The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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A Conversation with Steven A. Cook
Published on May 4, 2012

The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square

by Steven A. Cook

Oxford University Press, 2011, 424 pp., $27.95

Adam Garfinkle: Your new book on Egypt certainly is timely, but we both know that the lead-time to produce a book of this kind, one with history, with real substantive analysis, is quite long. I am of course hereby distinguishing what you have written from the “snap” book of the instant-expert journalist, who is most times no expert at all. So tell me please what you had in mind when you conceived the project, and how events in Egypt and the rest of the region shaped the project as it was being brought to completion.

Steven A. Cook: That’s a terrific question. Thank you for asking it because some people see the title and cover photo of the book and assume it was written in the year since the Egyptian uprising. In fact, I began working on The Struggle in earnest in late 2008 and 2009. I began writing in January 2010 and finished the first draft exactly a year later.

One of my mentors once said to me that there is no point in writing a book unless there is some kind of radical underlying message that an author wants to convey to the reader. For me, there are two such themes that I wanted to emphasize in the book, both of which stemmed from my general dissatisfaction with the prevailing (at the time) narratives about Egyptian politics. Over the course of the past ten or fifteen years, Egyptian politics was portrayed as essentially a two-dimensional struggle between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood. This was certainly true, but this picture obscured the ideological richness and dynamism of Egyptian politics. To be sure, the Brothers were and still are a major factor, but the political ferment of the past decade is more closely associated with labor, the Left, old-school Egyptian nationalists and, importantly, liberal activists, including bloggers and journalists, who were at the forefront of social and political critiques of the late Mubarak period. In many ways, these groups spoke out about issues that the Brotherhood—fearing the wrath of the regime and wanting to ensure its longevity—never dared to tread.

This brings me to the second radical message of The Struggle, which is that the struggle for Egypt has been going on for some time and will likely continue. Speaking of radical message, this is where my graduate school reading of Antonio Gramsci had an impact on the book. Egyptians have never been able to agree on a narrative about their country. They have never been able to answer critical questions—about what kind of government they want, what kind of society they want, the relationship between religion and state, what Egypt stands for, what its place is in the region and the world beyond—in a way that makes sense to a vast majority of Egyptians. As a result, the political and social arenas remain very much contested. Nasser tried through what we now call Nasserism; and he was successful for about a decade between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s, when the claims he made about social mobility, expanded educational opportunities, economic development and Egyptian power in the region came closest to peoples’ objective reality. Sadat, for his own parochial political interests and the apparent failure of Nasserism after the June 1967 war, sought to “correct” the excesses of the Nasser period by answering Egypt’s antecedent identity questions through what he called the establishment of a “state of institutions”, infitah (economic opening) and a realignment of Egyptian foreign policy. Yet Sadat never intended to actually open the political arena as the phrase “state of institutions” implied. Infitah only befitted a very small group of people, and strategic relations with the United States made no sense to many Egyptians, given that the regime Sadat led was founded on a rhetorical, if not entirely scrupulous, commitment to Egyptian nationalism. As a result, by the time of Sadat’s assassination, Egypt was more contested than ever.

Mubarak, having come of age during the era of the Free Officers and having witnessed Sadat’s assassination first-hand, saw the problems associated with trying to resolve Egypt’s underlying identity questions through some bold ideological vision, and opted for a strategy that he hoped would bind people to the regime through economic and social development. By official measures, Mubarak achieved a lot during his almost thirty-year reign. The World Bank data shows impressive results. The problem is that ideas matter. For Mubarak it was all about “stability for the sake of development” and anyone who dissented from his conception of stability was beaten into submission until they—along with a lot of others who felt the same way but were afraid to speak out—refused to be intimidated. That’s how you got January 25. This was not an uprising about economic grievances, though they played an important role in creating an environment of misery. Rather, people rose up because they wanted social justice, representative government and national dignity. Not surprisingly, these are common themes throughout late 19th-, 20th-, and early 21st-century Egyptian politics.

The question now is whether Egyptians can answer the important identity questions that I raise throughout The Struggle. The quality of Egypt’s recent polling, the presidential election, the handover from military to civilian control will not matter all that much in the grand scheme of things if Egyptians are unable to develop a narrative that makes sense to most of them. Indeed, if they don’t, the struggle for Egypt will continue.

