Lynch & Cook: US Policy on Egypt Needs a Big Shift

U.S. Policy on Egypt Needs a Big Shift -

The Obama administration’s response should begin with a clear, public presidential statement specifying what transferring power to a civilian government means. This would not involve micromanaging Egyptian politics in a manner that risks a nationalist backlash in Egypt, but Washington should put the Egyptian military, which receives $1.3 billion annually from the United States, on notice that the officer’s efforts to carve out a post-transition political role for themselves is unacceptable.

In addition, Washington should now throw its weight behind early presidential elections, a demand shared by virtually all Egyptian political forces and recently agreed to under S.C.A.F. pressure. It should also insist on a rapid response to the long-standing demand to end the military trials for civilians and the application of emergency law, which makes those trials and other means of repression possible. It should speak out against recent moves to censor the media and to incite citizens against protesters and foreign journalists. And, crucially, the administration should demand real accountability for those responsible for violence against civilians.

In other words, Obama administration needs to have stronger response to events of Tahrir and be clearer on its policy. I wonder how that's going to be welcomed in the US though on the day Islamists appear to have won a majority in the parliamentary elections. As I see it, these are the elements that go into shaping US policy towards Egypt, and only the first may have the same priorities in mind:

  1. Obama himself, the White House and the NSC who think about the president's vision and legacy, as well as the way these play in American domestic politics;
  2. The State Department, which is probably mostly focused on bilateral mechanics and regional diplomacy;
  3. The Pentagon and Central Command in particular, who care about maintaining the strategic status-quo;
  4. Congress, which will be motivated by the Israel lobby, the defense lobby, the Christian lobby, and a few members longstanding interest in Egypt.

Sarah Carr on the election trail

I am delighted to offer this guest post by the wonderful Sarah Carr, who blogs at Inanities.

I am a journalist, so my fate for the past two days was to drag myself between schools in Cairo looking at people, a bit like a paedophile.

We started out in Shubra, where long queues of people patiently stood in muddied streets waiting to attack the ballot box. It became clear early on who was dominating the whole affair. Outside virtually every polling station stood a small group of men with laptops providing information (voter number, which polling station they should go to) to confused voters. A useful service, but one whose legality is clouded by the fact that they information they provided was written on slips of paper bearing the insignia of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).

Even in Christian-majority Shubra liberal and leftist parties were strikingly absent, leaving last-minute rallying outside polling stations to the FJP and their confreres in Islam the Nour party. The same pattern was repeated in Sayeda Zeinaba, Ain Shams and Abdeen.

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Morning Egyptian Elections Roundup: FJP at 40%?

A few selections while we await the results — nothing official has been said yet, but parties are expected to make statements this afternoon that will give an indication, and incoming reports from various governorates thus far tend to confirm the expected: the FJP as first party, Salafists often as second in the countryside. The FJP appears to be making the 40% line which was at the high end of most predictions. And this is with Cairo, Alexandria and Red Sea governorates, which could be predicted to be among the more liberal parts of Egypt.
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Walt on the Arab Spring

What does History Teach Us about the Arab Revolutions? | Stephen M. Walt:

But if the history of revolutions tells us anything, it is that rebuilding new political orders is a protracted, difficult, and unpredictable process, and having a few Mandelas around is no guarantee of success. Why? Because once the existing political order has collapsed, the stakes for key groups in society rise dramatically. The creation of new institutions -- in effect, the development of new rules for ordering political life -- inevitably creates new winners and losers. And everyone knows this. Not only does this situation encourage more and more groups to join the process of political struggle, but awareness that high stakes are involved also gives them incentives to use more extreme means, including violence.

This is why I remain optimistic about the Arab uprisings — not because they'll deliver immediate benefits, but because they broke a failing pattern of state-society relations. Seeing what's happened in Tunisia alone makes it all worth it. (Or to put it another way, the Terror and the rise of Napoleon and 15 years of European war do not make the French Revolution a bad thing.) Do read the whole thing which has a lot of examples from history. 

Salafists are not the Tea Party, they're Shas

Sheikh Yasser Burhami, one of Egypt's most influential SalafistsRabbi Ovida Youssef, spiritual head of Shas








This morning's WSJ makes the Salafist - Tea Party comparison:

Political analysts don't expect the Nour Party and their allies to win more than 5% to 10% of the incoming Parliament. By comparison, leaders of the Brotherhood-aligned Freedom and Justice Party have said they aim for about 35% of the incoming legislature.

But the Salafis' popularity could create a "tea-party effect" on the Brotherhood, said Shadi Hamid, an expert on Egypt at the Brooking's Institution Doha Center. Likening the Salafis to the American conservatives whose electoral gains have helped move the Republican Party to the right, Mr. Hamid said these Islamists have the potential to alter the political platform of the Brotherhood, which has been comparatively more moderate.

