Islamists vs. Islamists: A Positive for Egypt? (Part 2)
Guest post by Ali Ezzatyar
(For Part I, from a few days ago, see here.)
The idea that the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascent to power spelled the beginning of a dangerous era underestimated the complexities of the Egyptian landcape and overlooked a number of important nuances.
It is now clear that the Egyptian military establishment had no intention of letting the Brotherhood, or any party but its own, govern freely. While Mohamed Morsi is proving himself to be a competent tactician in the tug and war that has followed his election, his influence is still very limited. He and his party, backed by most Egyptians, are essentially locked in a power struggle with the military. The result of that struggle remains anyone’s guess and will take many more months, if not years, to have any notion of permanence.
Further, insofar as Morsi is able to form and implement domestic and foreign policy, the circumstances under which he is forced to formulate such policy is necessarily bringing him away from the extreme elements in his own party. That should be an essential consideration for the international community, and particularly the West, in developing its own policies towards the new Egypt.
The Egyptian military, led symbolically by its president, is currently embarking on an operation that is being called the most significant military exercise by its armed forces in 30 years. That operation, which targets Islamic militants, genuinely flies in the face of the conventional wisdom the world applied to Egypt when its revolution began. At the helm of power, the Brotherhood presidency has at least temporarily abandoned a number of its core pan-Islamic ideals. While this is likely seen by the new president as necessary to maintain stability in the short term, it also serves as a boon for none other than Israel, a purported arch-nemesis, and stability in the region.
This demonstrates two key things. First, power is begetting moderation, and second, Islamists, as with other long-time opposition parties that ascend to power, are rational when their hard-fought and won positions are at stake.
Naturally, since suspicion about the Muslim Brotherhood has not subsided, the media’s spin on the events of the last two weeks has painted the military operation as Morsi’s way of outmaneuvering the military. But that neglects the reality that the military still wields the power in Egypt — any maneuvering Morsi is involved in, including dismissing members of the military itself, is likely with the military’s support. It is unclear what this all means for the Brotherhood’s longevity or its domestic policy going forward, but the current balance of power between the democratically elected party and the military suits the international community, and that community can take a few key steps to help maintain that balance:
First, it can provide the Egyptian military what it needs, in terms of material and moral support, to maintain domestic order. Besides the obvious practical necessities of stability, this will push the image that the government still has the ability to maintain order. Israel has set an example by allowing unprecedented access to movement within the Sinai. What this serves to do is build national confidence in the functioning of the Egyptian bureaucracy, which trickles down to the presidency only if the president publicly supports such activity. Given the precariousness of Morsi’s position, he is obliged to give that support. If he later backtracks on the anti-militant stance he has taken, he may ultimately undermine his own legitimacy.
Second, the international community should continue to call on the Egyptian military to allow for the democratic process in Egypt to play itself out. Unlike its decision to ostracize Hamas in the aftermath of its election in the Palestinian territories to no benefit of Israel or the Palestinians, it has so far maintained a pro-democracy stance in Egypt. This is the only rational public face that the West can assume without losing the favor of the Egyptian people, but it is also a win-win situation tactically speaking. It can help further moderate Egypt’s new government as it seeks to evolve and grow in stature. And since the military has demonstrated that international pressure to reform must have its limits, it is also relatively risk-free. The West can rest assured that the military will not be handing power to an Islamist government in short order. Meanwhile, the dichotomy between Egypt’s two main domestic forces may serve to moderate both, which has the best chance for long-term stability and reform towards a healthy democracy.
Talk of a healthy democracy is still premature, to be sure. But with Morsi and other prominent members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt recently calling for regime change in Syria, it would appear that some sort of order is emerging from the Egyptian chaos that can even serve as an example for Egypt’s neighbors.
Ali Ezzatyar, a contributor at The Reaction, is a lawyer and writer based in Paris and San Francisco. He is also the director of the steering committee to establish the Berkeley Program on Entrepreneurship and Democracy in the Middle East.