Home inFocus Egypt at a Crossroads

Egypt at a Crossroads

Joshua R. Goodman Winter 2010

While January’s protests in Tunisia that ousted former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali signaled the beginning of the current wave of unrest spreading through the Arab world, it was not until demonstrations destabilized the Egyptian regime that leaders in foreign capitals signaled alarm and started a diplomatic scramble to ease tensions in the region.

When Egypt and Tunisia are compared, it is not difficult to understand why events in Egypt, which have shown that the Mubarak regime was not quite as stable as some suggested and many hoped, triggered alarm bells throughout the world. Unlike Tunisia, Egypt is a vast country spanning two continents, and it possesses a vital transit point for international trade in the Suez Canal. It is also a traditional leader in the Arab world and a bellwether for political events and social movements, as well as an important cornerstone of the Middle East’s security regime and America’s strategy to promote stability in the region.

Many in the U.S. worry that the collapse of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime signals the impending “loss of Egypt” to the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, or Iran. However, while the current crisis has caused ripples in the fabric of Middle Eastern stability, this should be seen as more of a short-term tremor than a long-term development.

Structural Dependence

There is little chance that the Egyptian state will transform in a way that will align it with the radicals. For as dependent as Washington might be on Egypt as a force for stability and the promotion of American interests, the U.S. must not underestimate Egypt’s dependence on Washington. This dependence is structural and stronger now than at any time in the past.

Egypt’s dependence on the United States is primarily economic. As a country of 80-plus million inhabitants with no exportable natural resources to speak of (Egypt does have a number of oil-fields, but this oil is mostly for internal consumption, not export), the country has become dependent on four specific sources of income: American aid, Saudi aid, international tourism, and tolls from the Suez Canal.

American assistance totals over $1.3 billion dollars annually in military funding and about $2.9 billion annually overall according to figures from the U.S. State Department. Saudi assistance began in 1973 and has since increased with treaties such as the 1991 Damascus Declaration. These sources of funding require Egypt to maintain close relations with the United States and the moderate Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia.

Tourism is dependent on mostly Western travelers and is largely at the mercy of patterns of stability affected by terrorism and Islamic extremism. The 1997 Islamist attacks against tourists at Luxor as well as the wave of bombings in the Sinai in the early 2000s and in Sharm el-Sheikh, Dahab, and Taba had devastating consequences for Egypt’s economy and alienated many ordinary Egyptians from radical forms of Islamism. As for the issue of the Canal, it is clear that its smooth operation is more vital to Egypt than to the countries utilizing it. Regardless of what government eventually takes shape in Cairo, it is extremely unlikely that it would close the Canal to Western or foreign shipping.

The Egyptian regime’s realization of this structural dependence was the primary reason President Anwar Sadat abandoned the Soviet Union in the 1970s, Egypt’s primary benefactor under the Nasser regime, and pursued rapprochement with the United States and peace with Israel. It was not a popular decision at the time, indeed it was a death sentence for Sadat, but it aided the Egyptian economy, which at that time was past the verge of collapse.

Moreover, this was during a time when there was a realistic alternative to U.S. patronage. The Middle East was a major theater of the Cold War, and the USSR was eagerly seeking clients in the region including, at times, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. From 1956 to 1970, Egypt received funding from the Soviets and still its economy collapsed. Egypt remains dependent on massive foreign aid covering everything from military hardware and officer training to food subsidies for an exploding population. In fact, the United States has trained nearly their entire officer corps and the two militaries have an extremely close professional as well as personal relationship. In today’s unipolar age, these funds can only come from one source: the United States and its allies. Therefore, continued alignment with the U.S. will likely be seen as a strategic necessity.

A Fundamentalist Future?

Aside from being dependent on U.S. aid, the Egyptian people, as a whole, understand that electing the Muslim Brotherhood is not in their best interest. According to a February 2011 poll taken by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a mere 15 percent of Egyptians approve of the Brotherhood and 12 percent of the Egyptian population would favor Sharia over democracy. In a presidential straw poll, the Brotherhood gained one percent. Furthermore, the Muslim Brotherhood itself has said it has no desire to sweep into power. During the uprisings, Muhammad Morsi, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, announced that the organization would not field a candidate for upcoming presidential elections, nor would it seek to gain a majority in future parliamentary elections. He also expressed support for the current military administration and stated explicitly that the Brotherhood does not support an Islamic state in Egypt.