AG: I am glad you have broadened the discussion to include the matter of identity, which is critical not just in the case of Egypt but in many other Arab states, as well—not least Syria. In a sense, it is curious that this remains a problem in Egypt, because of all the Arab states in the region, with the partial exception of Iraq, Egypt is the oldest and most deeply rooted nation, in the proper meaning of that word. Because Egypt is also less heterogeneous, despite the large Coptic population, than a country like Syria, one would expect identity to be less of a problem. But as you have noted, it is anything but.

Why do you think this is? And once you’ve answered that, I would like to not just broaden the discussion but deepen it, as well, in the following sense:

What is going on socially beneath the surface in Egypt? I am not persuaded that the new social networking technologies all point in a liberating direction—that, as has been famously predicted, “the revolution will be tweeted.” But I am persuaded that generational changes together with technological developments—and the full-frontal ossification of the existing military-bureaucratic regime—seem to be creating a civic culture in Egypt that has been mostly absent since the heyday of the Waqf Party back in the 1930s. Some of this civic culture rotates around the Muslim Brotherhood, but as you have indicated in the book some transcends the Brotherhood. Talk a little bit about this layer of political variance in Egypt, a layer that the American press rarely if ever talks about, because it’s so hard for non-Arabic speakers to perceive.

SC: Adam, thanks for another set of great questions. I am enjoying this immensely.

It is curious, as you point out, that Egypt, with its historical weight and longevity as a state, would be struggling with identity issues, but historicity does not necessarily resolve these problems. Let me start out by saying that Egyptians seem to understand that there is something exceptional about “Egyptian-ness”, yet that is where consensus begins and ends. The problem is defining precisely what “being Egyptian” means in a way that makes sense to the vast majority of people who define themselves as such. Are they inheritors of a great civilization? Arabs? Muslims? Africans? Middle Easterners? Mediterranean? Of course, they are all of these things. People and nations have many identities, but efforts to give the term “Egyptian” a sense of coherence seem thus far to be beyond their grasp. Consider, for example, the case of Taha Husayn, one of Egypt’s great men of letters in the first half of the 20th century, who wrote The Future of Culture in Egypt, which argued that Egyptians should reclaim their Hellenic past as Europe had done in order to advance the country’s modernization. In 1937, Sayid Qtub, who would become the intellectual father of jihadism argued forcefully, contrary to Husayn, that Egypt had never been part of the Hellenic world and that, while it might benefit from the organizational principles of Western societies, grafting an essentially alien culture onto Egypt would only do harm to Egyptian society. And therein lies the problem. Although the rallying cry “Egypt for the Egyptians” animated Egypt’s politics in the early 20th century and is indeed an idea that many Egyptians continue to hold dear, the country’s leaders have sought to borrow, graft, infuse and appropriate ideologies and organizing principles from a variety of different sources. To be sure, some of this was imposed upon them through foreign dominations, but Egyptians have often looked to outsiders to assist in their ceaseless quest for modernization.

Jumping forward to post-Mubarak Egypt, it is the search or longing—despite the historical record—for authenticity that provides an advantage to the Muslim Brotherhood. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Hassan al Banna, the Brotherhood’s founder, was responding to what he perceived as the depredations of Western influence in Egypt and the specter of a radical kind of secularism that had arisen in Anatolia, known as Kemalism, with a vision of Egyptian society that was steeped in what he believed were the more authentic values of Islam. In many respects, the Brothers have been remarkably consistent in their narrative of what Egyptian society would look like if religious values were its guiding principles. Whether that means their ultimate goal is an Islamic state remains an open question, though they have never repudiated that objective. Rather, it suggests that the Brothers can capitalize on the failures of Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, who borrowed generously from the East and West, with a set of ideas rooted firmly in the Brotherhood’s interpretation of Islam, which they claim to be both quintessentially Egyptian and ultimately universal, and which will set Egypt on a path of social peace, prosperity and just politics.

