Fletcher Features

Egypt in Crisis: TuftsNow Q&A with Zack Gold (F09)

Just two weeks before the rioting that resulted in the ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, Zack Gold, F09, was visiting Cairo, where he thought things seemed eerily quiet. “Don’t be fooled,” he was told by people he met. “A protest is being planned.” No one, though, could have predicted its size and impact.

Gold, a Washington-based Middle East analyst who has lived and traveled in Egypt since 2006, left Cairo on June 16. Two weeks later, Egyptians took to the streets, demanding the removal of the man they had elected a year earlier to replace Hosni Mubarak, the autocratic ruler who had led the country for 30 years. Mubarak was overthrown in 2011 during the revolution that was part of the Arab Spring.

Now another uprising has again resulted in an Egyptian leader’s ouster. Since July 3, when Morsi was overthrown, Cairo has been a city in chaos. Earlier this week the Egyptian military opened fire on a group of Morsi supporters, killing dozens and wounding hundreds of others.

Among other things, Morsi’s overthrow lends credence to Islamists who say the only way they can achieve power is through violence, says Gold, who talked with Tufts Now about the upheaval in Egypt.

Tufts Now: Why was Morsi overthrown?

Gold: The biggest complaint against Morsi was that he listened to his own people in the Muslim Brotherhood movement and ignored the will of the Egyptian people. He ran on a platform of compromise, but he ended up spoiling the initial good will by appointing people from his own movement to head ministries, instead of engaging with opposition politicians or bringing in outside experts.

The constitutional declaration of Nov. 22, 2012—when Morsi claimed all authority for himself and said his actions couldn’t be overruled by the courts—was the starting point of the problems. Morsi and his supporters argued he was legitimately elected and the constitution was democratically approved. But there were significant numbers of people in the opposition who saw it differently. They said any time Morsi reached out, it was with an empty hand, and when he asked for advice, they gave it and no one listened.

What about the parliament?

Egypt was supposed to have a parliamentary election in April, but the government did not pass the appropriate election laws to schedule it. In my opinion, having a parliament that could challenge the presidency would have helped move the country forward.

Wasn’t the Muslim Brotherhood part of the problem?

Some say many of the protests were against the Brotherhood because it is Islamist. I think that has less to do with the controversy than that they grabbed power for themselves, operated in secrecy and were unwilling to work with others outside the movement. That said, there is certainly a segment of Egyptian society concerned about growing conservatism in government. Many Coptic Christian groups were concerned their rights would be stomped on further by an Islamic government. But overall, it was more about authoritarianism than anything else.

What role did the poor economy play?

The bad economy helped bring people into the streets. Egypt has structural economic problems. A quarter of its budget is spent on subsidies for fuel and food, another quarter on salaries and wages for bureaucracy and another quarter on paying off debt. That leaves only 25 percent of a shrinking budget to cover all other costs.

Wasn’t the International Monetary Fund going to step in to help?

The IMF had been negotiating a $4.8 billion loan to Egypt and was pushing for a restructuring of subsidies before it would have made the loan. Instead of having targeted subsidies, as we have with food stamps in the United States, in Egypt the government subsidizes everything. So if you go to a gas station, whether rich or poor, you pay the same amount for gas for your car.

But the negotiations kept stalling. Some of the members of the governing coalition said a loan from the international community is haram, not allowed, because under Islamic law, interest on debt is forbidden. There were other Islamists, though, who said what is banned is not interest but usury. An IMF loan of less than two percent is not usury, so it came down to an interpretation of Islamic law.

What else was holding up the loan?

Some members of the opposition to the Morsi government said Egypt needed the loan because it needs the legitimacy of foreign investors. But others said the IMF has been ruining countries around the world, including Egypt in the Mubarak era. They say an IMF loan is what got the country into a mess in the first place, and Egypt should not be slaves to a foreign consortium and should reject the loan.

What message does the situation in Egypt send to the Arab world?

One of the arguments of non-democratic regimes—the monarchies in the region—is “Look at the chaos of Egypt, the civil war in Syria, the insecurity in Libya. The population is better off without that.”

The United States has been trying to push a narrative counter to al-Qaeda that says that political Islam can gain through the ballot box. This overthrow supports the extremist narrative that Islamists can only gain politically through violence or extralegal means.

Will Egypt now be more likely to elect a president who is not an Islamist?

There’s a lot of mistrust for the Brotherhood, but Egypt itself is a conservative country. In surveys of the population, they support conservative, Islamist-based laws, and a candidate running on those issues would gain the support of the general population.

Can the United States help resolve the situation?

During the riots, you would see anti-American banners on pro- and anti-Morsi sides. The U.S. is in an awkward position. The administration wants democracy to succeed and doesn’t want the military involved in governing. But anything the administration does will be seen as overstepping by both sides. This was seen recently before the protests when Anne W. Patterson, the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, told a gathering of local NGOs [non-governmental organizations] that as important as protests are, the idea of bringing down a government is not supported by the U.S. and that opposition groups should form political parties and run in future elections. She was basically told by many opposition members to mind her own business.

Was the ouster of Morsi a coup?

Personally, I would call it a coup, but our government is avoiding that. According to U.S. law, if a country undergoes a coup, then we have to cut off economic assistance. Our annual aid to Egypt is approximately $1.5 billion, and out of that, $1.3 billion is to the military.

Who is in charge of Egypt now?

That’s an excellent question. All the political actors were together in opposition to Morsi, but it’s similar to when Mubarak was brought down. Once the goal is achieved, the infighting starts about other goals and interests.

What do you see happening next?

Details we are talking about right now may not be relevant in 10 minutes. I think it’s important that after the recent killings, the Islamist parties have pulled out of negotiations. A transitioning authority cannot succeed without Islamic participation. It’s not quite a civil war, but it could become one.

--Reprinted from TuftsNow

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