Following yesterday’s historic announcement that Mohamed Morsi had won Egypt’s first competitive presidential election, I discussed the implications of this development with former New York Times diplomatic correspondent Bernard Gwertzman in an interview featured on CFR.org and published below.
Egypt’s new president faces an ongoing struggle with the military, but the United States must proceed carefully given the high stakes in Egypt and the profound effect events there will have on the region, says CFR’s Robert Danin
Interviewee: Robert Danin, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies, CFR
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
Following the announcement June 24 that Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi had been elected Egypt’s president, Morsi said he was quitting the Brotherhood and inviting other parties into his government in the interests of a united country. But Robert Danin, a Middle East expert for CFR, is skeptical about Morsi’s bid to rule a united Egypt. “I don’t think Egyptians are buying it,” says Danin. “The real test will come with the policies that he promulgates, and to whom he really turns.” Danin says that the United States, with declining influence in Egypt, should proceed cautiously despite the fact that U.S. interests are at stake. The United States should “recognize that this is a long term process, and so we should proceed judiciously. This is a game of chess, and each move has to be calculated very seriously,” Danin says.
Who is Morsi? He has a doctorate from the University of Southern California; he taught in the United States for a while, yet he comes back and is an Islamist. What kind of a person is he?
By all accounts, he appears to have been a functionary within the Muslim Brotherhood. He was not the first choice of the party; he was the default candidate when Brotherhood leader Khairat al-Shater was barred from running. We’re still learning a good deal about Morsi, but one thing we’ve seen both in Egyptian history and in the Arab uprisings is that it’s a mistake to assume that because someone has spent time in the West that that has necessarily made the person pro-Western. The leading theoretician of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb, lived in the United States himself, and it was that experience in the United States that actually made him quite hostile to the United States and to the West, which he saw as decadent and repulsive. We made the mistake with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and with others in assuming that because they lived in the West [Britain], they have adopted Western values. We’re now learning that that’s not the case at all.
In Morsi’s first speech after his announced victory, he said he would resign from the Muslim Brotherhood and would include a wide number of different parties in his cabinet. He also held out a hand of friendship to the Coptic Christians, who were worried about him, as well as to women. What did we learn from this?
He is trying to assuage the majority of Egyptians who are leery of the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s true that in the runoff, Morsi appears to have won 52 percent of the vote, but interpreting what that means is a challenge. To be sure, this election runoff was a very difficult choice for most Egyptians: Do we vote for, in essence, the old regime candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister, and essentially roll back the entire revolution, or do we vote for the Muslim Brotherhood, which for many represents something anathema to what they seek? There is no real liberal or progressive alternative between those two choices, and Morsi’s popularity ratings and the Muslim Brotherhood’s popularity ratings are extremely low in Egypt. By resigning from the Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party yesterday, Morsi’s trying to signal that this will be an inclusive government, that it will not be a Muslim Brotherhood-controlled government. But I don’t think Egyptians are buying it. It was an important symbolic gesture, but the real test will come with the policies that he promulgates, and to whom he really turns.
Morsi also said that he wants to be sworn in as president before the parliament, but there is no sitting parliament now, since it was abolished by the Supreme Court before the election results were announced. Will this cause an early confrontation with the military?
We have a power play at work here between the Muslim Brotherhood, which had been elected both to a majority in the parliament and now to the presidency, and the military, which has sought to roll back many of the gains and contain the Muslim Brotherhood’s advances. As you rightly point out, the parliament has been dissolved, the constitutional process has been halted, [and] an interim constitution has been imposed by the military. So you have a standoff, to a certain extent. The election took place June 16 and 17. The results were expected last Thursday [June 21], and then they didn’t happen. What happened in that intervening period? We don’t know exactly, but most people believe that there were intensive negotiations between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood over how to move forward.
What did the military want? Before the presidential results were announced, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) announced that they were stripping the presidency of much of its powers. And the Supreme Court ruled that the parliamentary elections, which had been dominated by the Brotherhood, were illegal.
This is not necessarily a case of good guys versus bad guys; this is a case of different bases of power vying for the way forward that preserves their interests.
