Bruce Rutherford

Bruce Rutherford is assistant professor of Political Science at Colgate University. He is the author of Egypt After Mubarak: Liberalism, Islam, and Democracy in the Arab World. Bruce Rutherford is assistant professor of Political Science at Colgate University. He is the author of Egypt After Mubarak: Liberalism, Islam, and Democracy in the Arab World.


How successful have the Camp David accords been, and how have they affected the regime?

I think fundamentally, they’ve been remarkably successful. They’ve essentially established peace between the largest Arab country and the country with the largest Arab army. And that peace has held ever since 1979 and that is a remarkable achievement. It seems to me it’s worth underscoring. You had many, many decades of tension and violence and multiple wars between Arabs and Israelis, and between Egyptians and Israelis. And the Camp David accords effectively ended that. There have still been points of tension between the two sides, particularly over Taba, a small piece of territory on the border between Israel and Egypt. But that dispute was resolved through diplomatic means and through legal means, not through the use of force. So it seems to me Camp David can be pointed to as one of the great successes of diplomacy, not just in the Middle East, but also more broadly. And how have the Camp David accords benefited Israel, our ally?
Fundamentally it’s provided Israel with security on its southern border. Israel, of course, is still maintaining troops on that border and still has taken measures to ensure its defense on the south. But it’s been able to develop a measure of cooperation with the Egyptian military, a degree of coordination with Egyptian intelligence, a recognition that there are some shared interests between Israel and Egypt with regard to security matters, and it’s led to a degree of cooperation in the security arena that I think has been really healthy for stability. That cooperation has not extended into the cultural arena or the economic arena, but it has existed in the security arena and that’s an important development.

And on the flip side, how have the accords benefited Egypt?

I think fundamentally it allowed the Egyptians to reallocate some of their resources away from military activities and into other activities. They still have a very large military budget and the military is still an enormously powerful institution in Egypt. But it effectively allowed the Egyptians to focus a bit more on the internal challenges that they faced, particularly developing their economy, developing their education system, and so on; rather than putting all their resources into fighting a war against Israel.

And how significant is our military assistance as far as the size of their military budget, is it a huge percentage?

It is a large percentage. We send about 1.3 billion a year in military assistance to Egypt. That’s about a third of the official Egyptian military budget, so a very large amount. The Egyptian military has lots of other resources that are not in the official budget, so if one looks at the total Egyptian military budget, the U.S. contribution is probably less than a third. But it’s still a very large amount, and the U.S. is making a big contribution to Egyptian stability and to regional stability.

And is this understanding, through the Camp David Accords, that we’ve enjoyed for thirty years, is that to some degree under threat now after the Arab Spring?

I think fundamentally one has to step back and understand that this agreement exists because it serves the interests of Israel and Egypt. In other words, neither country has an interest in going to war. That fundamental, strategic need to avoid conflict persists; so even if there’s a change of governments in Egypt, there might be a change in rhetoric with regard to Israel. The rhetoric, realistically, will probably be a little harsher than it was under Mubarak, relations will probably be a little cooler than they were under Mubarak; but fundamentally both sides realize that war is in neither country’s interest. So I think that peace is likely to continue.

And what about U.S. interests, what are some of the instances where Egypt has helped out our interest in the region over the past few decades?

There have been a number of ways. Probably the most dramatic, in terms of deployment of resources, is back during the Gulf War when the U.S. intervened to remove Saddam Hussein. The first Gulf War, when the U.S. intervened to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, Egypt sent forty thousand troops to contribute to that effort. So, a major deployment of resources to facilitate a goal that the U.S. and Egypt shared.
There are other ways as well that Egypt is an important U.S. ally. Egypt, for example, is the country where the Suez Canal is located. Egypt has ensured the smooth flow of goods and commerce through the canal for many decades now; that serves American interest. Egypt is also, more generally, a bastion of a more moderate conception of regional politics. In other words, one that tries to preserve the existing state system; one that tries to achieve a measure of stability in regional relations, rather than dramatic change. That, of course, serves American interest as well.
If for example, one example of Egypt acting in a manner that reinforced American interest in the region, is back during the first Gulf War in 1991, after Saddam Hussein of Iraq had invaded Kuwait. The United States, of course, intervened with a large multinational force to remove Iraq from Kuwait. Egypt participated in that effort sent upwards of forty thousand Egyptian troops to assist in the efforts to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. And Egyptian troops were actually at the lead of the convoy who went into Kuwait City, to liberate Kuwait city.
I think that it’s important to understand that this was a project of shared interest between the United States and Egypt. It wasn’t a case of Egypt doing America’s bidding. It was a case of Egypt essentially coming to the conclusion that what Saddam Hussein had done in Kuwait was a threat to regional stability and a threat to Egyptian interest, and therefore Egyptian interest and American interest were aligned and Egypt and the U.S. cooperated.

