Egypt’s Military-Rule Dilemma
from Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Program and Markets and Democracy in the 21st Century

Egypt’s Military-Rule Dilemma

With fresh political violence erupting ahead of elections, Shibley Telhami points to new polling data showing Egyptians are concerned the military is attempting to undo the gains of the revolution.

November 21, 2011 3:40 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Only a week before the start of parliamentary elections in Egypt, Cairo has been hit by massive demonstrations (NYT) calling for an end to military rule, in place since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in February. Though the military-appointed civilian government has resigned, it is unclear whether the ruling military council will retain power (AP). Shibley Telhami, an expert on the Middle East, says his latest poll of Middle Eastern attitudes (PDF) shows 43 percent of Egyptians believe the military is working to reverse the gains of the revolution. He says the military maintains "a reservoir of goodwill" because Egyptians want "a powerful and leading Arab state," but multiple segments of society remain concerned about its intervention in politics. About a third of those polled said they would vote for an Islamist party, and no current presidential candidate received more than 20 percent of support.

You were in Cairo two weeks ago. Are you surprised at the rather violent demonstrations of the last several days in Tahrir Square?

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Not entirely. Many people, including those close to the military in both Alexandria and Cairo, were concerned that in the lead-up to the elections there may be violent protests. And the issue of the constitutional amendments was the big one already. You have now multiple segments of society who are challenging the military’s political power, and the opposition is coming not from one source--initially the liberals were the most aggressive in wanting the early transfer of authority to civilian control. Now you find opposition among Islamists, who organized the latest demonstrations, but you also find it among many Christians, specifically after the confrontation several weeks ago that led to the death of several Copts (LAT).

At the time of Mubarak’s ouster, the military was very popular, wasn’t it?

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Elections and Voting

Gallup (PDF) did a poll in the spring and the overwhelming majority, I think it was 90 percent, showed confidence in the military.

And what did your poll show?

It showed that 43 percent now believe that the military is working to reverse the gains of the revolution, while only 21 percent believe that they are working to advance it.

It is rather extraordinary that we now see evidence from this poll, which was conducted in six cities in Egypt, that indicates a plurality of Egyptians now think the military is working against the goals of the revolution.

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And why is that? What has the military done to lose confidence?

There are a number of reasons. One is that a lot of people are frustrated that there has not been a transition to civilian administration sooner. They believe the military is trying to consolidate their power. Some of the military’s proposed constitutional changes give the military the only point of decision-making on anything related to the military establishment, thereby putting themselves above government. That is worrying a lot of people. Third, the reintroduction of the emergency law was really worrisome to a lot of the liberals. There have been a number of confrontations that have soured relations between the military and some segments of the public.

Regardless of who is to blame, there’s no question that that had an impact on the perception of the military. The military has suffered a setback in the eyes of the public over the past several weeks. They still have a reservoir of good will. A lot of Egyptians actually are invested in the military as an institution because they envision Egypt to be a powerful and leading Arab state in the Middle East and they think they should have the military power to go with it. The public’s concern is about the military’s intervention in politics. When I was in Egypt two weeks ago, I heard that from different segments of society. Certainly, the ultraliberals are frustrated; they want far more rapid movement toward civil control, but even many people in the center are worried. And certainly the Islamists have been worried about the way the military is moving, which was obviously evident in the demonstration on Friday that they called for.

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Elections and Voting

What does your poll show on who would win the parliamentary election? Everyone assumes the Islamists are the best organized. Does the poll show that?

What we do in the polling is to document trends. First of all, when we are measuring attitudes, we don’t know who the likely voters are; this is a new experiment in Egypt. We know in the United States that when we measure attitudes we measure likely voters. In Egypt, we don’t know who is going to ultimately vote. We are measuring attitudes in general.

Second, when people go to vote, they often vote based on family and clan and individuals and people they like apart from ideology. Having said that, we did ask if the elections were held today, whether they would vote for the Islamic party, the liberal party, an Egyptian nationalist party, a pan-Arab party, or some other party. What we found is that roughly a third say they are going to vote for the Islamic party. Now it may, in practice, turn out to be more, because we know the Islamists are more organized, and they provide services particularly in the rural areas and therefore they could do better. Roughly 30 percent say they will vote for some liberal party. And then you have some who say they will vote for a pan-Arabist party, some say they will vote for the Egyptian nationalist party, and some are uncertain.

Did you ask about the presidential election, which right now is not due to occur until 2013?

We asked, "If the next president of Egypt had to look like one of these following personalities, which would you rather him be?" The number one answer by far was the Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Interestingly, we also asked them which country would you want Egypt to look like politically, and again the number one answer was Turkey.

Turkey is the biggest winner clearly in the Egyptian mind. The Egyptian public aspires to a country closest to Turkey; they aspire to have a president closer to Erdogan. And when I ask them specifically, "If the elections were to be held today for whom would you vote?" no one gets a majority. Number one is still Amr Moussa [former Egyptian foreign minister and head of the Arab League] with roughly 20 percent, followed closely by Mohamed ElBaradei [former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency] followed closely by Ahmed Shafiq, who was a former prime minister who came out of the military establishment.

Does Turkey gets that much popularity because Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party is an Islamic party that’s not too rigid?

Turkey wins for more than one reason. One reason obviously is that it has managed to find a balance between its Islamic character and democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood may not be entirely happy with that model, but the public seems to like this model more than any other. Number two, the Turkish economy is doing well--they are growing at 5 percent--and many Egyptians who go there for vacation see what is happening there. And third, Turkey has found an assertive foreign policy that resonates with the public, particularly on the Israel-Palestine question. That Middle Eastern assertiveness and independence resonates well with the Egyptian public.

And when you ask people, what do they say about the Untied States?

From 2009 to 2010, the attitudes of people polled in six Arab countries--Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon, Georgia, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia--toward the U.S. went south. The year 2010 was the lowest measure--only 14 percent had a "hopeful" view of the United States. It may be because we did the 2010 poll right after the Gaza-Flotilla incident [in May], which angered many people, and because expectations were so high of the Obama administration after his Cairo speech [in 2009] in which he reached out to Arabs and Muslims. That year, 47 percent of Arabs were "hopeful" about the United States. The views of the United States remain negative, but they are less negative than they were in 2010. This year, 20 percent of Arabs say they are "hopeful." The Arabs are a little bit warmer toward Obama than they were a year ago, and, interestingly, there is a sense that they like him personally but that he cannot carry out what he really wants given the American political system.

Did you ask their attitudes toward the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty?

Egyptians are divided very strongly on this issue. A little more than a third say they would like to see the treaty cancelled, about a third would like to keep the treaty, and the other 40 percent really don’t know or are uncertain. When you ask, "What if Israel does sign a peace treaty with the Palestinians and have a two-state solution?" you have a number of people who want to keep the peace treaty increase a little, but only to about 41-42 percent


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