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Islamists and Egypt's Future

Interviewee: Ed Husain, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, CFR
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
December 8, 2011

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With the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party leading Egypt's parliamentary polls, CFR's Middle East expert Ed Husain says he is not surprised by the trends because the Brotherhood, the country's oldest and largest Islamist organization, was well prepared while the liberals who led the revolution in Tahrir Square were not. On concerns over whether the Islamists will uphold democracy, he says the real threat comes from those secular, liberal elites, who don't want to see a Muslim Brotherhood or Islamist-led parliament. "They would much rather have the former regime, or military rule, or cancel the results of the elections, or postpone them rather than see Islamists in power."

If the current trend continues in the next two rounds of elections, it would mean that the Muslim Brotherhood--backed or opposed by the Salafis--will be the leading voice in the first parliament elected since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. Are you surprised by any of this?

Not really. In February, when people were more or less excited about the rise of a secular, liberal elite emerging from Tahrir Square, I wrote in the Financial Times that it would be the Muslim Brotherhood who would benefit. Simply because the structures of other political forces in the country--except Mubarak's old party, the National Democratic Party--had been completely wiped out over the last forty years. The Twitter and Facebook elite are able to mobilize only in Cairo in Tahrir Square, but they don't have a leadership, resources, a national voice; they don't have a political network, and they [didn't] have a message other than wanting to get rid of President Hosni Mubarak.

Now they want to remove the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The only surprise--not only for outsiders but also for people inside Egypt--is the rise of the right-wing Salafi movement and the huge number of people who have voted for it.

How do these parliamentary elections, which will go on for another two months, translate into who runs Egypt? When will we have a civilian government that is not controlled by the military?

We are headed for a showdown because the people will have legitimately elected a parliament. Sovereignty rests with parliament, and therefore the parliament should appoint and dismiss the cabinet and not the military.

Egypt awaits two things: one, the ending of the process and two, an imminent declaration by SCAF about how much of their executive power they are handing over to parliament and to the cabinet. It's still very much up in the air, and there is a lot of debate and disgruntlement in Egypt now as to why there isn't clarity to the question you asked.

The SCAF appointed a prime minister, Kamal Ganzouri, and a new cabinet has been sworn in. Is this an important step?

Yes, but they've also said this cabinet will stay in place until the July elections for the presidency. So it's very much a confused state of affairs because we've had four cabinets already this year in Egypt. To put this cabinet in place and say they are in government now until the presidential elections in July, when we've just had parliamentary elections that are going to be concluding in January, gives the wrong message.

It's not in the Brotherhood's interest to maintain SCAF in power. What we will see is increased confrontation between the two in a way that ensures that SCAF is given a back door through which to exit the political stage.

What we've seen previously is that when the masses mobilize in Tahrir Square, the military government gives way. [Even] a week is a long time in Egyptian politics, so we will have to wait and see what the interplay between Tahrir Square, the SCAF, the newly elected parliament, and the cabinet will be in the coming weeks and months.

What is the relationship historically between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military? I'd think that would be crucial.

Yes, and again that's very much a cloak and dagger relationship. There is no direct evidence of a relationship between the two, and it is in their interest not to put out in the public domain evidence of a direct relationship.

But if you're the SCAF and you want to control what goes on in Tahrir Square or elsewhere, the only force inside the country that can mobilize a million people at the drop of a hat is the Muslim Brotherhood. So just out of pure strategic reasons to control the masses, there will be a relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and SCAF. That is a given even though the Brotherhood will deny that.

When the Tahrir Square protests reached a new height two weeks ago and the SCAF was beginning to become really concerned about the numbers there and the Interior Ministry started opening fire and killing people, the Muslim Brotherhood made a calculation that it could either return to the square on that Friday two weeks ago, or refrain from confronting SCAF publicly and do well at the ballot box. In hindsight, we can now see that the Brotherhood did indeed decide to follow [the latter] course.

It is not in the long- or short-term interest of the Brotherhood to support SCAF. One, [there was] the Algerian experience where the Muslim Brotherhood's offshoots in Algeria were massacred by the military junta. And two, the Muslim Brotherhood last came close to power in 1954 on the back of the Free Officers revolution, and it was let down by the military. The military then said, "Thank you for your support, but we will go and do what we want to do." This was led by Gamal Abdel Nasser who was then a cadet of the Muslim Brotherhood. What we will see is increased confrontation between the [Brotherhood and SCAF] in a way that ensures that SCAF is given a back door through which to exit the political stage. The contentious issue is whether the SCAF will continue to want some kind of immunity about its own budget and its own money that it doesn't necessarily want to disclose to the public.

