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Is Democracy Finished In Egypt?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. We start today in Egypt. Hundreds of people are dead. Thousands more are injured there. That's after the military staged an assault on the camps of protesters, targeting specifically the supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi. The military now has the country on lockdown and has declared a state of emergency, but members of the Muslim Brotherhood vow to continue protesting until Morsi is reinstated.

To help us make sense of what's going on in Egypt, we called on Shadi Hamid. He's the director of research for the Brookings Doha Center and a former State Department program specialist. He joins us via Skype from the Doha Center in Qatar. Thanks so much for joining us. I wish, Shadi, we had - we were speaking under more pleasant circumstances.

SHADI HAMID: Yeah. Hi, Celeste. Thanks for having me. Yes, I mean, it's very depressing. It's very hard to find any glimmer of hope right now. I mean, before yesterday's violence, there was at least a slim chance that there could be mediation or some kind of talks. But any talk of national reconciliation after yesterday's bloodshed is totally moot. Yeah.

HEADLEE: Yeah. The president echoed that sentiment in his remarks today. I want to play an excerpt from what President Obama said this morning.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We've sustained our commitment to Egypt and its people. But while we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back. As a result, this morning we notified the Egyptian government that we are canceling our biannual joint military exercise, which was scheduled for next month. Going forward, I've asked my national security team to assess the implications of the actions taken by the interim government and further steps that we may take as necessary, with respect to the U.S.-Egyptian relationship.

HEADLEE: And what he's talking about there - the biannual joint military exercise that's been cancelled - is the Bright Star exercises that many people have heard about. But what further steps do you think the president is talking about here? I thought it was only the billions in military aid that we really had a sort of a lever of influence?

HAMID: Well, first of all, it's a very weak response. I mean, rhetoric is nice, but there's no real shift of policy here and it is, in many ways, business as usual. Canceling the Bright Star exercises is symbolic and little else. So it's also worth noting that Obama didn't even so much as mention the possibility of suspending military aid, and that's $1.3 billion a year.

So that suggests that the U.S. isn't really willing to put a lot more pressure on the Egyptian military, and this is after a day where it's really the single highest death toll in Egypt's recent history. I mean, we're talking about at least 520, according to government sources. So it's likely even higher than that. But even with that, there isn't any fundamental reassessment of the U.S.-Egypt relationship. And that, I think, makes me wonder, what exactly would the military have to do to trigger an aid suspension.

HEADLEE: Well, let's go back in time. Hypothetically, if the United States had cancelled that military aid from the beginning when Mohammed Morsi was first ousted in the early days of July, if they'd cut off that aid, could it have avoided the violence of yesterday?

HAMID: Well, it's hard to know for sure what the effect would have been, but at least it would have sent a clear message that the U.S. is following its own law. I mean, the U.S. is legally obligated to suspend military aid in the event of a coup, but it wouldn't have been a one-off cut. It could've been resumed after elections were held and after the democratic process was resumed. So that would've actually provided a real incentive for the military to meet a minimal set of democratic standards, so aid could be resumed next year.

But there was no positive incentive structure after the coup happened. And again, this comes back to the issue of leverage. American threats are not credible if there are no consequences, and there were no consequences for what the military did and what it continues to do.

HEADLEE: Islamists fought back yesterday. We got a reports the Islamists - the supporters of the Mohamed Morsi - attacked police stations. They also burned seven Christian churches, according to a member of the government. President Obama mentioned that today, saying that both sides need to stop the violence. Is this a case of everybody's at fault? Or is there a bad guy and good guy here?

HAMID: There definitely is blame to go all around, but there isn't any real equivalence here. The fact of the matter is that there was a mass killing that targeted the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi supporters. And we're talking about really unprecedented bloodshed - an overwhelming use of force. So to act as if - and against mostly unarmed protesters - so to act as if both sides are equally to blame, I think, is really inappropriate considering what happened.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the latest news out of Egypt with Shadi Hamid. He's the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. Shadi, a recent poll from the Pew Research Center showed that fewer than 40 percent of Egyptians actually think the country is now better off than it was under Mubarak. What is it that people want at this point?

