Egypt’s grim future

Barry Rubin Director, GLORIA Center
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There’s a new political timeline for Egypt. Apparently horrified by disorder and radicalization, the military junta has decided to slow things down.

Its proposal is for parliamentary elections on November 28, with the resulting parliament choosing a committee to write a new constitution by April 2012. That group will have a year to produce the new document and only then — after April 2013 — will there be presidential elections. Bottom line: The generals will retain executive power for the next 18 months.

What’s likely to happen in the elections? My estimate is that the Muslim Brotherhood will be the single largest party, with 30 to 40 percent of the seats.

In contrast to the united Islamists, there are more than a dozen moderate parties. The three main ones are the left-oriented Justice Party, the opportunistic Wafd Party, and the Free Egyptians’ Party, the closest thing to an anti-Islamist moderate force.

These three will each get roughly 15 percent of the seats and will consequently be much weaker than the Brotherhood and will perhaps be willing to make deals with it in order to get a share of power. Most of the remaining seats are likely to go to a party favoring the old regime. That party might do better than expected as bad conditions make some Egyptians nostalgic for the Mubarak days.

If so, the Brotherhood won’t be taking power in Egypt soon, but there will be a radical (leftist, nationalist, Islamist) majority in parliament. As different as these ideologies are, they’re united by their opposition to America, the West, and Israel and their support for radical groups abroad — especially Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip.

In addition, the Brotherhood will play a central role in writing the new constitution, which will enshrine Sharia as the main but not sole source of legislation.

There are many other ways in which the Brotherhood can lay the foundation for its future rule. For example, it wants to bring the two top Islamic offices — mufti and Al-Azhar University head — under parliamentary control. This will let it control Islam in Egypt, even choosing mosque preachers and religious teachers throughout the country.

Yet the Brotherhood doesn’t seem eager to take power quickly. The group continues to have a strong cautious — though that’s not the same thing as moderate — streak, having suffered bloody repression in past decades. To move too fast might upset the military and unite the group’s opponents, whose divisions will make them easier to conquer.

There’s another reason for the Brotherhood’s hesitation. Egypt’s economic situation is terrible and likely to get far worse. The Brotherhood doesn’t want to be blamed when the crash comes, preferring to go tsk-tsk at the alleged evils of capitalism, the Mubarak era, foreign aid, and the International Monetary Fund. It could then approach a frightened public with the comforting assertion that Islam is the answer to all of Egypt’s woes.

Is a war with Israel possible? If the military holds onto executive power into the second half of 2013, that’s far less likely. The worst-case scenario is if Hamas deliberately starts a fracas with Israel — firing rockets and mortars by the score and launching cross-border raids — to provoke retaliation.

The Brotherhood, radical nationalists, Salafi super-extremist Islamist groups, and leftists would then demand that Egypt go to the aid of the brothers next door. At a minimum, this would mean letting volunteers, money, and weapons flow into the Gaza Strip. At a maximum, it could bring direct involvement of an Egyptian leadership too frightened and stirred up to resist. Probably, though, until Egypt has a president, that outcome is not so likely.

Meanwhile, what is far more probable is that the domestic situation will deteriorate further, with the first and greatest victims being Egyptian Christians. The number of Coptic Christians in Egypt is greater than the entire population of Israel, Jordan, or Lebanon. A recent report by an Egyptian human rights group claims that almost 100,000 Christians have left the country since January.

With almost daily attacks on Christians and the destruction of churches by mobs, the violence is escalating. Neither government officials nor the army will help the Christians, who can also not depend on any foreign protection.

Except for the military — and it often appeases anti-Christian, Islamist, and anti-foreign forces — there is absolutely nothing to prevent the further radicalization of the situation in Egypt, which also includes rampant crime and skyrocketing inflation. The dream of a moderate, stable, and democratic Egypt is quickly becoming a nightmare.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal at Gloria-Center.org. His latest book, Israel: An Introduction, will be published by Yale University Press in January.