Factionalized Egypt

February 16, 2012 • Blogs, The Globalist Notebook • Views: 1087

By Max Watkins

Amidst the turmoil in Egypt, forty three foreigners working at NGOs are being prosecuted for alleged election tampering and are not allowed to leave the country. Of these forty three, nineteen are Americans, including the son of the Secretary of the Department of Transportation. Their detainment began in December and is causing serious strains in Egypt’s foreign relations. The United States is now threatening to withhold billions of dollars in aid. Although this situation seems to be an Egyptian foreign policy issue, it reveals much about the internal dynamics and conflicts within a country grappling with post-Mubarak politics and nascent democracy. Egypt can no longer be considered a unitary actor, as this crisis reveals the numerous factions vying for power in a seemingly anarchic system.

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with Lt. Gen. Sami Hafez Enan, chief of staff of the Egyptian armed forces, on February 11th at the Egyptian Ministry of Defense in Cairo to discuss the fate of the nineteen American citizens currently held within Egypt (D. Myles Cullen / US Department of Defense)

If Egypt were a unitary actor, these foreigners would never have been detained. And even if Egypt had detained them, the threat of losing billions of dollars in American aid would have made them think again. Losing American support would be devastating as Egypt tries to repair its economy. Since the detainees have not been repatriated, we can assume that there are more complicated internal politics at play. Those holding the detainees must not be the recipients of aid money. So we are likely seeing a calculated power play for control of Egypt, with the detainees as pawns.

So if Egypt is not a unitary actor, we must consider the current power brokers.

There are two main factions in Egypt: the military council and the Muslim Brotherhood. Both hold tenuous positions, as each faction is trying to cement its position and power in the new governmental system, at the expense of the other.  Whoever is controlling the status of these foreigners is trying to hurt the other faction and coerce them into some sort of action or behavior. Let us consider the two options.

With the recent elections, the Muslim Brotherhood is expanding and legitimizing its power in the new democracy. The military serves primarily as transitional leaders.  The Muslim Brotherhood has everything to gain and the military has everything to lose. The Muslim Brotherhood is probably attempting to discredit the military and in doing so eliminate its chief rival. Since the military nominally controls – Egypt, angry foreign powers will direct their attention towards the military, blaming them for anything that goes wrong. With mounting international pressure, it is likely the military will lose power and legitimacy, paving the way for the Muslim Brotherhood.

There is a slight chance that it is the military that is detaining the foreigners. Perhaps the military wants to flaunt their power within Egypt. If so, we are seeing a show of force to intimidate the Muslim Brotherhood.  However it is unlikely that the military would risk losing billions of dollars in American aid. There is also the possibility that divisions within either faction are responsible for this incident, but due to the chaotic nature of current Egyptian politics, it is difficult to understand their internal dynamics.

Regardless of who controls the detainees, a very dangerous political game has resulted. Each side is goading the other into increasingly risky moves and in a highly combustible environment like Egypt, the consequences could be dire. The Egyptian people already overthrew an entrenched dictator; they can certainly overthrow bickering factions. Whatever the case may be, the Arab Spring is far from over in Egypt.

Max Watkins ’14 is in Timothy Dwight College. He is a Yale Globalist Beat Blogger on International Conflicts. Contact him at maxwell.watkins@yale.edu.

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