"It's very likely that Salafis will be the second-largest bloc in Parliament behind the Brotherhood," said Mr. Hamid. "Down the road, the Salafi competition could...drag the rest of the political spectrum rightwards."

As we await the results, what may be more important than the size of the Salafist presence in the next parliament is their results compared to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Salafists pose a problem for Egyptian society overall, but also pose a particular problem for the Brotherhood in two ways: first, they are competitors for "the Islamist vote" (whatever that is), but secondly and more importantly, they have an internal impact in a Brotherhood that is partly Salafist-oriented itself. Hence a big question is whether Salafists, who are more intellectually innovative than the Brotherhood has been in years (at least in that they produce a lot of cultural, theoretical and theological output whereas the Brothers largely stick to Hassan al-Banna) might not drag the Brotherhood their way — rather than the entire political spectrum.

If the Salafists remain under 10%, the Brothers can afford to make alliances with centrist forces knowing that the Salafists will have their back on social conservative issues. If they start to rival the Brotherhood itself, it becomes more complicated, especially if both the Brotherhood and Salafists do well, because it will freak out the rest of the political spectrum. But we should also remember that politically, the MB and the Salafists are different political animals. The MB have a political project, whereas good parts of the Salafist movement (which is diverse) might have more narrow interests related to the role of religion in public life, social mores, education and similar issues. They've shown in the past that they could be quietist about who holds power, and the Salafi movement has a strong tradition of defference to the rulers. They are not necessarily upstart radicals out to change the political system, which is how the Tea Party presents itself. They might be more like the Israeli party Shas, focusing on a narrow range of issues. It might not be getting funding for Yeshivas (or madrassas), but rather fighting the culture wars they've been fighting for decades: influencing education, state-backed religious and cultural production (al-Azhar, the Ministry of Awqaf, the Ministry of Culture, etc.), and laws having to do with women and family.

Your Middle East

We are pleased to announce a new sponsor for this site: Your Middle East, a website that provides breaking news and in-depth analysis from across the region.

Getting tired of scouring the web for the latest news on the uprising in Syria, the elections in Egypt, the transition in Tunisia, succession politics in Saudi Arabia or Qatar’s diplomacy? Your Middle East is a one-stop shop to what’s happening, with breaking news culled from various sources. They also feature analysis from people I really like, like Omar Ashour on Egypt or May Yamani on Saudi Arabia and have cool feature pieces, like this one on a road trip through the Moroccan Atlas. And they have apps for the iPad and iPhone too!

Column: The shift away from Tahrir

My latest column for The National, which appeared yesterday, about the events of the last week:

Pandemonium ruled Cairo's centre last week - entire streets were covered in upturned stones, large clouds of acrid tear gas hung in the air, and protesters' chants and drumbeats echoed day and night.

The fighting didn't really stop until after the army was able to make use of a truce to build a wall of concrete blocks and barbed wire, to separate protesters and police. But this has not resolved the crisis. A new spark could rekindle fighting at any time.

The events of recent days are more complicated than the dramatic tale we are told by television news. It is not just about valiant democracy activists versus ageing autocratic generals; not just about Tahrir Square's new Egypt against Hosni Mubarak's old Egypt - though that is part of the story.

It is also about the failure of the political class and about the old regime having created lasting problems that cannot be resolved by well-meaning demonstrators. And it is about a state, which employs millions, fighting to maintain itself.

"Tahrir is not Egypt," the generals argue, and they are right. As much as we may sympathise with the hundreds of thousands who descend into the streets, we cannot say they represent all of a country of 85 million. Likewise, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), with its 20 or so generals, is not Egypt either.

Read the rest here, where I predict the elections will move attention away from Tahrir and towards parliament.

Notes on the Egyptian economy

The Tahrir economy

That the elections received broadly positive coverage in the media will serve as a corrective to last week's negative mood about Egypt in the markets. That is a silver lining that is much needed a few days after S&P downgraded Egypt's debt and as alarm rises about the state of the reserves (about halved since January, leaving less than four months of imports), policy paralysis notably over the IMF/WB loan, terrible policymaking (borrowing locally at 11-13.5% since last June's rejection of the first IMF/WB package, which was at around 3%) and expectation of a coming devaluation of the Egyptian pound (which would help exports and tourism but contribute to inflation, the one thing brought under control in recent months.)

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Podcast: Elections!

So the elections in Egypt are upon us, and they didn't turn out to be a catastrophe. In fact, the turnout is looking good. But should we all be celebrating? Ursula Lindsey and I argue that while Egyptians have shown they're ready for democracy, the process still leaves much to be desired. And in any case, what happens next?

As always, please do send us feedback and requests at and do donate (or advertise) to keep these podcasts going!

Links for this episode: 

Podcast #19:

What to make of these elections?