Has our support, to any degree, kept or helped to keep  Mubarak and his supporters in power?

I think that it’s certainly fair to say that U.S. assistance did help to keep Mubarak in power. We sent this 1.3 billion in military assistance every year. For the first two decades after Camp David we sent roughly 1-1.2 billion in economic assistance as well. So we spent lots and lots of money to essentially assist the Egyptian government, to essentially help Hosni Mubarak gain a greater degree of legitimacy in the eyes of his people. And this has been a liability, understandably, since Mubarak has departed. We’re seen as having contributed to the durability of Mubarak’s regime and sharing responsibility for the length of Mubarak’s rule and some of the abuses of Mubarak’s rule.

And do you think, to any degree, that created kind of a conflict of interest in the early days of deciding what to do in response to the Arab Spring?

I think that’s very true. And certainly, if you look at the statements by U.S. officials in the early days of the uprising back in January 25th, January 26th of 2011. The U.S. initially came out affirming Mubarak’s stability and the stability of the regime. And when things started to look a little more uncertain we started to hedge our bets a bit and talk about a need for an orderly transition. And then we actually facilitated that transition, and facilitated and transferred power to the Supreme Council of the armed forces.
I think that U.S. assistance to Egypt played an important role in helping to maintain stability under Mubarak and preserve that regime. We sent in the neighborhood of about 2.2 billion dollars per year to Egypt since the early 1980s, and that’s been divided between military assistance and economic assistance. The balance between them has changed over time; initially we spent about a billion on military assistance and a billion on economic assistance. Now we’re spending considerably more on military assistance and we’ve cut back on economic assistance.
But I think the overall story here is that we made a major financial commitment to try and strengthen the Mubarak regime. We saw Mubarak as a pillar of stability in the region, and as a consequence we were very much tied to Mubarak. So when the Mubarak regime was removed and the people clearly rejected the Mubarak regime, to some extent they were rejecting our relationship with Mubarak and that creates some real challenges for us going forward.

And could you explain for us the current kind of struggle between Egypt’s youth, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the military in Egypt?

That’s a big question. Essentially it seems to me a good way to think of it is that you’ve got competing visions of what Egypt should be. And what we’re basically watching right now in Egypt is a process of trying to figure out what vision can accomplish a number of goals. The economy needs to grow in order to generate jobs and employ all these young people who are coming into the job market every year. But at the same time, it has to grow in a way that is compatible with what Egyptians keep emphasizing, which is social justice; this was a central theme of the administrations at Tahrir.
And the premise was that the type of economic growth that Mubarak had been pursuing for the last five or six years, a very market focused form of growth, had produced expansion in the economy. Egypt was growing about seven percent a year, but it was producing a type of growth that aggravated social injustice, that was seen as being unjust and unfair and aggravating inequality. And the great puzzle now, as they come up with a conception of Egypt’s future that will produce economic growth and produce prosperity, but will disperse those benefits across the entire population. And you’ve got a Muslim Brotherhood view of how to do that, you’ve got a view among some of the youth groups of how to accomplish that, to some extent you have a view in the military of how to accomplish it; and they’re all different to some degree. We’re basically seeing a process of trying to arrive at a specific vision that a broad segment of the Egyptian population can support.

Who is Mohammad Morsi, and how do U.S. policy makers view him?

Well, Mohammad Morsi has been a long term member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but interestingly he spent part of his career earlier on — he’s a scientist by training — spent part of his career earlier on in the United States. He has a doctorate from an American Institution, University of Southern California, actually taught in Southern California for a few years after he got his Ph.D. So he is someone who is experienced in the United States and understands, to some extent, American culture; but is also very committed to the idea that Egypt, and the Muslim world more generally, need to define a new approach to modernity, an approach that differs from what he saw in the United States.
From his standpoint, this is going to be an approach that emphasizes morality and ethics to a greater degree, and also spirituality to a greater degree. A big theme in the Brotherhood’s literature is that the United States is a country that has great material wealth, but lacks a sense of spiritual purpose, a spiritual center. And the Brotherhood is attempting to argue that their vision for Egypt will lead to both prosperity and spiritual strength; and that’s the central theme of the ILNA in Egypt, the program for the rebuilding of Egypt that’s become central to Morsi’s platform and Morsi’s program.

