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Clinton in Cairo: Egyptian activists should look inward

Clinton visits Cairo after Mohamed Morsi was sworn in as Egypt's first-ever civilian president amid a power struggle between elected officials and military. The Egyptian people, not Washington, will ultimately decide who wins

Dalia Mogahed , Sunday 15 Jul 2012
Dalia Mogahed
Dalia Mogahed (Photo: Reuters)
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Views: 3198

Those demanding that Western leaders turn against Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) for its numerous political and human rights violations, most recently issuing constitutional amendments that appear to enshrine its political influence well after the president takes office, may be reversing cause and effect. Just as Washington continued supporting Mubarak while he violated human rights and amended the constitution to guarantee his son inherit Egypt, Western policy makers will likely continue to tolerate the SCAF, like Mubarak, as long as the Egyptian people do.

The SCAF still enjoys the confidence of more than 80 per cent of the Egyptian people according to an April Gallup poll, while roughly the same percentage sees on going protests as "bad for the country." Unless this calculus changes, American policy likely will not.

Speaking after the ouster of Mubarak, a prominent Egyptian human rights leader remarked that activists in his country used to look outward for help, ignoring their fellow citizens. Pro-democracy activists would carefully document their government's transgressions in reports aimed at the international community, hoping that outside pressure could force or shame their government into reform. It never did.

However, a vital shift in activist strategy changed the course of history.

Khaled Said's fatal beating inspired the now fabled "we are all Khaled Said" Facebook page and other on line platforms that took human rights violations to the people, catalysing the country's uprising. When activism turned inward, targeting ordinary Egyptians with awareness campaigns of police brutality and other transgressions, pressure from the bottom eventually forced change at the top. It was only then that Washington distanced itself from then President Hosni Mubarak, a long time US ally.

In the same way, the end of Western support for Egypt's generals will ultimately be the result of--not the cause for--the military's loss of political power.

This is not to say most Egyptians support the military's consolidation of influence. The majority of the public want the military out of politics after the president takes office, and even more expects them to hand over power. Moreover, most Egyptians see no role for the SCAF in choosing the Constituent Assembly tasked with drafting the country's new constitution, one of many powers the new constitutional amendments grant the military.

Nor are many Egyptians likely to welcome the High Constitutional Court's decision to dissolve parliament, which up until this weekend was the only part of the country's current government with any democratic legitimacy. Though less than half said a parliament dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood is good for the country, the vast majority thought the elections that brought them to power were fair and honest.

The question now is will the SCAF's latest power grab turn public opinion against them and lead to widespread demands for the military to relinquish power, or will the people's economic woes, frustration with instability, and state media stories of foreign meddling lull them into submission? The outcome of this struggle between Egyptian outrage and exhaustion will determine the Western response.

External pressure, especially from those who supply a third of the military's budget, can produce some concessions. However, without the legitimising leverage of a popular outcry, the SCAF will easily deflect Western concerns as outside meddling.

One of the welcomed casualties of the January 25 Egyptian uprising appears to be the regional image of an all-powerful America, responsible for everything that happens in the Arab world. Despite the conspiracy theories surrounding the revolution, today more than 80 per cent of Egyptians believe people's desire for change, not foreign interference, produced the Arab uprisings. Ordinary Egyptians realise the extent of their own impact and the limits of Washington's. Their advocates should as well.


Dalia Mogahed is Executive Director and Senior Analyst at Gallup. A version of this article appeared in Assyasy Magazine and in the Huffington Post.

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