hanged first. Elimination of these Muslim Brotherhood Islamists will pave the way for a true and secular democracy in Egypt.

    February 20, 2014 at 10:15 am | Reply
    • Klaus77

      I agree with you Drew, let's set the example for the people, as I think they really expect the death penalty for the heads of the MB. This would send out a good message to any other Islamic fanatics,

      February 21, 2014 at 4:28 am | Reply
  4. Sam

    I agree with the notion that the Brotherhood is the main reason for the failure of the up-rise in Egypt. They arrogantly steered the nation to advance the cause of an international organization instead of what's good for its people. It is unfortunate that CNN consults with an obviously biased expert. The military leadership with all it's flaws became more acceptable and inclusive than this organization which is spreading terror after it miserably failed to lead.

    February 21, 2014 at 7:43 am | Reply
  5. azza radwan sedky

    I disagree with the general tone of the interview. The army has fulfilled the people's will. Egyptians could not have gotten rid of Morsi any other way. He would've stuck to the chair forever, not even after he finishes his term. From that perspective Egyptians believe that Sisi is their saviour.
    I also don't see an army-led government in power; however, even if it is an army-led regime, Egyptians are totally convinced that that scenario beat the Morsi one.
    Please read: "Why do Egyptians revere him so?" http://azzasedky.typepad.com/egypt/2014/01/why-do-egyptians-revere-him-so-1.html

    February 21, 2014 at 11:02 am | Reply
  6. azza radwan sedky

    This post I wrote after the Rabaa standoff was dispersed by force. See "World: please explain to me your notions on freedom and democracy" http://azzasedky.typepad.com/egypt/2013/08/world-please-explain-to-me-your-notions-on-freedom-and-democracy.html

    February 21, 2014 at 11:09 am | Reply
  7. Moustafa

    I agree with most of the interview; specially the last part. . If some people hated Morsi, it was very simple to get rid of him; just win elections against his party. Attract people's votes inside the ballot box, rather than supporting a tyrannical military coup that pulled Egypt to much worse totalitarianism than Mubarak's and abandoned the newborn democracy. Is their hatred to the Muslim Brotherhood much bigger than your love to liberty and a free Egypt? They could have easily competed with them in a civilized elections and then people vote to whomever they prefer. Which Egyptians you claim to represent while you actually supported a military coup against their democratic choice?!!!

    February 21, 2014 at 11:43 am | Reply
    • sgtrock101

      As reported by Al Jazera, Morsi was implementing Sharia laws and regulations on to Egypt. To wait till the next election is to wait till never.

      March 4, 2014 at 2:26 am | Reply
  8. swilts

    Most of the comments on here are inane. Does anyone really believe that the death of morsi will solve Egypt's economic problems? Does anyone here have any concept of the complicity of Egypt's teal issues and the intransigence of the deep state there? There are no simple answers and for sure el sissi has none. Egypt needs taking apart and rebuilding via a free-market system where business and investment are the prime drivers of change. To believe it can come from a government with their vested interests is like whistling in the wind

    February 23, 2014 at 5:49 am | Reply
    • sgtrock101

      That will never happen. Many of the strategic industries are owned by the military as a way to finance the military. Free markets are always the norm in Muslim countries. Go to any market and see if you can pay full price for anything. The strategic items, food, water, gasoline are in the hands of the government and prices are held artificially low to allow the most poor to survive. A total free market in these strategic items would cause a revolution more violent than any seen to date.

      March 4, 2014 at 2:31 am | Reply
  9. an eye for an eye until the whole world is blind

    What's next for Egypt? Riding around, in circles, on camels, confused, lost, wallowing in chaos, murdering each other in rage, beating about the bush in confusion, wishing for a better situation, but descending into despair........... sad, sad, sad........... and to think that their Pharaohs once built those awesome pyramids............. :(

    February 24, 2014 at 3:22 pm | Reply
  10. mariajolicoeur

    I am leaving a comment I feel should be in the future for Northern Africa and Africa, that comment is; fruit bearing trees, (Apple ,Plum, Apricot, Peach, etc. ) be planted. I believe this would greatly help the conservation efforts for that area.

    February 26, 2014 at 10:35 am | Reply
  11. Love Egypt

    What is the name of book of the lady guest at gps this morning I want to buy the book "the square" I was not able to catch the name of the author .can i find it at amazon

    March 2, 2014 at 2:51 pm | Reply
  12. Freedomlover

    If anyone that should be hanged it is Sissi who massacred thousadnds of peaceful demonstrators and freedom lovers. It is the military gangs that control the economy and does not allow free market. Morsi came through elections. The so-called generals would kill anyone to keep stealing from the people.They would never allow any real democracy. The Criminals (Generals) are lost now trying Russia , Gulf state and any one that would help putting money in their pockets because they know that their days are numbered.

    March 3, 2014 at 7:43 am | Reply
  13. Bill

    Obama's policy is repeated again and again in his international dealings: Do nothing. Things fall apart world wide and Obama just watches. Where Bush was overly aggressive, Obama has been excessively negligent.

    March 6, 2014 at 4:00 pm | Reply
  14. Rick McDaniel

    Getting control of all the Islamists in their country. That will be a really major challenge.

    March 6, 2014 at 5:23 pm | Reply

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