As for your second question, regarding what is happening beneath the surface in Egypt, I agree with you. As much as the Western media has made hay over the fact that the instigators of Tahrir leveraged technologies like Twitter and Facebook, the penetration of these technologies is rather modest. Egypt has the most Facebook users in the Arab world, but they only represent a little more than 5 percent of a population of 81 million people. To be sure, that translates into four or five million people, but still an overwhelming minority. So there has to be something else going on. What changed?

I believe there was something profound going on under the surface, but it was not a sudden tectonic shift. Egyptian civic culture is actually quite well developed, and debates about the nature of Egyptian society have been going on for a long time, even within the contours of the authoritarian regime. That was one of the reasons for writing The Struggle: I wanted, in part, to shed light on the contested nature of Egyptian society and politics. There was, of course, a price to be paid for speaking out, but in comparison to Syria or other countries in the region, the informal and formal debates in Egypt about what kind of society and government people wanted were robust. In that sense, people leveraging technologies like Twitter and Facebook are only now beginning to catch up to what Egyptians have been saying and doing all along. We missed this not only because there are relatively few people with good language skills, but by and large our foreign reporting has been gutted, and being a Foreign Service Officer no longer means getting out into the field in a serious way—though I believe many diplomats would rather be doing that than serving as an extension of a desk back in Washington, or being constrained by the restrictions of regional security officers.

AG: Those are very important points, Steve, especially the one about Egypt’s relatively “soft” authoritarianism in recent years, the kind that has allowed civil society discourse to go on just barely below the surface. That is very different from what the situation has generally been in places like Syria, Iraq under the Ba’ath, Algeria and, of course, in Saudi Arabia and in much of the Gulf too.

I want to ask just one more foundational, or sociological, question before we get to more contemporary and policy-related issues. I think these foundational issues are of critical importance, and they are by far the least well understood by policy-interested American observers.

When scholars look at this part of the world, especially anthropologists and sociologists, one of the features that is very hard to miss is tribalism. Whether you read great masters like Ernst Gellner or Arab critics like Hisham Shirabi, the impact of endogamous marriage patterns, the heritage of pastoral nomadism, and other social features that predate Islam almost invariably come to the fore. One certainly hears this repeatedly with regard to the Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Waziristan. Yet even those, like myself, who believe these factors to be of immense importance recognize that they are of uneven importance. Even Ibn Khaldun knew that pastoral tribes differed from settled agriculturalists, who also differed from town and city people. Egypt is particularly interesting in the spectrum of Middle Eastern countries historically in this regard. Compared to places like Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and the Sunni tribes of Iraq, Egypt does not seem to be much affected by tribes at all. Some say that this is the result of the famous “hydrological imperative” of Karl Wittfogel—the old argument that the need to manage the irrigation works of the Nile made for a more centralized state, which consequently reduced the influence of patriarchal structures. And it is true, I think, that where tribalism is strong, the state tends to be weak, but the Egyptian state, relative to most others in the Arab world, has been strong, if not necessarily efficient, over the past four or five decades.

That said, there is no doubt that, especially on the local level, patriarchal structures still matter enormously in Egyptian society and politics. To some extent, the Egyptian army is an anti-patriarchal phenomenon. Through it, many rural and lower status individuals have managed to become very upwardly mobile. The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, seems to be more firmly anchored, at least outside of Cairo and Alexandria, in patriarchal networks. Does this suggest, possibly, that the triumph of the Brotherhood might imply a form of social regression in Egypt, back toward patriarchal organization and away from more modern forms? Put more simply, what is the sociology of the Egyptian intifadah as it has evolved over the past 14 months?

SC: You ask an interesting question about the possibility for “social regression” in Egypt with the apparent rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. I can understand why it seems this way given what we know about the history and worldview of the Brothers, but I would not go so far as to make the same judgment for two important reasons. First, it’s too early to draw any conclusions about the sociology of the Egyptian uprising over the past 14 months. Egypt’s transition from the political system that Mubarak oversaw to something new—regardless of its character—is going to take a long time. Transitions are not linear, so there will be lurches in one direction and changes in another. The fact that Egyptians came out heavily in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in the first set of elections that the Ministry of Interior did not predetermine should not be a surprise, but it does not tell analysts all that much about Egypt’s trajectory.

