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Hichem Karoui: Scenarios for Egypt
June 24, 2012
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Some observers considered the runoff opposing Mohammed Mursi to Ahmed Shafiq, as actually opposing two institutions that have been fighting each other for most of the period covering three presidential eras: i.e. Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak. JB Alterman pointed in “Foreign Affairs” (June 5) to “the most hierarchical institutions in Egypt,” meaning the Muslim Brotherhood and the military, which in their recent struggle, resorted to mobilising their “traditional bases” instead of “finding creative ways to attract the centre.” But why should the Muslim Brotherhood or the military seek to attract the centre that is not necessarily attracted to them anyway? How would they coax liberal minded, educated, and Westernised Egyptians, if neither Abdul Moneim Abou Al Fatouh nor Hamdeen Sabahi has been able to weigh in the balance? Not to mention Al Baradei.

Other observers dramatised the situation prevailing today in Egypt to the point of predicting a civil war. This was particularly a hostile Israeli viewpoint emphasised by Barry Rubin, who put a question: “what do Egyptians want” to which he could but bring an insulting answer: “a democratically elected Islamist dictatorship.” In a second article, the director of GLORIA centre (an Israeli think tank) described Egypt in a state of civil war following a coup similar to that of the Algerian generals after the victory of the Islamic Salvation Front in 1991.

Both authors, Alterman and Rubin, failed to see the complexity of the Egyptian society, which led them to oversimplifying the situation, reducing it to an opposition between the army — wrongly assumed to be secular, like in Turkey — and the Muslim Brotherhood, as if its politicians are incapable to grasp the nature and scope of Egypt’s regional and international standing.

I do not pretend that the risks of slipping towards violence, extremism and chaos do not exist. They may even be made up to prevent some unwished political developments. Yet, it is not necessary that the situation is either “white” or “black.” Other colours, tones and shades also exist. Actually, I would rather describe the Egyptian society as a kaleidoscope rather than a black and white picture. This does not exclude uncontrolled or dramatic scenarios.

I would then make the following assumptions:

1- Egypt’s political system has been described as “authoritarian” and indeed, “pharaonic.” The important issue that has to be examined after the fall of Mubarak and the new reorganisation of the system is whether this revolution is able to change profoundly and durably the structure of power in Egypt or not.

2- Although the military is not eager to rule directly, circumstances have sometimes forced them to leave their barracks and help stabilising the internal security. The bread riots in 1977 and the police conscript riots of 1986 for example called on the military to restore order. In the aftermath of much disputed elections, if the military leaders think the country is slipping towards chaos, they will feel compelled to take over. However, considering the present Egyptian frame of mind, such takeover would be of relatively short duration.

3- It is believed that in case the Muslim Brotherhood becomes really the government-dominating force in Egypt, the US and Israel would be faced with a nightmare. The peace treaty with Israel may be scuttled, and the border with Gaza opened and weapons would flow without restriction to help Hamas. This scenario would be rendered even more threatening to the US-Israel alliance, if the Egyptian military itself split, with a faction supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.

4- The previous scenario is not as unrealistic as it sounds at first sight. It may take shape if both, the Muslim Brotherhood and its military allies feel that the street is favourable to them. At that point, a conflict may emerge with the secular officers, but they would be put under huge pressure from the pro-Islamist masses mobilised in the public places for that effect, and forced to comply with the new masters of the country.

5- The conflict may end up momentarily with a compromise whereby a more or less declared Islamist-oriented military council rules behind the curtains, supporting the Islamist civil politicians in the government. The military officers, who do not agree on such a development, would be discreetly moved apart. The others would feel that their interest is in supporting the new regime.

6- It is unlikely that such a conflict over power would lead to the kind of civil war that has been recently predicted by the Israeli writer Barry Rubin (Gloria Center, June 15). Because, first, if some members of the Egyptian military hierarchy would resort to violence, in order to “save” the relations with the USA, over a considerable period of time, the US Congress and parts of the US administration — not to mention the media and the public opinion — would probably call to cut military aid to Egypt anyway. Second, the military officer corps in Egypt reflects the ideological currents of the middle class, including a conservative persuasion. It has nothing to do with the Turkish military. Some of the original free officers (Sadat is the most prominent) were close to the Muslim Brotherhood. One must then assume that the military establishment has not been excluded from the wave of “conservative Islamism” that encompassed the country since the eighties of the last century.

7- Some elements of the Egyptian military would not like to cut off US ties completely, even if they support a Muslim Brotherhood-led government. Because of Egypt’s weight in the Arab world and its key-role in the Middle East political processes, it is hard to imagine this country sliding towards the status of “pariah” similar to that of Iran, or Iraq under Saddam, or Libya under Qadhafi. Egypt is not Egypt without its complexity, its hybrid culture and its Mediterranean leanings. The Westernised elite would fight to keep Egypt in the modern camp. That would not be possible with cutting off ties with the West.

Finally, I would advise those who wish to grasp the Egyptian spirit to read its great authors and to look closely into its modern culture that truly shaped the contemporary Arab world. If after that, they think such a culture could easily be thrown to the dustbin, because the Islamists came to power... we have then a big problem.

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The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)

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