By Ron Gilran and Daniel Nisman
Egypt continues to reel from the aftermath of the recent high profile raids against foreign-backed NGO’s by state security forces. Egyptian human rights watchdogs have condemned the raids as an effort by the SCAF to subdue the groups which are fomenting criticism against its policies, while ignoring the large amounts of funds being illicitly transferred to Islamist parties from the Persian Gulf. The United States and European Union have also stepped up their criticism, with Washington hinting at cutting off its longtime financial aid package.
The American threats have sparked an outcry amongst Egypt’s conservative groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, which is slated to emerge as the dominant party in parliamentary elections. The FJP’s legal advisor, Ahmad Abu-Baraka, said on Sunday that the party will ask the newly-elected parliament to abolish the US aid, which he claimed “serves as a means to interfere with Egypt’s internal issues’; reportedly adding that ‘America and its money can go to hell”.
American foreign aid to Egypt is estimated at roughly $ 1.5 billion annually, with $1.3 billion infused to military support. Egypt has enjoyed this financial support since the signing of the peace treaty with Israel in 1979, in which the aid was a crucial factor in keeping the country’s crumbling economy functioning at a basic level. Most recently, governmental officials have warned that Egypt’s national economy is currently facing its most serious crisis in years. Since the January 2011 revolution, the economy has suffered repeated blows to tourism and foreign investment as a result of the unrest, in addition to ongoing attacks on its natural gas pipeline in the Sinai Peninsula.
Mr. Abu-Baraka’s comments should thus be taken as no more than a populist statement, whereas it is highly unlikely that Egypt’s economy will be able to survive in the long run without any American support, given that no other power would be able to fill such a void. In addition, perceptions that the country is exhibiting a slide towards fundamentalism would only further deter prospective investors as well as tourists from the West.
The comments cater to the growing anti-American sentiment in Egypt commonly refer to as ‘Western interference’ in the county’s internal issues. In this regard, conspiracy theories against Israel and the United States are rampant in Egyptian society, fomented by religious clerics as well as the local media. Mubarak’s perceived cooperation with the Israelis and the West was a major factor in the public’s disillusionment with his regime. In the post-Mubarak era, both the SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood understand that they must distance themselves from these policies, to avoid falling victim to political outbidding from their opponents.
The recent raids on foreign-backed NGO’s and arrests of foreign nationals may all be considered attempts by the SCAF to quell any sentiment linking its policies to the old regime. These highly visible raids and arrests help to focus and unify Egypt’s majority conservative public on perceived external threats, distracting their attention from the country’s floundering economic and security situation. In addition, the targeting of liberal NGO’s serves to intimidate and deter the very groups which have been at the forefront of the campaign to delegitimize the SCAF for its human rights record.
Meanwhile, Mr. Abu-Baraka’s statements are reflective of the inherent dissonance that the Brotherhood will likely face once actively taking part in Egypt’s ruling government. In shifting from its traditional position as Egypt’s opposition to taking a leading role in the governing coalition, it will now, for the first time be held accountable for future economic and diplomatic setbacks.
This is not to suggest that the Muslim Brotherhood’s coalition will continue Mubarak-era policies. Signs of fundamentalism are becoming more noticeable in various aspects of daily life. Members of both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Al Nour party have announced that once in power, they intend to institute harsher restrictions on the sale of alcohol and tourism, policies which serve as telling indicators.
But the growing acceptance of Islam in every-day lives and public-space will likely not immediately find expression in concrete measures on the foreign-arena, including the peace treaty with Israel. In that sense, threats of revising or canceling the treaty may as well be limited to rhetoric in order to cater to public opinion. The fact that the Brotherhood has thus far refrained from presenting a candidate for the republic’s presidency supports this assessment as the President – (as opposed to the parliament) is expected to remain almost completely autonomous in his decision making on issues of foreign policy and national security.
For years, the Muslim Brotherhood has been recognized by its patient pursuit of influence, constantly refraining from actions which would bring about abrupt or extreme change. This modus operandi has allowed the group to gradually rise to power, staving off criticism from its liberal opponents in Egypt and abroad by preventing them from capitalizing on fears that the group seeks a hard-line Islamist rule in Egypt. As such, the group will continue to assert itself as a moderate party as to not upset key factors which ensure its legitimacy. In the short run, the group will implement a more conservative domestic policy to cater to Egypt’s newly empowered lower and middle class, while refraining from major shifts in foreign policy which would ultimately impact the nation’s wellbeing by compromising key allies.
Ron Gilran and Daniel Nisman work for Max Security Solutions, a risk consulting company based in the Middle East.