The Brothers were successful because they had an eighty-year head start, they have used the provision of social services to people in need as an effective mechanism for political mobilization, and they have a materially and emotionally appealing vision for Egyptian society that resonates deeply with a lot of people. As a result, it stands to reason that the Brothers did well in a field where, with the exception of the Salafists of the al Nour Party, the Freedom and Justice Party’s competitors were disorganized and fatally fragmented. Yet this was only the first election. If the Muslim Brotherhood continues to secure large pluralities or even majorities in future People’s Assemblies, observers would have more material from which to draw conclusions about Egypt’s direction.

Second, your question presupposes that the patriarchal structure of the Brotherhood is somehow insulated from the forces buffeting Egyptian society. I don’t think that is the case. Even before the January 25 uprising there were debates within the Brotherhood pitting younger (in their fifties), influential members against an old guard over the organization’s proper role as a movement or a party. My sense is that even those who wanted to more directly engage in politics never wanted to repudiate the qualities that made the Brotherhood an important social movement, but they were determined to push into politics. Those who were resistant to taking part in the political arena were most concerned about ensuring the longevity of the organization, given the regime’s previous efforts in the 1950s and 1960s to destroy it. The fact of the matter is that the Brothers have been running candidates in Egyptian elections since 1984, but the tension between the two views about the Brotherhood’s proper role has never abated.

Since Mubarak’s fall, the Islamist end of the political spectrum has perhaps been the most dynamic, and the Brotherhood’s guidance bureau has had a hard time adjusting. For example, the leadership has not been able to keep its people in line. Dr. Abdel Monem Aboul Futouh defied the organization’s leadership by pursuing an independent run for the presidency, the price of which was his membership in the Brotherhood, though this has not deterred him. A group of younger members in their twenties and thirties broke from the organization and established their own party called the Egyptian Current. These “baby Brothers” aspire to be just like Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, which the Brotherhood leadership has, in the past, referred to derisively as too liberal and too nationalist. Indeed, these younger activists regard themselves as “liberal Islamists” who do not want the guidance bureau to dictate to them how to live their lives and how to think about politics. There are also younger members of the Brotherhood who are no longer as closely tethered to the organization because of their experiences in Tahrir Square in January and February 2011, where they developed solidarity with Egyptians from all walks and worldviews, which only served to undermine the discipline that the guidance bureau demands from its members. To be sure, the Brotherhood still commands a large following, yet even the alleged robust patriarchal structures of the Muslim Brotherhood are subject to the stresses and strains of Egypt’s new political environment.

AG: Let’s get to some contemporary issues now. The Egyptian economy has suffered a great deal from the upheavals of the past 16 months. Obviously, these upheavals have affected different social strata differently. How would you characterize the damage, and more important, what are the political implications going forward of the economic straits that the country is in?

SC: Although the uprising was not about the economy or “economic grievances”, as so many have erroneously suggested, Egypt’s economic situation is a central concern during the transition. The tourism sector has collapsed, remittances from Egyptians working abroad are down due to Egypt’s political uncertainty, foreign direct investment is down, and income from Suez Canal tolls has been declining since the financial crisis of 2008. The transitional government has run through more than half of Egypt’s foreign reserves since Mubarak’s fall just to keep the country afloat. And, despite what everyone knew was going to be difficult economic times, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces rejected an IMF loan last June, arguing that it did not want to pile more debt onto the $190 billion Egypt owes to both internal and external creditors. The actual reason likely had more to do with politics and the need for the officers—at a moment of national self-empowerment—not to be seen as knuckling under the pressure of an international financial institution, even if the terms of the loan were generous. Given the ongoing economic problems, however, Cairo went back to the IMF in the early spring seeking assistance.

