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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

Interview: Eric Trager on Egypt’s Political Instability

In February 2011, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign came to an end in the wake of widespread popular protests sparked by the Arab Spring. His fall shook many of the foundations of the Middle East and led to the rise of the once outlawed Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidate Mohammad Morsi won the June 2012 presidential election. The Brotherhood, however, would quickly discover that governing a nation is far different than running a political campaign, and its president and disciples was swiftly removed from office by the Egyptian military, backed by millions of civilian demonstrators, one year after its election victory. Subsequently in May 2014, the Egyptian Minister of Defense and leader of the coup that deposed the Muslim Brotherhood, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, was elected president winning 96 percent of the vote.

The falls of Hosni Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood followed by the rise of Gen. el-Sisi have had a major effect on Egyptian society and the region in general. Joining the Near East Report to discuss these developments and their impact is Middle East expert Eric Trager—author of the newly published book Arab Fall: How the Muslim Brotherhood Won and Lost Egypt in 891 Days.

Q: Egypt has seen three governments since the fall of the Mubarak regime six years ago. What is the status of the current government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi?

A: President el-Sisi was widely viewed (and depicted in the mostly pro-government media) as a national hero when he responded to mass protests by toppling Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government in July 2013. He later rode this support to an overwhelming victory in the barely contested May 2014 presidential elections, and used his mandate to enact subsidy reforms, sign major deals to upgrade Egypt’s electrical grid and undertake massive infrastructure projects.

Nearly three years into his presidency, however, el-Sisi’s support has declined due to ongoing—and worsening—economic and security challenges, while his regime’s ever-broadening repressiveness has alienated key political and societal interests that once supported him. Still, his regime appears durable for the time being for three reasons. First, the core state institutions—particularly the military and security services—strongly support him, meaning that there are no perceptible fissures within the regime for the opposition to exploit, as happened during the 2011 and 2013 uprisings. Second, given the severe crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition movements, the political opposition is too disorganized to mobilize another uprising. Third, given the political uncertainty of the previous six years as well as the broader regional instability, many Egyptians fear that another uprising would only make things worse. On the other hand, until there is economic improvement, it will be impossible to entirely discount the possibility of renewed upheaval.

Q: What are the major challenges facing Egypt and how is the government working to address them?

A: The core challenge is the economy. Ever since the January 2011 uprising, Egypt’s cash reserves have fallen considerably due to the decline of tourism and foreign direct investment, while Egypt’s expensive food and fuel subsidy programs also drained the reserves. As a result, successive governments struggled to defend the currency peg, and the capital controls catalyzed episodic commodity shortages. Finally, in early November, Cairo announced that it would float the pound, and the International Monetary Fund responded by announcing a $12 billion package to Egypt on Nov. 11. While this cash infusion and further economic reform should put Egypt on the right track in the long term, in the short term these moves entail considerable pain for ordinary Egyptians. Indeed, when the government announced that it was floating the pound, the currency dipped in value from roughly 9 to 15.6 to the dollar, meaning a significant rise in prices across the board. 

Egypt also faces significant security challenges, as evidenced by the recent terrorist attacks on a police checkpoint in Giza and on the Coptic cathedral in Cairo. While the government has fought jihadists in the Sinai Peninsula and Western Desert for the past three years, the persistence of these attacks suggests that there is still much work to be done.

Q: What kind of an organization is the Muslim Brotherhood and what role does it play in today’s Egypt?

A: The Muslim Brotherhood seeks to control Egypt, and ultimately the Muslim world, according to its narrow interpretation of sharia. To ensure that all of its members are committed to this cause, it subjects them to a five-to-eight-year indoctrination process known as tarbiyya, during which every Muslim Brother is vetted as he ascends through various ranks of membership.  At the end of this process, every member takes an oath to “listen and obey” leaders’ orders, rendering them foot soldiers for the organization. The Brotherhood then organizes these cadres into cells of roughly five to 10 members, all of which march to the orders of the central leadership, which was historically based in Cairo. These cells were responsible for building local support for the Brotherhood through preaching, recruitment and social services. And since only the Brotherhood possessed this kind of nationwide hierarchy, it was able to win every election that followed Hosni Mubarak’s February 2011 ouster. 

