On February 11, 2011, after 18 days of massive, nationwide protests, Egyptians forced the resignation of their president, Hosni Mubarak, after twenty-nine years of authoritarian rule. But in the future, as in the past, the United States will continue tipping the scales in its favor, putting its eggs into the military basket in addition to that of the protesters. Given the uncertainty over how things will shake out, and the impact of Washington’s track record with Cairo, the United States—for better or worse—must step back and finally allow Egyptians to shape their own destiny.
Months after the phenomenal display of euphoria, courage, and self-determination, some in the West are wondering whether the defenders of Egypt’s uprising have much to be happy about. The soft transfer of power from Mubarak to the armed forces seems to have signaled Egypt’s drift into a dictatorless tyranny, with the military continuing to crackdown on protesters and subjecting them to military tribunals. Meanwhile, the religious extremists who recently killed over half a dozen Israelis had entered Gaza via Sinai. These developments are extremely worrisome. And yet, there is also a danger that the West will continue to back a deeply entrenched and well-organized military that over the past several months has been making overtures to the Muslim Brotherhood. Like Pakistan, another U.S. “ally,” Egypt—and its many less conservative factions—appears stuck between the mosque and the military.
Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)—the country’s 19-member military body that took over after Mubarak’s downfall—has an incentive to play up the power of Islamists for the West. That is not to say that Egypt's Islamists aren't powerful, or that the SCAF cannot make common cause with the Brotherhood for its own narrow self-interests. The military, often run by retired generals, commands an array of commercial enterprises in industries such as water, olive oil, cement, construction, hospitality, and gasoline. Because the Brotherhood looks poised to win big in the upcoming parliamentary elections, SCAF has every incentive to cooperate now with the Brotherhood.
On this note, it should be said that the Brotherhood, while religiously conservative, intolerant of dissent, and—despite its recent rhetoric—still hoping to establish an Islamic state, is not the most extreme element in Egyptian society. There is also the Salafist Nour Party, Jamaa Islamiya, and other Salafist groups that seek to go mainstream. Moreover, it’s important to point out that not all religious elements oppose the liberal protesters: the country’s most prominent religious clerics, al-Azhar, supported the liberals and their principles on the constitution.
Still, the danger remains that the United States might try to use its leverage with the military to the detriment of protest groups. This could lead to a slew of dangerously counterproductive and unintended consequences. Consider, for instance, Mubarak, who Washington backed for nearly 30 years to the tune of $1.5 billion annually and $28.6 billion from USAID since 1975. He used the Muslim Brotherhood as a pretext to crush moderate, reform-minded critics. Indeed, American diplomats at one time even conceded that Mubarak was using the “implicit threat of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise” to “temper foreign pressure for more and faster democratic reforms.”