The Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) and the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East co-hosted a panel discussion about Egypt’s ongoing transition and U.S. policy options. Under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), thousands of civilians have been tried in military courts, bloggers and activists have been imprisoned for criticizing state policies, detainees have been tortured, tensions between Muslim and Christian communities have risen, and nongovermental organizations have been harassed and prosecuted. Tensions between Egypt’s military and the U.S. have also been exacerbated recently by attacks on international and Egyptian civil society organizations. There will be a new Egyptian president elected in May and the military will formally relinquish control, but the U.S. must decide now whether to continue aid to the military.
What are the military interests that have shaped the first year of Egypt’s transition from authoritarianism? How will they change once Egypt has an elected president and new cabinet and the military formally returns to the barracks? What are the U.S. interests that guide the longstanding relationship with the Egyptian military? And how should the U.S. look at the relationship with Egypt once there is a new civilian government?
We were particularly excited to welcome Egyptian blogger and activist Maikel Nabil to the panel. Maikel has been outspoken about human rights violations committed under the SCAF’s rule and about corruption inside the military, and he founded the ‘No Compulsory Military Service’ movement in 2009. After being arrested in March 2011 and undergoing a form of hunger strike for over 5 months, Maikel was finally pardoned and released in January 2012.
On Wednesday, The Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) and the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East co-hosted a panel discussion focused on Egypt’s ongoing transition and U.S. policy options. The panel featured Shana Marshall, research fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Maikel Nabil, an Egyptian blogger and activist, and Michele Dunne, Director of the Hariri Middle East Center at the Atlantic Council.
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Shana Marshall discussed the role of the military in both the domestic and international economy of Egypt. Marshall focused on incentive contracts (also known as offset agreements), which is a component of international defense trade that requires a portion of the defense contract sale value to be reinvested in the domestic civilian economy of that country. The issue with Egypt, however, is that “arms contracts are providing complementary incentives to the Egyptian military over and above what the arms contract transfers.” She also said Egypt’s military has a strategic method of diversifying its economic portfolio, and that as a result, it has a significant amount of control and influence over the economy. The question then, she said, is “to what extent can the military steer politics in Egypt when it has so much influence in different markets?”
Maikel Nabil discussed three points: Egypt is not adhering to the peace treaty with Israel, or the Camp David Accords; Egypt is not undergoing a real democratic transition; there is no foundation for a long-term U.S.-Egypt bilateral relationship. Nabil argued that there is still significant anti-Israel propaganda in schools and state-run media, which is in violation of the peace treaty, and the continued crackdown on freedom of speech is a violation of the Camp David Accords. He said, “Democracy is more than a polling booth,” and using his own arrest as an example, he insisted that divergent opinions are considered a crime. Lastly, he described the continued relationship between the U.S. and Egypt as “strange,” particularly given the deterioration of the NGO situation as the crisis continued. Nabil argued that U.S. citizens are not safe in Egypt, U.S. organizations cannot operate peacefully, Egyptian state media runs propaganda campaigns defaming the U.S., and there are few shared values between the two countries. While wanting to enhance the relationship between the U.S. and Egypt, Nabil said that in order to solve the problem one must recognize that there is one.
Michele Dunne spoke about the uncertainty of Egypt’s future, especially politically. The U.S.-Egypt relationship is off-balance and too dependent on the security sector, and Dunne believes that relationship may get worse before it gets better. Dunne argued that the U.S. is missing the moment of getting involved in Egypt’s transition in a meaningful way by not voicing its willingness to revitalize the bilateral relationship and work toward long-term transition goals. By failing in this regard, “The U.S. is clinging to old assumptions about its relationship with Egypt, and is reluctant to rethink it.” Drawing on recent polls, Egyptians are frustrated with the lack of U.S. support, and not just concerning military aid.
During Q&A, an audience member asked about the steps that can be taken to move the economy away from being militarily dominated, and panelists were asked to comment on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ (SCAF) pardon of Ayman Nour. Marshall said there is nothing “inherently wrong” with a military dominated economy, rather, the problem arises when that influence is used as political leverage. Dunne said Nour’s pardon is positive, because it restored his political rights; however, Dunne does not see Nour as being a front-runner in the upcoming Presidential Elections.
Another question was raised about the. Dunne addressed the U.S.’ ability to use its military aid as leverage that aid could definitely have been used as leverage to push along democratic reform, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chose to not use that leverage when she waived the conditions.“What is the point of having leverage of we’re never going to use it?” asked Dunne.