Of course, actions speak louder than words, and the extent to which the West and the Egyptian people can trust the Brotherhood’s statements remains unknown. The Brotherhood itself is a fractured and secretive organization. The internal conflicts that plague the group stem from a fundamental ideological difference between its members. Some factions support armed struggle, violence, and the eventual imposition of Sharia in a fundamentalist state, while others want to use Islam as a tool for social justice, and yet others want the Brotherhood to be a participatory political party. There is no clear overall leader as local faction heads vie for popularity.

Moreover, the more radical factions of the Brotherhood have mostly gone underground since it officially renounced violence. It is true that an incredible who’s who of global jihadists have come from the Egyptian Muslim Brothers, but this ignores the evolution of these jihadists’ thought and the events that came between their joining the Brotherhood and their joining the ranks of al-Qaeda. A perfect example is Muhammad al-Zawahiri, former Muslim Brother and current spiritual guide of bin Laden and al-Qaeda. After finding the writings of Sayyid Qutb, another Islamist who, due to his radicalism, quit the Muslim Brotherhood, Zawahiri split from the Muslim Brotherhood because he felt it was too moderate and joined the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a violent and radical organization that was the true inspiration behind Egypt’s global jihadists including Muhammad Atta and Abu Ayyub al-Masri.

This does not mean the Muslim Brotherhood is not a threat, for previous experience teaches that democracy is one tool Islamists use to come to power. But the Brotherhood has signaled a willingness to work with the system and they bear close scrutiny in the coming months and years.

A Changing Alliance

This also doesn’t mean that American foreign policy won’t be affected by the changing Egypt. The Egyptian media has, for decades, railed against Israel and Israeli policy, the U.S.-Israel relationship, and the actions taken by this Western bloc. It is unlikely that this will lead to the abrogation of the Israeli-Egyptian treaty, however, as the armed forces of Egypt, the true power behind every government since 1952, enjoy the stability that peace has afforded them. More realistically, Egypt will distance itself from other types of security cooperation in the region. For example, Egypt may decide to end its role in the Gaza blockade supported by Israel and the U.S., as it is unpopular both at home and across the rest of the Arab world. At home, this would go a long way in mitigating criticism stemming from maintaining peace with Israel.

This action will shatter the American-Israeli security concept for the region, which has depended on America’s ability to dictate policy through a number of allies including Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Israel’s entire strategy of isolating Hamas will unravel. Public sympathy for Hamas and Hezbollah may spur the new regime to distance itself from its commitment to the Palestinian Authority and give more open support to these terrorist organizations. All of this would be trouble for Israel, as Egypt helps Israel guard the border between the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip, under which Hamas smuggles in weapons from Iran to use against Israel.

It will be vital for the U.S. and Israel to begin formulating a strategy that takes new realities into account. Any new government in Egypt will be more hostile to Israel and less willing to follow American policy dictates. This will necessarily require compromise in future foreign policy initiatives, especially if Washington wants to maintain the goodwill of the people, which will be vital in the coming years.

The American Necessity

If the first free elections in Egypt produce an anti-American government, it would not be the first time the U.S. has “lost Egypt.” Nasser cut ties to Britain and the U.S. in the 1950s, but Egypt was forced back into the American orbit after 20 years of economic stagnation and military defeat. Today, absent of the vast amounts of Soviet Cold War funding, Egypt could not last nearly as long on its own. Some warn that Iran could replace the United States as the main benefactor to Egypt, promoting a shift towards political and religious radicalism. While it is true that Iran does send significant funding to Syria and a number of resistance and terrorist organizations throughout the world, this is no indication that Iran would be willing or even able to similarly subsidize Egypt. Syria has a population of only about 23 million, as opposed to Egypt’s 80 million, and has a much greater degree of food independence and economic openness than Egypt. Iran, currently feeling the pressure of international sanctions and inexorably coming to the end of its oil reserves, could not possibly afford Egypt’s price tag. In a battle of economies, Iran cannot hold a flame to the United States and its Saudi ally.

President Sadat, once a member of the Nazi-sympathizing movement Misr al-Fatat (Young Egypt), recognized this and decided to make peace for the sake of the country. As Egypt’s recent uprising was largely centered on making improvements in the lives of everyday Egyptians, any turn towards radicalism will likely be tempered by practical necessities. Egyptians in the tourism sector most clearly recognize this, for they are eager to avoid bouts of radicalism that negatively impact tourism revenues. Furthermore, with the intimate relationship between the U.S. and Egyptian militaries, until the day that Islamist radicals can defeat the armed forces of Egypt, there is little danger of a fundamental Egyptian strategic realignment.

Joshua R. Goodman is a Middle East subject expert on Egypt. He was in Cairo during the recent revolution and his diary of the uprising, “A Firsthand Account of the Protests in Egypt,” can be found on the JPC website.