x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 September 2017

Egypt's weak president poses no problem - yet - for the US

Mohammed Morsi's authority will be largely restricted to domestic matters, such as the economy, education and social policy. Foreign policy remains in the hands of Egypt's military.

If Mohammed Morsi were really going to be the president of Egypt, Barack Obama's administration might be a tad more alarmed than it actually is over the changes in Cairo.

The cruel truth, however, is that while the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) will allow Mr Morsi the title and symbolic accoutrements of the presidency, the executive powers of that office have been usurped by the generals.

Mr Morsi will have no control of the budget, foreign policy, the armed forces, defence matters or national security. Not only has the junta claimed those powers for itself, it has also dissolved the democratically elected parliament and, effectively, the assembly tasked with writing a new constitution, claiming their powers.

The generals could opt to curtail Mr Morsi's term once a new constitution has been tabled, while their allies in the judiciary might even pull the rug out from under him by reviving the old regime's ban on the Muslim Brotherhood. In any case, Mr Morsi's authority will be largely restricted to domestic matters, such as the economy, education and social policy - the subjects usually overseen, in a presidential system, by a prime minister.

The Obama administration publicly presses the generals to hand power to elected civilians, but that may be a largely pro-forma objection to the arrangements put in place by Scaf. Consider, after all, that the US response to the uprising that saw Hosni Mubarak forced out in February 2011 was to back a transfer of authority to General Omar Suleiman, the intelligence chief. What they have with Scaf is not that different, at least not on core US concerns: that Egypt maintain the Camp David peace deal with Israel, and that it support, or at least not obstruct, US regional policy.

The electorate has signalled that the Muslim Brotherhood is Egypt's most popular political force, and the US finds the movement's centre-right economic outlook appealing. So Washington thinks that the Islamists may be a good bet for restoring stability, if handed the reins of limited government under the tutelage of the military. So what if Mr Morsi is sceptical that Al Qaeda was responsible for the September 11 attacks? That's a common view in Egypt, and anyway he'll be kept on a short leash; the decisions that count will remain in the hands of generals long aligned with Washington's regional strategy.

Talk of the US using the $1.3 billion (Dh4.8 billion) stipend it pays to the Egyptian military every year as a lever to press for more democracy misses the point that the current arrangement may actually suit Washington. That money buys geopolitical loyalty, not democracy promotion. Even when the junta shut down US democracy-promotion groups in Egypt, and put Americans on trial, the aid was not withdrawn.

Washington would certainly prefer a democratic Egypt that would uphold US interests. But if the electorate is going to return Islamists opposed to US regional strategy, a democracy "managed" by the military could be rationalised as a step forward that maintains the regional balance of power. Besides, the US has become painfully aware of the limits of its influence.

The West, writes the International Crisis Group: "Has been caught between the need to support a democratic transition and the enormous suspicions that continue to taint its actions due to a chequered history of excessive interference and support for authoritarian rule. Achieving a proper balance [of] pressuring the Scaf without triggering widespread hostility will not be easy, especially at a time of heightened xenophobia and mistrust of anything coming from the outside."

Washington is not calling the shots for Scaf, but it's a safe bet that the US supported the junta's decision to refrain from manipulating the election to hand the presidency to former Mubarak prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, representing an unapologetically resurgent old regime. Coming on the heels of the dissolution of parliament and the constitutional assembly, and the restoration of martial law, a Shafiq victory would have symbolised completion of the counter-revolution. And that would have obliged both the Islamists and the secular opposition to take to the streets.

Giving the Brotherhood a limited stake in a new order controlled by America's allies in the junta may be a smart way to demobilise the opposition, or at least create a more manageable political process.

A power-sharing arrangement between the generals and Islamists - an idea many liberal and secular opposition activists fear - may, in fact, be the US's preferred outcome. If that is what's happening, it may be because Scaf has reached the same conclusion.

The junta's guiding principle since the spring of 2011 has been stability, and having the Brotherhood as a junior partner offers a chance for both stability and a modicum of popular legitimacy for the new arrangements, even as they safeguard US interests.

The problem, however, is that just as the crowds on Tahrir Square in February 2011 were not willing to accept Gen Suleiman as their ruler, so too will the Muslim Brotherhood continue to push for greater civilian political control. The crucial question may be whether the Islamists can match the political flexibility of the generals by making common cause with many of the secular opposition groups they have alienated since Hosni Mubarak's ouster, by seeking to monopolise political power.

If they can reposition themselves to lead a broader movement for civilian rule based on democratic consensus, rather than narrow Islamism, they could put the generals on the wrong foot - and pose new dilemmas for the US.

Curiously, though, creating a broad unity government - which would inevitably challenge the military - is exactly what Washington is urging Mr Morsi to do. The US, like other stakeholders in the Egyptian drama, is caught between competing impulses.

 

Tony Karon is a New-York based analyst

On Twitter @TonyKaron