Egypt’s Classic Strategic Triangle

By March 16, 2011

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 133

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Three forces are now competing for control of Egypt: the army, the Muslim Brotherhood, and various other opposition organizations. The outcome depends on which two of these forces cooperate to overpower the third. It is very possible that the two civilian actors will work together and eventually defeat the military, with the Brotherhood gaining enough power to create a religious dictatorship that sets back Egyptian democracy and development. However, a different outcome is possible if the military and the civilian opposition organizations understand that the Brotherhood is their common and most dangerous enemy. If the military holds power long enough to preside over an expansion of political freedoms for several years, genuine democratic elections might be possible, starting Egypt on a path toward stable democracy.

US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton visited Cairo this week in an attempt to bring about positive change in Egypt. US policy should take into consideration that there are three powers in Egypt now: The Army, led by the Military Council, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), and all the other opposition groups and organizations. As in all such strategic situations the outcome depends on which two powers get together against the third. Whoever stands alone will eventually lose. Of course, after two forces cooperate and succeed in defeating the third, they will then each try to defeat the other.

Now the armed forces are clearly in control of the country. They may think they have enough power to rule by themselves – although they are probably weaker than is usually assumed. If they do decide to take the risk of going it alone they will try to keep the other two powers divided, as Mubarak did until that strategy stopped working. But the Army, which is now governed by a committee of practical 60 year-olds, is likely to recognize its need for a civilian opposition partner, although it may not have the patience to overcome the difficulties and uncertainties of such an implicit partnership.

An alliance between the Brotherhood and the Army is not possible. Therefore, the Brotherhood – which is the second strongest power right now – has to try to work with all the other opposition forces and outside “supporters of democracy” to weaken the military’s power, establish civilian control and prompt elections.

A Brotherhood victory would mean death for the other two powers. The MB would gradually or quickly establish a religious dictatorship and neutralize the military. It is an 80 year old international organization with a strong ideology based on its understanding of Islam, which has learned how to survive and operate despite great efforts by the Egyptian and other governments to suppress it. And the Brotherhood will have financial and operational support from Iran. Part of the Brotherhood motto is “Jihad is our way; dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.”

The Brotherhood knows two things about its political position in Egypt. First, that most Egyptians do not want the kind of regime the Brotherhood will create if it comes to power. Egyptians want to live in a free society, not in a fear society where it is dangerous to say what you think. Egyptians don’t want the government telling them how to practice their religion. And Egyptian women don’t want to be second class citizens. The Brotherhood also knows that the Egyptian Army is its enemy and must be defeated before it can succeed.

Therefore the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t have a choice about its triangle strategy; it must work together with all civilian opposition forces in order to end the military’s power.

The Brotherhood must try to have elections as soon as possible and to use its current popularity before other parts of the Egyptian community have a chance to get organized and build support. It must put on a “liberal” face in order to be accepted into the coalition of those trying to force the Army to yield to civilian control and hold prompt elections, taking advantage of the wishful thinking of those who don’t want to recognize the real character of the Brotherhood.

It will be very tempting for civilian groups to believe that their democratic goals require that they use the momentum that forced Mubarak to resign to compel the military to accept civilian control this year. The US and other influential outside democratic forces are likely to encourage moving promptly to civilian control. While civilian control of the government must be the ultimate goal, and is the only source of long-term stability, trying to achieve this aim soon means the uniting of civilian groups with the Brotherhood against the military.

So it is the diverse collection of civilian opposition movements that probably will determine which two sides of the triangle join against the third and may well determine the outcome of the current turbulence in Egypt.

The “natural” and obvious alliance is that of all civilians against military control. But if that is how Egypt’s strategic triangle develops, the virtually inevitable outcome will be Brotherhood control of the country and a long and bitter religious dictatorship. This will probably postpone Egypt’s freedom and development by a generation or more.

Since the natural inclination of the diverse opposition movements and their international supporters will be to join with anyone against the Army’s control of the country – and against substantial continuity with the discredited Mubarak regime – it will require patience and wisdom to make instead the strategic choice of joining with the military and treating the Brotherhood as the main enemy.

The opposite alliance, of “liberals” and others with the Army against the Brotherhood, would postpone full democracy and civilian control for some years and let many of the economic beneficiaries of the Mubarak regime keep their positions. However, it may well be the fastest possible path toward sustainable democracy. It could start with freedom of speech and political organization beginning right away.

Preventing Egypt from becoming a religious dictatorship is likely to require that liberal and other independent opposition voices do what they can to preserve military power long enough to build up their organizations so that Egyptian voters can have real alternatives to the Brotherhood.

The other wise but difficult choice that the opposition organizations need to make regards cooperation between religious and “secular” groups. No group can succeed in competing with the Brotherhood if it is seen by the Egyptian population as anti-Islam. Even in the cities the Egyptian masses have a deep attachment to Islam. If the Brotherhood is to be defeated, Egyptians must believe there is a Muslim alternative to it.

Muslim moderates are now very weak in Egypt, but it is not unreasonable to believe that if they were free to operate without government suppression for a few years, and were protected from violence against them by the Brotherhood and other religious extremists, the strength of this element of Egyptian society would grow rapidly. The hopeful scenario depends on both the “liberals” and the moderate Muslims seeing each other as rivals who need each other and are on essentially the same side, initially against the MB and eventually against military control. Egyptian democracy cannot work until Muslim religious and secular groups (not including the MB) develop the ability to refrain from fighting each other.

Perhaps the most likely path to real freedom for Egypt is through the use of power of the protesters – and US influence – to move immediately to free speech and free political organization, but not to have elections or full civilian control of the government until those elements of Egyptian life that have been suppressed have had some years to build their organizations and parties. There must be a genuine debate among the Egyptian people before there are elections for a new government that would have the power to end freedom.

Much in the early stages of the Egyptian “revolution” provides inspiring hope that a new generation of Arabs care about freedom and may be able to avoid the pitfalls along the lengthy path to stable democracy. The Iraqis have succeeded for longer than almost anyone thought they could in governing (badly) their divided country with politics instead of bullets. If the Egyptians are wise enough to make the strategic decision of joining forces against the Brotherhood, they too may do much better than expected. In such a case, the West will also benefit.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

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(Photo Credit: Mariam Soliman)

Dr. Max Singer
Dr. Max Singer

Dr. Max Singer, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, is a founder of the Hudson Institute. He specializes in US defense policy, US-Israel relations, and long-term strategic planning. Email: [email protected]