The Egyptian Restoration

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In Cairo, members of the Egypt parliament attend its first session in three years.

Grantees in this story

Marc Lynch directs George Washington University’s Project on Middle East Political Science, which receives support from Carnegie Corporation. He contributes to the Washington Post’s political-science blog The Monkey Cage, is a non-resident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and is finishing a book, The New Arab Wars: Uprising and Anarchy Across the Middle East (Public Affairs), for publication in the fall — all of which constitutes, as he announced recently on his personal blog, a “sabbatical.” Lynch is a longtime observer of Egypt and, given the tumultuous inaugural this week of Egypt’s parliament, Carnegie Corporation visiting media fellow Scott Malcomson called him for comment:

On January 10, Egypt had a parliament for the first time since 2012. The new House of Representatives has 596 members, the majority of whom support the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a former Army general who is widely seen as preserving a dominant political role for the military. Under pressure to pass judgment on 341 presidential decrees made since 2012 — and to do so in 15 days — the House of Representatives immediately descended into shouting and disorder, and live TV coverage of its deliberations was suspended. Is this a democratic body doomed to failure?

Marc Lynch: This parliament is not really about democracy. It looks a lot like the parliaments from the pre-revolutionary period, the period of former President Hosni Mubarak. It’s dominated by people who were affiliated with the old regime. The Muslim Brotherhood, which used to be the largest opposition group and had backed President Morsi [who was removed from office in a 2013 coup], is mostly in jail and the brotherhood has been criminalized. This is a parliament that will mainly be about dividing up the spoils among the elites. It’s pretty disappointing to anyone who looks back to 2011 and 2012 and thought that Egypt might make a transition to democracy. This is not that.

Some interesting things could happen nonetheless. There is significant unhappiness among the elites. This is clearly meant to be a loyalist parliament, but there is no longer anything like the Mubarak-era National Democratic Party to maintain discipline. So you can see people using the parliament to try and embarrass the president, or grandstand, or put forward their own positions.

So it’s at the point where the possibility of grandstanding actually becomes a merit rather than a flaw.

At this point, that’s the only interesting thing you can see coming out of it.

In the 2011-12 parliamentary elections, the Brotherhood and other Islamist parties took the surpassing majority of seats in both houses — the old system being bicameral. Are these parties really out of the picture now?

I don’t think the Muslim Brotherhood exists anymore, at least not in the form that we’ve known for the past 30 years. The repression has been so thorough. Most of the leadership is in jail. All the social services that they developed have been shut down or nationalized. Resources were confiscated. A lot of people were killed and others went into exile. While there are still members and some organization, it is all very different. A lot of the leaders who are not in prison are living in Turkey, Europe or Qatar. They are not in touch with day-to-day events, are struggling to come up with a strategy, and are not really in control of the organization.

On the ground, you have younger members, in particular, who have been thoroughly disillusioned. After all, they did what they were supposed to do: they went into elections, they participated in the system, and they ended up with a military coup and repression. There is also enormous bitterness over the Rabaa massacre [of August 2013, in which Morsi supporters in two protest camps were killed by state security forces], when something like a thousand of them were killed in one day. They are fired up for revenge — or sunk into complete alienation.

So the traditional leadership is in disarray. Younger activists are angry and hot-headed; some go off into armed groups, others withdraw from politics altogether. It’s a much more fragmented, less disciplined organization. It’s not that the Brotherhood is lying low. It has changed in a fundamental way.

What are the implications of all this for the academic network you’ve helped build at POMEPS (George Washington University’s Project on Middle East Political Science]?

It’s difficult to do research in Egypt right now, but political scientists are adapting. What you saw back in 2011 was this racing to keep up in real time; now you’re seeing more broad reflections, people taking stock of what happened, developing new theories, building out new data sources. It’s a less heady time, a more depressing time. But there is a lot of great work being done now, and I think it is an ongoing achievement of POMEPS that we’ve sort of normalized the idea of bringing that research to a public audience.

The Egyptian revolution brought out a lot of people who would not have thought to present their research and conclusions to a broader public — this enormous upheaval made them want to reach a wide audience, which we helped them to do. That hasn’t ended. They haven’t gone back into academic isolation. It has become almost routine that when people write an academic article they also write a public version. When something happens, there is now a network and a platform in place. If a crisis happens in Yemen, for example, we now know whom to contact and how to connect them to platforms so the insights of political science can be brought before a wider group of policymakers and the public. That’s an enormous change.

