Egypt Unrest Limits Role in Fighting Islamic State

During a recent stop in Cairo, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Egypt has a "key role" to play in the effort to "degrade and defeat" Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

But that may be difficult, analysts say.

Egyptian government officials reportedly assured Kerry of their support, but they have yet to commit to any specific role as the U.S. assembles a coalition to battle the extremists.

Given the country's beleaguered economy and its own ongoing battle against the Muslim Brotherhood, analysts say Egypt's participation would be limited at best. Ever since the army toppled Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected civilian president, and banned the Brotherhood, security has only deteriorated.

The exclusion of Islamists from the political scene has driven some to join a low-level insurgency against the military government, all while more obscure militant groups are suspected of committing terrorist acts across the Sinai Peninsula.

“Instability is complicating the economic challenges,” said Ahmed Galal, a former Egyptian finance minister who tells VOA it’s critical to pair the economic reforms with the political.

“The economy is now operating far below its potential because the tourists are not coming; foreign direct investment is distant and even domestic investors are reluctant to invest simply because of the insecurity and the political uncertainty,” he said.

Despite a new constitution, a new president and steps towards electing a new parliament, Galah said "Egypt needs a friendly business environment, stability and predictability to attract investment and create jobs.”

Lack of progress

Samer Shehata, associate professor of Middle Eastern Politics at the University of Oklahoma, echoes the sentiment, saying anything less than dual reforms that simultaneously target security and commerce would only leave efforts to improve the daily lives of Egyptians vulnerable to the whims of unrest.

"The current government is not making progress towards democracy and inclusion,” he said. "It is instead entrenching itself in an authoritarian manner as a result of repressive protest laws, banning political activities in college campuses, jailing not only the Islamists but also youth activists.”

Shehata says that there needs to be massive political reforms that include state institutions — especially the security apparatus, military and judiciary — along with some sort of national reconciliation.

But according to Mohamed Salmawy, former spokesperson for the constitution drafting committee and president of Writers Union in Egypt, there is reason for optimism.

“The democratic measures that our new constitution provides have to be enacted by the upcoming new parliament and that will create a lot of freedoms,” Salmawy said, referring to upcoming 2015 elections. “The power [will be] shared between the president and the parliament, so the president will no longer have unquestionable power.”

But the distribution of parliamentary seats, according to new electoral laws, has already sparked controversy.

“If 120 seats are contested by party lists, and 420 seats are contested by individual candidates, the emerging parliament will have very limited party representation, which will result in the absence of an effective majority,” said Hala Shukrallah, president of opposition Al-Dostour Party.

Shehata wonders if this might leave Egyptians with parliament mired in dysfunction.

“While it might not be a rubber stamp, it will not be able to put up a serious opposition and perform checks and balances role to the president who is a field marshal with the full force of the military and security apparatus behind him,” Shehata said.

Others are more upbeat, saying popular sentiments will prevent any returns to the practices of the past.

“The Egyptian people who took to the streets and changed two presidents in three years will not accept a parliament that doesn’t perform its function properly,” Salmawy said.

Regardless of the new parliament's political complexion, President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi has made clear he intends to rule as a strong leader.

“I will not allow the creation of a parallel leadership to be in conflict with the state powers and prestige," he recently said. "Egypt has only one leadership.”

Breaking old cycles

According to Michael Hanna, senior fellow at the New York-based Century Foundation, if the military and the Muslim Brotherhood can look beyond factional interests to glimpse a sustainable, practical political process, the mechanics of transitional justice would come faster.

“The current government does not face any serious rivalries, so it should bring institutions of the state back under control — especially the judiciary and the ministry of interior, which are working now with very little oversight,” he said.

The only way for Egypt to break the vicious cycle of instability is if the government opens the political process and adopts a more inclusive approach, he said.

“It is clear that the current government is not interested in an open political system of checks and balances or distribution of power," he said. "The scope of current repression is not reflective of real threats that this government faces.”

At the 27th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council this month, the European Union expressed concern over Egypt's human rights record, calling for "democratic, transparent and accountable institutions."

While Cairo dismissed the statement as "negative,” Gerald Feierstein, U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, has continues to press Egypt on the topic, asking officials to open up a political space for peaceful dissent.

“A stronger Egypt is an Egypt that embraces political pluralism and the ability of people to speak out," he said. "We think that Egypt can’t be strong unless it provides this kind of opportunity.”

And any country expected to assume a key role in degrading the likes of Islamic State militants, of course, would need to approach the task from a position of strength. The question is whether Egypt's current leadership can create the conditions conducive to finding it.

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