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PV Vivekanand: US seeks ‘balance’ in Egypt
January 10, 2012
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With the third and final round of voting for Egypt’s lower house of parliament having been completed, it is all but official that the top two spots have gone to two Islamist factions, the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Al Nur party of the more hardline Salafists.

The two parties appear to have secured more than a two-thirds majority of parliamentary seats. Exact seat counts will be known only after runoff votes that will take place next week. The elections later this month for the Shura Council are also expected to be swept by the two Islamist factions, which are reaping in the weakness of other groups that did not have any political presence during the regime of long-time strongman Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled in a popular rebellion in February last year.

It remains to be seen whether the Muslim Brotherhood will opt to saddle itself with the troublesome Salafists in a coalition government or to pick some of the much smaller liberal parties to make up for an absolute majority to secure an unquestionable vote of confidence from the elected parliament.

With the Salafists as coalition partners, the Brotherhood is likely to suffer a big blow to its moderate image. The Salafists want to have the post-rebellion constitution of Egypt largely based on Islamic Shariah law that could have a negative impact on the country’s tourism sector that accounts for a big chunk of its revenues in foreign currency. The Salafist movement would want to impose restrictions on the liberal way of life that the Egyptian people enjoyed for decades.

The Salafists also want to “renegotiate” the 1978 Camp David peace treaty with Israel whereas the Brotherhood could be expected to uphold the agreement despite its denial that it had offered assurances to the US in this respect.

Therefore, it is more likely that the Salafists will have to move to the opposition benches in parliament.

However, all these are suppositions because questions have been raised on the willingness of the country’s military rulers, who assumed governance when Mubarak resigned in February, to abide by their pledge to respect democracy and cede their absolute power to the people. They have described the lower house of parliament elections as unrepresentative, raising concerns that they might not even allow the elected representatives to form the legislature.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has also hinted that it does not endorse the idea of a parliament-based government. That means, even if the ruling generals allow the formation of parliament, there is no guarantee that the Brotherhood and other elected parties will be allowed to set up the government. The military council could appoint its own government and reject the provision that the cabinet should secure a parliamentary vote of confidence.

Even more dangerous is the possibility that the military would go ahead with creating a committee of their own that will write the post-revolt constitution instead of letting the newly elected parliament do it as the people of Egypt are demanding. If the ruling generals have their way here, then the supremacy of the armed forces over every other authority in Egypt would be constitutionalised.

The Brotherhood and the Salafists — the two groups that really matter by virtue of the election results — are perfectly aware that the military could throw a spanner into their dreams of wielding power for the first time after the monarchy was overthrown in 1952. However, they have adopted a noticeably low profile in the debate over the military’s intentions because they do not want to upset the apple cart they have secured through the elections.  Troubles could start when they seek to exercise their rights as the elected representatives of the same people who staged the revolt that also brought the military to power.

The US position is expected to be crucial in determining the direction of the Egyptian revolution.

The administration of US President Barack Obama has pledged to respect the democratic choice of the people of Egypt, but it abundantly clear that Washington is worried over an Islamist government in power in Cairo.

The US concerns in post-rebellion Egypt were outlined by Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, in a recent article in the New York Times.

Alterman, whose views are widely seen to reflect those of the administration, wrote that many in the US, Israel and even in Egypt fear that “the elections will produce an Islamist-led government that will tear up the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, turn hostile to the United States, openly support Hamas and transform Egypt into a theocracy that oppresses women, Christians and secular Muslims.”

Well, if there were “many” in Egypt who feared an Islamist victory in elections, then those fears did not reflect in the results of the vote.

According to Alterman, US interests would be best served with “a balance — however uneasy — between the military authorities and Egypt’s new politicians.” Well, that reflects what the US takes for granted — an imperial right to decide what is right for another country based on American interests.

The US does have genuine reasons to be afraid of democracy prevailing in Egypt because it is aware of what esteem (or the lack of it) the Egyptian people hold the world’s sole superpower in. Public opinion polls have shown overwhelming rejection among the Egyptians of the positions that Washington would like them to adopt. These include preservation of the Camp David peace treaty and a “neutral position” on the Palestinian problem, a refusal to have any relations with Iran and an endorsement of US “strategic goals” in the region.

On all these issues, a massive majority of Egyptians — some surveys have put it at 80 per cent — are opposed to the US. Therefore, the clear conclusion is that the US is keen — short of continued military rule — on having a regime in power in Cairo that would at least not challenge American interests. Left on their own to rule the country, the Islamists are very likely to be highly critical of US policies and actions and hence Washington has come up with what it sees as the best formula — a “balance” — however uneasy between the military and Egypt’s victorious political parties.

Obviously, the “balance” would mean that the military would retain the upper hand in dealing with any issue of interest or concern to the US and would browbeat the government and parliament in going in any direction that Washington would not want them to go. In the bargain, the US administration would ensure the continued flow of assistance (worth $1.5 billion every year) to the Egyptian military and would not do much except paying lip service to democracy in Egypt when fissures start appearing between the Islamists and ruling generals in Cairo. And that is what the revolutionaries of Egypt could hope for at best, if Washington does have it way.

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