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CRS: Egypt in Transition

Author: Jeremy M. Sharp
February 8, 2012


This report provides a brief overview of the transition under way in Egypt and U.S. foreign aid to the country. U.S. policy toward Egypt has long been framed as an investment in regional stability, built primarily on long-running military cooperation and sustaining the March 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

To date, Egypt's year-old transition from military to civilian rule has been anything but smooth. Popular protests, sectarian violence, and clashes between police and demonstrators have all at one time or another threatened to derail the process. Since the resignation of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last year, nearly 800 people have died as a result of constant political unrest. Many indicators suggest that Egypt is far worse off economically now than a year ago. In this tense political atmosphere, minor disputes can trigger major unrest, and many analysts are cautiously watching Egypt's domestic politics for signs of potential instability.

However, it appears that in the short term, the two most powerful forces in Egyptian politics—the victorious Islamist political parties led by the Muslim Brotherhood and the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or SCAF—are negotiating, often behind the scenes, to bring about a transition to civilian rule by the summer of 2012. According to the latest transition timeline (which has changed multiple times in the past year), in the months ahead, the new Islamist- dominated People's Assembly will elect a 100-person Constitutional Assembly, which will then draft a new constitution. Should this document be written and then approved by popular referendum, presidential elections will be held in the summer of 2012, though the presidential campaign and the constitutional drafting will most likely overlap due to the short time allotted for each. If presidential elections run smoothly and the process goes as planned, Egypt's military will then step aside from day-to-day governance, and a civilian administration will resume executive authority, as defined by a newly revised constitution.

This SCAF-Muslim Brotherhood understanding is the direct result of political brinksmanship by both sides that had narrowly avoided unleashing prolonged mass unrest in November 2011. That month, SCAF spokesmen had attempted to interfere with the appointment of members to the constitutional assembly, a privilege specified for parliament according to the March 2011 constitutional referendum. The Muslim Brotherhood, which had anticipated an electoral victory and perceived the SCAF's move as a threat to their own power, responded by bringing tens of thousands of protestors back into the streets of Cairo on November 18. A day later, Islamists withdrew from the demonstrations content with their show of strength, but thousands of other Egyptians continued protesting, clashing with police when the latter attempted to clear Tahrir Square. Police-protester confrontations then dramatically escalated, resulting in several deaths, condemnation of the SCAF, and a subsequent concession by the military to accelerate the timetable for transition to civilian rule from 2013 to the summer of 2012. The SCAF's concession combined with the start of elections cooled public tensions.

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