Egypt’s Army Needs Quick Vote Amid Opposition Disarray

The Egyptian military that ousted President Mohamed Mursi confronts a challenge in keeping its promise to hold new elections soon while giving opposition parties enough time to coalesce and defeat Mursi’s well-organized Muslim Brotherhood.

The transitional government and Defense Minister Abdelfatah al-Seesi, who led the military yesterday in deposing Egypt’s first freely elected civilian president, must defuse anger among Islamists taking to the streets to complain that they were disenfranchised. They also run the risk that the euphoric crowds applauding the military’s move will again turn sour if Egypt’s wilting economy shows no signs of improvement.

“The outcome is very uncertain, the Egyptian trajectory has been so chaotic,” said Daniel Serwer, a professor of conflict management at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. “A lot of the support for the protest movement is because of the economic situation, and the economy isn’t going to get better anytime soon. The euphoria could fade very quickly.”

Two U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private communications, said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and others have urged Egyptian military leaders to mind a lesson of the last year. Egyptians, the Americans have told their counterparts, want greater economic opportunity and less official and private corruption more than they want Islamic rule, and perhaps even more than they want Western-style democracy, the officials said.

Inclusive Politics

At the same time, Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the armed forces must ensure that they don’t leave other political parties on the sidelines, as they did during the last transition from military to civilian rule, when military leaders tried to strike a deal with the Muslim Brotherhood.

“That feeling of exclusion worsened significantly under the Muslim Brotherhood rule and precipitated the mass uprising this week,” Trager said in a phone interview from Cairo.

While large anti-Mursi crowds cheered when the military replaced the president, “elsewhere in the city there are thousands of Islamists and millions more in the country who believe they’ve been cheated out of the democratic process,” Trager said.

Some of the military’s early moves targeted the press and critics, undermining its pledges of a commitment to democracy. The television station Al-Jazeera, owned by Qatar’s royal family, which has given the Muslim Brotherhood financial support, reported that Egyptian security forces raided it yesterday. Two Islamist leaders were arrested.

Muslim Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood isn’t likely to abandon the political scene, Trager said, and some U.S. officials said Islamic extremists may respond with terrorist attacks rather than confronting the military in the streets.

As Egypt’s military tackles these challenges, the U.S. has to walk its own tightrope in helping al-Seesi while continuing aid to the country. A U.S. law requires a cutoff of military assistance to any country that undergoes a coup. Egypt this year is slated to get $1.3 billion in military assistance.

In a statement last evening, President Barack Obama said the U.S. is “deeply concerned by the decision of the Egyptian Armed Forces to remove President Mursi and suspend the Egyptian constitution.”

“Given today’s developments, I have also directed the relevant departments and agencies to review the implications under U.S. law for our assistance to the government of Egypt,” Obama said.

Reviewing Implications

Egyptian military officers are convinced most people in Egypt are on their side, not the Muslim Brotherhood’s. They intend to install a technocratic regime and pave the way for new elections that would give it legitimacy, said a U.S. official who’s been in contact with Egyptian counterparts and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Richard Haass, a former diplomat who now heads the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, echoed that view, saying in a posting on Twitter Inc.’s website that “political intervention by army in Egypt would not be same as coup if aim is to restore order in short run and democracy soon thereafter.”

The U.S. officials said Hagel and other U.S. leaders have urged al-Seesi and fellow Egyptian officers not to repeat mistakes by the military council that ruled the country for five months after the January 2011 rebellion that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak.

Above all, they’ve advised their counterparts that the council’s rush to hold elections handed the Muslim Brotherhood an advantage because the Islamists were far better organized and unified than the secular opposition -- and remain so today.

Stabilize Economy

Robert Springborg, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, said the elections should take place as soon as possible to help stabilize the country’s economy.

“I’d guess six months, that’s enough,” said Springborg who previously has served in Egypt as the director of the American Research Center. “If the military looks like it’s dragging its feet, it would make it harder to put together a financial package.”

Egypt has been in discussions with the International Monetary Fund for a $4.8 billion aid package. More than 1 million people have swelled the ranks of Egypt’s unemployed since the first quarter of 2010, bringing joblessness to a record 13.2 percent in the same period this year.

Hagel and others have suggested to Egyptian military leaders that they should put competent economic managers in key cabinet and lesser positions while new elections are being prepared, the U.S. officials said.

Saving Egypt

Robert Hardy, an analyst at Geostrat Worldview, a global consulting firm, says that will be key to getting Egypt through this turmoil.

“It was economics that created the Arab Spring,” Hardy said on Bloomberg Television. “Economics are going to be the key to saving Egypt from becoming a failed state.”

The people crowding Egypt’s streets will be critical to the military’s plans in the coming hours and days, said Amy Hawthorne, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy group.

“The millions of Egyptians protesting against President Mursi are huge in size, but they want different things,” she said on Bloomberg Television. “They have different visions for the future of Egypt, so how will the street react to whatever road map the military presumably proposes?”

‘Go Quietly?’

The fate of the Islamists who back Mursi is another issue.

“Will they be arrested, will there be a violent crackdown, will they go quietly?” asked Hawthorne, a former State Department official who worked on Egypt’s transition after Mubarak’s fall. “This is critical, critical for the future stability of Egypt.”

The U.S. officials also highlighted concerns about the way the Islamists’ reaction will affect the transition. The one thing that could produce a “real” military coup, one of the officials said, is a protracted fight between the military and the Brotherhood that also would cost many lives, damage the economy even further, and put the Obama administration in an even more difficult position that it already faces.

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