Egypt’s Tense Political Standoff

Hillary Clinton’s trip highlights the diplomatic challenges ahead with Egypt as President Morsi and the military engage in a struggle for power, says expert Shadi Hamid.

July 11, 2012

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.

More on:


Elections and Voting


Egypt’s newly elected President Mohamed Morsi sparked a standoff with the country’s army when he called into session Egypt’s parliament, which had been shuttered by the military a few days earlier. Though the parliament only met briefly and disbanded after agreeing to appeal the Supreme Court verdict that led to the closing, the incident made clear that "there’s a real lack of legitimacy," says Egypt expert Shadi Hamid. The question facing post-Mubarak Egypt is whether the current tensions can "change into a situation where both sides back down and make concessions," says Hamid, who adds that "both sides have an interest in learning to live with each other because neither side is strong enough to defeat the other." As for "dismal" U.S.-Egypt relations, the Obama administration must deepen U.S. "engagement with the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups," says Hamid. "It’s a very important part of what the U.S. has to do here."

Is Morsi on a confrontation course with the Supreme Council of the Armed (SCAF) and the Supreme Court, or does the fact that the parliament met for only a few minutes before disbanding indicate a compromise is being worked out to avoid a serious confrontation?

We’re talking about confrontation right now. There’s no doubt about that. The question is, can what is currently a confrontation change into a situation where both sides back down and make concessions?

Can you answer that question?

Egypt is in a curious situation because, first of all, no one is entirely sure who has the right to do what. This has been a problem with Egypt’s entire post-Mubarak transition. There’s a real lack of legitimacy. When the Court does something there’s a question about the legitimacy of the Court’s decisions; when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces does something, there are questions about SCAF’s legitimacy. The same for the parliament. And everyone has competing legal interpretations that support their side.

Talk a bit about Morsi’s calling back the parliament.

It was a full power play. It was a risky decision, and it was in some ways surprising. It came very early in Morsi’s term, and it was just about the most controversial thing he could have done. But he chose to do it, which suggests he wanted to send a strong message to his opponents that he was not going to be a ceremonial president and that he was going to use the office of the presidency to confront SCAF. However things end up over the coming weeks, it’s fair to say that this is going to be a stronger, more assertive presidency than many people expected.

Is that good for Egypt?

Stronger and more assertive doesn’t necessarily equal effective or successful. Morsi could very well fail, and his move could be remembered as a fatal example of political overreach. Only time will tell. That’s why this was a risky decision for him to make. One way to look at it is that it is what the Bush administration used to call "constructive instability." An example of this is when someone does something very aggressive, not knowing what the ultimate result will be, with the intention of inserting something new into the environment to see what happens.

It is high risk, high reward. It can either lead to a very good result or to a very disastrous one. But it’s fair to say that there now is movement in Egyptian politics. Both sides have an interest in finding a mid-range solution; both sides have an interest in learning to live with each other because neither side is strong enough to defeat the other. Inevitably there’s going to have to be some kind of temporary arrangement.

What about the military’s thinking?

However things end up over the coming weeks, it’s fair to say that this is going to be a stronger, more assertive presidency than many people expected.

What was most troubling to SCAF wasn’t necessarily the content of Morsi’s [parliament] move but the procedural aspect of it, because he did it unilaterally and without their consent. But if you had talked to me one week ago and asked me what was the potential compromise between the military and Morsi, I would’ve said something along the lines of what Morsi did: that the old parliament would be temporarily reinstated until early elections were held. So the military gets something it wanted: the election of a new parliament that would have significantly less Islamist representation. But the Brotherhood led by Morsi also gets something it wanted--to deprive SCAF of having full legislative authority during a very critical phase of transition. So the outline of a temporary arrangement is out there.

What is the state of the economy in Egypt? Is it as bad as everyone seems to think?

It’s pretty bad. There’s a real risk of a currency devaluation, and the military-approved budget for the upcoming fiscal year is not a great budget. There’s a question of whether Morsi will be bound by the budgetary decisions of his military predecessors. Another key question is the IMF deal: Will Egypt be able to reach an agreement with the IMF to release 3.2 billion dollars in urgently needed loans? That’s going to be very important for opening up additional investment. Investors are jittery about Egypt; they don’t want to come in unless they have a positive incentive. And the IMF loan is precisely that indication. It’s not just about the $3.2 billion. The problem is there isn’t political consensus in Egypt about the IMF loan. Everyone is vaguely in favor of it, but different groups are either for or against different conditions, and that’s why the IMF has been holding back until now.