Everyone recognizes that Egypt is in dire economic straits; the question is what to do about it. If you look in isolation at the economic reforms that the Egyptian government pursued beginning around 2003, when the decision was taken to float the pound, the changes produced very good macro-economic results. Part of this was due to the global economic boom—a rising tide lifts all boats—but the Egyptians demonstrated pretty good economic management. The problem was, of course, that the vast majority of Egyptians did not enjoy the benefits of these neo-liberal economic reforms. In addition, these reforms became associated with graft, corruption and crony capitalism, which are distortions that are actually the result of perverse political and legal systems rather than economic policies. The wise course is for Egyptians to continue the economic reforms begun under Mubarak, coupled with legal and political changes, but that is unlikely to happen. The only Egyptian advocates of neo-liberal reforms are either keeping quiet, in jail, or on the run in Dubai, London and New York. That may be an overstatement, but advocating a set of policies that many Egyptians associate with the corruption and fundamental unfairness of the Mubarak years is difficult politically. That is why you see leading Muslim Brothers—who have a strong streak of economic liberalism—treading carefully on this issue, demanding parliamentary input on a new IMF agreement and couching their support for foreign investment and international assistance as a way of doing what is right for Egypt given its current troubles. Indeed, the Brothers who once positioned themselves as pan-Islamists were actually always good nationalists.

Revolutionary groups, Labor, and the Left—which are not always distinct from each other—would like to see the Mubarak era reforms rolled back or sharply curtailed. From their perspective, privatizations, a floating exchange rate (of sorts), and efforts to make the country attractive to foreign investors did nothing but impoverish the vast majority of Egyptians and undermine their social safety net. These groups and others want to reinvest in education, public health, housing and transportation, and maintain subsidies on energy and certain foodstuffs. These are all critically important, but Egypt cannot afford these investments. And while it is true that the primary advocates of these policies are not well represented in the parliament, social justice, however defined, has been an animating feature of Egyptian politics since at least the first half of the 20th century. As a result, it has a resonance well beyond what parliamentary representation reflects.

The economy, like so much else in Egypt, is likely to be the subject of an ongoing struggle to answer the basic questions that I raised earlier about identity.

AG: For many decades, al-Azhar has played a major role in Egyptian life, and in the wider life of the region and indeed the entire Muslim world. It provided a kind of Good Housekeeping seal of approval on the religious standards of Sunni Islam. As those who are familiar with Egyptian life understand, al-Azhar and its sheikhs developed balanced understandings with the Egyptian regime after July 1952. Al-Azhar’s relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood was also a mixed one—mostly a hostile and negative one in the beginning, but more nuanced over the past three decades of the Mubarak period, especially under the tutelage of the late sheikh Tantawi (no relation, I think, to the field marshal). Now that charismatic preachers like Yusuf al-Qaradawi have returned from exile, the waters are muddied further, and al-Azhar’s status and role seem somewhat uncertain looking into the future. How would you assess these relationships and their general direction?

SC: The role of al-Azhar is one of the most important issues shaping the trajectory of not just Egyptian politics but also its social and cultural spaces. You are quite correct that historically al-Azhar provided, as you say, a sort of Good Housekeeping seal of approval for Sunni Islam. Over time, however, al-Azhar became, if not exactly moribund, then significantly less influential in the Sunni world. Observers tend to point to Law 103 of 1961, which brought al-Azhar under state control. The law paved the way for non-clerics to join al-Azhar’s board and the addition of medicine, engineering and agricultural science to the core curriculum. Most important, the Grand Sheik of al-Azhar became an employee of the Egyptian state and, as such, was expected to do its bidding. This was particularly the case of Grand Sheikh Mohamed Tantawi, who served between 1996 and his death in 2010. Yet, as I have written in The Struggle, as early as 1922, when a school teacher in-training named Hassan al Banna arrived in Cairo, he found that the sheikhs of al-Azhar were unwilling to stem what al Banna considered to be a tide of secularism that was producing pernicious social changes in Egyptian society. As a result, al Banna was convinced that Egypt needed a cadre of like-minded Muslims who could bring the faith back to the people, which is what he provided when he founded the Muslim Brotherhood in March 1928.

 Although the current Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, Ahmed el Tayeb, stood by President Hosni Mubarak during the uprising, since the Egyptian leader’s fall el Tayeb and al-Azhar have sought to carve out a role as the political and religious conscience of the nation. Part of this is a function of the dynamism on the Islamist (for lack of a better term) end of the political spectrum, where different groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis and al-Azhar are competing over who speaks for Islam in the new Egypt. Toward that end, the Grand Sheikh has sought to position himself and al-Azhar as defenders of centrist and liberal values. For example, in June 2011, el Tayeb released a document calling for a democratic state based on a constitution that represents all Egyptians and that respects basic rights and freedoms. Subsequent statements included a document released in January 2012 that emphasized the importance of freedom of expression, tolerance and the importance of civil society in democracies.

