Eric Trager

Eric Trager is the Next Generation Fellow at The Washington Institute and a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Pennsylvania. Previously, he lived in Egypt as an Islamic Civilizations Fulbright fellow.


Explain the current power struggle between the youth, Muslim Brotherhood, and military. What is, in fact, taking place?

Well what’s happened much more quickly than I think many people, myself included, anticipated, is that once Muhammad Morsi – the Muslim Brotherhood leader – won the presidential election, he was able to dislodge the top generals that posed the most direct challenge to his authority from power. So a few weeks ago, in mid August, he fired General Tantawi, General Sami Anan. These were the top two leaders of what was known as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. He quickly elevated more junior officers in their place. So he very quickly removed top generals, replaced them with younger ones, who now effectively answer to him.

Now I think the Brotherhood will still face some challenges from the judiciary, possibly from certain elements of the security services, so I wouldn’t suggest that the Brotherhood’s power is completely consolidated. But with that series of firings and promotions, Muhammad Morsi very quickly put himself in charge of not only executive authority, but in charge of the military; and simultaneously of course, passed a constitutional declaration that gave himself legislative and constitutional powers. Right now what that all means, is that Muhammad Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader, has more power on paper than Mubarak did during his final years in office.

Tell us about Morsi’s background. How is he viewed by our policymakers?

So Muhammad Morsi is 61 years old, he received his degree in engineering in the U.S., a PhD, from the University of Southern California and he taught here for a number of years. While he was in the U.S., he was recruited to the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s very interesting, because typically we think of Muslim Brotherhood recruitment efforts as being focused in Egypt, but here you have an example of a top Brotherhood leader who was actually recruited by the International Brotherhood networks here in the U.S.; and he was actually not the only top Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader to be recruited here in that way.

He moved back to Egypt in 1985, taught at the University of Zakazeek, and was elected to parliament for the first time in 2000, where he was made the leader of the Brotherhood’s parliamentary block. This really made him a prominent feature in Egypt for the Brotherhood, and shortly thereafter he was named the Brotherhood’s Guidance Office, which is the top leadership body of the organization. He’s seen as particularly close to Khairat El-Shater who’s the Deputy Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood, he and Shater are considered the most important organizational figures for the Muslim Brotherhood. And he was not initially supposed to run for president.

Muhammad Morsi was actually a back up to Shater, who was the Muslim Brotherhood’s initial nominee in the spring of 2012. Shater however was disqualified from the elections because of a prior conviction, a very publicized conviction, under the Mubarak regime, and that allowed Morsi to assume the role of Brotherhood presidential nominee. He finished first in the first round of voting with roughly 25% and in the second round passed the 50% threshold running against an old Mubarak regime figure.

How is he viewed by the U.S.?

Well, I think many of the policy community believe that now that a Muslim Brother has been elected, that they’re going to have to deal with certain realities, specifically a struggling Egyptian economy, which could presumably force the Muslim Brotherhood and Muhammad Morsi to look outside for help, and therefore force them to act moderately because they want international investment, economic aid, and that sort of thing. I’m much more skeptical that that will happen, because when speaking with Muslim Brotherhood leaders, one comes away with the sense that they view international aid as something they’re owed, something they’re owed because of the international communities support for Mubarak and not something they have to do anything to earn.

Moreover, in speaking with Muslim Brothers specifically in the first couple months of Muhammad Morsi’s presidency, it became pretty clear that the Muslim Brotherhood is not looking to maintain an open relationship with Israel, certainly not for long term; is trying to tilt away from the U.S., maybe more towards China, have more of a third way foreign policy. And just in having met Muhammad Morsi myself as a grad student in August 2010, I found him to be a very prickly person, very hostile towards the U.S., of course not in my presence but in the presence of other journalists has advocated 9/11 conspiracy theories blaming the attacks on American intelligence, saying American intelligence may have been responsible for the attacks.

So this is a person who is really cut from the Muslim Brotherhood cloth, and I think in the short run, might make himself look like a friendly face in order to get aid; but in the long run is not likely to be a sincere partner for the U.S. or the international community.

The U.S. has embraced having the debt of Egypt reduced, and supported IMF loans. Does the U.S. want to back whoever is in office and strengthen them?

