Foreign Policy Blogs

Review: Morsi, the military and the Egyptian Youth

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The Egyptian revolution could best be described as a pivotal moment in the history of the Arab peoples, and the Middle East more broadly. Inspired by events in Tunisia, the liberal minded youth of Egypt took to the streets in a display of mass defiance. Within days a wide strata of the Egyptian polity joined these young and brave protesters, and within days the entire country awoke to a new era, one based not on authoritarian governance but centered on a representative system of democracy.

Along with the protesters in Tunisia, Egyptians dismantled the belief in the Arab Exception. Like theories about the Iberian Peninsula before, the Arab Spring`s young vanguard highlighted their region`s this for democracy and the fallacy of ethnocentric determinism. But their day in the sun would not last. The military, seen as the protector of the new democratic right of protest, quickly maneuvered to secure its interests. With an estimated 40 percent control of the Egyptian economy, the generals composing the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) sought to ensure that they would not become the next target of protest. Field Marshall Tantawi and his cohorts in the transitional military government secured their position and too control of the Egyptian street while they awaited the creation of some color of representative government.

The Muslim Brotherhood, an international Islamic organization birthed on the Nile in 1928 also played a large role in thwarting the aspirations of the young vanguard. Initially, the Brotherhood viewed the uprising with caution, while younger members in universities and trade unions with their secular and liberal minded counterparts joined the revolutionary fray. The pressure put on the organization by its young membership and concerns about missing an historical moment, and any resulting political benefits, saw the Brotherhood join the uprising against Mubarak.

The organization’s numbers, a result of their decades-long charitable works, is underprivileged areas ensured that the protest swelled and gave cross-societal backing required for it to succeed. With the support of the Brotherhood it was clear to the military that the Mubarak era had come to an end. It was no surprise to many observers of Egyptian politics that the Brotherhood would emerge as the victors of this tumultuous process.

Allowed to run as independents during Mubarak’s reign, the organization secured 20 percent of the Egyptian parliament in 2005. The Brotherhood benefited from Egypt’s poverty and the neglect of the political classes, combining social welfare with a call to Islam to rally widespread support. This translated into political victory both at the legislative and executive levels in the post-Mubarak era and a stark shift in both domestic and foreign policy.

Mohammad Morsi, a Brotherhood technocrat and the organization’s second choice for the presidency, after its lead candidate and multi-millionaire Khairat el-Shater was disqualified, became the first freely elected Egyptian leader. Viewed as inexperience and reportedly not the brightest, Morsi surprised his critics and supporters alike. Arguably, his most keen move was to sack Field Marshall Tantawi, sending a clear message that in the new Egypt the military would be sub-servant to a civilian executive. To further secure his position Morsi strengthened the prerogatives of the executive, attaining wide powers in the realms of legislation, budgeting and appointment. These moves and the dismantling of restrictions on the Muslim Brotherhood have been viewed with dismay, both inside and outside of the country.

As Francis Fukuyama aptly shows in the documentary Power to the People: The New Egypt, internally the young, liberal-democratic activists are pretty good at organizing protests in the short term, but have not proved to be good at organizing political parties. Frustration over what liberals see as an increasingly centralized executive and an Islamist-dominated legislature has resulted, not in constructive political opposition, but widespread street protest.

Externally, the same issues that have worried liberal activists are causing concern in Washington. Coupled with a stronger role by Morsi as a mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict and an newly found independence in regional foreign policy, the Obama administration has taken what Fukuyama describes as a ‘‘wait and see‘‘ policy. The United States is stuck between upholding its liberal-democratic principles by supporting the youth vanguard of the revolution, continuing its fruitful military and peace arrangement with the Egyptian Armed Forces, and finally, developing a constructive relationship with the new government, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

Power to the People highlights this dynamic and the quagmire it presents for American policy makers. Having for so long dictated policy to Arab leaders, the United States must now act to work cooperatively with the new ruling class. Independent Egyptian foreign policy has arisen and Washington is now charged with dealing with Cairo on an equal basis and in turn taking into consideration the needs and aspirations of the Egyptian people. The United States can no longer view the country, ‘’through the eyes of Egypt’s ruling party or ruling class,’’ but nor can it ignore these democratic elected representatives. American decision makers must also take into consideration a broad societal framework who`s attitudes and beliefs have strong implications for America’s standing in the region.

This video is a must watch for American’s interested in their country’s standing in the Middle East and how the Arab Spring has changed and will continue to shift the way Washington interacts with the region. The array of opinions expressed and the historical and contextual approach to the Egyptian revolution and its consequences ensure that this episode of Great Decisions is a highly important starting off point for understanding the intricacies of this subject.

A note: Between the production of this segment and its debut, the youth and supporters of the liberal-democratic camp are back in the streets. Although not on the same mass scale as the protests that overthrew Hosni Mubarak, they now call for the overthrow of the Morsi government.

Power to the People: The New Egypt - Great Decisions in Foreign Policy, Season 42