With Egypt caught between a military reluctant to cede the reins of power and a recently elected Islamist president eager to take hold of them, a steady stream of senior American officials has landed in Cairo to nudge the two sides toward compromise. But by focusing on the struggle between ruling elites and their commitment to the peace treaty with Israel, Washington is neglecting Egypt’s larger problems — those that incited an apathetic population to overthrow a president in office for three decades.
Following the revolution last year that toppled Hosni Mubarak, the generals that replaced him forged an alliance with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood he repressed. The military sought to avoid the large-scale protests that paralyzed Egypt during the revolution.
The Brotherhood, the most organized of the country’s political movements, wanted to ensure speedy elections. To this end, the organization opposed demonstrations the military could use as pretexts to postpone balloting.
Following its impressive victory in parliamentary and presidential elections, the Brotherhood no longer needs the generals. Today the two are locked in a power struggle as the military seeks to shield its budgetary prerogatives and commercial fiefdoms from newly elected leaders eager to assert their authority. The military has never been encumbered by civilian oversight. And it runs hundreds of companies that churn out everything from vehicles to olive oil that rely on generous state subsidies a fiscally strapped government may seek to revoke.
In recent weeks, Washington has waded into the budding conflict. Last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Cairo declaring that “the United States supports the full transition to civilian rule.” Last week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta came bearing the same message, announcing that America is “committed to helping a sovereign Egypt complete the transformation to full civilian rule.”
Lost in Washington’s myopic focus on democratic transition is an understanding of the socioeconomic problems that brought Egyptians into the streets last year and how to help the country address them. For American politicians watching the revolution on television, the protests looked like pro-democracy demonstrations. But in Cairo’s Tahrir square, the reality was much different.
During the 18-day uprising Egyptians shared with me a litany of grievances ranging from a lack of affordable housing to poor health services. What united the disparate groups was exasperation with a Mubarak regime that had long lost touch with its citizenry, and instead enriched its political supporters.
Today, Egyptians are focused on purifying an ossified political system that prevents social mobility and is rife with corruption. Everything from securing a job to obtaining a driver’s license requires a bribe. Security reform is a priority for a people tyrannized by intelligence officials and police officers who spearheaded indiscriminate and unsystematic crackdowns. And in a country where a bloated, inefficient bureaucracy exists largely to absorb new college graduates with no other employment prospects, government services are poor to nonexistent.
Though Egyptians expected a post-Mubarak government to address these concerns, the military’s record is mixed at best. It was only too eager to acquiesce to demands to put the former president’s cronies on trial, given that these men were the generals’ primary adversaries. But the military council shielded its own business colleagues from prosecution.
A handover of power to the country’s new civilian rulers will not resolve the country’s dilemmas. In fact, it may only exacerbate them. The Brotherhood will certainly focus on reforming beleaguered institutions. But it will also seek to restructure the judiciary, which views itself as Egypt’s last defense against the Islamist onslaught that has inundated society.
As part of this campaign, the Supreme Court invalidated the recent parliamentary elections that brought the Brotherhood to power. To blunt the magistrates’ influence, the Islamists are bent on purging Mubarak-appointed judges who acquiesced to the state’s crackdown against them. Though the judiciary did at times facilitate the regime’s agenda, it also proved itself a vocal opponent, agitating for a clearer separation of powers.
As the military and the Brotherhood jockey for power, they are ignoring the reforms Egyptians demand. By focusing on the struggle between these two factions, Washington is facilitating this convenient omission. Instead of fixating on the transition of power, the United States should urge Egypt’s new rulers to better heed its disgruntled population.
Moreover, Washington’s constant queries about Cairo’s position concerning the peace treaty with Israel are self-defeating. If Egypt’s economic situation deteriorates, and the new government cannot meet the needs of its citizens, populist politicians will arise claiming they can. In the tinderbox that is Egypt, they will surely exploit a subject as sensitive as the Camp David accords to attract frustrated voters.
Egypt’s elected leaders are bound to stumble as they assume control after 60 years of authoritarian rule. Washington should be able to help them avoid the pitfalls. But if the United States continues to neglect Egypt’s structural problems, the country’s new leaders risk falling into the same traps as their predecessors.
Barak Barfi is a research fellow at the New America Foundation.