Egypt at Crossroads: Reckoning with Reality
Andrei AKULOV | 21.08.2013 | WORLD / Middle East

Egypt at Crossroads: Reckoning with Reality

General Guide Mohammed Badie, the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, was arrested early Tuesday, August 20, in Cairo. A state of emergency is in force, hundreds of members of the Muslim Brotherhood have been detained over recent days with the Interior Ministry saying that bombs, weapons and ammunition have been seized. The turmoil following a crackdown on Islamists is on. A curfew is in place and the streets are deserted. But, at that, there is some return to normality in the capital with more people on the streets, businesses reopening and stock market operations resumed. Not a real silver lining, but still a ray of hope. The cabinet is discussing the crisis in the country. There is no unanimity. Prime Minister Hazem Beblawi has put forward a proposal for a new ban on the Brotherhood. He has taken a tough stance, saying: «There will be no reconciliation with those whose hands have been stained with blood and who turned weapons against the state and its institutions». If a new ban went ahead it could force the group underground and allow its sources of funding to be targeted. But Deputy interim PM Ziad Bahaa el-Din, a more liberal politician, put forward a proposal that would see an end to the current state of emergency, permission for political participation by all parties and a guarantee of human rights. On August 18 the head of Egypt's armed forces said that «there is room for everyone» in Egypt, including supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi. But he said they had to «revise their national position». Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Sisi also warned the military would not tolerate unrest. «We will not stand by silently watching the destruction of the country and the people or the torching the nation and terrorizing the citizens». Badr Abdelatty, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said, «The emergency law is just for one month and for one objective: fighting terrorism». According to him, «The only way to fight terrorism is to apply the rule of law, and some emergency measures for just one month, to bring back law and order».

The latest events have left the country deeply split, with many bearing deep grudges that the popularly elected Brotherhood-backed government was removed, and other Egyptians backing the military's efforts to reassert control. Critics of Morsi and his backers in the Muslim Brotherhood say the former President was acting like a dictator who had lost popular support, and thus he needed to be deposed in order to pave the way for new elections. There is consensus that the country is facing exceptional chaos and bloodshed or even civil war.

International response

The turmoil is spreading overseas. The EU is urgently reviewing its ties; an emergency meeting is at hand. The presidents of the European Commission and European Council, Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy, said in a joint statement that the violence «cannot be justified nor condoned « and that it was the responsibility of the military to end it. The EU has pledged several billion dollars in loans and grants to Egypt, but some countries are now calling for this aid to be frozen.

The 15-member Security Council was briefed on the situation in Egypt behind closed doors by U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson. The meeting was jointly requested by council members France, Britain and Australia. 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had a telephone conversation with his Egyptian counterpart Nabil Fahmy to discuss the latest developments in Egypt, the Foreign Ministry said on August 15. Egypt counts on Russia’s assistance in this trying time, Izeddin Shahin, press secretary of the Egyptian embassy in Moscow, told ltar-Tass on the same day. He said Egypt was living though extremely hard times and hoped that Moscow would give it assistance, just as it used to in the past. The relationship between the countries justifies this point of view. The number of Russian tourists who opted for Egypt as their getaway in 2012 rose by 30%. Trade turnover between Russia and Egypt rose to 3.5 billion dollars last year. Russia Russia-Egypt summit took place in the southern city of Sochi in April on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of bilateral diplomatic relations. There is an agreement reached on Russia’s support in the construction of Egypt's first nuclear power station at Dabaa near the Mediterranean coast and the development of the country's uranium deposits. Russian companies are offered lucrative contracts to develop onshore and offshore oil and natural gas. Russia is ready to cooperate with the Egyptian interim government and it never took sides in the Egyptian internal political struggle calling to abstain from the use of force. There is also a hope the Morsi-announced plans to intervene in Syria have become a thing of the past. 

On August 15 U.S. President Barack Obama announced he was cancelling the Bright Star joint military exercises with Egypt next month and suspending the delivery of a shipment of F-16 fighter aircraft saying normal U.S. cooperation cannot continue. The President stopped short of cutting off the $1.3 billion in annual military aid it supplies to Egypt. According to him, after Morsi was removed there remained an «opportunity to pursue a democratic path», Obama said. «Instead we've seen a more dangerous path taken». I’m afraid he’s got wrong advisers; the opportunity he mentioned was brought to naught by the Brotherhood, the group he actually defends. The US hotly defended Chechen terrorists in the 1990s, refusing to realize Russia and America were in the same boat till the 9/11’s «rude awakening» followed by other crimes like the one committed recently by Tsarnaev brothers. US Republican Senator John McCain told BBC News night that the ousting of President Morsi was a «coup» and President Obama should have cut off aid to Egypt as a result. «The law is very clear that if there is a coup aid is cut off». So far President Obama has been careful not to use the word coup as under US law this would mean stopping aid.

