5 Questions With . . . Anne Peters on Egypt Since the Arab Spring

Anne Peters, assistant professor of government, is a former Mirzayan Fellow at the National Academies in Washington, DC. Peters was assigned to develop new programs that would allow U.S. and Arab scientists to collaborate. (Photo by Olivia Drake)

This issue we ask “5 Questions” of Anne Mariel Peters, assistant professor of government who specializes in the Middle East. Her research interests include the durability of Middle Eastern Authoritarianism.

Q: We all saw the stirring images from Egypt in the spring, but there’s been very little coverage of what is happening there since. What happened in the days and weeks after the protest ended?

A: The Egyptian protesters were a diverse group of people with varying levels of policy goals and political sophistication who all coalesced around the need to remove the President Hosni Mubarak’s regime. That we now see acute fragmentation and intense rivalry among formal parties and informal groups is not surprising. However, this has put the groups in poor position to exert leverage over the military leadership, the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF), that asserted its role as a transitional government after Mubarak resigned from office.

Two major party coalitions have emerged. The first is the Democratic Alliance, which is headed up by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. Although the Brotherhood was prohibited from forming a political party, under Mubarak’s rule it built a political bureau that fronted a number of “independents” in parliamentary and associational elections. Until recently, the Alliance comprised about forty Islamic and secular parties. Yet two-thirds of the original members have since left the Alliance (including leading salafi Islamist parties), after expressing concern that the FJP is trying to take the majority of nominees. The second coalition is the liberal Egyptian Bloc, which was established by Coptic Christian businessman Naguib Sawiris and consists of about twenty parties, fifteen of which have reportedly withdrawn because they fear that the dominant Egyptian Liberals Party is trying to hoard nominations.

Newer and smaller parties, then, are largely responsible for the fragmentation of the coalitions. A more liberal political parties law has allowed many new parties to register, but it also means that many of them are less cohesive and less organized. They fear the disproportionate power of leading parties in their respective coalitions. Although nobody knows its precise level of support, as an older organization the Brotherhood has the advantage of drawing upon pre-established networks. By contrast, the Egyptian Liberals Party is a new party, but has the advantage of resources and support from Egypt’s relatively organized business communities.

Q: It was an odd uprising in that there really wasn’t a single organized political group leading it. What were some of the factors that precipitated it?

A: In general, standards of living were being eroded by inflation and unemployment; the financial sector suffered from corruption and unequal access to capital; and educated Egyptians could not find gainful employment. We were also aware of the opposition’s use of the Internet, especially Facebook, to rally protesters in more urban areas. Yet for years, these efforts seemed unable to draw people to the streets. I was in Cairo on the first “General Strike” day of April 6th, 2008, and I am convinced that there were more rubber-necking foreigners in Tahrir Square than Egyptians. Two summers later, I attended a protest rally for murdered Alexandrian blogger, Khaled Said, which was relatively small and neatly diffused by uniformed and un-uniformed security services. I would venture that timing might be explained by psychological effects or learning from previous successes of protests in Tunisia, another single-party dictatorship. This is interesting because it’s not a factor that many political scientists had studied in the past.

Q: What changes have occurred in the overall governmental structure now that Mubarak is gone?

A: The SCAF has not made many fundamental, permanent changes to Egypt’s political system, likely because it would rile opposition groups. The 44-year-old emergency law, which extends police powers, legalizes censorship, and suspends constitutional rights remains in force. At the same time, the SCAF has continued to restrict protests and prohibit religious slogans in campaigns.

The most important changes thus far have been the amendment of different laws pertaining to presidential and parliamentary elections, as well as provisions for drafting a new constitution. As of now, the elections for the Lower House will occur in three rounds over the next three months, and will be governed by closed-list proportional representation (two-thirds of seats) and majority vote (one-third). Elections for the Upper House will take place January through March, also in three stages. Elections for a president, the second in Egypt’s history, will occur sometime in the Spring; the military declared in February that it would not field a candidate. After both Houses are elected, they will meet to draft a new constitution.

Despite all this, there is speculation that the SCAF, which has wide-ranging economic interests, will not be willing to cede effective power to a democratically-elected government. Questions also remain about what will happen to Egypt’s economic policy. The last seven years of Mubarak’s rule saw a massive wave of economic reforms, many of which average Egyptians believe have made them worse off. Calls for protectionism, public employment, and re-nationalization of assets have again been heard. Muslim-Christian relations are also in turmoil. Under Mubarak, violence between Muslims and Christians was largely localized and concentrated in the South. On October 9, however, a Cairo protest decrying an attack on a church in southern Egypt ended in at least 27 deaths at the hands of the military, which reportedly used live ammunition and ran over protesters with personnel vehicles.

Q: There is concern that Egypt has moved away from détente with Israel with this turnover and that threatens to further destablize the region. What are you seeing in that regard?

A: By most accounts, the SCAF has a strong interest in maintaining its current state of relations with Israel. Adherence to the 1979 peace treaty with Israel allows the Egyptian military to benefit from about $1.3 billion in US military aid annually, which is stored in a special interest-bearing account before being committed to various purchases. Additionally, Egypt’s cooperation with Israel was almost certainly a factor in its designation as a Major Non-NATO Ally, something that has benefitted the Egyptian military tremendously in terms of prestige and access to equipment, technology, and education. However, the SCAF is also facing pressure to end its support for the Israeli blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, and, from some quarters, to abrogate the peace treaty with Israel. In May, the SCAF opened the Egypt-Gaza border after a four-year closure. The results have not been encouraging. The perpetrators of an August terror attack, which killed eight people in Southern Israel, are allegedly Egyptian, and in retaliating the Israel Defense Forces killed several Egyptian policemen. Smuggled Libyan weapons are finding themselves into Egypt and to the Gaza border, prompting Israel to establish a special border unit that keeps contraband outside of Gaza. Last month, a violent mob attacked and ransacked the Israeli Embassy in Giza, requiring Egyptian commandoes to rescue the six Israelis trapped inside.

Q: How did you become interested in Egyptian politics and culture?

A: Believe it or not, it had nothing to do with personal connections, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or September 11th! I followed a winding path. I had always been interested in political economy, but I entered my MA/PhD program as an Italianist. I was interested in understanding why Italy, relative to several other advanced, industrial societies, had such low rates of high-tech innovation. I wrote my MA thesis on the subject. The following summer I became a Mirzayan Fellow at the National Academies in Washington, DC, and was assigned to develop new programs that would allow US and Arab scientists to collaborate. I spent a good part of my summer speaking to Arab scientists in the US and abroad, asking them about the pros and cons of conducting research in their home countries. A lot of their responses boiled down to problems of politics and economics. I figured that this was a lot more interesting than writing about Italy, so I changed my regional focus and started taking Arabic. It was a good decision!