Diplomatic test as military, Muslim Brotherhood vie for power.
In this image released by the Egyptian President, Egyptian Field Marshal Gen. Hussein Tantawi, left, and new President Mohammed Morsi, center, attend a medal ceremony, at a military base east of Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, July 5, 2012.
In Egypt, the Arab Spring has yielded to a long, hot summer. Gone are the heady days of Tahrir Square protesters rightly calling for an end to Hosni Mubarak's dictatorship. That clarity has been replaced by a process that so many countries, including the United States, have gone through: the messy, risky birth of democracy.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's weekend visit to Egypt underscores the stakes. The course of Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country, following its historic break from decades of autocratic rule matters far beyond its borders. There are no policy options by which the United States can control the outcome; patient, cautious diplomacy will be needed to advance U.S. interests.
America's guideposts must remain our longstanding commitments to democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and our key regional alliances. But it is prudent to remember that every society must and will travel its own path.
Egypt's situation is fluid, but its central fact is a developing all-out power struggle between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. Mohammed Morsi, the Brotherhood's presidential candidate, was declared the nation's new chief executive last month, after a tense week of concern that the military's preferred candidate would be seated instead.
Morsi's inauguration caps the remarkable rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. Not long ago a suppressed, indeed outlawed, opposition group, the Brotherhood also won about half the seats in parliamentary elections. But the military dissolved Parliament after a court ruled some of its members' elections illegal. The same judicial process boosted the power of the military at the expense of the presidency. A week ago, Morsi defied the generals and reconvened Parliament, which met briefly and approved a proposal to appeal Parliament's dissolution to a higher court.
"Both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood are trying to cover what is really a naked struggle for power with the veneer of judicial decisions," said Marina Ottaway, senior associate for the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "But," she added, "the courts have become totally politicized, and it's quite clear the courts are part of the old regime."
Indeed, the regime's remnants -- "the deep state," as Ottaway calls it -- remain embedded throughout Egypt's government and power structure. So even if the Muslim Brotherhood prevails in the current struggle, it will govern through a kind of power-sharing reality. The United States will have to understand and work with the duality of present-day Egypt.
Several forces could have a moderating influence on the combustible situation in Egypt.
The United States has sent billions of dollars in military and foreign aid there over the years, and the prospect of losing it in the future will not be taken lightly by either the military or Muslim Brotherhood. In short, America has leverage.
For its part, the evolving Egyptian government will control the country's relationship with Israel, a top American concern. While there has been talk that the Brotherhood might abrogate the longstanding peace treaty, this is unlikely, especially since it would further imperil Egypt's economy.
And the economy may be the most important moderating factor. Egypt was not blessed with the same wealth of natural resources as other Arab nations. While its limited oil, gas, Suez Canal and export revenues are relatively stable, tourism, a major source of revenue, has plunged. Increased instability will only scare off the scarce tourists who remain. And now that Egypt is a democracy, the Muslim Brotherhood needs to deliver economic progress or risk voters' rejection.
Americans might prefer that U.S. aid be cut off, or that we pull back on diplomatic efforts in Egypt. But that's not realistic in a volatile region of an interconnected world. Clinton (and her successor -- Egypt's transition won't be brief), must press on to help the region realize the promise of the Arab Spring.
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