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Q&A on Egypt's Post-Mubarak Future

Steven A. Cook

  • Country: The United States
  • Title: Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
  • Education: Vassar College, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, University of Pennsylvania
  • Books: Ruling But Not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey (2007)

In "The U.S.-Egyptian Breakup," CFR Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies Steven A. Cook argues that the decades-long relationship between Hosni Mubarak's Egypt and the United States ran like "a live wire" through Egypt's popular opposition movement. As such, any new Egyptian government in Cairo is sure to have a more distant and perhaps more fraught relationship with Washington. With the Mubarak era reaching a dramatic end last week, what comes next for the Egyptian people -- and for their country's ties with the United States?

George Sanderson: With attention now shifting to Bahrain, Libya, and elsewhere, what crucial, unanswered questions are in danger of being ignored in Egypt? In other words, Hosni Mubarak may be gone, but how much have the protesters actually achieved?

Steven A. Cook: That's a very good question. Egyptians and foreign observers have taken to calling recent events in Egypt a "revolution," but technically speaking it isn't -- at least not yet. Mubarak is gone, but his military remains in charge of the country, the proposed constitutional changes are limited, and much of the security apparatus and even the once-ruling National Democratic Party remain strong (at least outside of Cairo and Alexandria).

Now, the constitutional committee has sought to go beyond the five constitutional amendments and the deletion of one article to which the military is (and Mubarak was) committed. The committee has now put eight amendments on the table, including an explicit reference to writing a new constitution.

It's important to remember that transitions to democracy are fraught and that revolutions rarely end the way that the people on the barricades hoped they would.

Samuel Levy: Does the transitional council in Egypt appear committed to achieving genuine reform, or is it merely hoping to quietly hold on to power until the world's gaze shifts elsewhere?

Steven A. Cook: There is reason to be wary of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. First, all these guys are Mubarak's officers. He promoted them and they were loyal to him -- to a fault.

Second, the armed forces are organically connected to the political order through a variety of institutions, but most important, through the presidency. The commanders are the inheritors of the Free Officers who founded the political system, and they are among its primary beneficiaries.

Third, the military has vast economic interests that the political system helped make possible. If you have a fundamental change from an authoritarian order to a more democratic, open system, it seems hard to imagine how the military can hold on to its various business ventures, which so far have been shielded from public view.

James Chute: Can Egypt, a culture that has long lived under autocratic or monarchic rule, accept democracy, believe in it, or even trust it? Democracy is self-rule that requires continual effort to be successful. What sort of historical or cultural resources can Egypt draw on to sustain its sudden transition to democracy?

Steven A. Cook: Yes, of course. It was clear even before Egyptians rose up against Mubarak in January that they wanted to live in a democracy. Egyptians have a history of proto-democratic institutions. Beginning in the 1920s, Egypt had a constitution and a parliament. It wasn't a Jeffersonian democracy, to be sure -- parliament was often suspended, the ideological and personal battles among politicians weren't pretty, and the British remained the arbiter of most issues. But there is something for Egypt to fall back on, unlike many of its neighbors.

Furthermore, if you take a close look at the Egyptian constitution, there are some aspects of it that are quite liberal. The Free Officers actually oversaw the writing of a fairly liberal constitution, but they ignored it. That constitution is the subject of an Arabic-language book by Salah Eissa titled The Constitution in a Garbage Can.  

Jeff: Talk a bit about some of the causes of the protests: Was the El Dabaa nuclear reactor or the May 2010 treaty on the equitable sharing of the Nile waters a factor in the uprising? What about revelations from WikiLeaks?

Steven A. Cook: I don't believe that either of these factors directly contributed to the uprising. To be sure, Egyptians were dismayed that some of the countries that are part of the Nile Basin Initiative agreed to change the terms of Nile water-sharing over Egyptian objections -- a sign of Egypt's weakness under Mubarak -- but there were other much more important factors. Scholars will look back and identify economic grievances, police brutality, electoral fraud, and the arrogance of the regime, but I don't believe these factors caused the uprising. After all, these problems clearly existed well before January.

