Is the new, current political reality in Egypt a stable one? Or is it one where a return to political turmoil is likely in the short term?
Will post-Morsi Egypt be able to live up to great expectations?
Inside Egypt, negotiations are underway over the country’s transition. These consultations do not involve the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, beyond Egypt, other discussions are taking place over the standing of post-Morsi, post-Mubarak Egypt in which the Brotherhood does figure.
The dialogue in Egypt’s constitutional assembly will touch on issues relevant to the construction of a new constitutional arrangement in Egypt. The relationship between the president and parliament is one such topic; the specific roles that religion may or may not engage with are another. The nature of the relationship between the military and the state does not look, as yet, as though it might change.
These discussions are essentially limited to domestic issues where the Egyptian state feels confident about its ability to move ahead with the military-backed interim government’s road map.
However, on the international stage, the Egyptian state is in a rather different situation. There is certainly a great deal of bluster now over how the Egyptian people will reject any international interference, a perspective that is supported by a number of Egypt’s allies, including Saudi Arabia.
There was a point in August this year, particularly after the forced clearing by the security services of the pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo, where the Egyptian state’s standing was hit hard. Many within Egypt were surprised at how the international media responded to the August 14 deaths.
For many commentators and analysts, the reaction to the killings was very predictable – for much of the Egyptian elite, the reaction represented at best ignorance of the situation in Egypt, and at worst, a secret sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamist agenda.
The sensitivity to that sort of response from the West has exhibited itself in a number of ways.
One response led to far-right wing Republican members of the American Congress being feted by different parts of the Egyptian media and elite, on a recent visit to Cairo – undoubtedly due to the anti-Islamism of that portion of the American political elite. Their views on other issues that Egyptians might generally find questionable, were left uninvestigated.
More normal modes of public diplomacy, however, have also been pursued. Many pro-government Egyptians are travelling to western capitals to promote what they see as the correct narrative, one that nullifies what they perceive as pro-Muslim Brotherhood sentiment in those cities.
The official chatter around “no foreign interference” notwithstanding, the Egyptian political elite does care a great deal about the public image of Egypt abroad – and it will go to much effort to advance its view in the international media.
That holds true at home in Egypt too, where political figures in favour of the interim government’s road map are engaging with different western media.
At home, the pro-government forces have a monopoly on the narrative, where the military remains very popular, and the Egyptian media, while not completely giving the interim government a free ride, has hardly been deeply critical of it. Abroad, however, there is competition – from supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Many members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood reside in western capitals and engage as heavily as they can, wherever they can be listened to. Beyond their own members, they have allies in members of other Muslim Brotherhood movements, as well as a variety of Islamist groups.
The Muslim Brotherhood has its own powerful narrative: their story is that they are not fighting for their own partisan interest, but for democracy, following the ousting of Mr Morsi. This is an argument that is very convincing in western capitals. The nuances of public support for the military, widespread dissatisfaction with Mr Morsi, and the democratic experiment having been damaged by Morsi himself, are generally being lost.
The Egyptian state has a harder argument to make – but time is on their side. While the Muslim Brotherhood clearly believe that the Egyptian people oppose the military-backed interim government, western governments generally know that this is untrue. While they might dislike, or even oppose a transition of power through a military manoeuvre, they generally do regard the majority of Egyptians as having acquiesced quite willingly to that arrangement.
What is left now is for a constitution to be ratified, and elections to be held. At that point, it is likely that the discussion about how the new elected government came to power will be relegated to historical debates, rather than inform any real policy.
Against this backdrop, however, many western capitals, whether in Europe or in North America, still continue to worry about one thing: is the new, current political reality a stable one? Or is it one where a return to political turmoil is likely in the short term? Considering the prevailing economic issues and the lack of security sector reform, it is entirely possible to imagine that Egyptians may yet again go out into the streets.
The key question on the minds of many western policymakers is this: does the current road-map lead to the eventual establishment of a new Egyptian Republic, where Egyptians feel the state more accurately lives up to its expectations and demands? And if it does not, what guarantee is there that Egyptians will tolerate this continued state of affairs?
In the final analysis, that is the question that not only western policymakers wonder about – it is the question that Egyptians should be most concerned about.
Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute and the Brookings Institution
On Twitter: @hahellyer