Since Morsi’s ouster in July 2013, however, the Egyptian government has repressed the Brotherhood severely. It decapitated the Brotherhood by arresting almost all of its top and provincial leaders, and it also killed perhaps over 1,000 Muslim Brothers who were protesting Morsi’s overthrow.  As a result, the Brotherhood’s hierarchy is in shambles. While there are still many Muslim Brothers within Egypt today, they are laying low: They no longer receive regular commands from their leaders, and they are either meeting very secretly or not at all, given that the government regards the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. And those Brotherhood leaders who fled into exile are deeply divided: They disagree on whether the organization should violently oppose el-Sisi’s government, or whether it should focus on outreach (dawa) work and defer its power ambitions for the time being. The Brotherhood could reemerge in the future, but the longer the current crackdown persists, the harder it will be for the Brotherhood to rebuild the nationwide hierarchy that was so essential to its prior political success.

Q: What is the state of Israel-Egypt relations under the current government?

A: Egyptian-Israel relations are excellent. The two countries share a significant interest in defeating Sinai-based jihadists, and Cairo particularly appreciates the extent to which Israel has permitted it to mobilize its military in the Sinai despite the troop restrictions that were implemented under the 1979 peace treaty. The two governments are also aligned against Hamas, which Cairo views as hostile since Hamas is the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, this remains a cold peace: While intelligence sharing and top-level diplomatic contacts remain strong, there is still little in the way of cultural exchange.

Q: What is the state of U.S.-Egypt relations under President el-Sisi?

A: President el-Sisi is a complicated partner for Washington. On one hand, he’s a strategic partner maintaining a peace treaty with Israel and fighting terrorists in both the Sinai and the Western Desert. On the other hand, he came to power by ousting a democratically elected president, and governs quite repressively. As a result, the Obama administration has struggled to define its relationship with el-Sisi’s Egypt: It withheld portions of the military aid from October 2013 to March 2015 to protest el-Sisi’s crackdown on pro-Morsi protests, but ultimately continued the aid program in most respects and undertook a “strategic dialogue” with Cairo, all while occasionally criticizing Egypt’s human rights abuses.

This ambivalence irks Cairo. From its standpoint, it is locked in a kill-or-be-killed struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood, and it views criticisms of its domestic abuses as de facto support for those who seek to topple it. Cairo was especially unnerved by the administration’s decision to withhold military aid in October 2013, which came just as the Egyptian military was moving full force against jihadists in the Sinai. From its standpoint, it would prefer that the relationship be based strictly on shared regional and strategic interests, rather than on what it deems to be interference in its politics.

Q: Do you have any recommendations for the new administration on U.S. policy towards Egypt?

A: While Egyptian politics have swung from Mubarak to the military to the Muslim Brotherhood and back to the military during the past six years, American interests in Egypt have not changed. The United States still needs Egypt to cooperate in counterterrorism, maintain its peace treaty with Israel, and provide preferred Suez Canal access and overflight rights for equipping U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf for fighting ISIS and containing Iran. The next administration should focus squarely on bolstering Cairo’s commitment to these interests. It should further learn from the experience of the previous two administrations that attempts to promote or support political change in Egypt rarely produce the intended results, and ultimately alienate a partner that the United States needs if it hopes to project power in the Middle East.

Eric Trager is the Esther K. Wagner Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is an expert on Egyptian politics and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. He was in Egypt during the 2011 anti-Mubarak revolts and returns frequently to conduct firsthand interviews with Egyptian public figures. His writings have appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Wall Street JournalForeign Affairs, the Atlantic, and the New Republic.

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