The electoral success of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi al Nour Party has raised the stakes in the competition among Egypt’s Islamists. El Tayeb already angered the Salafists with his June document that envisioned allowing Christians to adjudicate their own family and personal status laws, releasing them from obligations under Islamic law. There is a longer and more difficult relationship between the Brotherhood and al-Azhar primarily because the Egyptian state often secured fatawa (Islamic legal rulings) from al-Azhar for government policies that were unpopular, whether it was peace with Israel, participation in Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm or legitimating the charging of interest. This competition is likely to continue with the Brotherhood now in control of almost half the seats in the People’s Assembly and 59 percent of the Consultative Council. It seems that in this ongoing struggle the Grand Sheikh is intent on staking out a relatively progressive position that he and his colleagues believe actually represents the views of the vast majority of Egyptians, in contrast to the theological rigidity of the Salafists and political opportunism of the Brotherhood.

AG: A two-part question, please. It has never been easy to assemble public opinion data in which one could have some confidence for any Arab country. Egypt has been less difficult than more draconian police states like Syria and Iraq under the Ba’ath Party, but the quality of the sampling and the difficulties outsiders have had with culturally sensible translations have caused problems. So, too, did restrictions placed by authorities on what one could ask about. Over the past several months, just about all those restrictions have been lifted––except the one, I am told, concerning sectarian matters. One is still not allowed to ask about the Copts. So the first part of the question: How confident are you that we can actually figure out now what Egyptians think about core social and political issues? And the second part: What do most Egyptians think about the Copts? My impression was that, except for religious extremists, most Egyptian Muslims took a fairly relaxed attitude toward their Christian neighbors. This has been, in large part, because, unlike in some other Arab countries, where Christian minorities are socially and politically among the elite, Christians in Egypt were never a threat, taking up as they do many of the lower rungs of society. Have things changed over the past year?

SC: Thanks, Adam. You point out what was in the past, a challenge in “Egypt watching.” Given the absence of reliable polling data, analysts often had to triangulate to get a rough idea of what Egyptians thought. For example, we did know that Egyptians watched a lot of Al-Jazeera, engaged in wildcat strikes in the state-owned sector, and did not vote in elections during the Mubarak era. This gave us a sense of what was going on in Egyptian society. In the late Mubarak period, in 2004 and 2005, when he was forced to position himself as a reformer, due, in part, to pressure from the United States, the authorities began allowing polls and focus groups. As you indicate, however, certain issues were off-limits including specific questions about Egypt’s minority Coptic population. I’ve checked in with some pollster friends who tell me that asking detailed questions about the Copts these days continues to makes the government nervous, but they are able to ask general questions about religious tolerance, which are widely understood to be coded questions about interfaith relations in Egypt. This is actually fairly consistent with whatever polling was done before the January 25 uprising.

Directly to your questions, it remains hard to tell exactly how Egyptians feel about social and political issues, including the status of the Coptic community, which is, in government circles at least, an especially sensitive issue. As you point out, many Egyptians are relaxed about sectarian differences and want to live in peace with their fellow citizens. I am not entirely sure that this is a function of the fact that Copts are not among the elite. Your point is well taken, though. There are Christian artists, politicians, activists, actors and journalists who have contributed to Egyptian society, but they are the exceptions who prove the rule about the status of the Coptic community. About 40 percent of Copts reside in Upper Egypt, mostly Assiut and Minya, and are generally at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. Still, the issue of Muslim-Christian relations is hardly settled. If it were, the Muslim Brotherhood would not have strained at times recently to make the point that their vision for the new Egypt includes all Muslims and Christians. They are not exactly convincing, however. Khairat al Shater, the Brotherhood’s former presidential candidate, has called upon Christians to do their part in building a Muslim society. Despite al Shater’s logically contorted effort to sound progressive on the Coptic issue, there is ample anecdotal evidence to support the claim that many Egyptians want to avoid the sectarian politics that have come to be a feature in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria. The way in which Muslims protected Copts during the two Sundays of the uprising and the way Christians reciprocated in solidarity and celebration of being “Egyptian” was, quite frankly, inspiring. Episodes like these bolster claims that at least some of the Muslim-Christian violence during the Mubarak era was a function of the state’s manipulation.

