Western foreign policy in Egypt caught between realpolitik and ballotocracy

At the time of publication, Egypt is still counting its dead, among which journalists and christian church worshippers. The Egyptian military’s massacre in Rabaa is following the failure of American and European diplomatic efforts, the ousting of President Morsi, and general political instability since the first political protests in November 2011. The international outrage at the events unfolding in front of our very eyes can not match the reaction of Egyptians. We talked to Nelly Corbel, a Cairo-based political scientist.

On wednesday August 14, the Egyptian security forces moved to disperse the two months long sit-ins in support of former President Morsi after repeated and delayed ultimatums. The dispersal of the two protests led to widespread violence across the country from street battles to sectarian attacks. An emergency law was declared and a curfew put in place.

The powerful images coming out of Egypt brought worldwide attention, questions and outrage: what happened? how did we get to this? This is what military coup lead to! Like Sarah Kay, many feel confused and appalled. How can the West, namely the EU and the US condone the military coup; it was an evidence that a military coup would lead to such carnage. The West was too weak in their visits to the post- July 3rd government.

My question to them is: what could they have done?

Lets step back to take a look at specific events in Egypt’s last year and the international relations at play in the region since the ‘Arab Spring’.

The constitutional debacle

In November 2012, former President Morsi issues a decree giving himself absolute powers including those over the judiciary and reinstating emergency law under a new name to allow him to clean the state from old regime remains. Upheaval by revolutionary groups is immediate. The country witnesses nationwide protests, Human rights groups, syndicates and civil society condemn the decree and a sit in settles in front of the presidential palace asking for the removal of the decree.

The response from the Presidency and the Muslim Brotherhood comes in a two-fold action: the sit-in is violently dispersed with no warning by militia and the president reminds the decree will be cancelled as soon as the new constitution is ratified.

Therefore the drafting of the constitution which had been debated for over two years with numerous councils created, dissolved and witnessed massive member resignations was approved in an Islamic-leaning constitutional committee. A draft is agreed upon overnight. Two weeks were given to the citizens to prepare for the referendum over the highly controversial draft. Finally the constitution is ratified by some 60% of ‘yes’ from a third of eligible voters. Egypt moves on with a constitutional process led through a majority rule and no efforts for consensus building in a divided country.

This turning point in Morsi’s presidency was very weakly addressed by the international community, partly because a few days earlier he was applauded by the same community as the truce-broker in a heavy conflict on the Gaza strip between Hamas and Israel. The series of political faux pas conducted by the Morsi administration after this never stopped from 24 hour long decrees increasing taxes and removing subsidies over daily goods to the ‘brotherhoodization’ of institutions.

West: between balance of power and ‘ballotocracy’

In light of these events, any sound political analyst could have easily seen the below unfolding.
There are four large political segments: remnants/supporters of the old regime, the powerful military institution who owns over one third of the country’s economy, the Islamic leaning groups with international branches and the revolutionaries.

In the presidential elections the first two voted for Shafiq and the latter two mainly voted for Morsi. The revolutionary forces, which is not homogenous can be considered as the ‘swing group’ who decides at each cross roads based principles rather than because of loyalty to an institution. Their votes will go in favor of an idea or against one.

After the decree, Morsi lost the support of a fairly large portion from this group of voters who ultimately voted against the old regime figure: Shafiq. Since then opposition started organizing against the Muslim Brotherhood, their offices across the country were regularly attacked and the divisions deepened by the lack of genuine dialogue and consensus building from the presidency.

Therefore, in light of the above, western political analysts could have done the math: the revolutionaries who learned from their past failures in elections from a lack of alliance would ally with those who would help them against the MB. In that moment, the West utterly failed at exerting pressure against President Morsi to push him into a deep consensual effort. Rather they turned a bling eye on the situation and the summer 2013 events was a logical consequence within internal Egyptian politics.

Why not pressure Morsi to follow a consensual path?

Egypt is a critical country at the regional and international level:

1 – it’s geographical position between Sudan, Lybia and especially Palestine/Israel
2 – its symbolic importance in influencing regional politics making it an epicenter.

Therefore, dealing with Egypt is a very delicate waltz. After supporting the military regime for decades to insure peace with Israel, the Egyptian uprisings of 2011 has put the West in front of a dilemma. The military took over the transition but elections are taking time. The earlier the elections take place the more evident it is the Muslim Brotherhood will win them. The West stands for the protection of Israel and democracy, so how can it work if the mother group of Hamas comes to power through the ballot? As we say, keep your friends close and your enemies closer. The West therefore chose to prioritize improving relations with the MB as if they were the ultimate result of democracy in Egypt at the very least for the public eye.

This move was a complete miscalculation of the forces at play in Egypt where rule of law is barely practiced and where the military are a force to be reckoned with, not only because of its economic and armed power but also because of it’s symbolic importance in the eyes of a very large portion of the population. The recent call for supporting action against the Pro-Morsi sit in saw hundreds of thousands of supporters in the streets.

Finally, it must be understood that the situation in Syria sent a strong message to dictatorships in the region: the balance of powers are shifting and countries have once more the opportunity to play the West/East alignment game. The full supremacy of the West in the post cold war is over. Proxy wars are very much alive and the West cannot take the risk of loosing Egypt.

Morale of the story: if the West was indeed focused on democracy and a process focused transition, it would have seized its chance when it still had it back in November to pressure the new government in despair for foreign aids to prevent this military intervention. Now Egypt is up for grab again, the balance of power has shifted, the military is once more all powerful and the seduction operation to get Egypt back is on.


Nelly Corbel works at the Gerhart Center for Civic Engagement and Philanthropy at the American University in Cairo. She is the Executive Director of the Lazord Foundation. Franco-egyptian, she has been based in Cairo for over five years.


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