The events of the last couple of weeks in Egypt have been incredibly complicated, bringing together issues such as whether the elections that started today are well prepared enough, the future role of the military, police and army violence, whether a second revolution is needed, the attitudes towards protests and elections of various parties, the absence of strong political leaders and still much more. The story has flipped suddenly fropm being about a repeat of the January uprising to being about splits in the Egyptian political spectrum and then about elections. Even from yesterday to today, the narrative has changed from a high level of concern about elections taking place in the middle of this mess to a recognition of strong voter enthusiasm in what may be the highest participation rate Egypt has experienced in decades.

We need to slow down and take in what is happening today separately from what happened in Tahrir or what will have in the relationship between SCAF and the future parliament or the rise of Islamists in Egyptian politics.

What we saw today — so far at least — is that even amidst public uncertainty about the future, split public opinion on Tahrir and SCAF, and organizational chaos, the Egyptian people are eager to participate in the democratic process that may have real meaning for the first time in their lives. They are sharing in the fruits of the revolution, with pragmatism and hope, and testing whether the change is real. I don't see the high turnout (or what we think is a high turnout as we await official data) as a sign of support for SCAF. It's a sign of support for the democratic process and hope for its improvement.

That is a testimony of the Egyptian people's seriousness. But it does not change the fact that these elections were prepared with staggering, perhaps even malicious, incompetence and on that basis alone should not have been held, and that the transition blueprint in general is a bad one.

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Electoral choices

To give you an idea of how complicated the voting process is because of the mixed system used — 1/3 individual candidaies with two seats per district (one each for professional and worker/peasant) and 2/3 for party lists — here are pictures of the ballots being used for a central Cairo district (the pictures were taken inside the polling station on Port Said St, Sayeda Zeinab district)

The first one shows the individual candidacies, which voters have to choose two candidates from — among 122 possibilities:

Much easier is the party list ballot, from which they choose one party out of 16:

Beautiful photography of Cairenes

My former neighbor, Miguel Angel Sanchez, is featured by the NYT's photography blog. I've been talking to Miguel about his project for years, and stupidly have not yet taken up his offer of a portrait. Check out the slideshow here.

On the right, Amm Rabia, a super-friendly bawaab on our street, now immortalized.

What does religion have to do with voting in Egypt?

Dalia Malek send this dispatch from London on the experience of registering to, one day, be able to vote in Egypt's elections.

After months of protests at Egyptian embassies around the world, SCAF announced that Egyptians abroad would have the right to vote. However, at least in the United Kingdom this has been more challenging than it would seem.

A delegation went to the Egyptian consulate in London between 18 and 22 November to issue Egyptian IDs, while online registration for voting closed on 19 November. This overlap of dates appears intentional, but in fact, no one with an Egyptian ID issued after 27 September 2011 could register to vote.

Egyptian IDs and the “new” versions of the Egyptian birth certificates and passports have a serial number (raqam qawmi) that is identified with a citizen’s records, and this is not present on the “old” birth certificate or the “old” passport. Religion is also not written on the passport. Although both of my parents are Egyptian and I have had the old version of the Egyptian birth certificate since I was born, and the old passport since 2007 (valid until 2014), I have chosen not to request an Egyptian ID until now because of the privacy issues.

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Our special page on Egypt's elections

It seems these days that every newspaper and think tank is launching their no doubt amply funded special Egypt elections websites. Not to be outdone by these upstarts, we are please to announce our own special election page that gathers up our own posts and tweets as well as resources on the elections, third-party news and analysis, and more. Bookmark it!

No justice for the UAE five

Five activists charged with opposing the Emirati government, inciting demonstrations and insulting the country’s leadership have been sentenced to jail. The rulers of the United Arab Emirates have made it clear they do not welcome public challenges to their absolute authority to rule.

Ahmed Mansoor, a prominent Emirati human rights activist who faced more charges than the others, was sentenced to three years. Four others, including Nasser Bin Ghaith, an academic who has lectured at Sorbonne Abu Dhabi, received two year prison terms. The trial was held in a state security court. The men cannot appeal, according to Mohammed Al Roken, one of the lawyers representing them.

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Plagiarism at al-Ahram Weekly

I am disappointed to see that the current issue of al-Ahram Weekly reproduces the chart of political parties designed by Jacopo Carbonari and published on this site without giving any credit. Not only that, they appaear to have modified the chart by removing his name, and used an older version of the chart that is incorrect. The editors have been contacted, and we hope they will issue an apology in the next issue.
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Chart: Who stands where in Egypt, v2

Click to enlargeI've updated my chart from a few days ago to reflect the narrowing of possible positions (from 5 to 3) and the leftward drift of most parties and personalities. At this point, of the major parties only the Muslim Brothers and al-Wafd are not officially backing the protests as far as I can tell. As always, comments, corrections and feedback appreciated. This chart does not show positions on elections — again, for now no party has called for their cancellation (although some revolutionary groups and Mohamed ElBaradei are suggesting an alternative transition plan) and the idea of postponment has only been floated.