In the POMEPS essay collection The Arab Thermidor, there was some discussion of how the 2013 coup fit into a changing Islamist landscape; the restoration in Egypt was not just about Egypt. In that context, President al-Sisi also promised Egypt’s return to a strong regional role. That hasn’t really happened. I imagine these themes will appear in your book The New Arab Wars, but until that comes out later this year can you give us a sense of your thinking?

Just to kind of walk through this: Since the revolution, and since the coup, Egypt is not a regional power anymore. Egypt has always been one of the leading powers and a contender for regional leadership – certainly it has viewed itself that way — but since the revolution it has been so thoroughly consumed with its internal problems that it has stopped being a player in the power equation. It has become an object, rather than a subject, of regional politics.

When you saw the Gulf support for the coup, there were a couple of things going on there. One was fear of the Muslim Brotherhood, of the Islamists. But more broadly there was a resistance to political change of any kind. The coup was part of a regional counter-revolution; basically, they wanted to put the old order back in place. The Gulf states were fiercely hostile to all of the Arab spring uprisings. Reversing the Egyptian transition to democracy was an end unto itself, for them.

A third level of what was going on centered on the Saudi-Egyptian bloc, which had been a pillar of the regional order for several decades. The Egyptian revolution, especially when Morsi came to power, began to push Egypt into the Qatari bloc, taking this major state out of the Saudi column and putting it into the Qatari column. So it’s not just about Islamists, not just about the regional counter-revolution; it’s also about Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates wanting to get Egypt back from the Qataris.

Egypt does remain active, though not on any grand scale. They are undertaking a very brutal counter-insurgency in Sinai. They’ve rebuilt the relationship with Israel, maintained the siege of Gaza, and are fighting Hamas. They’re doing much the same things as were done in the Mubarak period. Basically it’s a neighborhood policy. The partial exception is Libya, which they have bombed a few times in support of Operation Dignity, the campaign against the Islamists in Libya.

Egypt is very much consumed by its internal problems and highly dependent on the Gulf to keep it from going broke.

American policy in Egypt was fascinating during and after the revolution, rather less so after the coup. In August 2013, when the al-Sisi government was settling in, you wrote in Foreign Policy, “As long as Egypt remains on its current path, the Obama administration should suspend all aid, keep the embassy in Cairo closed, and refrain from treating the military regime as a legitimate government.” How would you characterize the trajectory of U.S. policy on Egypt?

I still think that would have been a good course of action had they done it, but they didn’t.

Basically what happened was that, after the revolution, the United States tried very hard to try to guide Egypt through a democratic transition. It’s really quite remarkable. No previous U.S. president had been willing to contemplate serious political change in Egypt. Some presidents, like George W. Bush, would talk about democracy, but they didn’t want to actually change the government. They just wanted Mubarak to be a bit nicer — because they thought that would make the regime more stable. But President Obama was not only willing to accept Mubarak’s removal but actually to spend the next two years pushing Egypt toward elections, to get it through a democratic transition, trying to get the different players to work together and stop polarization.

But the U.S. found itself increasingly alone in this remarkable effort. Once the Muslim Brotherhood was in power it behaved in a very high-handed way. Its opponents were deeply against the Brotherhood’s continuing rule. There were street demonstrations and violence. And the United States was trying desperately to keep all this moving toward democracy and it couldn’t. Its allies in the Gulf were pushing in the opposite direction. They were encouraging the coup; they supported the coup. After the coup happened, Obama was faced with a fait accompli. His allies were supporting the coup. Not only that, they were funneling huge amounts of money in, which offset anything the United States might do. The U.S. was thinking of suspending $300 million in aid; meanwhile Saudi Arabia and the UAE were putting in $10 billion.

From the Author

Scott Malcomson is a political risk and communications consultant and the author, most recently, of Splinternet: How Geopolitics and Commerce Are Fragmenting the World Wide Web. @smalcomson

I think what we have now is a passive-aggressive U.S. policy: we go along with them, but we make sure everybody knows we don’t like it. As a result, we basically anger everybody. The Egyptian government is highly sensitive to any perceived slight, while the Egyptian opposition feels it has been abandoned. And it has.

Scott Malcomson is a Visiting Media Fellow at Carnegie Corporation of New York, specializing in international affairs.  He is the author of Splinternet: How Geopolitics and Commerce Are Fragmenting the World Wide Web. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and contributors, not necessarily of the Corporation.