A year is a long time in politics, especially those of contemporary Egypt. In June 2012 the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) appeared to be firmly in the saddle. Acting in league with elements in the Supreme Constitutional Court, it prorogued parliament and then unilaterally amended the constitution, bolstering its powers while undermining those of the about to be elected President. In the ménage à trois of officers, Brothers, and “secular” oppositionists, the latter two were in a tactical embrace to oust the former. At the time, however, that seemed a rather fruitless liaison, for the military seemed to be in an unassailable position.
Fast forward to June 2013 and the central focus of Egyptian politics has become the political life or death struggle between the Brothers and the opposition, as symbolized by the massive protest scheduled for the last day of the month, which marks exactly a year since Mohamed Morsi was declared the winner of the presidential election. For all intents and purposes the SCAF has been disbanded, but in the new ménage à trois both Brothers and oppositionists are courting the military as an ally against one another. Whereas in June 2012 the Muslim Brotherhood’s popularity was strong and rising and that of the SCAF’s and the military’s more generally was sinking, by June 2013 popular support for the military has come to dwarf that of either the Brothers or the oppositionists. Leading opposition figures have for months been calling for officers to overthrow the Brotherhood. For its part the Brotherhood has coddled favor with the military by providing constitutional guarantees for its powers and privileges, deferring to it in matters of national security, and permitting if not actually facilitating its further expansion into the civilian economy. By appearing to be above politics, the military has succeeded brilliantly in restoring the nation’s faith in it while expanding its latent powers and positioning itself to be at least a pro-active political referee and, if need be, an actual political player.
The reconfiguration of Egypt’s political ménage à trois has perpetuated, even accelerated deterioration of the country’s polity and economy. The thrust following the January/February 2011 uprising to subject the military to democratic control has not only been blunted, but replaced by widespread preferences for it to play expanded political and economic roles. The process by which the constitution was drafted and promulgated as well as its actual content, to say nothing of recent decisions by the Supreme Constitutional Court casting doubt on its legitimacy, point to the lack of fundamental consensus necessary for constitutionalism to rest on this particular document. One by one the country’s venerable institutions, including parliament, the judiciary, local administration, the cultural and educational establishment, to say nothing of the vital domestic security forces, have been rent asunder by struggles to control them. The nation’s economic resources have similarly been thrown into the political fray in vain efforts to achieve political hegemony. Both public and private sector economic institutions and actors have sustained grievous blows from which recovery will be difficult and protracted.
Egypt, in sum, has been debilitated over the last year. Confidence has been lost in civilian political actors as they have demonstrated manifest inability to reach consensus and govern effectively. The inevitable corollary of civilian failure is the growing desire for the military to assume yet more direct roles in running the polity and the economy. Since that institution bears more responsibility than any other for Egypt’s endemic political and economic failures, the calls for it to grab once again the reins of power are a measure of the depth of despair and the degree to which the country has strayed from a viable development path.
This disastrous outcome raises the question of responsibility. Clearly there is plenty of blame in Egypt to go around. The military selfishly sought to preserve its privileges rather than to facilitate a democratic transition. It then went to the political sidelines to await further developments which it may seek to exploit for its own gain. The Muslim Brotherhood dramatically overreached in its efforts to use its perches in the state to subordinate others to its will, engendering profound resentment and hostility in the process. The opposition, if frequently heroic and inspired, was extraordinarily dilatory in organizing, building internal consensus and effectively strategizing. The fragility of the country’s institutions of politics and governance and the need to nurture them was insufficiently appreciated by all.
Washington also bears some of the blame for the sad events of the last year. Like key Egyptian actors, it was focused less on a democratic transition than on securing its own interests. In Washington’s case those interests are overwhelmingly of a security nature, whether vis-à-vis Israel, the Gulf, or Islamist radicalism. As the primary provider of services related to those security interests, the military has naturally been the United States’ principal Egyptian ally. The secular opposition has shared fewest interests with Washington, for it was from among its ranks that calls for civilian control of the armed forces and for transitional justice arose, to say nothing of direct criticisms of US policies in Egypt and the region more generally. Added to the lack of shared interests was the opposition’s weakness. Thus, for Washington the opposition was potentially both an awkward and a relatively useless ally. As for the Brothers, they were much more appealing to Washington. They offered domestic political strength and a certain amount of legitimation of the United States before the Muslim world, to say nothing of providing civilian underpinning for the continued preeminence in national security affairs of Washington’ preferred actor, the military. Washington cared very little about the price to be paid for the military-Brotherhood alliance’s political ascendancy, which included the former’s expanded economic role, its operation beyond civilian oversight, and the Brotherhood’s authoritarianism and intolerance.
So over the last year the Washington—military—Brotherhood menage à trois has come to replace the opposition—military—Brotherhood one that prevailed through June 2012. This arrangement has become increasingly awkward for Washington, however, as the Brothers have weakened and the opposition has strengthened. For the moment, however, Washington is sticking with it, although shrouding its dealings in as much secrecy as possible. Secretary of State Kerry’s very quiet approval of the $1.3 billion in military assistance for next year is a case in point. Another case in point is Ambassador Anne Patterson’s efforts at “mediation” leading up to the scheduled 30 June demonstrations. Ostensibly reaching out to the opposition, such as by visiting NGO offices, including that of Saad al Din Ibrahim’s Ibn Khaldun Center, her message has been that the opposition should abandon efforts to mobilize against the Brotherhood. For its part the Brotherhood has reciprocated in vital areas of security concern to Washington. It moved in lockstep with the Obama Administration into an anti-Syrian posture as the latter declared its intent to provide arms to the Syrian opposition. Simultaneously it stopped playing political footsy with Iran. It has maintained, even intensified the blockade of Gaza, as exemplified by the flooding of tunnels. And it appears to be in the process of redirecting Egypt’s primary security concerns away from Israel toward distant Ethiopia.
The last year then has been a long one in Egyptian politics. The “secular” opposition was squeezed out of the informal ruling ménage à trois, essentially replaced by a Washington that is determined to preserve its security interests in the country. But the profound failures of the government have undermined its legitimacy, reopening the door to the opposition and causing Washington much discomfort. Direct rule by the military would be awkward for Washington to countenance, but it remains wary of the opposition. So, for the meantime the Obama administration is hoping that the crisis will pass and that the Brothers and the military will continue to cohabit government, with the opposition remaining just that.
In that none of the three Egyptian actors has sufficient power to govern in its own right and that even a coalition of two is unlikely to be stable, the only long term solution possible is one provided by an inclusive coalition that would pave the way for a real democratic transition. But this would require civilian control of the armed forces, which in turn would require at least a tactical alliance between Islamists and “secularists,” an alliance that now seems further away than an alliance between either and the military. So, political stability- to say nothing of democracy- are a long way off, with the next year likely to provide as many surprises as the last, if not necessarily any fundamental change in the lamentable status quo. Clumsy interventions by Washington will exacerbate, not improve the situation.
[The views expressed herein are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.]