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What’s Next for Egypt?

The Muslim Brotherhood, which won the presidency Saturday, sees itself as a corrective to modern Egyptian life

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Egyptians celebrate the election of their new president, Mohamad Morsi, in Tahrir Square on June 24, 2012 in Cairo, Egypt. (Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

What’s going to happen in Egypt now that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi has been elected president? That’s the question weighing heavily on everyone’s minds—perhaps no one’s as much as Benjamin Netanyahu’s.

Morsi’s victory has brought at least a temporary calm to Egypt. Even the country’s moribund stock market responded, jumping 7.5 percent Sunday, which perhaps reflects a mood less like optimism than relief. A crisis that could have brought Morsi’s supporters and the army into conflict has been averted for now.

But, in addition to certain conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army—its preferred candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, lost by 3 percentage points—there is lots of bad weather in the forecast. Perhaps most troubling is the Egyptian economy. Tourism is way down. Western travelers, as well as Arabs seeking respite from their more austere Gulf countries, will wait to book their tickets until they see if calm is really restored and whether the Brotherhood implements measures against alcohol and other pursuits. Foreign currency reserves are dwindling, and to sustain food and gas subsidies Cairo is now dependent on handouts from an international community that simply doesn’t have the cash on hand. And though some observers, including perhaps American allies or even a few U.S. officials, might be hoping that the military is simply biding its time until it’s apparent to all that the Brotherhood is incapable of managing the country—at which point they will step in and overthrow Morsi—the reality is that the army has misplayed its hand repeatedly over the last 15 months.

What a bitter pill this is for the United States and American interests. More than a decade after Osama Bin Laden’s attack on the United States—which Morsi believes was an “inside” job—the late al-Qaida leader’s spiritual godfathers are now ruling the most populous country in the Middle East and one of Washington’s regional partners—at least up until now. “There is a lot Egypt could do to complicate things for the United States,” says Martin Kramer, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and an expert on Islamist movements. “There’s the Suez Canal, overflight rights, and Egypt has been crucial for military contingency planning.”

Then, of course, there’s the peace treaty with Israel, which U.S. legislators on both sides of the aisle have held up as one of the great achievements of American statesmanship. Morsi has promised to respect “Egyptian commitments and treaties,” but many fear that the days of the cold peace that Hosni Mubarak maintained with Israel for 30 years are over, especially now that Gaza, ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood’s ally Hamas, is heating up. Morsi denies that he has called for closer ties with Iran, but the restoration of a bilateral relationship that Mubarak shelved may be only a matter of time since the Brotherhood and the regime in Tehran both back Hamas.

The cold peace that has existed since Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin shook hands in 1979, Kramer explains, “had a lot of predictability about it. Before that you had an armistice and no lines of communication that produced the 1956 and 1967 wars. The cold peace may deteriorate into a 1950s style armistice, with periodic outbursts.” What’s more, says Kramer, “the conflicts will not be settled in bilateral channels, or even a trilateral one, with the U.S. presiding, but will wind up at the U.N., like in the ’50s.”

So, how did it come to this? A revolution that inspired so much hope in so many, not just in Tahrir Square, but around the world, has ended in a victory for that Middle Eastern political party that stands in starkest contrast to the young, tech-savvy, and ostensibly liberal-minded revolutionaries who toppled Hosni Mubarak. The Brotherhood had even promised they weren’t going to field a candidate for the presidency. It was a mistake to believe it, says Kramer: “Islamism is not about political quiescence, but the acquisition of political power.”

Morsi’s victory illustrates the enormous divide between the young revolutionaries and the rest of their countrymen. These mostly upper-middle-class activists seem to have been so isolated from mainstream Egyptian society that they had no idea what other Egyptians—those who don’t speak English, who don’t vacation in the United States and Europe, who don’t have computers, let alone accounts on the Internet, who don’t pride themselves on their secularism—think about the world.

But nearly everyone else, including the governments of Saudi Arabia and Israel and the U.S. Department of State, had long warned that opening Egypt’s political system would empower Islamists. If anyone still believed that was a long shot, the evidence came in the winter and early spring when the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party won 47.2 percent of the recently dissolved parliament. Some have argued that the Brotherhood’s lackluster performance in parliament proved to Egyptian voters that the organization was incapable of governing, which is why the presidential race was so close and augurs poorly for the Brotherhood in future elections if it doesn’t rule wisely. However, it’s worth recalling that Morsi was the Muslim Brotherhood’s second choice. Their leading candidate, Khairat al-Shater, a millionaire widely believed to be the outfit’s master strategist, was disqualified from running in April. The fact that the Brotherhood’s man off the bench won 51 percent of the vote is evidence of its political strength as well as its historical prestige.

Founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, the organization’s roots reach back ever further. The Muslim Brotherhood is the blossom of the Muslim reform movement, touched off by Napoleon’s 1798 conquest of Egypt. There are two core ideas shared by all of the early Egypt-based Muslim reformers. The first was that contact with the West (specifically military conflict) had shown the Muslim world to be weak. The second was that Muslim revival would not come by imitating the West, but rather by shedding the non-Islamic practices that had accreted over the last hundreds of years and restoring Islam to the true path as set down by the prophet Muhammad. Because Western science and military technology had proven superior on the field of battle, it was permissible to use that knowledge but not the West’s secular values—lest Muslims face a spiritual crisis similar to that of modern Christendom.

The obvious blind spot of thinkers like al-Banna is that they never understood that it is precisely those secular values—like freedom of thought and speech—that made the West dominant. Optimists might point out that by participating in an electoral process the Muslim Brotherhood has also, even if unwittingly, endorsed Western values. However, the reality is that elections themselves are simply processes. As we have seen throughout the years—from Hitler’s victory at the polls to Hamas’ in Gaza in 2005—elections give no indication of whether or not a ruler will govern in accordance with democratic values.

Let’s put aside for a moment the question of how a Muslim Brotherhood presidency might affect Egyptian women, or the Coptic Christian minority, or press freedom—matters that, in fairness, did not much concern Mubarak either. What we know about Egypt’s Islamist movement is that it has been forged on the anvil of conflict, not just in its contention with the West (from Napoleon’s conquest through the British occupation to the founding of Israel), but also in its struggle against Egyptian society.

The Brotherhood, as the culmination of the Muslim reform movement, is the embodied critique of modern Muslim communities. The lands of Islam were inferior to the West because of how Muslims practiced Islam. The problem then is not that this well-oiled political machine has never actually governed a country or managed an economy, or that its practical political theory is derived from a 7th-century desert utopia ruled by the prophet of Islam. The real issue is that the Brotherhood perceives itself as a corrective—not simply to the Mubarak regime, but to the way ordinary Egyptians have conducted their affairs for the last half millennium or so. This is the Brotherhood’s ideological core, which may well spell disaster not only for the rights of women and minorities, but also for millions of other Egyptians.

Morsi has said that he is the president for all Egyptians. The question is how, particularly in the middle of an international economic meltdown, he can reconcile more than 80 million Egyptians to the Brotherhood’s rule. What has made the organization attractive for all these years is not its vision, its policies, whatever those turn out to be, but rather resistance, negation, a dynamism built on the foundations of conflict. Morsi will likely have little choice in the matter: To manage an Egypt perpetually on the verge of chaos, he will have to project internal conflict outward. In due time, Egypt will make war either on itself, or on Israel.


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Meanwhile the West thinking it can control Morsi and the Brotherhood will flood Egypt with money and arms which will advance the Brotherhood’s war footing for the future. The only rational thing to do would be to cut off aide and to see where Egypt takes herself. But on the other hand, China and Russia are standing in the wings to take over the vacuum left by the USA. This situation takes a truly good international chess player. Unfortunately the present US administration has no idea what it is doing and has propelled the Middle East toward a devastating new war. None of this is good.

I suspect that now that the genie is out of the bottle, we are going to see civil strife spreading throughout the Arab world. It will get much much worse. I’m not certain we could have stopped this. I’m not sure we should have. We should not be arming any factions. Indeed. Until we see how this all comes out, we should not be providing any further military aid to any Arab state.

Mr Mel says:

Now they’ll do what they do best – kill each other.

    What’s your point yevka? That the Muslim Brotherhood is a group of Progressive Liberal’s in disguise? That the Sharia & Jihad platform is really codewords for protection of minority rights and a willigness to get along with others?

yevka says:

The day I go to the Weekly Standard for reliable views is also the day I’ll subscribe to a stack of Rupert Murdock’s tabloids.

mahatmacoatmabag says:

Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph.
Exodus 1:8

    Right, but did the prior “Pharoh’s” know Joseph either? Remember, it was a ‘cold’ peace with Egypt for 30+ years and that absence of normalized relations came from directives from the top.
    This was the same Egypt that blackballed Israeli cancer researchers from attending the Komen conference in Cairo two years ago.
    This is the same Egypt who’s government TV studio put together the “Horseless Horseman” Ramadan series filled with anti-Semitic tropes.
    The government allowed this hatred to fester for three decades.

      mahatmacoatmabag says:

      Jacob, you are correct, however a cold peace with Egypt enabled us in Israel to devote more resources to other priorities rather than a large & very costly defensive posture along the border with Egypt. I am myself a veteran of the battles in the Sinai & later across the Canal during the 1973 Yom Kippur with Egypt. In fact nearly my entire military service after my 3 years compulsory service, was spent either in Sinai before the withdrawl, the Gaza strip likewise before the unwise withdrawl or along the border with Egypt after that . From the time of the Yom Kippur war till the Peace treaty with Egypt we kept both a large standing Army & a considerable amount of Active Reserves facing off the Egyptians. The peace treaty enabled us to drasticaly reduce this force & the economy of Israel benefited greatly from not having to bear the costs of keeping a large force constantly on standby. The monies freed up have gone in civilian projects as well as miltary R & D , such as drones, anti missile systems & advanced electronics. Now it looks that once again we will have to put large forces on standby along the Egyptian border just in case the new rulers of Egypt return to their old policy of making war on Israel to deflect internal strife & economic failure.

