Egypt is in the midst of a series of major political, security, and economic transitions that will unfold for years to come. The 2012 presidential elections set to conclude later this month in a final run-off election mark the end of one period in this transition. But Egypt faces a long road ahead, including drafting a new constitution, setting checks and balances in the new political system, and concluding trials for former leaders in previous governments.
The world’s most populous Arab nation could transition into something that resembles Turkey, with a greater voice for Islamist parties and curbs on the previously unchecked power of the security establishment. Or Egypt could transition toward a scenario similar to Pakistan, in which the military and internal security forces continue to hold significant political power and dominate key sectors of the economy. Most likely Egypt will carve out its own path with its transition shaped by multiple centers of power—some that have emerged since the popular uprising in 2011 and others that have existed for decades.
The path Egypt takes will have major implications for the rest of the region. The changes in the formal structures and internal balance of power in Egypt’s government, alongside the social and economic transformations Egyptians continue to experience, will be some of the most important strategic dynamics reshaping the Middle East. What happens in Egypt will be as important as the threats and challenges posed by Iran, the re-emergence of Turkey as a regional power, and the continued problems emanating from the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict.
The days when the United States could prioritize regional security over support for Egypt’s political and economic transitions are over. Egypt’s political transition remains a volatile work in progress after multiple rounds of parliamentary and presidential elections, with the constitutional reform process representing the next key phase. This political uncertainty has weakened Egypt’s economy, leaving endemic problems of high unemployment, growing public debt, corruption, and increasing pressures on Egypt’s foreign cash reserves—without a coherent economic policy response from the interim government. This domestic economic and political instability could lead to more problems in the security realm. Egypt faces increased crime and civil disorder, as well as heightened security threats, particularly in the increasingly lawless Sinai Peninsula bordering Israel.
These overlapping upheavals require a fundamental reassessment of how the United States manages its bilateral ties with Egypt and implements its overall Middle East strategy. For three decades, the central foundation for U.S. policy on Egypt was military cooperation and the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. This now needs to expand.