In general terms, and in terms of his background, when he came back to Egypt after having been in the United States — he’s widely believed to have joined the Brotherhood while he was in the U.S. — he became active in the Brotherhood there, gradually rose through the ranks, and became one of the senior members of the Brotherhood. He was part of what’s called the ‘Guidance Council’ of the Brotherhood, which is a group of usually twelve or thirteen individuals who basically formulated Brotherhood policy, and he’s been a member of that group for years. When Mubarak was removed from office back in 2011, the brotherhood established a political party, and Morsi became the President of that political party, this is the ‘Freedom and Justice’ party.

So Morsi moved from the Brotherhood arena, which is basically a social movement, into the political arena, running a political party. And then the Brotherhood made the decision to run a candidate for the presidency. Morsi was actually the second choice, the first choice was a gentleman named Khairat el-Shater, who was seen as someone who was a more savvy political maneuverer, but he was disqualified because he had been convicted of a felony under Mubarak. So Morsi moved into that space, he became the Brotherhood’s candidate for president, and he won with fifty two percent of the vote in these elections that took place in June of 2012.

And what has President Morsi done since taking office, and what can we read into that?

Probably the most dramatic thing that he’s done at this point is to encourage the retirement of a number of senior generals. It’s not clear whether he ordered the retirement. Nonetheless, the Minister of Defense has now been retired, the Chief of Staff has been retired, the leaders of the Navy and the Air-force have been retired as well. And a new generation of officers who essentially are in their mid to late fifties have been elevated to those positions.

So he’s facilitated a generational change in the military. In addition he’s rejected an amendment to the constitutional declaration that was issued by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces back in June. This was an effort by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to essentially reduce the power of the presidency and shift some of those powers over to the military. And Mosi essentially has taken those powers back to himself now. And these are important powers.

He basically now holds the power to legislate, which was previously held by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. He also holds the power of appointment, holds control over the budget. One could argue quite persuasively that he is now more powerful than Mubarak was, in terms of the formal powers that he controls. And the question is how he’s going to use that power, whether he’s going to be a unifying figure who can bring together these different visions of Egypt which I mentioned earlier; or whether he’s going to be a more divisive figure that focuses just on a Brotherhood agenda and tries to steamroll his opponents.

So far he’s made an effort to be conciliatory. He appointed a cabinet, for example, that has thirty one members, only four of those members are from the Brotherhood. So this is an effort to try and demonstrate that he’s going to have an inclusive government. But I think Egyptians are going to watch very, very carefully going forward, as to whether he reaches out to cops, whether he reaches out to more secular Muslims, whether he reaches out to women and tries to address their concerns as he moves forward.

 How much influence does Egypt have in the region?

Well fundamentally, Egypt’s influence flows from two things. One is that it has the third largest economy in the Arab world and the second is that it has the largest army in the Arab world. So it’s an important economic player. It’s potentially a very, very important strategic military player. And it’s clear that the countries in the Gulf; Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and Qatar are eager to try and integrate Egypt more fully into the security framework for the Gulf States. And it seems to be going forward, that’s probably going to be a structural change that occurs as a result of Mubarak’s exit, Egypt is likely to reorient a bit strategically away from the United States and a bit more toward the Gulf, and will probably play a more prominent role in Gulf defenses going forward.

If you were advising U.S. policy makers, what track would you recommend they take in the coming year with Egypt?

I think the core decision we have to make is whether we really want to see democracy in Egypt. In other words, one of the things that’s been striking in the last year and a half, ever since Mubarak’s departure, is that basically we’ve gotten to know Egypt a little better. Under Mubarak, there was such widespread repression that you didn’t really know the full range of public opinion, because there were restrictions on freedom of the press. You really didn’t know the full range of political views because there were restrictions on the formation of parties.