At the same time, there are chilling stories of intolerance. Shortly after the uprising, there were terrible incidents in which Salafists allegedly burned down a church in the Cairo neighborhood of Imbaba, and last October there was the “Maspero incident”, which I described as a pogrom in a blog post. More recently, in mid-March, a group of reportedly 300 Muslim lawyers prevented defense attorneys from entering an Assiut courthouse, where their Christian client was appealing a conviction for insulting the Prophet Muhammad. At first, the lawyers objected to the fact that defendant had a Muslim lawyer. When two Coptic attorneys subsequently replaced their Muslim colleagues, the 300 Muslim lawyers prevented them—under the threat of violence—from appearing in court on behalf of their client. Upper Egypt, in particular, has long been a flashpoint for sectarian tension and violence. Each of these episodes suggest that even if allegations that Mubarak’s regime was fostering anti-Christian sentiment in a cynical effort to ensure political control, those tensions continue to haunt the new Egypt.

And in response to your final query, broadly speaking, even in Egypt’s relatively more open political environment—and I want to emphasize “relatively” given problems that journalists, bloggers, and activists continue to confront—it is still difficult to get a clear sense of what Egyptians think. There is not enough polling data yet to come to any firm conclusions. Consequently, Egypt analysts will continue to try to piece together a coherent narrative from different, incomplete pieces of information. It’s not optimal, but it is the best we can do at the moment.

AG: A lot has changed from the U.S. policy perspective since you began work on your book. Over the past year, the U.S. government has been forced to make some kind of peace with the idea of a Muslim Brotherhood-influenced Egyptian government, if only because at least some realistic alternatives are even worse. One suspects that the same kinds of adjustments will be necessary in U.S. relations with other Arab and Muslim countries. This represents a sea change in U.S. attitudes, but it is not clear that the old, mostly rejected arguments in favor of such policies––primarily that in order for liberal democratic institutions to form in Middle Eastern countries, Islamic parties have to go through a kind of cleansing and moderating stage, and that is the presumptive trajectory of all MB involvement in electoral politics––have been accepted along with the policy expediencies we now witness. What’s your sense of not just how policymakers are juggling the alternatives, but of how U.S. policymakers understand more deeply the implications of what they’re doing. In other words, do they have a theory of the case to justify the new tactics? And whether they do or don’t, how do you think U.S. decision-makers at various levels are evaluating the complete mayhem introduced into the run-up to the Egyptian presidential election in the past few days? Even I did not anticipate this level of chaos, with the military disqualifying three of the most popular presidential candidates for no particularly compelling reason. What kind of bind does this put us in from a policy perspective?

SC: Thanks, Adam. You saved the best for last, as they say.

Would it be impolite for me to say that I disagree with the underlying logic of your question? You perceive a significant change in Washington’s approach to Egypt (and the region) and I don’t.

The United States has been forced to confront the reality of Islamist political power in the Middle East, but how much has actually changed? True, Washington dropped its policy of not talking to the Muslim Brotherhood in June 2011 and when a low-level delegation of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party visited Washington in April 2012, its members were granted some high-level U.S. government meetings. I don’t see this as a major shift in policy; rather, it is a recognition of reality. Anyone who was even casually following politics in Egypt understood that in a relatively freer political environment the Muslim Brotherhood, in particular, would do well. There is a robust debate about what the Brothers stand for, but the consensus seems to be that there is nothing Washington can do about Egypt’s new reality, so let’s carry on as best as we can. 