HAMID: Yes. I mean, that's not a surprise at all. The economic situation in Egypt is disastrous. There's very little light at the end of the tunnel, politically. And I wouldn't just argue that this is a return to the Mubarak era, we're seeing a return to something even worse. Under Mubarak's rule, there were never any massacres on the street of opposition activists.

The Muslim Brotherhood was allowed to participate in the political process within limits. They had representation in Parliament. Yes, there was a lot of repression, but there was never a full-on effort to destroy and erase the Brotherhood from political life. And at the end of the day, you can't have a real democratic process in Egypt if the largest political group is not allowed to participate and if they're pushed outside of the political process altogether.

HEADLEE: Mohamed ElBaradei was the interim vice president. He had actually supported the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi. He resigned in protest over this assault yesterday on protesters. It just leaves me wondering, who is actually running the Egyptian government right now?

HAMID: Well, I don't think there's any doubt now, this is a military government. Yes, there's a civilian facade, but the people who are really pulling the levers are the military and the security sector - and that includes the, you know, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. And it's very clear that this military leadership sees what's happening in Egypt now as a security problem and not a political problem.

So when you see a security problem, your initial reaction is to deal with it through force. And I think that's why we continue to move away from anything resembling a political solution, because armies are very good at using force. They are not good at negotiating political settlements.

HEADLEE: So help me understand the different groups that are fighting in Egypt. Is this as simple as those who support Morsi and those who don't?

HAMID: Well, on the pro-Morsi side, there are a lot of different Islamist groups, and it's not just the Muslim Brotherhood. And this is a very important point because often we lump them all in one basket. And the Muslim Brotherhood can impose discipline on its own members for the most part. The real question, though, is those who are part of more militant or radical Islamist groups, and those are the ones who have been, for the most part, attacking Christians and churches in various parts of Egypt.

And there's really no clear path to getting those groups under control. So this is well beyond just a head-to-head between the military and the Brotherhood, and we're likely to see a lot of different groups involved here. On the pro-military side, you also see an array of different actors including some liberal and leftist political parties who are actually cheering the military on and supporting their crackdown on the Brotherhood.

HEADLEE: And what's - I mean, I know you said that there's very little light at the end of the tunnel - but if there is a glimmer, is it democratically - democratic elections? Would that help solve the problem?

HAMID: Yes, that would be a positive step. But the real question here is, will the Brotherhood be allowed to participate? And if they aren't, and if there's no real reconciliation process, then the political process is not going to be very meaningful. If there's going to be martial law, if the military is going to continue playing a very direct role in everyday politics, if the security services are as aggressive as ever, then this is just a facade where you have the trappings of elections but no real meaningful competition.

And the real question going forward is, how do you get the military back into the barracks? And I'm afraid that once you set the precedent with having a military coup, it's very difficult to reverse that. The military's role is going to become more and more entrenched, and that does not bode well at all for Egyptian democracy.

HEADLEE: Political scientist Ian Bremmer tweeted this yesterday, quote, the Arab Spring has been over for some time but it officially ended today. Would you agree with that?

HAMID: Well, I think that he's on the mark here to some extent in that Egypt is a bellwether for the region. People are watching Egypt to see which way it will go and this will have a very chilling effect on other transitions in the region. And now as for Egypt, I don't think it's even right for us to talk about a democratic transition in Egypt, the transition is over. And, again, what we might be seeing is something worse than what happened under Mubarak.

So it's just - it's really sad to see one of the most promising countries early on in the Arab Spring go in a totally different direction. And, you know, again, you know, other opposition groups, other protest movements, are looking at this and that's going to have an effect on how they proceed and how governments proceed. And, again, it's very hard to say whether there's any light at the end of the tunnel here.

HEADLEE: Shadi Hamid is the director of research for the Brookings Doha Center. He joined us via Skype from Doha. As always, thank you so much Shadi.

HAMID: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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