Egypt after the Arab Spring:
Six key points by Professor Fouad Ajami
Published: 3 May 2012
Briefing Number 312
Summary: This Briefing summarises an analysis of Egypt in the aftermath of the Arab spring, and the 2011 Egyptian revolution, by regional expert Professor Fouad Ajami from Johns Hopkins University in the USA. The analysis first appeared in March 2012 in Foreign Affairs magazine, which is the most prestigious and influential foreign affairs journal in the world. Ajami makes the following six points, and the rest of this Briefing elaborates upon them:
- There are grounds for concern about the possible Islamist future of Egypt
- Three forces will contest Egypt’s future: the Egyptian military, the Muslim Brotherhood, and a liberal coalition
- The Muslim Brotherhood “play the political game” shrewdly, and are committed to public order and sobriety
- Egypt lacks the economic capacity and financial resources to build a modern Islamic order
- Political groups are reluctant to assume power in Egypt because the country’s problems are so intense
- A pragmatic division of responsibility may emerge, and Egypt may succeed in “harmonising the contending assertions”
Our comment: Egypt is Israel’s most powerful immediate neighbour. The uncertain future of Egypt has a major influence on future peace in the region, and Israel’s relations with the Palestinians. The issues Ajami highlights are an important part of the context within which Israeli policies need to be assessed.
Background to Fouad Ajami’s article, and Foreign Affairs Magazine:
The Egyptian revolution of Spring 2011, which formed part of the Arab Spring, has had a major impact on the region. The fall of former President Hosni Mubarak and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood have each triggered concern in Israel about the future direction of Israeli-Egyptian relations, the Camp David Peace Accords, Israel’s security on its border with Sinai, and Israel’s relations with the Palestinians.
This new Briefing summarises an analysis of Egypt after the Arab Spring which was published in March 2012 by Professor Fouad Ajami, who is one of the world’s leading experts on the Arab world. Ajami is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and he is Co-Chair of the Hoover Institution’s Working Group on Islamism and the International Order.
Ajami’s comments appeared as part of an article called ‘The Arab Spring at One’ which appeared in Foreign Affairs magazine in March 2012 (www.foreignaffairs.com). Foreign Affairs magazine is based in Washington-DC and is probably the most prestigious and influential foreign affairs journal in the world. Ajami’s analysis is dispassionate, and it has particular authority.
Beyond Images key message: Egypt is Israel’s most powerful immediate neighbour. And for Israelis the future of Egypt is not an academic matter but influences war and peace, security and terror, in the future. Ajami’s analysis challenges the belief that Egypt is bound to become an Islamist state. But at the same time he highlights the huge uncertainties underlying the future of the country. Israeli politicians, defence planners and the IDF have to take decisions in the face of that immense uncertainty. Meanwhile, the Israeli public, yearning for peace and a better future, also have to live with the uncertainty. This is an important part of the context within which Israeli policies and actions need to be assessed.
Here is a summary of Ajami’s six points:
1. There are grounds for concern about the possible Islamist future for Egypt
Ajami acknowledges that the Egyptian revolution of 2011 could indeed spawn an Islamic republic, as a result of which Egypt’s tourism revenues “would be lost for good”, and the Egyptian people may end up “yearning” for a return of authoritarian secular rule. The “strong showing” of the Muslim Brotherhood and the “even more extreme” Salafi party in the 2011 elections, together with the “splintering” of the liberal secular vote, appear to justify concern about the country’s future. Ajami calls this possible Islamist future for Egypt a “catastrophe scenario”.
2. Three forces will contest Egypt’s future: the military, the Muslim Brotherhood and a liberal coalition
Ajami goes on to argue that such an Islamist outcome is not by any means a foregone conclusion. Egyptians, he says, have “proud memories of liberal periods in their history”, and now that they are experiencing “open politics” they will not give this up “without a struggle”. He argues that there are in fact three forces which will contest Egypt’s future: the army, the Muslim Brotherhood, and a broad liberal and secular coalition which favours a separation between religion and politics.
3. The Muslim Brotherhood “play the political game” shrewdly, and are committed to public order and “sobriety”
Ajami argues that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood have historically been more shrewd and pragmatic than many people realise. He points out that the Brotherhood is trying to navigate a fine line between the Egyptian liberals and the military leadership, and “step back from the exuberance” of Tahrir Square in Cairo (which was the focal point of the revolution) “to underline their commitment to sobriety and public order”.
4. Egypt lacks the economic capacity and financial resources to build a modern Islamic order:
Ajami argues that Egypt “lacks the economic wherewithal” to build a successful modern Islamic order. He contrasts Egypt with Iran, whose economy rests on oil. Egypt on the other hand “lives off tourism, the Suez Canal, infusions of foreign aid and remittances from Egyptians abroad”. Financially, he says, “virtue must bow to necessity”. Egypt’s foreign reserves have dwindled in the last 12 months from $36bn to $20bn, the price of imported wheat is high, and four finance ministers have “come and gone” since the 2011 fall of President Mubarak. Ajami suggests that the “heady satisfaction” of having deposed a despot is now counter-balanced by a popular Egyptian desire for “stability”.
5. Political groups are reluctant to assume power in Egypt because the country’s problems are so intense
Ajami calls Egypt’s problems “monumental” and says it is telling that both the Muslim Brotherhood and the armed forces are “reluctant” to assume power.
6. A pragmatic division of responsibility may emerge: Egypt may succeed in “harmonising these contending assertions”
Finally, Ajami suggests that “good sense and pragmatism” might prevail. A “plausible division” of spoils and responsibility might give the Muslim Brotherhood the domains of governance in those areas “dearest to it”, which he suggests are education, social welfare, and the judiciary, while the Egyptian military gets to run defence, intelligence, the peace with Israel, military ties with the United States, and the retention of the economic prerogatives of the officers’ corps. Ajami says that under this “division of spoils” liberal secularists would have a say in the “rhythm” of daily life, and have the chance to field a “compelling potential leader” in a future presidential election. Ajami sees Egypt as being engaged in a continuing “struggle for modernity” and to secure a place among the nations “worthy of its ambitions”. He closes by arguing that the Egyptians have always had “the ability to harmonise contending assertions” and they may do so again in the future.
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