Academic journal article Current Politics and Economics of Africa

Egypt in Transition *

Academic journal article Current Politics and Economics of Africa

Egypt in Transition *

Article excerpt


As Egypt begins parliamentary elections and the writing of a new constitution, Egypt's political landscape has become both simultaneously clearer and more complex. For observers, it is clearly evident that two forces have become the main political players in Egypt-the military (Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces or SCAF) and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).

Though these groups are considered rivals1 and often clash over setting the ground rules governing the transition, their relationship, at least in the short term, is symbiotic-both camps need to cooperate in order to build a more democratic political system that is both publicly accepted and internationally legitimate.

For both the SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood, the question is whether they can cooperate long enough to achieve a smooth transition amidst a massive economic downturn, rising crime, unreasonably high public expectations2, sectarian conflict, and tensions with Israel.3

Beyond the SCAF and Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's political emerging political landscape is extremely complex, with a broad array of new parties and coalitions as well as remnants of the former regime vying for influence. Youth activists and protest movements, though they remain the conscience of the revolution, have largely dispersed amongst a plethora of different groups, significantly diluting their power to organize mass demonstrations or compete in elections. Even the Islamist camp has become more dynamic than in the past; the Muslim Brotherhood now finds itself competing with Salafist parties, former Islamist terrorist organizations, former youth Brotherhood activists, and centrist Islamists.

For the United States, Egypt's transition is a daunting challenge that presents few good options. Since fairly early in the so-called Arab Spring, the United States has been a vocal supporter of Egyptian democracy and is wary of being perceived as backing an increasingly unpopular military-led government, particularly as the SCAF tightens its grip on the opposition by extending the emergency law, cracking down on Coptic protests, continuing its arrests and detention of activists, and even suggesting that it might take a more direct role in the constitution drafting process. According to Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton, "If, over time, the most powerful political force in Egypt remains a roomful of unelected officials, they will have planted the seeds for future unrest.... Egyptians will have missed a historic opportunity."

Egypt's revolution, and the rampant anti-American and anti-Israel sentiments among the newly enfranchised public, may also have made the United States and even Israel more dependent than ever on the Egyptian military leadership. The SCAF is a close U.S. partner based on decades of military-to-military cooperation formed on the basis of the 1979 Camp David agreement. Yet, Egyptian public opinion is overwhelmingly hostile toward Israeli government policies, and various militant groups have attempted to destabilize the Sinai Peninsula by using it as a base of operations to conduct attacks inside Israel, to sabotage gas pipelines leading from Egypt to Israel and Jordan, and to increase arms smuggling activities there. Without the Egyptian military's firm commitment to maintaining Camp David, there is concern that other Egyptian actors would not be as supportive of maintaining even a cold peace with Israel.

Other options for U.S. policymakers are not much better. Many observers are concerned that Islamist and leftist nationalist groups, though they may engage diplomatically with the United States, may not value the very close U.S.-Egyptian relations that were a hallmark of the Mubarak regime. What U.S. engagement with Egyptian Islamists will look like in the months and years ahead is uncertain and depends on decisions by both sides. Some U.S. officials have already conducted meetings with party representatives from the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). …

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