In the same week marking the first anniversary of Egypt’s revolution, Egyptians also inaugurated the first freely elected parliament in 60 years. In an international incident with the United States, however, the Egyptian government barred the director of an American non-governmental organization (NGO), the son of a U.S. cabinet member, from departing the country. Additionally, activists launched a protest against the continued military rule. Egypt’s relationship with Western countries is becoming more complicated, and while the revolution rid the country of a despised dictator, it has also compounded the challenges that Egypt faces.
This week should have been a celebratory week given Egypt’s milestones. Instead, unfortunate events compounded by squabbling in the newly elected parliament cast a shadow over Egypt’s tough road ahead.
Coming just weeks after Egypt raided the offices of American NGOs — including the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute (IRI), Freedom House — this week the military barred the director of the IRI, and at least half a dozen other Americans, from leaving the country. IRI’s director, Sam LaHood, is the son of Ray LaHood, the Secretary of Transportation and former congressman. These moves do not inspire confidence in the new Egyptian government, and have put U.S. foreign aid to Egypt — totaling $1.3 billion a year — at risk.
The Egyptian government is facing both internal and external challenges. This past week activists demonstrated against the Supreme Council of Allied Forces (SCAF), which has refused to relinquish control of the country until June. While SCAF has claimed that it will limit its use of its extraordinary powers under its “emergency law,” Egypt still remains under martial law. The Muslim Brotherhood, which holds nearly 45% of the seats in parliament, has refused to call for the SCAF to step down. As newly elected Egyptian lawmakers experiment with newfound political power, they must also grapple with a failing economy. The country’s debts are mounting, shops are empty, food prices are soaring, and SCAF is rethinking its earlier rejection of loans from the International Monetary Fund.
On January 23, the new parliament met for the first time, which at times degenerated into a shouting match as members voted to elect a president of parliament. In the end, the Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohammed Saad Katatny, won. The squabbles, however, are likely to continue. The Islamists – a combination of the Brotherhood representing the Freedom and Justice Party and the more puritanical Muslim Salafis representing the Nour Party – won nearly 70% of the seats in parliament. Though the Islamists hold a commanding majority, they are fractured. The Brotherhood is far more accommodating and moderate than the Salafis, and the two parties have a history of rivalry.
Parliament is tasked with selecting a 100-member constituent assembly to draft the new Egyptian constitution, and the Islamists clearly hold the upper hand. Some Egyptians are worried that the liberals, Coptic Christians (the largest Christian group in Egypt), and women will be short-changed by the Islamists in Parliament as well as the assembly that is selected to draft the constitution. Egyptian women fear that their voices will not be heard, that they will not have a seat at the table when the constitution is being written and when women’s rights are being debated or decided. Copts are unsure how the Islamist government will treat them, as the Nour Party is intent on enshrining Islamic law in the new constitution.
The West remains weary of the Brotherhood, and even wearier of the Nour Party. Israel, Egypt’s neighbor and partner in the peace process for the past 30 years, is skeptical of the new leadership, and rightly concerned that it will have a drastically altered relationship than the one it had with former President Hosni Mubarak. Egypt and Israel not only co-existed under Mubarak, but had normalized diplomatic relations, regular high-level visits between the two countries, and cooperation on various economic and securities issues. It is unclear how much of this will continue.
Egypt is at a crossroads. It has challenges ahead, but also opportunities. While Westerners have been careful about embracing the Brotherhood, the Brotherhood has an opportunity to ensure that Egypt is a democratic country that respects the rights of women and religious minorities, guarantees the rights of a free civil society, and provides economic opportunities for its citizens. However, the protests against the SCAF’s continued military rule, the detainment of Sam LaHood and others in the NGO community, and the ever-weakening Egyptian economy shows that the country’s future is unclear.
Photo Credit: crethi plethi