Plus, you don’t really know who’s in charge, who actually negotiates the IMF loan. Is it the military? Is it the Brotherhood? Is it the parliament? Is it some combination of the three? And that’s where economic progress in Egypt is directly linked to the question of political legitimacy. Without political legitimacy, it’s going to be difficult for Egypt to have an economic recovery.

Secretary of State Clinton is expected in Egypt this weekend for talks with Morsi in Cairo and a speech in Alexandria. What is the state of US-Egyptian relations? They seem pretty dismal right now, but is that an exaggeration?

The word "dismal" is about right. The NGO crisis, which came to a head in February and March, was one of the all-time low points in the U.S.-Egypt relationship. And the U.S. decision there [to accept Egyptian conditions allowing Americans to depart Egypt, but leaving Egyptian workers imprisoned] set a very dangerous precedent because the message a lot of people in Egypt got was that if you stand up to the United States, the United States is going to back down. And the United States did back down and essentially left Egyptian civil society to its own devices in its ongoing confrontation with the military rulers. It’s very hard to undo that damage, because now whenever the US tells any Egyptian leaders "we want you to do x, y, and z, and if you don’t do it then the aid package might be suspended," no one is going to take us seriously because our threats always turn out to be hollow.

What SCAF did late last month was just about one of the biggest violations of a democratic process imaginable. It’s very difficult to think about what more they could’ve done. They reinstated martial law, dissolved the democratically elected parliament, and deprived the presidency of many of its powers, all in the span of about a week or so. If that doesn’t force the United States to reconsider the aid package, then what will? That’s one thing. I don’t really see how Secretary Clinton can open a new page with her Egyptian counterparts. I don’t think the U.S.-Egyptian relationship is going to improve significantly any time soon, and I don’t think we can really expect any surprises or innovative policy proposals to come out of the Obama administration anytime soon.

What do you think will happen?

We’ll have an amicable meeting with talk about economic cooperation and so on. But this isn’t about one meeting or two meetings; this is about the Obama administration taking a step back and coming up with a real vision and strategy for Egypt that puts the short term to the side and thinks about where we can and want to be five or ten years from now.

Is such thinking going on in Washington?

Even though the United States and the Muslim Brotherhood have major policy differences, that doesn’t mean we can’t have a working relationship that benefits both parties.

I don’t think that strategic thinking is really going on in the administration, partly because it requires personal engagement from Obama himself and Secretary Clinton, and it doesn’t seem until now that they have been very personally engaged on Egypt. Their attention has been elsewhere, certainly for Obama on domestic policy and his reelection campaign. So no one should expect a lot, but at the very least, what the United States can do is send a strong message that we are willing to work with and engage with Islamist parties if they are democratically elected, and even though the United States and the Muslim Brotherhood have major policy differences, that doesn’t mean we can’t have a working relationship that benefits both parties. That is a message the Obama administration has been trying to send, and we should continue sending it and deepening our engagement with the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups. It’s a very important part of what the US has to do here.

Secretary Clinton is going to have to dance around the issue of the dissolution of parliament; she’ll be arriving in Cairo presumably at the height of this crisis if it’s not resolved in the coming days, so everyone will be parsing her position on that. Frankly, it’s not acceptable that SCAF retains legislative authority for the next six months or however long it takes. At the same time, if Secretary Clinton speaks out on the need for there to be a parliament, then she’ll be perceived as siding with the Brotherhood.

Soon after Morsi was elected, he said he would appoint Christians and women to significant cabinet positions. But he hasn’t announced the cabinet, and there’s no vice presidents or prime minister yet. Why the delay?

Morsi is negotiating with the military council, with liberals, and leftists, and he can’t just choose whoever he wants, especially to lead the sensitive ministries, so that makes it difficult to come to an agreement. But also there’s also a problem here where not everyone Morsi is reaching out to wants to serve in his government. Things are so uncertain--especially for liberals who are very angry at the Brotherhood now--that many of them are unwilling to be part of a cabinet being led by a Brotherhood figure. Yes, Morsi has talked about appointing a Christian or female as vice presidents, but the question is how much power they would have, so that has to be worked out. Everything has to be worked out. No one knows how much power anyone else is going to have.The president doesn’t even know how much power he’s going to have, so that level of uncertainty makes negotiations that much more fraught.