With Egypt In Flux, An Uncertain Quest For Democracy

What does the ouster of former President Mohammad Morsi portend for the future governing of Egypt? Guest host Rebecca Sheir turns to analysts Samer Shehata and Shadi Hamid for a closer look on the country's political and social stability.

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REBECCA SHEIR, HOST:

We turn now to Egypt where unrest and uncertainty continues. Last night, there were violent clashes between the supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi and the protesters who brought about his removal. The situation on the streets remains volatile. At least 36 people were killed and more than 1,000 were injured.

NPR's correspondent Leila Fadel is in Cairo.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Really people are competing for legitimacy on the streets. The Muslim Brotherhood saying: We're going to stay in the streets until the president is back in power. The other side saying: We're going to stay in the streets to show that we are actually representative of Egyptian, of the Egyptian people, of Egyptian will.

SHEIR: NPR's Leila Fadel in Cairo. For more on what the ouster of Mohammed Morsi means for the future of democracy in Egypt, we turn to Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Center in Doha, and Samer Shehata, professor of Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma.

I spoke with them both a short while ago and began by asking Samer Shehata about the paradox that country now faces.

SAMER SHEHATA: Well, the paradox is that we have a supposedly democratic movement, which does believe in many of the principles of democracy and so on that have called on the military to oust a democratically elected leader so that democracy can be established or put on the right path. That's the paradox. I understand the difficulties that Egypt went through and is going through and is going to deal with in the coming days and months and years.

At the same time, I think we can't lose sight of the fact that on June 30th and the days afterwards, millions and millions of Egyptians went out onto the streets and called for the end of Mr. Morsi's presidency. Although, of course, I did not imagine or welcome military removal of democratically elected president, I think referring to this simply as a military coup without any other adjectives does damage to our understanding of the complexity of the situation.

SHEIR: Shadi Hamid, turning to you, this situation has been framed as Islamists versus secularists. Would you say that's an accurate way to view what's going on?

SHADI HAMID: It's not entirely an Islamist, secular thing, but I think it is fair to say that the protesters were angry at the Muslim Brotherhood. Many of them do claim to subscribe to secular or liberal principles. And we're very concerned about the religious creep of the Brotherhood and their efforts to monopolize power, and perhaps in the future use their power to promote a particular understanding of religion that made many, particularly in the secular elite, very uncomfortable.

SHEIR: Well, beyond religious issues, Samer Shehata, how do basic economic issues factor into the crisis we're seeing now in Egypt?

SHEHATA: Well, I think there's no question that that was a large component of it. The economy has been spiraling downwards with increasing unemployment, fuel shortages, bread shortages, labor strikes and an inability to secure an IMF loan, increasing borrowing, deteriorating exchange rate. And so this certainly contributed to outrage at Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Many of his promises were unmet.

SHEIR: Shadi Hamid, what does all of this portend for the future governability of Egypt?

HAMID: I don't think we should have any unrealistic expectations about the economy. It's going to be a very weak and struggling economy going forward, which presents a problem for any new elected government post Morsi. I think one real concern is this setting of a precedent where whenever you have large mass protests that you have an elected government that is pretty much trapped.

SHEIR: So what about the United States' role in all of this? Samer Shehata, would you say we're in kind of an awkward spot right about now? After all, it was just two months ago that Secretary of State John Kerry approved $1.3 billion in annual U.S. military aid to Egypt. So now with the ousting of Mr. Morsi, many are questioning whether the United States should continue that aid. What do you think?

SHEHATA: Well, I think that the United States will likely continue the aid if the White House and the administration has a say in the matter. I don't think you're going to get many people in the Obama administration referring to this as a coup.

Now, there are larger and, in fact, maybe more important questions that should be asked with regard to U.S. aid to Egypt. And that is, is the $1.3 billion going to benefit the vast majority of Egyptians in things that the country needs the most: education, health care, infrastructure? Or is it going to support a military, which is really where the vast majority of funds go in order to buy a pliant relationship and to maintain the Egyptian-Israeli peace accords and so on.

SHEIR: Shadi Hamid, turning to you, what do you think the Obama administration should do at this point to help maintain stability in Egypt and really around the region?

HAMID: U.S. law matters, and according to legal provisions, the U.S. should terminate aid in the event of a military coup. And I understand that Egyptians are sensitive about the use of that word, but it was a coup from a purely definitional standpoint. There's no way to get around that. But I think more importantly, the precedent it would set for the U.S. to ignore its own legal provisions in this respect would be very concerning.

And what message does that send that the U.S. is willing to tolerate the toppling of elected governments through military coups? So I think the way forward now is to use that to put pressure on the military. So even after you terminate aid, the way that it can be resumed is if the new government holds democratic elections.

SHEIR: Let's talk about regional implications of what's happening right now in Egypt. Shadi Hamid, you recently wrote that the Muslim Brotherhood's removal from power could actually provide ammunition for militant Islamist groups beyond Egypt. How so?

HAMID: Well, you know, over the last few decades, there's been a very important development where mainstream Islamist groups like the Brotherhood have come to terms with the democratic process and committed to playing by the rules of the game. So now you're essentially telling them you want not just one election, but several elections. And despite all of that, we're not going to let you govern. I mean, that's the message that's being sent to the Brotherhood.

I think the messaging here is very important. Is there a place for Islamist parties to be in the political process for them to actually be allowed to win? These are questions that Egypt is really going to have to struggle with. And hopefully, they'll be answered in an inclusive way; otherwise, the precedent set will be very dangerous.

SHEIR: That's Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center. We've also been speaking with Samer Shehata, associate professor of Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma.

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