from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Where is Egypt Heading?

July 26, 2015

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The past week has brought two interesting comments on the situation in Egypt.

The first is from Robert Springborg, formerly of the Naval Postgraduate School, and appears on the web site of the Middle East Institute here. Some key passages:

The military under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s leadership is seeking to rebuild the Nasserist bully state, which was itself in many ways a reconstruction of Muhammad Ali’s version of the same. Maybe it will be a case of third time lucky, but that is unlikely, and not only because military state building has twice failed. The constraints on military state building in 2015 are much greater and the opportunities much fewer than in 1952, to say nothing of 1805. Projection of Egyptian power into the region is not only far more difficult, but as polls show, now opposed by the majority of Egyptians, at least as regards sending expeditionary forces into either Libya or Yemen. Assertion of a breast-beating independence à la Nasser is similarly difficult for Sisi when the national economy is kept afloat by the Saudis, Emiratis, and Kuwaitis. Flirting with Moscow now seems weak rather than bold. Rumors of discontent with Sisi’s leadership within the military grow as the economy flounders and the political system remains in deep freeze. There is and can be no equivalent to the Nasserist ideological agenda. The officer republic has so hollowed out civilian state institutions that they barely function.

In way over its head, the military is simultaneously trying to manage the economy, reconstruct the political system, conduct a counterinsurgency campaign, modernize its own forces, and devise a consistent foreign policy, all without substantial civilian input....Visibly in charge of the state, the economy, public security, and indeed, everything, the military will be held to account for the ever more evident shortcomings. As state decay under military tutelage progresses, onetime terrorists are morphing into insurgents, claiming to be inspired by the Islamic State’s dream of establishing an alternative to the Egyptian state, an unthinkable proposition even for the radical jihadis of the 1990s, to say nothing of the Muslim Brothers.

More than two centuries of Egyptian state building is now under threat. External support for the Egyptian military only perpetuates the inappropriate model it has perpetrated, further encouraging it to dismiss civilians and to pursue rents rather than to attempt to build a state based on a ruler-ruled relationship that both generates economic surplus and legitimates its extraction. The relationship between the Egyptian military and state is turned on its head, with the latter reporting to the former rather than vice versa. The task facing Egypt is thus to reverse this relationship and so terminate once and for all the national myth of military as state builder.

And at the end of the week, the Working Group on Egypt (of which I am a member) sent Secretary of State Kerry a letter whose text is found at the web site of POMED, the Project on Middle East Democracy. As the letter began, the Group wrote to Kerry "to urge you to seize the upcoming U.S.­­–Egypt Strategic Dialogue as an opportunity to press the Government of Egypt to end its campaign of indiscriminate repression in order to advance a more effective strategy for countering violent extremism." Our goal is to "fight militants with effective military and law enforcement means, while ending repression of political rivals and critics, including in civil society and media. Repression produces the grievances on which violent extremism feeds and therefore moves Egypt further away from the stability and security it desperately needs."

What is the problem that Egypt faces? "Violence in Egypt today comes in three main forms, all of which have been increasing in frequency and severity: sophisticated large-scale attacks carried out by well-organized militant groups, mostly based in Sinai; cruder small-scale attacks carried out by angry individuals or small groups; and violence carried out by government security forces, directed not only at violent extremists but also toward political opponents or critics of Sisi and his government."

Here is the danger, the letter continues:

State violence—several thousand killed during street demonstrations, tens of thousands of political prisoners, hundreds of documented cases of torture or forced disappearance, sexual assault of detainees or family members, reported collective punishment of Sinai communities possibly with weapons provided through U.S. military aid—is creating more incentives for Egyptians to join militant groups. The government crackdown on the press and civil society, as well as recent and proposed presidential decrees criminalizing peaceful protest and free expression, are closing off the political space necessary to counter violent extremists effectively. President Al-Sisi’s pledge to accelerate death sentences handed down against individuals in highly politicized trials that fell short of internationally recognized fair trial standards could further inflame the situation. By carrying out a campaign of repression and human rights abuses that is unprecedented in the country’s modern history, and by closing off all avenues of peaceful expression of dissent through politics, civil society, or media, Al-Sisi is stoking the very fires he says he wants to extinguish.

The letter urges Kerry to use the Strategic Dialogue to discuss these matters and further suggests that he avoid giving any praise to Egypt beyond what is "precisely accurate and warranted" lest the regime "try to use the Strategic Dialogue as a sign of U.S. endorsement of its current repressive policies."

In the past American policy often elevated "stability" in Egypt above all other goals there. When Mubarak fell, it should have been apparent that the place was far less stable than we had thought. Today again, we hear a lot about the need for stability there--usually leading to the argument that we should just keep quiet and back Sisi. But Springborg is right: the military has taken over the state entirely and is responsible for everything. As he wrote, the Army is "simultaneously trying to manage the economy, reconstruct the political system, conduct a counterinsurgency campaign, modernize its own forces, and devise a consistent foreign policy, all without substantial civilian input....Visibly in charge of the state, the economy, public security, and indeed, everything, the military will be held to account for the ever more evident shortcomings." That’s no formula for stability.

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