The Buzz

Morsi and American Egypt Strategy

In an excellent essay over at Foreign Policy, the Century Foundation’s Michael Wahid Hanna argues that the United States has essentially carried over its Mubarak-era Egypt approach into the Morsi administration, “a bet on authoritarian stability”:

That bargain, which was largely premised on Egyptian support for the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, granted the Mubarak regime wide latitude to repress its own people in exchange for regional security cooperation. The United States became accustomed to dealing with Mubarak and his inner circle, with little need to cultivate broad ties.

The motivation behind the bet, and its continuation into the Morsi era, is fear that the peace with Israel will fall apart, a fear Hanna argues is mistaken: the United States “too often . . . views the Camp David bargain as the outcome of a coercive aid arrangement and therefore as perpetually at risk.” However,

upholding the treaty is an enduring Egyptian national interest. It is a threshold for continued international legitimacy at a time when Egypt will require substantial international assistance and support. Further, the still-powerful national security establishment has a dispositive voice on such critical matters, and it has made abundantly clear that Egypt has no intention of abrogating its treaty obligations.

This claim could be even broader. The security establishment wants peace with Israel because it gains nothing from a confrontation—in the best-case scenario, more than one billion dollars of American aid are jeopardy, and the military must devote resources to the inhospitable Sinai rather than the enjoyment of its comfortable position in the Egyptian economy. In the worst-case scenario, it gets hammered by Israel for the fifth time.

The political establishment also needs peace. If it loses international financial support, the enduring structural weaknesses of Egypt’s economy would be exposed. The budget, the currency, and the inflation rate would all be in question. The resulting chaos would make Egypt’s present instability look like a child’s tea party, and some of the heaviest economic burdens will fall on Morsi’s constituents. That doesn’t mean the peace with Israel is unshakeable under Morsi—he seems to play two blunders for each brilliancy, and a confrontation might yield a sugar rush of support. However, to make the political risks of belligerence manageable, he’d have to spend years making the Egyptian economy resilient and reducing the military’s influence.

The core, however, of Egypt’s need for peace with Israel is its own internal crisis. Riotous protests are a regular occurrence, and the economy is struggling. The political front is even worse—on top of frequent legal and constitutional crises, the government faces a crisis of legitimacy. Morsi and his allies don’t seem to fully grasp the fundamental importance of an inclusive political process at such a vital moment in Egypt’s history. Accordingly, they have allowed drafting the constitution to become a partisan exercise. This has forced a string of actions—some illegal, some merely impolitic—that alienated an opposition that was always going to be hard to bring along.

Hanna’s essay, published on Tuesday, argued that Morsi’s choices “institutionalized Egypt's political crisis and ensured that the country's foundational document would be a destabilizing element in the country's future.” Later that day, he was proven right in dramatic fashion. The National Salvation Front, the troubled umbrella group for the secular opposition, announced that it will boycott the April parliamentary elections on the grounds that they will not be transparent and fair. The new legislature will now be dominated by various styles of Islamists, allowing them to implement their agenda as they see fit; because it is the product of a boycott, its actions will lack broad legitimacy. There will be more violent nights, and there’s a risk that the Islamists will continue to build a political system that keeps rivals out.

Because of its security concerns, charges Hanna, the United States has done little to fight this trend. Again misreading Cairo’s interests, Washington thought Morsi was doing a favor by settling November’s war between Israel and Hamas, and accordingly “was loath to place blame at the feet of its newfound partner” when he declared his decisions to be above the law. The message of acquiescence was amplified soon after, with Morsi’s foreign-affairs advisor scoring a meeting with National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and President Obama.