June 20, 2012

Stagnation in Egypt - no real solution on the horizon

Presidential candidates Ahmad Shafiq and Muhammad Mursi

First, there was an election in Egypt, albeit somewhat contrived by the ruling military leadership. Only candidates that had been qualified by a commission appointed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) were allowed on the ballot. Out of those, two emerged as too close to call and were forced into a runoff election, the results of which are supposed to be released on Thursday, June 21. So what you had was a contest between candidates approved by the military, a runoff supervised by the military, and now the results to be announced by the military.

In Egypt, as in many of the countries in the Middle East, the military is the ultimate arbiter of power. The SCAF stepped in to fill the power vacuum created by the fall of former President Husni Mubarak. They alone wield power in Egypt. If they are not happy with the results of the elections - and indications are that they are not - they will simply alter reality and remain in power. There is no coalition of political organizations or entities in the country capable of challenging the quite capable Egyptian armed forces. They are quite capable because we, the United States, trained and equipped them.

There was great dissatisfaction among the electorate in Egypt as the voters went to the polls. Most of the people believed that the SCAF had severely and arbitrarily limited their choices. With the runoff, their choices were limited even further - you could vote for a former general and Mubarak regime official (Ahmad Shafiq), or a representative of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood (Muhammad Mursi). Many of the people that stood up to the Mubarak regime in Tahrir Square last February don't believe that either Shafiq or Mursi represent what they envision as the future of arguably the most important country in the Arab world.

The SCAF is aware of this - these generals are neither stupid nor tone deaf. However, despite a large Islamist presence in the armed forces, the Egyptian military is not likely to favor the imposition of an Islamic state in Egypt. There are practical reasons that parallel the social and religious reasons for which they do not favor such governance. Several Islamist and Muslim Brotherhood leaders have advocated the abrogation of the peace treaty with Israel.

This policy goal is fraught with danger. That peace treaty is the funding mechanism for about $1.3 billion of U.S. aid annually to the Egyptian armed forces. Without the treaty, there is no reason for the United States to continue to fund the Egyptian military. Also, without the treaty, Israel will have to reallocate its defense resources from countering threats from Iran and Syria, and add Egypt to the mix. As I said, Egypt has large and capable armed forces and pose a real threat to the Israelis. The Egyptians will not be able to defeat the Israel Defense Forces on the battlefield, but combat between the two will be expensive for both sides, expensive in both blood and treasure.

From the Egyptians with whom I correspond, it appears to me that most of the people that were in Tahrir Square are not going to be happy whatever the outcome. They do not want what they consider a "remnant" of the Mubarak regime, that being Ahmad Shafiq, nor do they want a radical Islamist in the person of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Muhammad Mursi. So what is the option? Do they favor the military stepping in and setting aside an election, basically squelching the voice of the people?

We have already seen hints that the SCAF is considering changes to the basic structure of the Egyptian government, reducing the power and authority of the president while retaining most of the real power for themselves. How will this play in Washington? The Obama Administration faces a dilemma - they did not support long-time American ally Husni Mubarak when the people rose up against the regime. Are they now going to side with the SCAF to prevent the installation of an Islamist government that threatens American interests in the region? Tough call.

My crystal ball is a bit cloudy. I don't know what will happen in Egypt. I do know that the people are not happy with the SCAF. They did not like the limitations on the number of candidates in the first election that has led to the runoff. They do not like the impression that if Muslim Brotherhood candidate Muhammad Mursi emerges as the winner that the SCAF will move to limit his power. The people do not necessarily favor an Islamist government, but they do not like the fact that a group of generals are deciding the fate of their country in essence without the people's input.

My personal preference would be the installation of a moderate, secular government headed by Ahmad Shafiq, although he was not my first choice in the general elections - I favored Amru Musa. We do not need an Islamist-inspired or dominated government on the border of a key American ally - Israel - nor do we need the principal power in the Arab-speaking world to be an Islamic state.

At some point, we as a country have to decide - are our interests more important than a pure democracy in Egypt? Again, tough call. I'm going with American interests. Not a real solution, I know, but it's better than chaos.