What about the presidential elections? Is there a candidate you are enthusiastic about or are they all just vestiges of the old regime?

Most of the candidates are in their fifties or older. They are not the people who represent the trend that overthrew the previous regime. They are a legacy of the Mubarak years. If I had to choose someone from the current batch and I was Egyptian, I would go for Abou el-Fotouh. He's like Rachid Al-Ghannouchi, the current leader of the Tunisian Islamist party, closest to the Turkish model.

Given the outcome of the parliamentary elections, [which is] an indication that the Egyptian public wants some kind of Islam in the public domain, there's no point in the United States backing Mohamed ElBaradei [former head of the IAEA] or Amr Moussa [former head of the Arab League], thinking that they will win and restrain this fervor for religiosity in Egypt.

The man that can respond to that and keep the Salafis and others at bay seems to be Abou el-Fotouh, who has broken with the Muslim Brotherhood. Support for Abou el-Fotouh does two things. One, it puts in a liberal from the Islamist school, and it challenges the Muslim Brotherhood to then support someone who broke away from them rather than support Mohamed ElBaradei or Amr Moussa.

Egypt receives significant U.S. aid and Congress--which has to appropriate the money--tends not to be enthusiastic about Islamist governments. How do you see the future of U.S.-Egypt relations if there is a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated parliament and someone formerly from the Brotherhood as president?

Assuming this is what happens in six or seven months time, the onus will be on the Muslim Brotherhood to assure the U.S. public that it doesn't harbor the same fanatical kind of worldview as Hamas. So the responsibility is on the Muslim Brotherhood, and a presidential candidate or a new president, to reassure the U.S. public, both in words and deeds that it will uphold the Camp David agreement between Israel and Egypt in 1978, which led to the peace treaty in 1979, that it will not be committed to Israel's destruction, and that it will recognize Israel as a state.

The United States risks further isolating itself and minimizing its influence in the region by heading for a showdown with the elected parliament of the Egyptian people..

There will be debates about Israel as a Jewish state because they won't be prepared to concede that, but then it is up to the United States, especially Congress, to appreciate that Israeli and U.S. interests aren't served by marginalizing or trying to sanction Egypt or angering eighty-two million Egyptians. The strategic calculation is simple. The United States risks further isolating itself and minimizing its influence in the region by heading for a showdown with the elected parliament of the Egyptian people. It makes greater sense for the United States and Israel and the Egyptians to recognize the reality on the ground and try to maintain the status quo while working toward a Palestinian state.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already issued a statement saying the elections in Egypt must not set back democracy (AP). You don't think the Muslim Brotherhood would try to crack down on the press and discriminate against women ?

No. They've gone out of the way to repeatedly make all the right statements on press freedom, on freedom of expression, on transparent government; and they have not called for some type of Iranian- or Saudi-style Islamic government.

But Hillary Clinton is right to caution, and that caution goes not to the Muslim Brotherhood but to other elements in Egyptian society. One, the former regime elements who see this as power being taken away from who it rightfully belongs to, i.e., Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP); and two, the secular, liberal elite who don't want to see a Muslim Brotherhood or Islamist-led parliament. They would much rather have the former regime, or military rule, or cancel the results of the elections or postpone them rather than see Islamists in power.

So this illiberal, undemocratic form of secularism that just wants to be against Islamism risks putting NDP plus these new type of secular extremists in Tahrir Square, together with a third element which is an anarchist, communist presence, almost like an Occupy Wall Street mindset. Some two hundred and fifty tents are there on permanent basis. These three elements combined risk the outcome of the election and therefore throwing the country into chaos again. It's up to these three elements to realize that it's in Egypt's long-term interest that the democratic process and the results it produces are respected and worked with.

A recent poll by the University of Maryland showed the U.S. popularity is quite low and Obama's standing is not very high in Egypt. Did you find this to be accurate in your recent trip to the country?

There's a lot of suspicion in the air about foreigners of all hues in Egypt. The United States, because of its close relations with the Mubarak regime, is held in suspicion; also its backing for Israel is held in suspicion. But there is an impulsive response when pollers ask Egyptians about the United States.

Egyptians go into this automatic default mode of being critical, and I don't think we should take that too seriously. Look at the numbers of Egyptians learning American English, wanting to come to America to study, the popularity of Hollywood movies, the wearing of jeans, the ubiquitous presence of McDonalds and Starbucks, American cars, all of this indicates a deep connection between Egypt and the United States. But what the Egyptians have a problem with is U.S. foreign policy.

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