Robert Kagan is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a monthly columnist for The Post. Michele Dunne is director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. They are co-chairs of the bipartisan Working Group on Egypt.
President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry need to pay attention to Egypt — now. The most populous Arab country, poster child of the Arab Spring, faces a looming economic crisis and a widespread breakdown in law and order, including increasingly prevalent crime and rape. Either will cripple Egypt’s faltering effort to become a stable democracy.
The Obama administration has treated Egypt primarily as an economic problem and has urged Cairo to move quickly to satisfy International Monetary Fund (IMF) demands to qualify for financing. But there is no separating Egypt’s economic crisis from its political crisis — or from the failures of its current government. Egypt’s economy is struggling and disorder is rampant primarily because the country’s leaders the past two years — first the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, now President Mohamed Morsi — have failed to build an inclusive political process. Until they do, no amount of IMF funding will make a difference.
Although Morsi won a narrow victory last summer, he has yet to learn what it means to lead in a democratic society. His Muslim Brotherhood is Egypt’s strongest political force, but it does not command a majority of public support. It cannot simply force its will on the nation, especially one still aroused by the spirit of revolution. Morsi can hardly take on urgent tasks, such as the cutting of wasteful fuel subsidies and the reformation of a corrupt interior ministry and police force, when much of the country is against him and ready to take to the streets at the least provocation.
Under Morsi’s rule, Egyptian society has become polarized between Islamists and non-Islamists. Enraging the political opposition late last year, he railroaded through a new constitution that contains inadequate protections for the rights of women and non-Muslims and leaves open the possibility of Islamic clerical oversight of legislation. Ignoring protests about the flawed process by which the constitution was drafted and passed, Morsi is moving ahead to legislative elections based on an electoral law to which the opposition objects. Meanwhile, his government has cracked down on journalists, brought spurious charges against opposition leaders and limited the right to public protests. It is considering legislation that would constrain the activities of non-governmental organizations even more than Hosni Mubarak did.
The increasingly desperate secular opposition parties have formed a “National Salvation Front,” but under the surface they are divided between those who want to force Morsi to compromise and those who want to force him from power. Even though most favor the economic reforms necessary to get an IMF loan, many feel they must mobilize street protests against any Morsi action.
The result is that, with Egypt at the edge of bankruptcy — it has enough reserves to pay for only three more months of food and fuel imports — the government and the opposition are locked in a game of chicken. The economy is sinking, political conflict is rising and the security situation is deteriorating.