I think that’s exactly right. I think the administration’s eagerness to help Egypt is based on this idea that whoever’s in power in Egypt, Egypt is just that important that we have to deal with them. I agree in the narrow sense that we don’t have the luxury of not dealing with President Morsi, or not dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood. There’s been a revolution, these guys are in power and Egypt is a county of close to 90 million people, one of the strongest militaries in the region, Suez Canal, there is a real interest there.

What I would advise the administration to do, however, is to not put forward economic aid as if it’s some kind of charity, but to make sure that economic aid is always couched in the language of a strategic partnership; that the understanding that this is part of a bargain the U.S. has had with previous leaders and wants to maintain with the current Egyptian leader. And not that this is some kind of favor for Egypt, or something that Egypt is owed on account of previous U.S. policies, because it’s not. The relationship with Egypt is very much a strategic one and unfortunately, that kind of language of strategy, maybe as unsexy as it is, is important to protect at this moment when you have new leaders that are coming to the floor that do not view their strategic interests as previous leaders did.

Are there any other suggestions that you would make to the administration in terms of U.S. policies?

Well, I mean, unfortunately, in reaching out the Muslim Brotherhood, which policymakers have no choice but to do, given realities in Egypt. The administration has not reached out as aggressively to non-Islamists and to Christians as well. And the impression that many Egyptians have come away with is that the U.S. is essentially throwing its lot with the Brotherhood, much as it once threw it’s lot with Mubarak, and is kind of selling out non-Islamists, and remembering that many of these non-Islamists are the most inclined to be pro American.

Hillary Clinton went to Egypt in July and met with President Morsi; the demonstrations against her were not led by Islamists, they were led by Christians and non-Islamists. So we need to, at least in the way we do public diplomacy, have a balance between our necessary engagement with the Islamists who are in a power, and our engagement with non-Islamists who, we have to hope, will find a way to have an impact in this new Egyptian politics. Also I think we need to be more aggressive in speaking out for Christian rights; in Egypt Christians have had many church burnings since last year’s revolution, there have been various instances of sectarian strife. Christians in historically pro-American communities have felt abandoned by the U.S. because the language from the administration has typically been one of equalizing those who are doing the violence against the Christians and whatever the Christians do in response; typically demonstrations.

We need to have a firm stance in favor of religious equality in Egypt and speak out forcefully when Christian communities are under attack. Finally, I think we really need to stop speaking about Camp David, that’s the history with Israel as an American interest, it’s relevant to our interest in stability in the Middle East; but really first and foremost it’s an Egyptian and Israeli interest and the message that needs to be conveyed to each in particular, since these new leaders are speaking in a very serious way about reconsidering their relationship with Israel. We need to say to them that the consequence of breaking the treaty is ending a treaty that has prevented war between Egypt and a much stronger country to the north for over thirty years. And that, in turn, raises the strong possibility of renewed fighting and possibility of death and we need to lay it out in those very cold terms to say that no, it’s clearly not in American interests for that treaty to go away; but really the pain will be felt first and foremost by Egyptians who may at the very least suffer.

Finally on Camp David, I think that the U.S. and American policymakers should stop speaking about Camp David as an American interest, which of course it is, but really emphasize that this is an Egyptian interest. We need to emphasize that the Camp David Accords have prevented Egyptians from fighting wars with a much stronger country to their north for over thirty years; and that a breakdown in the Accords would not only mean the raised possibility of war, and therefore the possibility of frankly death, but also much more certainly the likelihood that international investors will simply stay away- because who’s going to build a hotel in a country that can’t even keep a peace treaty with a much stronger nation on its borders?

So, we need to say to the Egyptians that America wants you to keep the treaty with Israel, but really it’s in your interest first and foremost, because if you don’t do it, we’re 6,000 miles away, you’re going to be the ones feeling the pain and we’d like to do everything we can to prevent you from making a very dangerous decision.

What has Morsi done since taking over office and what early signs can we take from these decisions?

One of the interesting things about Morsi’s first couple of months in office has been that he’s been more focused on consolidating power than he has been on policymaking. So there’s this expectation that the Muslim Brotherhood would have to deliver; they would have to deliver economically, they would have to deliver on jobs, have to deliver on sanitation. You’ve really seen very little on any of those things.