As the process has opened up a bit, we’ve begun to see some very positive things, in other words the emergence of a moderate conception of Islam in the Brotherhood, also coming from al Azhar. But we’ve also seen the emergence of a very, very conservative strand of Islam in the Salafi movement that has been surprisingly strong. Selafi, the Al-Nour party, won about twenty-one percent of the seats in parliament, which was a big surprise. And one of the big questions going forward is that if Egypt fully democratizes and you get a government that fully representative of the public opinion, it’s probably going to be pretty conservative, pretty traditional, Islamic government.

We have to decide whether that in fact is something we are eager to support and pursue. If it is, we’re going to have to accept the fact that the government that’s going to emerge from the democratic process is probably going to be more critical of Israel than Mubarak was, is probably going to be cooler towards the United States than Mubarak was. But nonetheless, the core strategic interests that underlie the U.S. and Egyptian relationship are likely to persist, and therefore there’s a basis for the U.S. having close relations with Egypt going forward.

What do you make of the inclusiveness of Morsi government?

One of the issues that has caused concern in some circles in Cairo is that this new government that Morsi has appointed, this new cabinet that he’s appointed, does not include representatives of the youth movement. There were efforts to try and include the youth in the President’s staff, a number of prominent youth leaders were invited to join the President’s staff and they declined. At this juncture, I think one could argue that the youth movement has effectively been excluded from the government in terms of holding formal positions.

The youth leadership has said that the way they’re going to try and influence developments going forward is not so much by participating in existing political structures, but instead remaining able to mobilize large numbers of people on the Tahrir and elsewhere to protest steps by the government that they object to. So they’ve chosen to pursue a path, as they phrase it, and I’ve interviewed a number of them over the past year and a half; they see themselves as activists, not politicians. In other words, they see their role as standing on the outside of the political process, monitoring what the politicians do, and if the politicians act in a manner that runs counter to the spirit of the revolution, then they’re going to mobilize demonstrators on the street and that’s how they’re going to influence policy, through these large demonstrations, rather than participation in a political party, or participation in a cabinet.

And that is potentially a source of concern going forward, because it seems to me that one thing that’s almost certain over the next year or so, is that Morsi will disappoint somebody, probably disappoint a lot of people. The economy is not going to grow as fast as people hoped, the government is not going to include as many cops and women as people hoped. Right now, the youth activists really have no mechanism by which to object and to change those policies other than to mobilize large demonstrations.

And those demonstrations can be very disruptive to the economy, they can be disruptive more generally to people’s sense of security. And that is potentially a problem going forward, is that we don’t have a method to peacefully incorporate the views of these young people into the political process.

It seems like a smart move on their part, to kind of stick to proven core competency.

Well, but it also one could argue that it shows a lack of adaptation to the political conditions. In essence, the tactics they were using were fine when they were dealing with an extremely repressive regime and there were no peaceful avenues for legal change. Now, you’ve got a more open system, and one could argue that if they want to be able to help build that system, they need to participate in it. But instead they’re choosing to stay outside of it and they’re not exercising as much influence as they would like, they can’t shape policy to the degree that they would like. At the end of the day, their technique for influencing policy is basically a blown instrument, “You do what we want or we’ll put ten thousand people on the street,” rather than that process of negotiation and bargaining and compromise, which Egypt really needs at this point, to bring a measure of stability to the political system.

This of course has been a hugely important development. Just in early August there was an attack in Sinai in which sixteen Egyptian soldiers were killed by a group of militants, some of whom appear to have come from Gaza, some of whom appear to be based in Sinai. This was clearly a failure of Egyptian intelligence, also a failure of the Egyptian military and it was one of the things that provided President Morsi with an opportunity to bring about the resignation of these senior generals that we talked about on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. But the broader question going forward is whether Egypt can maintain stability in Sinai and suppress this increase in violence in Sinai.

I think Egypt certainly has a capability to do that. On the Egyptian side, they assert that the Camp David accords limit the ability to which Egypt can deploy the forces and resources needed to maintain order. The Israelis argue that they’ve already agreed to modifications that allow the Egyptians to deploy more troops. I think one of the things we’ll see over the next few months is that the Egyptian side will probably request more modifications to Camp David that will allow them to deploy more troops, different types of troops, in other words more capable troops; and also other types of equipment, in other words helicopter gunships, more sophisticated air power, and so on. If the Israelis agree to those measures, the Egyptians will probably be able to restore stability, but it’s safe to assume that the Israelis will want to monitor that very carefully, and understandably want to moderate very carefully.