In my forthcoming book on Egypt, The Struggle for Egypt, I identify coercion as the primary cause of the uprising. To the extent that Mubarak relied on force or the threat of force to maintain political control, he was at great risk of actually losing control because coercion is risky and expensive. Once the fear factor melts away, it almost always leads to an explosion.

Dennis McMahon: Have any signs surfaced of what sorts of guarantees for the rights of Christians will exist in the new Egypt?

Steven A. Cook: It's unclear, but in the post-revolutionary glow, there is a lot of Christian-Muslim solidarity. Once more, there are suspicions that Mubarak and the people around him, notably the former interior minister, Habib al-Adly, stirred up Christian-Muslim tension as a means to maintain control of the population. As long as Christians feared the Muslim majority, they would support the authoritarianism of the regime, fearing what might happen to them in a different political environment.

Wolfram Rutherford: Do you believe that the military leadership will fulfill their commitment to the democratic transition? Moreover, what role will the troops play after the establishment of democracy in Egypt?

Rahman: Do you think the Egyptian military is going to play a role similar to that of the military in Turkey? Can we compare, for example, Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk of Turkey or Juan Perón in Argentina?

Steven A. Cook: No. Models are interesting for trying to learn broad lessons, but sometimes they obscure more than they reveal. Turkey began a transition to democracy despite the military, not because of the armed forces.

Turkey began a transition to democracy only between 2002 and 2005, when it undertook thoroughgoing reforms in order to meet the Europe Union's requirements (known as the Copenhagen criteria) to begin EU membership negotiations. The military opposed these changes, but because the Justice and Development Party led a broad coalition of pious Turks, big business, Kurds, and average citizens who looked forward to the political and economic benefits of EU membership, the military was constrained from acting to stymie the reforms. Militaries always need civilian support to intervene in politics, and with approximately 70 percent of the Turkish public backing the EU process, the officers would have undermined their cherished standing among Turks had they intervened to subvert the reforms.

I don't know enough about Argentina or Indonesia (the model currently in vogue for Egypt), but I know Egypt, and it is going to develop according to its own history, politics, and social setting.

John Ragheb: How would you describe the young leaders in the military, such as Sami Anan and his entourage? Will they be different from the old guard?

Steven A. Cook: Lieutenant General Enan and the other "younger" senior leaders of the military are not very well known. Enan has a reputation for being smart and, some say, corrupt. He came to Mubarak's attention after the 1997 Luxor massacre, when his forces chased down the perpetrators of that attack. Like Enan, the other members of the Supreme Council are all Mubarak men. There was a rumor that some of them -- specifically, Air Marshal Reda Mahmoud Hafez Mohamed, the country's air force commander  -- were starting to like the exercise of power. There is no way of knowing whether this is true or not, but it runs against the grain of the Egyptian officer corps' socialization over the last nearly 30 years. The military's narrative has been that the officers went back to the barracks after the 1967 defeat and stayed there to prepare for a showdown with Israel. The crossing of the Suez Canal -- Egypt's greatest military achievement -- was made possible by focusing on soldiering, not politics, thereby vindicating the return to the barracks after 1967.  

Miguel: With the new Egyptian government likely to become more ambiguous toward the United States and its onetime Middle Eastern allies, who will Cairo turn to as primary global allies? Turkey? Russia?

Steven A. Cook: It is certainly likely that a new Egyptian government, whatever its character, is not going to pursue tight strategic alignment with the United States. There was not an outpouring of anti-Americanism during the protests, but Egyptians are mistrustful of the United States. After all, Washington -- under both Republican and Democratic administrations -- enabled Mubarak's regime. As a result, there will be political pressure to distance Cairo from Washington.