I mean you’ve seen the Muslim Brotherhood dispatching its youth candres to clean streets and help direct traffic. But for the most part, President Morsi’s major acts have been calling back parliament in mid July to test whether the military council would respond against this, which of course did, so that was a no go. But then firing the top security officials after attacks in Sinai, firing top Generals a week later to consolidate his power, releasing a constitutional declaration that not only gives him full executive power, which of course he arguable won through an election; but legislative power, constitutional power, things that he unambiguously did not win.

And I suspect that that will continue. I mean, word is he’s going to be appointing governors very soon; those governors will largely come from the Muslim Brotherhood’s central leadership. So I think Muhammad Morsi more than anything has been a tool for expanding and consolidating the Brotherhood’s power; not so much, for the moment at least, a president that has been focused on policy making. One exception of course has been in foreign policy, where again he’s been mostly focused on steering Egypt away from it’s alignment with the west, going to Iran for the nonalignment summit, reaching out to China for international investments; that has been the one area of actual policy making where he’s tried to make a difference.

But the economy in Egypt is still very poor, unemployment is still very high, and I don’t yet see any real determination to take on those things. I think for the Brotherhood, they’re primarily focused on power and on policy a distant second.

How much influence does Egypt have in the region? Has it diminished? Has it maintained? Is it changing?

I think that Egypt’s regional influence is evolving. I think that events in Syria, certainly events in Jordan, events in Palestinian territories; could have a real effect on what the Brotherhood in Egypt does with it’s power. Are we looking at, for example, a region in which Brotherhood movements increasingly dominate? I think so. But it’s not yet clear on what that means regionally other than that this new leadership in Egypt may be poised to have a number of key, closely connected, regional allies within the next couple of years.

It hasn’t quite happened yet. But also regionally it’s important to note that while Morsi is trying to shift Egyptian policy away from the US by reaching out to Iran, he’s certainly not trying to become an Iranian Poland. I mean his speech in Tehran was quite critical, very Sunni oriented certainly in its opening, speaking about the successors to Muhammad that Shiites reject that are Sunni successors; but also speaking out against Bashar al-Assad in Syria, who the Iranians are supporting.

I think we can say that at its early point in the Muslim Brotherhood led Egypt is that this Egypt is tilting away from the U.S. and tilting a little bit towards Iran; certainly trying to find this midway point between the two. But for the U.S., that’s a net loss. We should be very clear on that; but exactly what that means and how that develops I think we really have to watch.

Can you comment on confrontations between Israel, U.S., Iran, Egypt?

You know, this is all developing. I mean certainly signals that Morsi has sent is that he would view an attack by Israel or the U.S. on Iran very negatively; may use that kind of crisis I think in a damaging way as far as Egyptian-Israeli peace. I mean, you know one thing we should notice about the way that Morsi has conducted himself in the last couple months is that he’s not someone who is going to let a crisis go to waste.

So you had this attack in the Sinai by militants killed sixteen Egyptian soldiers. He very quickly moved to get rid of his security folks, get rid of top generals who posed a threat to his power, consolidated his power. I think the question is how he will respond to an incident in which Israel or the U.S. or both attack Iran. I suspect he’ll use it as an excuse to further distance himself from the U.S., possibly further distance himself from Israel.

But I don’t see him as a key player in this. You know there are murmurs about Egypt possibly pursuing its own nuclear energy. But really nothing yet concrete that we can put our hands on.

Is there anything else that you would like to make a comment on?

I think looking at Egypt and looking at both the history of the Muslim Brotherhood and the way Muhammed Morsi has conducted himself in his first couple months of office, it should be pretty clear that the trajectory of Egypt is moving in a certain direction that is, first of all, not democratic and is a new type of autocracy in which power is vested in one organization and not one man. So it’s slightly different from the Mubarak model. It’s more religious in its tone, but still decision-making will be made among a very small group of people.

Secondly, in foreign policy the trajectory is very much moving away from the Pax Americana that has dominated the region for the past 3 decades. I think there will be an instance in which the Muslim Brotherhood will try to use a crisis to maybe do away with the Accords, maybe do away with diplomatic relations with Israel, will try to move away from the U.S., try to strike a more independent path.

Our policymakers should be using the tools that we have, which include military aid, include economic aid, including American involvement in major financial institutions to which this new Egypt will turn. We should be using these tools to keep Egypt in the American orbit; and not taken at face value that any Egyptian leader will see its interests the same way previous leaders have, with the Brotherhood that is clearly not going to be the case.