US President Barack Obama has deplored the violence in Egypt and canceled next month’s joint military exercises with the Egyptian military. Mirette Mabrouk, deputy director of the Hariri Middle East Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington, says the step is merely symbolic. She tells RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher that political reconciliation is the only way out of the crisis.
RFE/RL: President Obama has canceled American-Egyptian military exercises scheduled for next month, saying the U.S. relationship with Cairo cannot continue as normal when civilians are being slaughtered. Was that a strong message or a U.S. attempt to show outrage but not damage the two countries’ relationship?
Mirette Mabrouk: I think it’s symbolic, but I think really at this level, most actions are probably going to be symbolic. I’m not quite sure what people expected, but diplomacy is often difficult, and I think this action was largely symbolic. I think that the U.S. feels it is such. I think that the Egyptian military will view it largely as such, and I think everyone realizes that the relationship between both countries will — out of necessity, perhaps — go through a rough patch at the moment, and hopefully there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
RFE/RL: Obama also said he plans to ask his national security staff to study whether further measures are warranted. Could that include cutting of $1.3 billion in American military aid?
RFE/RL: Many observers are saying that there is no longer any question that Egypt is once again under the thumb of military authoritarianism rather than on the road to democracy. How likely is it that political reconciliation can still happen?
Mabrouk: I can tell you that I believe that political reconciliation is really the only way out. And I think that it’s a mistake to think that there is no longer any room for political conciliation because, honestly, I think that the consequences of ignoring political reconciliation are going to place a rather heavy price on Egypt. I think it’s important that the Muslim Brotherhood be brought back. I think it’s vital that the Muslim Brotherhood be back into the political fold.
I think if Egypt is going to have a smooth transition — or any sort of transition — back onto the democratic transition train, I think it’s important that all the parties be involved. I think it’s important that the military sees that its role was, as it’s said, to ensure the country’s safety and security for a brief time and that we will move forward to democratic elections and a return to civilian government. Egypt cannot do without political reconciliation.
RFE/RL: Until now, the United States has had little influence on unfolding events in Egypt. Visits by U.S. diplomats have had little or no effect. Where does Washington’s relationship with Cairo stand and vice versa?
Mabrouk: The U.S.-Egypt relationship is important to both countries. But with that understanding in mind, I think both countries realize that there is a limit as to how much either of the two countries can place influence on each other. Egypt has big problems at the moment, and I really don’t think that what the United States thinks is paramount on that list at the moment.
RFE/RL: Muslim Brotherhood supporters have reacted to the military crackdown with protests across the country, some violent. The military has vowed a lethal response. Is the violence going to stop anytime soon?
Mabrouk: I would be very wary of anyone telling you they know exactly what’s going to happen. But if you look at options, I think that if things continue as they are — with the only means of engagement, if you like, being the engagement on the streets — then yes, we are going to see more violence.
The violence you see on the streets will eventually die down, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to go away. It will simply take other forms, and that’s not going to be good for Egypt. You will see sporadic outbreaks of violence. You may see sporadic outbreaks of terrorist incidents. And, of course, we now have a global slant to everything in that, as you’ve seen in other countries, for all we know there may be foreign players who think it may be their duty to come and help out Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
RFE/RL: Tawakkul Karman, who shared a Nobel Peace Prize for her pro-democracy campaigning in Yemen, has said she views the Egyptian Army’s overthrow of Morsi as a death knell for Arab democratic movements. Do you agree?
Mabrouk: I think that’s her opinion and she’s entitled to it. As an Egyptian, I really wish that Morsi had been voted out. I with that he had been voted out. I wish that we would have had a referendum. And I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that if we’d had a referendum on his presidency, he would have been out. It was very, very clear from the number of people on the streets — regardless of what the Muslim Brotherhood says — it was very, very clear that the vast majority of people in the country wanted Morsi out and wanted the Brotherhood out.
However, that doesn’t mean that the Brotherhood are an insignificant force in Egypt. Far from it. They did get 43 percent [of the vote] in the first parliamentary elections.
What she’s really saying is, “Is this a coup or not?” It was a coup in the sense that the military were involved. But the military would not have moved one foot forward if there had not been overwhelming public support. So if you like, it was a popular impeachment that was backed by the military. The thing is, the military are now in power, and the question is, where do we go from there?
No, I do not see it as a death knell for democracy in Egypt, but I think it is a very, very difficult situation, and I think it is one that needs to be handled with a great deal of wisdom. And I worry that the degree of political finesses that is needed to come out of this as safely and smoothly as possible is perhaps lacking. So I am worried about the future here.
Mirette Mabrouk is deputy director for regional programs at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. This article is copyright (c) 2013. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.