        Hi Mahatma,
        I totally agree with everything you said. Despite it being a cold peace, the military detante provided Israel with substantial help with its military issues and foreign policy.
        My point is while Israel was able to gain a (albeit relatively long 3 decades worth) military benefit, the decision by Egypt’s government to refrain from normalizing relations helped bring things to the point where they are today.
        My opinion was that Egypt got off easy. While its senior government and military professionals dealt with Israelis, the government did everything it could to continue to demonize and deligitimize Israel to Egyptians.
        Now, as you point out, despite Israel giving back the Sinai in its entirety, it finds itself back at square one with Egypt, the only question remaining is it square one at the point of 1973 post the Yom Kippur war, or 1948, with Egypt’s government working to figure out a way to ‘drive the Jews into the sea’.
        Of course, Israel’s need to put a major military force on its southern border essentially shreds the idea from UNSC#242 – land for peace.

          mahatmacoatmabag says:

          Jacob, since before the reestablisment of the State in may 1948 we have been surrounded by enemies, this has not altered. Despite Mubaraks hatred of Israel his Addiction to U.S. Aid was what kept Egypt in line. With the Muslim Brotherhood, Ideology may well trump rationality.There is nothing as ugly as the Arab Mob whipped up into a fervour & the MB is a master at such tactics, if the U.S. cuts off aid ( unlikely under Hussein Obama ) at some future date – you can bet your bottom dollar that the MB will blame Israel & the Mob will buy it , hook line & sinker.
          Wishing you & family – Shabbat Shalom – a peacefull Sabbath.

          The mob will buy it? I’m shocked, where’s Claude Raimes when you need him.
          Unfortunately, the reality is Egypt is a poor country, where over 40% of the population is illiterate. This is the same country that bought the claim that the Mossad was training sharks to attack swimmers off the Sinai beaches to ruin Egypt’s tourism industry.
          I have Israeli friends who grew up in the 1970’s tell me stories about them watching Jordanian TV and how there were daily news stories broadcast about great military victories against Israel (essentially they said that if the news stories were correct, Jordan wiped out the IDF 3x over) that just never occurred.
          That said, economics is a real issue for Egypt. I remember reading an interview back around 2004 – 2005 with Egypt’s minister of defense. The interviewer complained that Egypt was not militarily aiding the Palestinians and should invade Israel. The MOD replied that an invasion was expensive with estimates costing around $100.00 Billion. His response was “who’s going to pay for this war? You?!?” Hence it was a matter of pure $$$ and cents that kept Egypt’s military at home. Not only has the cost of war remained high, but Egypt’s economy is in shambles and forfeitting the $1.5 billion in annual aid (a likely outcome of any invasion) would be disasterous. So too is the fact that Egypt is facing water issues with potential pressure from both Sudan and Ethiopia over sources from the Nile. Unless the Sauds plan on bankrolling such an adventure (and the’re already lining up to face down Iran), I don’t see the MB making a full-frontal assault. But as we saw last night, it certainly will be ugly/stormy for the forseeable future.

          mahatmacoatmabag says:

          An excellent post by you Jacob, all the best to you, cheers !

      Cold peace is PEACE

        No Hannah its not. Certainly not in its full sense.
        Mahatma rightly pointed out that even the cold peace/truce, benefitted Israel.
        BUT. . .
        It didn’t provide Israel with the means to move from a hostile POV in Egypt to one of normalized relations, which is what was demanded of Egypt in the treaty.
        The hostile stance prevented Egyptians from ending their violent state towards Israel. It would be as if the US was ready to go to war with Japan or Germany in 1975. Peace means more than just not shooting.

Yes this is not the best of days for Israel or for hope of peace throughout Israel BUT, if some way, some how BiBi could truly make peace with this brotherhood, just think of how good that would be for ALL of the Middle East ??? Think of the Brotherhood shaking hands with BiBi ??? Think of how that hand shake would make the lives of millions of Arabs & Jews alike SO MUCH BETTER ??? Think of how these two men could go down in history as TRUE PEACE makers & true people of the middle east??? Think of it & think how really great that would be….

    Marty Susman in your wildness imagination what do you think BIBI could do make
    peace with the Muslim brotherhood please tell me

    No Marty, neither Bibi or Israel need to make peace with the Muslim Brotherhood. Israel did that with Egypt 30 years ago. The onus at this point lies within Egypt, not by Israel making more concessions to a group of violent extremists.
    You don’t get repeated do overs by making more demands of a neighbor and claiming that its the neighbors’ responsibility to make peace when they did everything you asked of them.


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What’s Next for Egypt?

The Muslim Brotherhood, which won the presidency Saturday, sees itself as a corrective to modern Egyptian life