New Egypt Looks a Lot Like Old Egypt

Until factions learn to work together, the new Egypt will continue to look like the old one.

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Robert Nolan is an editor at the Foreign Policy Association and producer of the Great Decisions in Foreign Policy television series on PBS.

The new Egypt, for better or worse, is beginning to look a lot like the old Egypt. In the past two weeks, both regional and domestic events have proven that despite American fears to the contrary, the status quo is likely to prevail in Cairo, albeit in a rocky fashion. 

First, President Mohamed Morsi's successful mediation of the conflict between Hamas and Israel proved that despite the new leader's Islamist background, Egypt will continue to be a pillar of regional stability that the United States can rely on. Despite fears that the Camp David Accords—brokered 34 years ago by President Jimmy Carter, wouldn't hold up under the Muslim Brotherhood, it's clear that the trilateral relationship between Egypt, Israel, and the United States remains functional, even under the stress of recent events.

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Indeed, that grand bargain, which rewarded Egypt with billions of dollars in military aid in exchange for peace with Israel, is being built upon by all parties following the most recent Gaza conflict. In an effort to move beyond military aid, the U.S. Congress continues to mull over a significant debt forgiveness plan for Egypt, and the Obama administration is supporting a $4.8 billion dollar International Monetary Fund loan to Cairo negotiated earlier this month

While Morsi showcased his brotherly solidarity with Hamas, which the United States considers a terrorist organization, at the outset of the conflict during a visit to Gaza, his ability to help bring about a ceasefire and work effectively with all parties—including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—was met with sighs of relief in Washington. Tipsy off of his regional success, however, Morsi has doubled down at home, seeking alongside the Brotherhood-dominated Constituent Assembly to grant himself broad powers through presidential decree before the creation of a new constitution that could have profound implications for future elections and claim ever more power for the executive branch, not to mention potentially move Egypt closer to Islamic Law.

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"He basically now holds the power to legislate which was previously held by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. He also holds the power of appointment, and holds control over the budget," said Bruce Rutherford, author of Egypt After Mubarak, in an interview this fall for Great Decisions in Foreign Policy. "One could argue quite persuasively that he is now more powerful than Mubarak was in terms of the formal powers that he controls." 

If a new constitution is fast tracked under Morsi those powers would expand even further.

"It's slightly different from the Mubarak model," said Eric Trager in an interview for Great Decisions ahead of recent events. "It's more religious in its tone, but decision making will still be made among a very small group of people."

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The recent moves, which are being challenged by the Supreme Constitutional Court and political powers previously associated with the Mubarak regime, have also further alienated prodemocracy forces, which took to the streets once again in the largest protests since Morsi took power. Observers like Rutherford note that while this may be their only option, it's unlikely to be effective. 

Their technique for influencing policy is basically blowing an instrument, 'You do what we want or we'll put ten thousand people on the street,' rather than that process of negotiation and bargaining and compromise, which Egypt really needs at this point, to bring a measure of stability to the political system.

While American officials may publicly and even ideologically support prodemocracy forces in Egypt, the reality is that when it comes to foreign policy, stability still trumps democracy—especially after the escalating headaches caused to policymakers following the Arab Spring now playing out in Washington and impacting the national discussion.

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"We have been fascinated from the beginning by the young people in Tahrir Square that were calling for a change and we admired their idealism," said outgoing Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, "But the facts of life are the young people are not in the political scene at present."

Stability in Egypt, however, has itself been elusive. The Muslim Brotherhood plans large scale counterprotests this weekend, and prodemocracy forces have vowed to oppose what many consider a constitutional coup by Morsi. 

As recent events indicate, the ongoing power struggle between Morsi's Islamists, former Mubarak stalwarts, the ever powerful and well-funded military, the judiciary, and prodemocracy forces promises to stunt the emergence of a cohesive Egypt anytime soon. Until these factions learn to work together, the new Egypt will increasingly look like the old Egypt.

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