What’s Next for Egypt?
The Muslim Brotherhood, which won the presidency Saturday, sees itself as a corrective to modern Egyptian life
What’s going to happen in Egypt now that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi has been elected president? That’s the question weighing heavily on everyone’s minds—perhaps no one’s as much as Benjamin Netanyahu’s.
Morsi’s victory has brought at least a temporary calm to Egypt. Even the country’s moribund stock market responded, jumping 7.5 percent Sunday, which perhaps reflects a mood less like optimism than relief. A crisis that could have brought Morsi’s supporters and the army into conflict has been averted for now.
But, in addition to certain conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army—its preferred candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, lost by 3 percentage points—there is lots of bad weather in the forecast. Perhaps most troubling is the Egyptian economy. Tourism is way down. Western travelers, as well as Arabs seeking respite from their more austere Gulf countries, will wait to book their tickets until they see if calm is really restored and whether the Brotherhood implements measures against alcohol and other pursuits. Foreign currency reserves are dwindling, and to sustain food and gas subsidies Cairo is now dependent on handouts from an international community that simply doesn’t have the cash on hand. And though some observers, including perhaps American allies or even a few U.S. officials, might be hoping that the military is simply biding its time until it’s apparent to all that the Brotherhood is incapable of managing the country—at which point they will step in and overthrow Morsi—the reality is that the army has misplayed its hand repeatedly over the last 15 months.
What a bitter pill this is for the United States and American interests. More than a decade after Osama Bin Laden’s attack on the United States—which Morsi believes was an “inside” job—the late al-Qaida leader’s spiritual godfathers are now ruling the most populous country in the Middle East and one of Washington’s regional partners—at least up until now. “There is a lot Egypt could do to complicate things for the United States,” says Martin Kramer, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and an expert on Islamist movements. “There’s the Suez Canal, overflight rights, and Egypt has been crucial for military contingency planning.”
Then, of course, there’s the peace treaty with Israel, which U.S. legislators on both sides of the aisle have held up as one of the great achievements of American statesmanship. Morsi has promised to respect “Egyptian commitments and treaties,” but many fear that the days of the cold peace that Hosni Mubarak maintained with Israel for 30 years are over, especially now that Gaza, ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood’s ally Hamas, is heating up. Morsi denies that he has called for closer ties with Iran, but the restoration of a bilateral relationship that Mubarak shelved may be only a matter of time since the Brotherhood and the regime in Tehran both back Hamas.
The cold peace that has existed since Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin shook hands in 1979, Kramer explains, “had a lot of predictability about it. Before that you had an armistice and no lines of communication that produced the 1956 and 1967 wars. The cold peace may deteriorate into a 1950s style armistice, with periodic outbursts.” What’s more, says Kramer, “the conflicts will not be settled in bilateral channels, or even a trilateral one, with the U.S. presiding, but will wind up at the U.N., like in the ’50s.”
So, how did it come to this? A revolution that inspired so much hope in so many, not just in Tahrir Square, but around the world, has ended in a victory for that Middle Eastern political party that stands in starkest contrast to the young, tech-savvy, and ostensibly liberal-minded revolutionaries who toppled Hosni Mubarak. The Brotherhood had even promised they weren’t going to field a candidate for the presidency. It was a mistake to believe it, says Kramer: “Islamism is not about political quiescence, but the acquisition of political power.”
Morsi’s victory illustrates the enormous divide between the young revolutionaries and the rest of their countrymen. These mostly upper-middle-class activists seem to have been so isolated from mainstream Egyptian society that they had no idea what other Egyptians—those who don’t speak English, who don’t vacation in the United States and Europe, who don’t have computers, let alone accounts on the Internet, who don’t pride themselves on their secularism—think about the world.
But nearly everyone else, including the governments of Saudi Arabia and Israel and the U.S. Department of State, had long warned that opening Egypt’s political system would empower Islamists. If anyone still believed that was a long shot, the evidence came in the winter and early spring when the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party won 47.2 percent of the recently dissolved parliament. Some have argued that the Brotherhood’s lackluster performance in parliament proved to Egyptian voters that the organization was incapable of governing, which is why the presidential race was so close and augurs poorly for the Brotherhood in future elections if it doesn’t rule wisely. However, it’s worth recalling that Morsi was the Muslim Brotherhood’s second choice. Their leading candidate, Khairat al-Shater, a millionaire widely believed to be the outfit’s master strategist, was disqualified from running in April. The fact that the Brotherhood’s man off the bench won 51 percent of the vote is evidence of its political strength as well as its historical prestige.
On some Israeli buses, only men sit in the front. With the law on their side, some women are fighting back.