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What's Next in Egypt?

A roadmap for backseat drivers

Getty/Mahmud Hams

As the new military and civilian leadership of Egypt prepares to put some meat on the bare bones of its “road map” for the country's political future, countless pundits have become backseat drivers. I do not consider myself one of them; I do not know what Egyptians should do. But here is what I think bears watching over the short and medium term—and also what has gotten too much attention.

What to watch closely in the days ahead

1. How is the Brotherhood treated? We now have some idea of what the Brotherhood’s reaction to President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster is: sputtering rage. The leadership seems to wish to convey both outrage and peaceful intentions; the rank and file is likely seething. But the Brotherhood is politically isolated and its leaders scattered.

The intentions of the new regime—though its various parts may not fit together well enough to call it a regime—are much less clear. Does it aim to suppress the Brotherhood, welcome it back to some new democratic fold, or something in between? And who is making the decision on this matter? Amiable acting president Adli Mansour? The military high command that claims not to be running the country? The opposition coalition? The old security apparatus that has found itself miraculously rehabilitated politically? The first two seem to be emitting vaguely good cop signals; the latter two are sometimes posing as very bad cops indeed.

2. Are the old regime’s multiple structures for internal security, abusive and unaccountable as they were, back from the dead? In the 2011 uprising they were a hated target; a month after Mubarak fell, revolutionaries stormed State Security headquarters.

But General Al-Sisi and Mansour have had kind words for the police, who can now claim, however implausibly, to be on the side of the revolutionaries. When he was in office, Morsi made his own deal with the devil by trying to placate the security apparatus (unsuccessfully, since they turned against him). Will the June 30 revolutionaries make the same move? Or will security reform be on the immediate agenda?

3. The fine print. The revolutionaries were very clear they thought the 2012 Egyptian constitution, pushed through by the Brotherhood last December, was an illegitimate document. But when Al-Sisi stepped before television cameras on Wednesday, he simply announced that it was temporarily suspended; he promised that it would be amended, not abrogated. Why protect the document?

There were other odd elements to the chain of events. Al-Sisi’s statement was immediately blessed by the Sheikh of al-Azhar, Egypt’s top religious official. And the country’s largest Salafi party fell into line as well. Al-Azhar and the Salafis are rivals to the Brotherhood to be sure, but why were they so quick to sign off on deposing Egypt’s first Islamist president?

Here’s the unspoken secret: the military, al-Azhar, and the Salafis got exactly what they wanted in the 2012 constitution. There are provisions on the military (no real civilian oversight), al-Azhar (a muscular supervisory role over Islamic legal issues), and the Islamic sharia that each of these actors want to protect. The Brotherhood had allowed these clauses in order to get necessary support for a constitution that other political forces had bitterly come to oppose.

So when it comes time to suggest constitutional amendments, today’s happy family of Morsi opponents may turn into a rather dysfunctional group. This is precisely where the 2011 revolution began to go off the rails, where kumbaya gave way to roller derby. It could happen again. 

What to watch in the coming months

1. Do the Salafis move in? The Brotherhood is unsure if it wants to play by the new political rules and the new powers-that-be may not let it. That could leave the Islamic spectrum wide open. Egypt will likely have parliamentary elections soon, but how soon? Well, Egyptian legal disputes could only have been diagrammed by M.C. Escher. The now-disbanded Parliament passed a law in its dying days that is being reviewed by the Supreme Constitutional Court to see if it is accordance with the constitution. Since it’s not clear what the constitution is, that could be a tough job, but the justices are used to problems like this. When that gets sorted out—and when the now-suspended constitution is amended—various political parties will be off to the electoral races. If the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is tripped up or forfeits the race, will the Salafis mop up their voters?

2. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party was banned by court order two years ago, but its various constituent parts—and, most important for electoral purposes, the local bigwigs who delivered the votes for it—can now climb out from under the rock where they've been hiding since the 2011 uprising. Will they be able to recreate portions of the political machine and, if so, who will they deliver their votes, too?

3. We now have some idea how long a honeymoon any Egyptian leader has: less than a year. The generals who stepped in to popular acclaim in February 2011 wore out their welcome so that few were sad to see them go when Morsi shunted them aside in August 2012. Morsi lost much of the political class after less than five months in office when he placed his actions above the law. But he lost the bulk of the population over the following months as his record as president seemed to deliver only a declining economy and deteriorating public services. If the past is any guide, whoever steps into the shoes of Egyptian leadership will have to show results quickly.

What not to watch so closely

1. Egyptians and Americans share a common trait—to ask what Americans did and what America will do, no matter what the question. But Egypt is a place where domestic politics dominates for the present. 

U.S. policy does matter, but much less than debates in Washington and Cairo suggest. The lesson of the last couple years is that whatever happens in Cairo, Washington will deal with it. The U.S. will begin to get very edgy if there are signs of prolonged instability in Cairo. All other things being equal (though they generally aren’t), U.S. leaders like a democratic outcome, and of course the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty is sacrosanct. But the U.S. cannot design Egypt’s transition, write its constitution, or select its president.

2. Like a turgid doctoral seminar, Egyptian politics has found itself mired in a terminological debate: Was this a coup or a popular uprising?

The answer is easy: It was both.

Picture this: General Martin Dempsey announces on national television that Barack Obama is no longer president and the U.S. Constitution is suspended. What do you call it?

Or picture this: Tens of millions of Americans turn out in demonstrations to call for Obama to be ousted immediately. Obama replies that he has three years left in his term—but finds himself out of a job and possibly facing trial. What do you call that?

Yes, there was a military coup. And yes, there was a popular uprising. Why argue? Many Egyptians consider this more a matter of moral judgment than terminology, but U.S. lawyers will have to figure out if recent events trigger a mandatory cutoff of aid. So as easy as the debate is to resolve linguistically, it will likely rage on.