Is the US sincere saying it will get tough on new Egyptian rulers? What about being dependent on Egypt as a transit route to Afghanistan and the Middle East? The figure is 2000 flights by US Air Force last year. Around 50 U.S. naval ships annually pass through the Suez Canal to support the operations of the 5th operational Fleet. The ships are often expedited to leave a very long line of ships behind. Just imagine the consequences for the US military in case Egypt closes its airspace and Сanal access and makes warships cruise around Africa to get to the Persian Gulf! The US has an economic interest as the major arms supplier of the Egyptian armed forces and police. The weapons and equipment are provided under non-repayable, outright U.S. military grants since Egypt joined the U.S.-brokered Camp David Peace Treaty with Israel in 1978. Egypt receives about 1.5 billion dollars in both military and economic aid annually, of which 1.3 billion dollars is earmarked for the military. About 35 % of the 1.3 billion dollars in annual U.S. Foreign Military Financing (FMF) grants is utilized each year for the purchase of new U.S-produced weapons systems. Of the balance, about 30 percent is earmarked for the purchase and maintenance of U.S. equipment (including the procurement of ammunition), with 20 percent covering the ongoing costs of programs underway and 15 % used to maintain and upgrade equipment in service. Egypt receives grants under the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program, amounting to about 1.3 million to about 1.9 million dollars annually, plus about $ 250 million annually in economic aid. So far, the White House has refused to cut off aid to Egypt, I believe it won’t because the military and the military-industrial complex that ex-President Eisenhower warned about has a special interest here. The US influence is felt in Egypt. For instance, the head of the Egyptian armed forces, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, spent a year at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania from 2005 to 2006. The loss of American hardware might reduce the Egyptian military’s ability to control jihadis in the ungoverned Sinai desert, but it would also hurt US military equipment sellers, damage foreign policy goals and put Israel in danger. So far the US has already adroitly shied away from calling a spade a spade, the word «a coup» is never mentioned in official statements. It will have to find an accommodation with the Egyptian military, because it’s the only real force to rely on. 

Qatar had poured nearly $5 billion into Morsi’s government in its one short year in office propping up Egypt’s teetering economy in belief it was investing in a lasting relationship. Now with Morsi gone, the emirate has lost its clout. The Qatar-owned news network Al Jazeera praised the ousted Egyptian President. Now the Qatar’s flag is burnt in Tahrir Square by people enraged by its strong support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Earlier this month, the Egyptian military rounded up 28 of the channel’s staff in Cairo and made its correspondent flee a press conference, claiming that Al Jazeera endangered Egypt’s national security. Qatar has lost in the contest for influence between old rivals in the Gulf. Since the interim government took the reins, aid has poured in from the other Gulf states. Saudi Arabia lost no time to announce its support for the interim government of Egypt. In the time of need, it immediately offered Egypt $5 billion in aid added by $3 billion more from the United Arab Emirates and $4 billion by Kuwait making pale the Qatar’s $5 billion going to the Morsi’s government last year. It was the ousted Morsi who opened the door to rapprochement with Iran after all. He played with the idea of sending support to Brotherhood cells in the Gulf. Just a few days ago the UAE convicted around 70 people reported to be allied to the Brotherhood for «plotting a coup». Both General Sisi and Adly Mansour have old ties with Riyadh – Gen Sisi was once defense attaché there, while Mr. Mansour spent seven years as an adviser to the Saudi Ministry of Commerce. So the Persian Gulf states have become an important factor against the background of diminishing US clout. Anti-Brotherhood protesters believe the U.S. was involved in conspiring to keep the Muslim Brotherhood in power, while the radicals are equally convinced that the United States had conspired to topple Morsi. It happens that the Obama’s Cairo delivered four years back has failed to bear fruit. This is an important turn of events. Perhaps that’s what makes the Egyptian government so self-assured, no matter what the US (or the EU) does or says. 

Going to the bottom of events

Reading the news attentively one can clearly see it was the Brotherhood snipers on the rooftops who started to use arms first. They took positions around the protesters camps areas. They did it being warned two days before the camps had to disappear. The Brotherhood launched preparation for bloodshed it knew would happen. And they had been warned. This is the style of Egyptian military – the ousted President had been warned he had two days to find an accommodation with the opposite side before the action started.

The military toppled Morsi, but the action was supported by millions of common people. The masses insisted the military do it, call it a coup or a popular action. Was it really a coup? Normally coups are led by top generals who take power. This time it’s the opposition leaders who are offered to take the reins and the prospects are high for democratic parliamentary and then presidential elections to take place soon. Adly Mansour, the interim country’s leader, is not a general. 

If the prospects for elections are real, then it’s the only legitimate way out of the situation. What is important – the representatives of all forces and the military supported the idea of Muslim Brotherhood’s taking part in the political process. As I have mentioned above, the military have had no intention to exclude the Brotherhood from political life. So, there was a chance for peaceful settlement. At that, up to the moment all the advances to find an accommodation have been flatly refused by «brothers». It was them who started the stand-off. They refuse the policy for finding the way out through democratic elections offering a bloody revolt instead. One more trend is important to take notice of. The support for the Brotherhood has been dwindling. The Morsi’s government is a miserable failure. The Muslim Brotherhood realizes it stands no chance to be the winner if the election is held today. 

