What to expect from Egypt’s Morsi

This is a longer version of an article in  Haaretz by Aymenn Jawad Al Tamimi

What to make of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi’s election as president of Egypt? What seems to be the most likely outcome is something analogous to the “constitutional settlements” of the early Roman Empire. That is, the military, like the Emperor Augustus in antiquity, will entrust to itself management of foreign policy, while granting Morsi (and a parliament, if new elections are allowed) – akin to the Senate in Rome – considerable autonomy with regards to the direction of domestic affairs, even as the military has assumed control over the drafting of the constitution.

Indeed, such a settlement would work well for the military, because, despite its extensive control of the economy, the burden of resolving the economic crisis would ultimately rest in Morsi’s hands. Currently, as Reuters reports, the country’s depleted foreign reserves can only cover “three months of import coverage,” while the local currency debt has increased to 600 billion Egyptian pounds ($99 billion), up from 500 billion before the unrest began in January 2011.

The International Monetary Fund has indicated that a $3.2 billion loan will only be granted if the country gets its finances in order, but the prospects of such a resolution appear to be bleak. Having Morsi take responsibility, therefore, can prove useful in directing potential civilian anger away from the military. On the other hand, the perception of a settlement between the military and the president could help to attract foreign investment.

With the military managing foreign policy, the chances of a full-blown war between Egypt and Israel are slim, despite bellicose rhetoric emanating from some quarters of the Muslim Brotherhood calling for the liberation of Jerusalem and establishment of a “United Arab States.” For one thing, Egypt lacks the means to launch and sustain a war against Israel. At the same time, however, one should not expect Egyptian firmness in dealing with rocket fire against the Jewish state or militant activity in the Sinai Peninsula.

In fact, one could well see the military adopt an approach toward militancy not dissimilar to the methods of the Pakistani security forces: that is, targeting those perceived to pose a direct threat to Egypt’s stability, while lacking resolve at best, and at worst playing a double game with other militants in order to continue receiving U.S. aid.
As for the domestic scene, it is probable that the Islamization trend that has been apparent over the past five or so decades will not only continue but could also accelerate. When the likes of Hosni Mubarak were in charge, the arrangement was such that Islamist ideology was allowed to disseminate at ground level. Now that Egypt has an elected Islamist president, it is to be expected that sentiments on the ground will only become more hard-line.

Although it is easy to dismiss outlandish claims that Morsi wants to reinstate the discriminatory jizya poll tax – essentially the equivalent of a Mafia protection racket – on Christians (the report is an uncorroborated rumor that can be traced to one obscure Arabic website), there is evidence that he would like to restrict the rights of non-Muslim minorities and women. Just under half of voters chose Ahmed Shafiq, but that will not act as a firm barrier against a gradualist approach to implementing Islamic law that many in the Brotherhood see as the ideal strategy to adopt.

In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic magazine last year, Morsi made it clear that neither he nor the Brotherhood could tolerate the idea of a Christian or woman running for the presidency of Egypt.

While much has been made of a recent announcement by an advisor to Morsi that there are plans to appoint a Copt and a woman as vice-presidents, it should be appreciated that such positions are likely to be no more than symbolic. In fact, problems of discrimination against non-Muslims and women will in all likelihood only worsen under Morsi’s presidency. Further, the spike in Salafist mob attacks on Coptic churches since the ousting of Mubarak – attacks usually sparked by the flimsiest rumors and trivialities – is unlikely to subside, and the authorities will probably continue to do nothing about it.

In the long run, chaos and instability are most likely to dominate the country’s future. Unlike Iran, which has, since the mid-1980s, implemented a major family planning program that has dramatically slowed population growth, Egypt’s population (83 million as of October 2011) continues to grow. It could reach 100 million by 2020, with more than 99 percent of the population living on an area of land around the Nile only 2.5 times the size of Israel.

Even assuming Egypt can escape from its current economic crisis, there is no sign its economy can keep up with the pace of population growth even to sustain present standards of living. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Egyptian Islamists have on past occasions denounced family planning as a Western conspiracy to keep the number of Muslims in the world in check. They have shown no intention of implementing a program to reduce the birth rate.

Egypt is unlikely to become a “Somalia on the Nile” as economist and columnist David P. Goldman has predicted, but in the long-term, internal stability is a remote possibility.

Update I: Concerning Egypt’s economy and the Muslim Brotherhood’s plans, Martin Kramer summarizes the situation well:

The Muslim Brotherhood is in a bind, because it has to deliver. For the masses of people who voted for the Muslim Brotherhood, the revolution wasn’t about democracy and freedom. It was about bread and social justice.

The Brotherhood has a so-called “Renaissance” plan for the overhaul of the Egyptian economy. I won’t pretend to judge its feasibility. Could modernization of tax collection double or triple tax revenues? Can Egypt double the number of arriving tourists, even while contemplating limits on alcohol and bikinis? Can a renovation of the Suez Canal raise transit revenues from $6 billion a year to $100 billion? Can Egypt’s economy surpass the economies of Turkey and Malaysia within seven years? These are all claims made at various times by the economic thinkers of the Muslim Brotherhood, who trumpet Egypt’s supposed potential for self-sufficiency.

To these big promises, one can add Morsi’s pledge to tackle congestion problems within the first 100 days of his time in office.

Kramer goes on to suggest that the Brotherhood will try to solicit aid from Gulf Arabs and the West, drawing attention to remarks made by Khairat El-Shater, the deputy supreme guide of the Brotherhood, back in February, when he “strongly” advised Europeans and Americans to “support Egypt during this critical period as compensation for the many years they supported a brutal dictatorship.”

However, the question of the Brotherhood’s relations with the U.S. and the West at large is a tricky issue. It should not be forgotten that the Islamists have spent the past thirty years attacking Mubarak and the establishment for supposedly being too close to the U.S. and the West, and the popular sentiment in Egypt is deeply anti-American.

That the military will continue to receive Western aid is almost certain, but Kramer correctly notes that the Brotherhood is trumpeting an image of self-reliance. A perception of economic dependence on America and the West could backfire on the Brotherhood. This is not like the North Korean regime that has a philosophy of autarky but can portray its reliance on foreign aid as tribute to the greatness of the nation.

As for the Gulf Arabs, let’s just say that they have frequently proven themselves to be remarkably stingy when it comes to helping Muslim brothers in need. Saudi Arabia in particular is still angered by the ‘betrayal’ of Mubarak (hence its uncompromising stance on Bahrain).

Update II: Fawaz A. Gerges appears to agree with my idea of a “constitutional settlement” along the lines of the early Principate but with unfounded optimism proclaims:

After decades of persecution and incarceration, what is unfolding today clearly shows the weight and influence of the Muslim Brothers, most of whom are centrist and modernist and accept democratic values, in shaping the political future of their society…Arab Islamists are traveling a similar path as did the Christian fundamentalists and later the Christian Democrats and Euro-communists in Western Europe who in the 20th century subordinated ideology to interests and political constituencies.

As Jonathan Schanzer aptly comments on Twitter: ***Fawaz Gerges just slobbers all over the Brotherhood here. Behold, the personification of MidEast studies failures today.***