What is so strange is that there is recognition, at an intellectual level, of just how much things in Egypt have changed, yet the foreign policy bureaucracy continues to act as if it were business as usual. I am not sure if this is a function of inertia, a specific policy intended to avoid bilateral tension at a sensitive time, or the Obama Administration’s having some grand theory about Islamist political power. There certainly is no “theory of the case” on which policymakers are operating. My sense is that Washington is bewildered by the twists and turns in Egyptian politics and the Obama Administration is playing catch up, just like the rest of us. The run-up to the presidential elections, during which, in the space of ten days, the Brotherhood’s Khairat Al Shater announced his candidacy as did Mubarak’s spy master, Omar Suleiman, and then were both disqualified from the race, along with the al Nour Party’s Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, is instructive in this regard. As I wrote in The Struggle, Egyptians now have the opportunity to write their own history…and they are. Policy makers had the same reaction to this episode as you did. No one was prepared for the present level of uncertainty that pervades Egyptian politics. As far as the policy bind to which you refer, again I think people are aware of it on an intellectual level, but they are not sure what to do about it, so we have a policy that seeks to avoid tension with the Egyptians—despite the NGO affair and a variety of other dust ups. 

 Yet no matter how hard we try, Washington is eventually going to have to confront its policy dilemmas in Egypt, given U.S. interests there. The United States over flies Egypt daily en route to the Persian Gulf; the U.S. Navy likes to have expedited transit through the Suez Canal; and despite a diminution of power in the past decade or so, Egypt is still the largest country (by population) in the Arab world. For all these reasons, Washington wants to have good relations with Egypt. It is important to recognize, however, that, like the British in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century, the importance of Egypt is not about Egypt per se; it is about someplace else (India for the Brits, the Persian Gulf for the Brits and Americans, and Israel for the Americans). 

I digress, however. There will be a change in U.S.-Egypt relations. Washington is not popular in Egypt, and to the extent that public opinion matters in new and different ways, it is going to be hard for politicians to maintain the status quo in U.S.-Egypt relations. Observers constantly refer to the “pragmatism” of the Muslim Brotherhood, suggesting that, because the Brothers are pragmatic, U.S.-Egypt relations may not change all that much. Yet it seems that it wouldn’t be pragmatic at all for the Brotherhood to carry on a policy they ran against for thirty years and that contributed to the profound unpopularity of Hosni Mubarak. I don’t think that the United States will be a central issue in the presidential campaign, but to the extent that it comes up, it’s clear that Abdel Monem Aboul Fotouh, Amr Moussa, Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq—the four big names left in the field of 13—have significant disincentives to portray themselves as the candidates of U.S.-Egypt strategic ties. This is probably why the Obama Administration waived the human rights conditions on aid to Egypt recently: The military is arguably the only group in the country that shares Washington’s interests, so it does not seem like a good time to anger the officers by docking their aid. 

Herein lies the policy dilemma for the United States: Washington’s interests in the Middle East—keeping oil flowing out of the Persian Gulf, helping to ensure Israeli security and making sure no single power can dominate the region—have not changed. The Egyptian armed forces remain helpful to the United States as it pursues its regional goals. Yet this requires support for the military. That assistance undercuts Washington’s commitment to democratic change in Egypt, which, by the way is producing a political environment that does not welcome the exercise of American power in the region. No one has an answer to the problem, so Washington has chosen to muddle through.

In the years leading up to the Arab uprisings, analysts of the Middle East and advocates of democracy promotion in the region never answered two very difficult questions. How can the United States help smooth out transitions so remnants of old regimes will not try to undermine change? How does Washington protect its short-term interests during transitions that were going to be fraught? The inability (unwillingness even) to answer these questions now plagues U.S. policy in Egypt. Washington’s aspirations for Egypt conflict with its interests there, and policymakers are not willing to choose one or the other. The inevitable result is (policy) drift along the Nile.

AG: Whether the U.S. policy shift to talk to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is or is not a major change is, I think, a function of perspective. You’re right that from a distance of only a year or two, it’s neither major nor surprising. But compared to how things stood four or five years ago—after 9/11 but before the so-called Arab Spring—it looks different. And your keen observation that the bureaucracy still hasn’t caught up with the new modus operandi suggests as much.

In any event, thanks for your many insights and I hope the book gets the very wide readership it deserves.

[Cover image courtesy Shutterstock.]

Adam Garfinkle is editor of The American Interest.