How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
On July 18, the tenth day of Ramadan, Egypt’s interim president, Adly Mansour, addressed the nation. The speech lasted ten minutes and was delivered in eloquent Arabic. Egyptians rejoiced. After two and a half politically grueling years during which, by virtually every measure, Egyptians became worse off than they had been before Hosni Mubarak’s 2011 fall, it had come to this: celebrating because the leader of the moment gave a speech that was short and intelligible.
In the wake of the July 3 military intervention that brought Mohamed Morsi’s presidency to a premature end, Egypt has a new opportunity to build a more just political order. But that task is just as difficult now, if not more so, than it was in February 2011. The Muslim Brotherhood and its poor decision-making, incompetence, and authoritarianism in the last two and half years did make Egypt’s problems worse, but it did not create them, either. Those old problems -- economic inequality, creaky infrastructure, a failing public-health system, nonexistent government services, and a political system rigged to serve the elite -- have persisted for decades and might just lead to further uncertainty and instability.
There are reasons to like the transition that Mansour and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) have set up, notably its sequence. The generals have put constitutional revisions before parliamentary and presidential elections, which will avoid the destabilizing politics that occurred during the transition from Mubarak to Morsi, when Egyptians voted for a parliament and a president whose responsibilities had yet to be enumerated. Once elected, politicians sought to maximize their powers and, in turn, enshrine their prerogative in a new constitution. Even so, there is an undeniable flaw at the heart of the new process -- it does not match the politics of the moment.
Egypt’s new cabinet is an emblem of that problem. It is a transitional body intended to guide Egypt for a mere nine months, yet it took two weeks of navigating a thicket of competing personalities, with axes to grind and conflicting worldviews, to put together. The result is far from stellar. It is basically a collection of retreads with backgrounds in the transitional cabinets of Essam Sharaf (prime minister between March and November 2011) and Kemal Ganzouri (prime minister between December 2011 and August 2012), as well as a group of second-rung Mubarak officials. This means that, collectively, Egypt’s new leaders have nothing to show in the way of accomplishments during their previous stints of service.
Hazem Beblawi, the new prime minister, is a man of some renown, having written a seminal article on the rentier state in the Arab world more than two decades ago. He led the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia in the mid-1990s and before that was chairman and CEO of the Export Development Bank of Egypt. He was an ineffective finance minister from July to December of 2011. In October of that year, he tried to resign after the army killed 28 Copts who were protesting outside the Maspiro television building over the demolition of a church in Upper Egypt. Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi rejected Beblawi’s resignation, but Beblawi nevertheless left office after Ghanzouri replaced Sharaf as transitional prime minister.
Nabil Fahmy, the recently appointed foreign minister, served Mubarak in several posts, including as deputy foreign minister until his appointment as dean of the School of Public Affairs at the American University in Cairo. He is universally respected outside of Egypt and is thus a bright spot in the new government. Egypt faces a number of pressing diplomatic issues that demand someone of Fahmy’s stature and skills, including the ability to repair relations with the countries of the Nile Basin; manage deteriorating ties with Turkey, which is an important investor in Egypt; and navigate the soon-to-be-resumed Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations.
There is also Ziad Bahaa Eldin, a social democrat and a man of integrity who was floated as prime minister but had to settle for deputy prime minister (a meaningless title) and minister for planning and international cooperation. The Tamarud (rebellion) activists who were central to Morsi’s downfall were only lukewarm on the idea of Bahaa Eldin as prime minister. That might not bode well for Bahaa Eldin as he tries to carry out the duties of his current position, which include such controversial portfolios as economic assistance from the United States.
And of course, there is Mohamed El Baradei, the new vice president for international affairs (which raises a question of how his responsibilities will differ from those of the foreign minister). El Baradei, almost a mythical character since his return to Egypt in February 2010, has faced waxing and waning popularity in post-Mubarak Egypt. Although he has almost always been correct in his public opinions -- about the Mubarak regime’s fragility, the intentions of the SCAF, or the double-dealing of the Muslim Brotherhood -- there has always been a half-in, half-out quality to his engagement. Perhaps that is a function of self-preservation for a man who has the perspicacity to understand how Egypt actually works. Still, El Baradei’s periodic withdrawals to his home on a distant edge of Cairo and his onetime base in Vienna seem to convey more of a concern with the El Baradei brand than with Egypt.
Together, these men constitute the government that is tasked with shepherding Egypt through this new and unexpected phase of its transition (to what no one is quite sure). Egypt requires competent economic stewardship, which was potentially made easier with the promise of financial resources from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, even as the politics of economic decision-making remain fraught with competing demands. It will also oversee constitutional revisions, a referendum on those changes, and preparations for two elections.
Whatever hope Egypt’s transitional government has instilled in Egyptians as it gets to work, it also faces an angry and resentful Muslim Brotherhood that is determined to do what it can to disrupt the political process. The Brothers might ultimately be unsuccessful, but their sit-ins, demonstrations, and not-so-hushed rhetoric of violence and martyrdom vastly complicate the tasks ahead. The narrative of victimhood will stir a base that might have otherwise dissipated had the calamitous Morsi been permitted to carry on. Of course, the Brothers’ commitment to the ballot box has always been most pronounced when the group is under pressure. If the now-deposed president had stayed in office, he and the Brothers’ guidance office would likely have found a way to ensure the Brotherhood’s political power regardless of the group’s performance. It now seems unlikely that the colorless jurist who is palace-sitting has the ability to match the Brothers’ war of position with anything other than coercion. This portends a slide toward authoritarianism, not democracy.
For all the serious-sounding intonations about the importance of inclusivity in Egyptian politics, no one actually means it. Morsi and the Brotherhood did not. The activists who worked to bring the president down do not, either. Nor does the new transitional government. Many in Egypt have generally looked upon what has befallen the Brothers over the last three weeks with thinly veiled glee. So uninterested are Egypt’s new leaders in broad coalitions that the term “liberal fascism” has crept into the Egyptian political lexicon. The liberal hero Bassem Youssef -- Jon Stewart’s Egyptian doppelganger -- admonished his admirers for inching ever closer to becoming what they proclaim to despise. Fervent declarations that this month’s military coup was in the service of democracy reveal a cynicism toward political institutions that is rivaled only by the Brotherhood’s own.
There is a lot of time before the presidential elections currently scheduled for nine months from now. Many presidential contenders will throw their hats in the ring, some of whom will be familiar from the elections of 2012. Perhaps last year’s runner-up, Ahmed Shafiq, or Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the former Muslim Brotherhood member who ran as an independent, will be among them. Whoever he or she is, Egypt’s would-be new leader will seek hero status by promising national rebirth. Egypt has had its fill of heroes in the form of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar al-Sadat, Mubarak, and Morsi -- all false prophets of particular versions of modernity -- but it is crying out for leadership. This is not a recent problem. Not since the 1927 death of the nationalist icon Saad Zaghlul, who never held a position higher than vice president during the short-lived 1913–14 Legislative Assembly, have Egyptians enjoyed something resembling a national leader. In a way, Zaghlul had it easy. The British and King Farouk were clearly identifiable enemies of Egypt's aspirations. If a leader emerges now, he or she will have to confront Egyptians who, knowingly or not, are conspiring against their own country.