About 20% of the population are Copts, the Christians, who realize the consequences of Islamists grabbing power and establishing the Sharia laws. If the military starts to lose, the non-Muslims will have no choice but mobilize their forces. Then it will be something similar to the situation in Syria. A cruel and never ending war in the country of 85 million with the Suez Canal playing an important role for the world economy. 

So the «brothers» find it is more blessed to preserve what they had a year ago by demanding Morsi come back. It’s worth to note, they expressed their readiness to discuss the situation with the interim government during the next couple of days after the coup and then all of a sudden made an about-face and became adamant in their demands for Morsi’s return.

Will they prevail? I believe no, because the popular support is down. They are still going strong, but it’s going down, this trend is obvious. The military knows well who they deal with, no doubt it has prepared for the challenge. The brothers never stopped to shed blood before, remember the Luxor Massacre killing 62 people, mostly tourists that took place on 17 November 1997? Nobody doubts they have armed formations, but the army and police bolstered by popular support, at least in big cities, will sooner or later bring their fervor down. Besides, the Brotherhood is already decapitated and the process will continue, their leaders will have to leave the battlefield. These are obvious facts that cannot be ignored by any assessment of the situation in the country. 

Who does the Egyptian military oppose?

The Brotherhood had been internationally classified as a terrorist group till the turmoil in Egypt started. It openly says it hates all the Jews and views them as sworn enemies (is peace with Israel possible if it wins?). It incites hatred against Egyptian Christians and it sets the goal of spreading Sharia laws across the whole world. They use populist slogans to their advantage because approximately 60% of Egyptian population cannot read and write. Those who voted for the Brotherhood are mainly poor people from rural areas. Women from the countryside voted for whatever party their husbands told them to vote for. The Brotherhood knows that if they fail now they are finished. Its goal is to pose as victims abroad and get international support that puts emphasis on moral principles, the very same ones the Brotherhood trampled on so disdainfully in the Morsi’s days. If the West continues to react the same way it does and, suppose, the Brotherhood gets the upper hand, then the West will step on the same rake, something it has already done on so many days in so many ways when it comes to the Middle East policies. 

If the military is successful and it manages to stabilize the things, it will affect the whole region, so the events in Egypt are a kind of Armageddon for the Middle East: Tunisia, Libya and even Turkey. 

In case the Brotherhood holds a victory, a prospect for an alliance of Sharia-ruled countries is a strong possibility. Then Egypt becomes a leader of the Middle East Islamist movement. It will spur the process of islamization of Algeria, Jordan and Morocco. 

Economy and social stability

Around 5000 enterprises have become idle since 2011. Tourism, the 15 % budget segment of economy, is down. The gold reserves have fallen from 36 billion dollars in 2011 to 13 billion in 2013. The international credits (30 billion dollars) are frozen till democracy is restored. Unemployment is 13%. 21.4 % of the 27.3 million strong work force are temporary workers and at least 46.5 percent of those employees work in the unofficial sector without contracts. 67 percent has no health insurance. The turmoil started in 2011 has undermined foreign investment and harmed the tourism industry. Social stability is threatened by rising crime rate. According to the Interior Ministry, the past year has witnessed a 120 percent increase in murders, 350 percent increase in robberies, and 145 percent jump in kidnappings. It was widespread poverty (25 percent under the poverty line) and poor working conditions were all factors fuelled the January 2011 revolution. It is exactly the moribund economy, fuel and food shortages that the Morsi’s government failed to tackle. A Pew survey of Egyptian public opinion released in May showed 66% of Egyptians preferred democracy to any other form of government, and 51% were willing to live under a democratic government even if there is a risk of instability. Yet, when asked if they preferred «strong democracy over a strong economy», only 45% agreed, while 52% said that living in a good economy was more important to living in a democracy.

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Egypt is the largest Arab state and has all the resources and opportunities to become the driving force for the economic development of the entire region. Economic progress is key to real democracy diminishing the importance of pure populist slogans covering the thrust for personal totalitarian power. The country will have political freedoms, but it’s a gradual process. Rome wasn't built in a day. Economic success will undermine the basis for extremists support among grassroots. True, a government that came to power in a fair election was overthrown by the army. The Morsi’s government was democratically elected but his coming to power was the last nail in the coffin of the country’s democratic process being, as is often said nowadays: one man – one vote – one time. The military had no choice but oust a democratically elected president to get democracy back.

The interim government should be given a chance, it does not exclude the Brotherhood from the process (rather the Brotherhood excludes itself) and the international community may and should play a positive role. Egypt is going through hard times and it needs a helping hand, not rebukes and sanctions. It has announced the intention to cede power to elected officials. This option is much more preferable than prolonged chaos and civil war in the country with the population exceeding 80 million people.