One year after the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak, Egypt is in turmoil. The military has maintained its tenacious grip on power, using iron-fisted tactics to intimate dissidents and discourage protesters. A strong national government has yet to emerge to challenge the army’s rule after parliamentary elections, and the economy is languishing. Politicians seeking to appeal to nationalist sentiment have arrested American pro-democracy workers, stoking tension with the West. In many ways, the situation in Egypt today is just as dire, and just as fragile, as it was on the day of Mubarak’s resignation.
To get a sense of how the post-Mubarak era is taking shape, Need to Know spoke with Steven Cook, the senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the book “Struggle For Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square.”
Sal Gentile: How difficult has the social and political transition in Egypt been since the fall of Mubarak and the start of the revolution a year ago?
Steven Cook: It has, in fact, only been a year since Mubarak fell, and it’s been a tumultuous year. But I think that’s something to be expected for a country that has experienced the kind of political upheaval that Egypt has. Although, I wouldn’t necessarily draw the conclusion that what has happened in Egypt is a “revolution” just yet. The uprising certainly overthrew a leader, but it didn’t overthrow a political order.
And that’s where the army comes in. The military was the backbone of the regime that the people rose up against. And everything that they have done over the course of the last year suggests that they would like to salvage as much as they possibly can of that regime.
I don’t think that the military wants to remain in power in the sense of controlling the day-to-day governance of the country. That is not their goal. But they do want to remain the ultimate authority, source of power and source of legitimacy in the political system. They want to rule without governing, in a way.
Gentile: Politicians who were once close to Mubarak are now distancing themselves from his regime. Just recently, for example, the prosecutors in Mubarak’s trial said they might seek the death penalty. Is this about self-preservation for members of the old political order?
Cook: Absolutely. That is what everybody has been doing since Mubarak fell. They now have a compelling political interest in establishing some daylight between themselves and the Mubarak era. And that’s why the prosecutors, who were appointed by Mubarak, are doing the kinds of things that they are doing. It is about self-preservation in a political environment where public opinion matters in new and different ways than it ever has before.
You see this in not only the prosecutors but in the military, in foreign policy, in the relationship between the United States and Egypt. That is, political actors need to now appeal directly to public sentiment. And Mubarak’s alignment with the United States, the way things had been done before, was massively unpopular with the Egyptian people. And that’s why people are doing things that they wouldn’t normally do. It’s a very different environment than it was a year ago.
Gentile: What about the revolutionaries who took over Tahrir Square and helped oust Mubarak? How has the army remained in power despite their objections?
Cook: They don’t represent the public per se. What the army has banked on since before they pushed Mubarak from power is this mythical “great silent majority.” They view the protesters, the instigators, in the same way that Mubarak did. They are speaking to a broader public who may want change, but also respects the military and believes in the military’s handling of the transition. Believe it or not, that is what the military actually does believe. And there’s a strong sense of Egyptian nationalism and pride and self-empowerment that is shared more broadly, including, obviously, among the instigators of the uprising.
Gentile: The government has accused several American non-governmental organizations of foreign subversion and arrested many of their employees, stoking tension with the United States. What’s the motivation behind these arrests?
Cook: I think, again, you have to look at Egypt and everything that these actors are doing in terms of domestic politics. In this scrambled political environment, in this uncertain political environment, where the military needs to appeal to domestic politics — and they’re not very good at domestic politics — the United States, by dint of the fact that we’ve been supportive of the Mubarak regime for so long, and by dint of our relationship with Israel and everything we’ve done in the region, is a very easy political target if you want to bolster your national bona fides, if you want to bolster your domestic political bona fides at this moment in Egypt right now. And I think what this more broadly reflects is, ultimately, a divergence between Washington and Cairo. I’m not suggesting that there will be a breach in the relationship between the two countries. But I do think that things are going to change, primarily because Egyptian domestic politics has changed. To the extent that we are not wildly popular there, there’s going to be tremendous incentive for politicians to move away from the United States.
Gentile: So is this just the consequence of a democratic transformation taking shape in a country where most people don’t really like us?
Cook: It’s too early to say whether Egypt is going to emerge as a democracy, whatever quality or character that democracy is. But anybody who’s spent any time looking at Eypt in a serious kind of way knew that, given the history of the relationship, given the history of the alignment between Mubarak and the United States, that any kind of fundamental change would make it more difficult for the United States to manage its relations with Egypt. I think what you’ll see is a more independent foreign policy and domestic politics.
Gentile: Egypt’s economic situation is dire. Growth has stalled and the country has nearly run out of foreign reserves. The government has had to ask the International Monetary Fund for a $3.2 billion loan. Given the grim economic reality, isn’t it in Egyptian political leaders’ interest to have at least a tolerable relationship with the United States?
Cook: I think that’s what they want. I think they want a tolerable relationship. They don’t necessarily want a strategic alignment. But at this moment of uncertainty and different crosscutting political pressures and cleavages in society, the present leadership and the leadership that will emerge after these elections will have a compelling interest in pulling away from the United States. Domestic politics trumps all.
Gentile: Egypt has been holding a series of parliamentary elections, and is set to stage a presidential election by the end of June. How aggressively is the military trying to control the outcome of these elections and shape the government that emerges from them?
Cook: Going into these elections, I think the military wanted two seemingly contradictory things. They wanted big turnout so they would be vindicated in their handling of the transition. And they did, they got about 54 percent. But they also wanted a weak parliament. Well, you can’t have both. So now the parliament can now claim legitimately that it has a popular mandate. And I think you’re going to see a struggle between parliament and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. The military says, “No, when we hand over, we’re going to hand over.” But everything that they have done suggests that’s actually not really what they intend to do.
Gentile: What about the Muslim Brotherhood’s relationship with the West? Do economic considerations dictate that they must at least cooperate with the West for the time being? And what does that say about the Brotherhood’s actual governing philosophy going forward?
Cook: What they’re having to do is say, “Okay, we’ll deal with the IMF, okay, we actually do need Western investment or Western assistance.” But where they really are, and where they’ve been consistently — and I’m talking consistently since the 1930s — has been principled opposition to Western involvement in Egyptian politics and Western involvement in Egypt. For an organization that is thought of as being pragmatic, I think it would be fantastically un-pragmatic for them to change right now, because this is one of the things on which they have built their mythology.
Gentile: Overall, what are the outstanding questions that need to be resolved before we can know for sure whether Egypt will emerge as a true democracy in the post-Mubarak era?
Cook: Egyptians have never been able to answer central identity questions: What kind of society they want, what kind of government they want. What is the relationship between religion and state? What is Egypt’s place in the region? What does it stand for? They’ve never been able to answer those questions in a way that made sense to most Egyptians. Mubarak didn’t even bother, he didn’t even try to do it. He just wanted to bind people to the regime through economic development, and for those people who disagreed with his methods, he beat them up. And so, until they answer these questions, these kinds of struggles will continue to reoccur and continue to create an uncertain political environment.
For more on Egypt, watch this week’s segment: