(Former U.S. Rep. Larry LaRocco of Idaho is in Egypt this week as part of a professional fellows program, sponsored by the U.S. State Department and Legacy International, which aims to strengthen the legislative and policymaking processes in Egypt and other countries. Rep. Larocco has agreed to submit commentaries outlining his views on life and politics of this Middle Eastern country.)
CAIRO - Tuesday was spent in a series of meetings with political analysts, human rights activists, journalists, speaker of the Shura Upper Council ( upper House ) and front line activists. (As I write it's Monday in Boise.)
It was a nonstop day of back-to-back meetings and discussions. Our delegation probed hard for facts to sort through many fuzzy perceptions, theories and assumptions swirling throughout Egypt on the immediate and long-term future of the country. We started connecting dots on some aspects of the country's fate and failed to receive clear indications on others.
The lack of clarity was troubling.
It's clear the Muslim Brotherhood is failing in its leadership at the moment. It's uncertain whether they will recover from stumbling out of the blocks after winning the elections, suspending the Parliament and blinking on leadership on the economy. Some describe the MB as good traders who have reached out to Turkey and China for imports but failures as business leaders to grow the economy. The business acumen was presented as a distinct plus to voters in the elections, but the faltering economy leaves them open to widespread criticism. In today's Egypt - "it's the economy stupid."
Anti-Muslim Brotherhood sentiment is white hot among dissidents, opposing parties, secularists and human rights activists. These feelings are so strong that some believe the economy will collapse within 30 days, leaving the military to keep the peace and pick up the pieces. For some in the broadly defined opposition camp, this is a desired outcome to oust the Muslim Brotherhood from control of the country. As I listened to the searing statements from this side of the political spectrum, it was akin to the theory "we need to burn down the village to save it."
The opponents of Morsi and the MB don't want to tinker with the constitution and participate in the next round of elections, that will most likely take place in four to six months. For them the constitution was hastily constructed with a failed process excluding secularists, Christians, human rights groups and moderates. It is startling to hear a scenario constructed where some believe a collapsed economy will lead to the end of the MB. This in turn will result in a takeover of the country by the military and lead to a valid constitution with fair elections.
Our delegation was often reminded that the U.S. system has a fair process in place compared to a flawed process in Egypt.
As a former politician and officeholder, it is difficult to understand how Morsi opponents could walk off the field and threaten a boycott of the next round of elections.
The meetings with activists, dissidents and opposition party members contrasted with a long discussion with the speaker of the Shura Council, Ahmed Fahmy.
Knowing the line of reasoning by his opponents, we quizzed the speaker on many subjects raised over the past two days. He adeptly answered many of the tough questions in a way that suggested the Muslim Brotherhood has finished stumbling. He spoke about developing a "charm offensive" (a la President Obama) to reach out to the opposition to correct known deficiencies in the constitution, thereby leading to elections with a more level playing field. He wants to bring departed industrialists back to Egypt with fair taxes and promote employment. When asked for a timetable on new elections, he unhesitatingly stated they would take place in four to six months months after specific fixes were made in the constitution allowing greater participation by the opposition. He specifically welcomed international observers to the next round of elections. We left our meeting in the heavily guarded Capitol believing there was every intention to meet the conditions set out by Secretary of State John Kerry to trigger a safety net of IMF assistance.
I reminded the speaker of election monitoring activities by the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress, and he promised to keep us informed of the elections through an invitation to participate as monitors. That possibility will be followed up and explored. While my opinion was not sought, I offered him a suggestion that he not keep his Shura agenda secret. They were meeting this week and addressed the very questions we raised. Under the constitution, the Shura Council is the governing body of the country at the moment in light of the dissolution of the Lower House of Parliament. It is disconcerting, however, to realize that in the Shura elections there was only a 7-percent turnout. Historically, the Shura has been filled with cronies of the president, and the Egyptian voters treated it this way in spite of the revolution.
After leaving the meeting we tried to assess whether we had just met the same man described so negatively by the MB opponents. We also wondered whether the charm offensive included us. Time will tell.
The country is running out of financial reserves by the hour. It's truly hemorrhaging money it doesn't have, and it has no access to loans. Sixty percent of the economy is on auto pilot and won't get hurt with an economic meltdown. Forty percent will feel it in harsh ways. It's unclear whether an economic meltdown is imminent. I believe the situation is truly dire. This would be a true shutdown of the economy and promote widespread civil unrest at the same time. Until we met with Fahmy, I would have bet the economic failure was just around the corner. Like the U.S. Congress, Egypt may take the country up to the edge of the cliff. I have not swung from pessimistic to optimistic, however.
I have heard many times that safety on the streets is becoming a real concern. The failed economy and high emotions is a volatile mix. We must keep in mind that the random violence newly experienced in Egypt doesn't come close to the violence on the streets of Chicago. Egypt has for many years experienced a crime rate of almost zero. Murder was unheard of, and there was no talk of guns held by citizens for unlawful purposes. That situation has changed. We heard of weapons coming into Egypt from Libya and held secretly by Egyptian citizens who feel things might unravel on the streets. This is new. I didn't expect this.
I have visited Egypt since 1996, and it resembled Turkey in many respects in terms of "covered" women. It was a mix one would expect in a secular country in the Middle East. That, too, has changed. I noticed this development two years ago when I visited the University of Cairo and saw the majority of women with veils. I am hard-pressed now in traveling by car throughout the city to see women who are unveiled. Over the past few years I have discussed this phenomenon with women journalists, and the story has been the same. It seems that many women are choosing to wear veils just to make their lives more comfortable, because they have experienced harassment by men in neighborhoods as they walk down the street "uncovered." In discussions with women, I have been reminded that wearing the veil is a matter between a woman and Allah. If a government were to demand the veil, I believe we would see more demonstrations.
BALANCE OF POWER
It's clear the military lives in a parallel universe with the Muslim Brotherhood. The military wields real power that could be a safety valve for any unrest. There is a distinction between the military protection of borders and responsibilities for national security versus the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for the police force. The military would not be on the streets bashing protestors but it could step in as a political force if there were a breakdown. As a show of strength by the military, it got all it wanted in the constitution.
PERCEPTIONS OF U.S.
There's no way to sugarcoat this: In today's environment in Egypt, the U.S. is damned if it engages and damned if it pulls back. The meetings with Morsi by Kerry and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave rise to the belief that the U.S. fully supports the Muslim Brotherhood and therefore is part of many current problems. In spite of calm attempts to explain that the U.S. recognizes the process and legitimate elections, we were waved off. Of course, we have heard directly (in the meeting with journalists ) that the U.S. is not concerned about Egypt and the rest of the Middle East. As the theory goes, we just support the "Jewish State of Israel," and that is our only priority in the region. When we repeated the U.S. policy of supporting a "transition to democracy" we were reminded that true democracy in Egypt had no chance under the current Muslim Brotherhood leadership with the failed constitution.
SCOOP OF THE DAY
We learned that statements were made Sunday night by MB officials reminding Egyptians that citizens have the power to make arrests of "saboteurs" and they should be mindful of that authority. For some dissidents and MB opponents this was a chilling announcement. It's true that this provision in law has existed for some time and the MB opponents questioned timing and rationale of the press statement.
We will continue to sort out whether the Muslim Brotherhood continues to stumble. If they truly are tone deaf, it will become evident very quickly.
If the MB has misread the elections and perceived a nonexistent mandate, it won't be long before those mistaken perceptions trigger further reactions from many who gathered, protested, chanted and created a revolution. Those memories are fresh in the minds of hundreds of thousands who just might find their way to Tahrir Square once again.
Tomorrow we meet with the American-Egypt Chamber of Commerce and spend time with students and faculty at Cairo University. The perceptions from the business community should be quite interesting. I met with them before the revolution and look forward to comparing sentiment.