The military had a real dilemma. There were three choices before them. They could have gone ahead with the election results and allowed Morsi to be named president. They could have somehow engineered it so Shafiq, who also claimed to have won, was named the president. Or they could have annulled the whole election. Either of the last two choices would have likely led to a serious confrontation and violence, so they chose the most stable path. But the military has gutted the presidency of so much of its power that there is a question of how will Egypt move forward, given that it has a denuded president, is in a state of emergency, and has a military that holds many of the cards. A real dilemma for Egypt today is you have a legal system being adjudicated by either the military or a judiciary that is full of Mubarak-era appointees. Forging a way forward is the real challenge. This is not necessarily a case of good guys versus bad guys; this is a case of different bases of power vying for the way forward that preserves their interests.
The forces that led the revolution have largely been marginalized. Those liberal forces in Egypt have been sidelined. The supreme irony is you really have two institutions, both of which are actually holdovers from the Mubarak era: the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. Neither of them is really responsible for the revolution. But both of them are seeking to channel and reap the benefits of the revolution even though they both stood on the sidelines.
President Obama telephoned both Morsi and Shafiq after the results were announced. He urged Morsi to include a broad political cross-section in his new government, which Morsi says he is trying to do. Should the United States be worried about this situation, and what should it do about it?
The United States has much to be concerned about in Egypt. This is home to three-quarters of the Arab world. In many ways, what is happens in Egypt will have a huge impact on the rest of the region. The United States has security interests there and [interests] in ensuring that there’s regional stability. But the United States’ influence is limited.
What happened to the liberals who led the uprising in January 2011?
The forces that led the revolution have largely been marginalized. Those liberal forces in Egypt have been sidelined. The supreme irony is you really have two institutions, both of which are actually holdovers from the Mubarak era: the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.
It’s unusual that the president called both the victor as well as the defeated candidate in an election, but the signal it sends is that the United States wants a peaceful transition. The United States has also been very deeply engaged with the military, encouraging them to complete the transition and hand over power to a civilian rule. But the United States can’t dictate to the military. Both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood want to have a good relationship with the United States, so the United States should proceed cautiously, should not rush to try to direct events there. We should also recognize that this is a long-term process, and so we should proceed judiciously. This is a game of chess, and each move has to be calculated very seriously.
In Israel, there was a conciliatory statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying he wanted to work with the new Egyptian government. Are the Israelis worried?
The whole region is worried. The Israelis are worried and the Saudis and other Gulf states are also worried. The only party that probably is not worried right now is Iran, not because Iran believes that there is about to become a new Egyptian-Iranian alliance–there are too many things that divide the Egyptians from the Iranians. But to the extent that there’s instability in Egypt, to the extent that the strong ties to the United States and the West that have existed are likely to diminish and this is not going to be as pro-Western a regime as it was, that is welcome to the Iranians. But the rest of the region is very concerned about Egypt’s future, about what kind of rule the Muslim Brotherhood will impose. They’re concerned about stability. We’ve just crossed one very important threshold. They’ve had the first democratic elections in Egyptian history for the president, and a peaceful transfer of power. That’s the good news. The bad news is that many of the institutions of democracy are badly bruised, if not in tatters–the parliament, the constitution, the civilian rule over the military.
Are we looking to an early confrontation between the military and Morsi, or can they glide over the differences right now over the parliament?
Both sides have an interest in working together, and neither side has an interest in confrontation. On the one hand, the Muslim Brotherhood’s power is very limited in material terms. They don’t have tanks, they don’t have the control over all the institutions of power that the military has, but they do have a certain degree of public legitimacy. In contrast, the military has a lot of raw power, but it is also suspect, and the demonstrators that have taken to the streets want the military to hand over power.
So both sides have cards to play, and that’s why ultimately what appears to have happened is both sides recognized the benefits of working together rather that confronting one another. But they are competitors, and there will be challenges. The key will be for this to remain peaceful and to ultimately build legitimate institutions, because to the extent that that process does not work, the other default institution is Tahrir Square. That is where politics will be played out if they’re not successfully played out between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.