The next year is one of the most crucial in Egypt’s 7,000 history. If the country's current roadmap to democracy stays on course, it will have a new constitution, parliament and president by next summer. That in turn will give it the security and stability that are preconditions for economic growth.
Without economic growth, Egypt is doomed. It will, quite literally, not be able to feed its people.
Egypt will fall prey to the political chaos that accompanies economic chaos.
So while Washington quibbles over whether Egypt’s current government meets the legal definition of a coup, and whether we should withhold aid, Egyptians are grappling with life and death issues of survival.
I have just returned from Cairo, as part of the first American delegation to meet with the new Egyptian leadership.
We talked with businessmen, student activists, religious leaders, current and former government officials and military officers.
We talked to many people neither the U.S. government nor western media has bothered to meet with.
Not surprisingly, we heard a very different story.
The groups we met with said that while Mohammed Morsi may have been democratically elected by 51% of voters, from day one set he about dismantling democratic institutions, silencing opposition voices, and replacing technocrats with Muslim Brotherhood ideologues. Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy told us, “Hitler was elected, too.”
The leaders we met believe that had Morsi remained in office to finish his term, the Egyptian economy would have collapsed and hopes for democracy would have died.
The telling evidence? The Muslim Brotherhood-drafted Constitution, written after Morsi was elected, deliberately made no provision for impeachment. Thus Morsi, once elected, could not be removed from office.
Muslim Brotherhood Egypt was headed in same the direction as Muslim Brotherhood Gaza – one man, one vote, one time.
The Egyptian media were among the first targets of the Muslim Brotherhood. The host of Egypt’s leading independent TV talk show said within days of Morsi taking power he was given a list of hundreds of people he could no longer interview, and a short list of those he was ordered to interview.
Egypt’s top female news anchor told us that she and her family had received death threats for criticizing Morsi – and that female reporters and anchors were fired merely for being women.
We met with leaders of the original Arab Awakening of January 2011 who said they didn’t remove one Egyptian dictator, Mubarak, to have him replaced by another, Morsi.
We also met with Tamarod, the group of student activists who launched Egypt’s second revolution in June 2013.
They collected over 20 million signatures on a petition calling on Morsi to initiate reforms or resign.
On June 30 more than 33 million Egyptians staged peaceful demonstrations throughout the country. It was the largest demonstration in Egypt’s history, probably in world history. -- The equivalent of 130 million Americans taking to the streets.
They called upon the military to oust Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood only after he refused their calls for a more inclusive government.
We travelled to the desert monastery of Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros II, who told of Muslim Brotherhood persecutions of Christian communities throughout Egypt. They laid waste to over 60 churches, some dating back to the 5th Century. They looted artifacts, desecrated relics and torched buildings. They went into Christian villages, beating people and leveling homes.
Pope Tawadros, and the leader of Egypt’s Sunni Muslims, The Grand Imam (Mufti) of Al Azahr, were early supporters of the rebellion against Morsi. Together they represent over 90% of the Egyptian people.
Military officers told us Morsi turned a blind eye when Al Qaeda set up camps on the Sinai Peninsula, and refused to let the Egyptian army weed them out. One of the military’s first goals this summer was to destroy Al Qaeda, thus ensuring the Suez Canal trade routes would remain open.
Our visit culminated in a two-hour session with Minister of Defense Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. He said they did not take power for themselves, but removed Morsi because the Egyptian people demanded it. Al-Sisi said it was the only way to prevent a widescale, nationwide civil war.
We met with Egypt’s urbane senior statesman Amr Moussa, head of the Committee of Fifty, the group charged with writing a new constitution. He said they would finish it in the next few weeks, hold a national referendum by the end of the year, and have parliamentary and presidential elections by next summer. So far they are on schedule.
Throughout our meetings, three things became obvious:
1) Egypt’s June 30 revolution was not a military coup, but nationwide civilian protest movement in which nearly half of the Egyptian population demanded Morsi’s resignation. It was endorsed by the military on July 3 to prevent a civil war. Critics point to the 1,000 killed as evidence. Yet that number includes dead on both sides. At least 300 of the dead are Al Qaeda from the Sinai, Christians and police. As General al-Sisi said, “We could not stand by and see our people terrorized.”
2) The Muslim Brotherhood is not just another political party in the western sense. It is philosophically aligned and closely allied with Islamic jihadists and Al Qaeda. Egyptians were critical of what they saw as President Obama’s love affair with the Muslim Brotherhood. One retired diplomat asked us, “how can America side with Al Qaeda against the Egyptian people?”
3) Egypt has another chance to get democracy right – but it is probably its last chance. Nearly three years of unrest have driven tourists away and kept foreign investment out. The country is running an annual budget shortfall of at least $15 billion dollars, money it needs to feed people. Unless its economy improves, Egypt could face economic collapse, and the massive unrest that comes with it, in less than a year.
Wealthy Gulf oil states have pledged $12 billion in aid to tide them over, but Egypt must restore security if its economy is to reverse its downward spiral.
Even though our meetings took place before President Obama officially decided to suspend aid, the Egyptians knew it was likely.
General al-Sisi finished our meeting with a plea for support. Even more than restoring military aid, al-Sisi asked for America’s moral support. “Political support doesn’t cost a penny,” he said, “but it means everything.”
A leading businessman quoted to us from the Declaration of Independence, which says if a government becomes destructive of the rights of its people, “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.” He asked, how could America condemn Egyptians for doing what we ourselves had done nearly 250 years ago?
Americans are not just war weary, we are tired of throwing money away on foreign aid to countries that don’t matter and leaders that aren’t grateful.
We’ve got problems at home, and are naturally focused inward.
But Egypt is different: we do get something for our efforts.
Egypt has kept peace with Israel, thus ensuring peace in the oil rich Middle East, for forty years.
Egypt gives our military overflight and basing rights, it keeps vital Suez Canal trade routes open, and lets American ships go to the front of the queue.
Egypt is the oldest, largest and most important Arab country in the region. What happens there affects them all.
As long as the global economy relies on the Middle East for oil and trade, we have a vested interest in Egypt’s stability. And, as goes Egypt, so goes the entire Middle East.
If Egypt manages to survive the next year, it will now be accomplished without U.S. help.
We are now seen by those in the region as tossing Egypt aside.
Russia is standing by, like a suitor on the rebound, offering aid and encouragement, eager to take our place.
If, on the other hand, Egypt’s democratic transition fails, in part because we refused to offer even moral support, we will have no one to blame but ourselves for the consequences.