Christopher Patterson: Could there be a long-term advantage to Egypt's military adopting a more accountable civilian government? Whereas neighboring governments rely on revenue generated from oil and gas to build up military infrastructure, an accountable democratic government (one not antagonistic to Israel) could in theory access cheaper funds in international debt markets for both domestic and security infrastructure.

Steven A. Cook: In theory, yes, but in reality it is unlikely. The military is going to be concerned that its interests are being taken into account. Under Mubarak, the officers could rest assured that one of their own would deliver weapons and money, as well as ensure the military's central place in Egypt's nationalist pantheon. As a result, the military was able to take a low political profile. Under a civilian government, the military may very well demonstrate more autonomy as it seeks to protect its assets and interests.

Bob Boswell: What sort of relationship does today's Muslim Brotherhood have to the group that was formed in the 1920s and collaborated with Hitler in an attempt to oust the British from Egypt? And what sort of vision for sharia law do they have for Egypt?

Steven A. Cook: Hassan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Ismailia in late 1927. There has been much misreporting about its relationship to fascism and Nazi Germany. The Brotherhood is/was not a fascist political movement. Like many Egyptian nationalist groups during World War II, members of the Brotherhood supported the German war effort because of Great Britain's long occupation of Egypt. This includes Anwar al-Sadat, who wanted to raise an Egyptian contingent to fight with Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps to oust the British. The Egyptian chief of staff sought to assist a pro-German coup in Iraq, but the plot was discovered. In the 1950s, when rumors abounded that Hitler was alive, Sadat penned a fawning letter to the Nazi leader in the Egyptian magazine Al-Musawwar.   

There is much debate about the Brotherhood's intention. The organization has certainly adopted the discourse of reform and democratic political change. Its legislators in the last few parliaments have acted like responsible members of the People's Assembly. This has led some observers to conclude that the Brotherhood had evolved into a group that could be a source for modernization, pluralism, and eventually, democratic politics. I'm not entirely sure. Although I recognize that the Brotherhood has evolved, there are different views represented within the organization, and it is a significant part of the Egyptian political landscape, it has never repudiated its ultimate goal of establishing an Islamic state under sharia.  

The group's notional political party platform of 2007 raised eyebrows with a number of demonstrably illiberal provisions, including the prohibition of women and Christians serving as head of state and the establishment of a sort of advisory council that would screen legislation to ensure it conformed to Islamic law. It's important to note that the platform was just a draft and it was deeply controversial within the Brotherhood.

Ultimately, we'll have to wait and see. At this point, answering what the Brotherhood will and will not do is mere conjecture.

Jaberry: Why should there be a fundamental change in the relationship between the United States and Egypt after Mubarak's ouster? The military has been the main political power in Egypt since Gamal Abdel al-Nasser took over -- so no big change there. Meanwhile, the opposition is disorganized and ideologically heterogeneous, and Washington has a big presence in terms of money.

Steven A. Cook: Even with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in control -- an ostensibly temporary condition -- it is going to be hard to maintain the same type of U.S.-Egypt bilateral relationship that prevailed for the better part of the last three decades. To be sure, the generals understand that the Egyptian people's rebellion against Mubarak was about the government's brutality, indifference to the vast majority of Egyptians, and corruption. They should also understand that many Egyptians mistrust the United States for Washington's support for Mubarak. They also believe that the strategic relationship warped Egypt's foreign policy. Under these circumstances, it will be hard to get back to business as usual.

Dylan McDonnell: Given Egypt's complex relationship with the United States, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas, what do you see as Egypt's future role
in the Middle East peace process?

Steven A. Cook: Egypt's foreign policy is likely to change in a way that is more independent of the United States and Israel. This has set off alarm bells within Israel and raised concern in Washington, but there is little anyone can do about it. In a more open political environment -- if that is, indeed, what is happening -- the Egyptians will be less inclined to maintain a blockade of Gaza (something profoundly unpopular in Egypt) or remain quiescent the next time Israel makes an incursion into Gaza, the West Bank, or Lebanon.

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