from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

Egypt’s Dangerous Finger Pointing

March 28, 2012

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the ruling SCAF have been exchanging public recriminations this week. The Brotherhood has charged that the military is stalling the revolution, seeking to rig the upcoming May presidential elections, and will delay the handover of power to civilian rule by July 1, despite SCAF statements to the contrary. The SCAF has responded with an unprecedented statement, accusing the now legal Muslim Brotherhood of “false allegations” that challenge the integrity of the military.

Finger pointing at such a volatile time in Egypt is not what the country needs. Playing this blame game not only reflects an abdication of responsibility by parties now holding real power, but is also very effective in altering public perceptions.

Witness the outrageous campaign waged against foreign non-governmental organizations beginning last December by Fayza Aboul Naga, the minister of international cooperation. The minister accused various civil society groups of illegal activity and suggested that the United States was using these non-governmental organizations to subvert the revolution and serve U.S. and Israeli interests. Egyptian authorities soon after referred sixteen Americans and twenty-seven other NGO employees to stand trial on charges that include illegal use of foreign funds and fomenting unrest.

Several days ago, the Gallup organization released a poll that showed that Egyptian popular attitudes toward the United States deteriorated significantly in the period after Aboul Naga launched her anti-U.S. campaign. According to the poll, the majority of Egyptians--56 percent--now see closer relations with the United States as bad for their country. This is a marked increase from the 40 percent who shared that view three months ago. The manufactured NGO event and its attendant accusations of U.S. meddling succeeded in deflecting blame for Egypt’s ills externally.

What this demonstrates is that the ability of leaders in Egypt to shape public opinion remains extremely strong today. When government demagogues accuse organizations trying to help Egypt’s democracy efforts of being U.S. and Zionist counter-revolutionary agents, anti-U.S. sentiment rises.

This is an extremely volatile time in Egypt. Its constitution-writing committee met for the first time this week despite the withdrawal of liberal parties from the process, leaving the Islamists in control. The withdrawal of these largely secular groups could delegitimize Islamist dominance over the constitution writing process, and possibly lead the SCAF to intervene to ensure that the constitution reflects the plurality of Egyptian society. With the first post-revolutionary presidential elections to be held in just two months, now is the time for responsible civic discourse, not public invective.

Given the responsiveness of public opinion to those with power and access to the media, it is incumbent on the SCAF and the Islamists in parliament to engage and/or disagree sensibly. Egypt’s greatest challenges are still ahead, and only responsible leadership will successfully overcome the country’s myriad difficulties ahead. Mud-slinging works. But it leaves everybody dirty.

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