The U.S. policy on Egypt is in disarray, and both camps distrust America—the Muslim Brotherhood by default, its opponents from experience. Hillary Clinton was widely perceived as Morsi’s key foreign aider and abettor during his attempt to grab complete power in the aftermath of last year’s presidential election, and with good reason. She came to Cairo last July, only two weeks after the presidential election, and declared her support for “the military’s return to a purely national security role.” In the ensuing weeks she exerted a great deal of pressure on Egypt’s generals not to challenge Morsi’s assumption of full authority, while ignoring the fact that he came to power because the Muslim Brotherhood broke its pledge to stay out of the presidential race. She quietly supported Morsi’s ploy last fall to reconvene the constitutional assembly previously declared illegal by the courts because it was packed with the Muslim Brotherhood deputies posing as independents.
When Morsi issued a decree last November giving himself unprecedented authority, including immunity to any judicial oversight, hundreds of thousands took to the streets. Clinton’s State Department responded lamely, by urging “all Egyptians to resolve their differences… peacefully and through democratic dialogue.” On November 28, her spokeswoman Victoria Nuland further irritated millions of Egyptians by declaring that Morsi was seeking dialogue “with other stakeholders in Egypt” and that he was not an autocrat—escalating attacks against the Coptic Christian community, growing media censorship, and dictatorial decrees notwithstanding.
After Clinton’s departure the substance of policy has not changed. Last March Secretary of State John Kerry came to Cairo to express his support for Morsi and announced a $250 million aid package with no strings attached. In May the White House overrode a Congressional bid to withhold military funding to Egypt and tie the assistance to the respect for human rights. The news was ignored in the U.S. but it was given a great deal of prominence in Egypt and cemented the impression that Washington was supporting a repressive Islamist regime. Last June the demonstrations that led to Morsi’s downfall saw many placards accusing Obama of allying himself with “terrorists” and supporting a “fascist regime in Egypt.” On June 30 Cairo witnessed the biggest mass protest in history, but the State Department did not issue an equivalent to its February 2011 statement that the Egyptian people’s “grievances have reached a boiling point.”
The events of the past four weeks prove that autocracy is the only way to rule Egypt. Its “deep state” institutions—the military and the security services—have remained intact under Morsi. We are back to the spirit of 1952, when Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the monarchy and instituted the army’s self-perception as the guardian of the nation and the final arbiter of its best interests. As Nasser himself put it three years after the coup, “We felt with every fiber of our being that this task was our burden to bear, and that if we did not fulfill it, it would be as if we turned down a sacred task that Providence itself has imposed upon us.”
The same spirit was in evidence when General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, 58-year-old chief of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, addressed the nation after the July 3 coup. He repeatedly referred to the legitimacy the people have given to military action, but clearly implied that Egypt is too important to be ruled by its people. Many Egyptians now liken Sisi to Nasser, and the former seems keen to promote the parallel. Posters featuring Sisi and Nasser side by side have appeared all over Egypt. Another echo of the Nasser era is evident in the fierceness with which security forces have dealt with the Islamists in recent weeks. Sisi’s long-term aspirations remain unknown. He claims to have no political ambitions, but he may well change his mind if there is a “call from the people” for him to run for presidency.
“An arena of electoral democracy will be constructed,” according to a popular Egyptian blogger, “but many matters of grave national import will be outside its purview. And anyway, its outcomes can always be reversed.” The army understands what Morsi did not: that the Egyptian state is a complex, somewhat ramshackle institution in which divergent interests are mediated and reconciled by formal mechanisms and (more importantly) informal means, and not an object of heavy-handed Islamist experimentation which excluded many key stakeholders.
The true challenge to Egypt’s military is not the Muslim Brotherhood—its street protests can and will be contained—but the economy. Urgent reforms are needed to avoid starvation—currently postponed by injections of Saudi money—and Egypt’s descent into some form of Hobbesian nightmare. Those reforms would have to entail the army giving up its 20-percent-plus stake in the national economy. It should be possible for the officers to maintain their numerous privileges without necessarily running factories that make pasta, air conditioners, bed linen, and a host of other most un-military articles. Only then would it be possible to tackle Egypt’s many structural problems: lack of natural resources, demographic boom, inefficient land use, and institutionalized corruption at all levels. In the absence of comprehensive economic reforms and increased yields in the Nile Delta, Egypt’s prospects are grim.