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Sameh Shoukry Hails 'New Egypt,' But Will Old Habits Die Hard?
The Washington Diplomat / December 2011

By Larry Luxner

The last time Sameh Shoukry graced the cover of this newspaper in February 2009, Israeli troops and Hamas militants were locked in fierce fighting throughout the Gaza Strip, with angry protesters across the Arab world urging Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to open up the Rafah border crossing so that Palestinians could flee the bloodshed.

Nearly three years later, the once-feared Mubarak is barely a footnote in history — as images of the ailing ex-dictator being rolled into a Cairo courtroom on a gurney are now seared into the Egyptian consciousness.

Today, the real focus is on the country’s military rulers, who earned the admiration of 83 million Egyptians for refusing to shoot anti-Mubarak demonstrators earlier this year but have now drawn their fury for resisting efforts to bring genuine democracy to the Arab world’s most populous nation.

“This whole year has been an experience,” said Egypt’s ambassador to the United States, in typically understated fashion. “I’ve been totally consumed hour by hour, trying to keep up with all the developments. In the past, I used to watch Egyptian news once a day. Now I’m watching TV news five, six times a day. There’s not a newscast I miss.”

Shoukry, 58, spoke to The Washington Diplomat as demonstrators rallied in Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square to protest efforts by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to retain full government control even after the cumbersome process of electing a new parliament began Nov. 28. Ahead of the election, Egypt plunged into its worst violence since the initial uprising earlier this year, with protesters and police clashing in fierce street battles, resulting in dozens of deaths, and the country’s military facing the gravest challenge yet to its authority.

As of press time, the military leadership had pledged it would speed up the political transition and hand over power to a civilian government no later than July 1, 2012, at least half a year earlier than expected, in a bid to mollify demonstrations that had swelled to more than 100,000 people. The deal — which calls for a new constitution and a presidential election by next June, as well as a new civilian cabinet to be led by a technocrat prime minister — was brokered by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, further casting doubt whether the concessions would be embraced by the throngs of skeptical, secular protesters.

The ambassador, while stressing that the situation remains fluid, said he hopes the moves will stem the volatility.

“We hope that the latest statement by Field Marshal [Mohamed Hussein] Tantawi indicating acceptance of the resignation of the cabinet and reiterating the rights of Egyptians to demonstrate peacefully will defuse the situation,” Shoukry said a few minutes after watching Tantawi’s Nov. 22 speech live on Egyptian TV.

“We hope that the commitment to hold free and fair elections on time — as well as bringing up the date of the presidential elections so that the military can hand over authority to a civilian government — will have an impact on the protesters.”

Shoukry added that “most of what we’ve picked up is that this is a demonstration related purely to conditions in Egypt, election issues, activities of the police force in disrupting the demonstration, and the role of the military council and when it would return power to a civilian government. The field marshal extended his condolences and said there is no room for any form of violence in opposition to peaceful protests.”

Yet Tantawi, who leads the Egyptian Armed Forces, also lashed out at protesters for “insulting” the military, insisting it never “killed a single Egyptian, man or woman,” and that it would “go back to our barracks if the people ask us to do so.”

In response, people in Tahrir Square did just that, chanting “get out.” The turmoil threw the parliamentary election into disarray. Nevertheless, the seminal vote went ahead as scheduled, although it’s been provoking as much consternation as it has been optimism — even before this latest outbreak of violence. For one thing, despite the relatively robust turnout, the balloting process was convoluted, with a bewildering list of candidates and parties and opaque rules, though it still appears to be the fairest election in Egyptian history. But final results won’t be known for months and under the current staggered schedule, parliament will not hold its first session until March 2012, more than a year after protests toppled Mubarak in 18 days, with the tentative promise of a presidential election in June. In the meantime, the civilian government would still fall under the military’s control.

The election has also raised widespread fears that the Muslim Brotherhood will dominate the ballot box as the best-organized political party in the country, sidelining the secular liberals who sparked the revolution. But above all, Egyptians worry that after 60 years, the military won’t truly relinquish power, frustrating the aspirations of the revolution altogether. Indeed, military leaders have reiterated that they will not bow to parliament and may even carve out special permanent powers for themselves under the new constitution.

And as the linchpin of the Arab Spring, all eyes are on Egypt to see if democracy can truly find a home in the Arab world — or if perpetual instability becomes the new norm.

Marina Ottaway, a scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The Diplomat that a string of bad miscalculations by Egypt’s military authorities fueled the most recent bout of upheaval.

Ottaway criticized the 18-member council’s insistence that parliament remain in a subordinate role, similar to Mubarak’s former parliament, as well as the confusing electoral process and ever-changing schedule. For example, despite an initial pledge in March to hold presidential elections by September, the ruling generals later declared that such a vote would take place only after the election of a parliament, then the formation of a constitutional assembly and finally the ratification of a new constitution — which meant the whole process might drag into 2013, sparking the current fury.

“[T]he military has really put its cards on the table, in terms of their intention to maintain control over the country’s political life and the process of writing the constitution. They’ve made clear that they will not submit to civilian oversight,” said Ottaway, who in early November published a paper titled “Egypt’s Democracy: Between the Military, Islamists and Illiberal Democrats.”

She adds that Field Marshal Tantawi and his underlings “want to recreate the Mubarak regime without him” — and that Washington must not stand by idly. “Up to this point, the United States has not been protesting against what is a clear demonstration by the military that they want to remain in control,” she said. “I think that if we’re interested in democracy in Egypt, we should be extremely concerned about what is going on.”

Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, agrees. She told National Public Radio’s Melissa Block that the current scenario is exactly what many had feared in February.

“The Egyptian demonstrators decided back in February not to carry out a full revolution but really to provoke a military coup, and then to entrust the military with leading things toward free elections. What they’ve seen over the ensuing nine months is that while the military is willing to hold parliamentary election … they want to postpone holding a presidential election until they get certain guarantees in the constitution of a continued political role for the military,” she said. “In addition to that, the military council has badly mismanaged many aspects of the transition, whether it is security, economic, sectarian violence. Really, they’re getting bad reviews all around on how they’ve handled things.”

Ambassador Shoukry conceded that the debate over Egypt’s proposed constitutional principles — which he likened to the U.S. Bill of Rights — is “contentious.” Yet he added that the parliamentary elections are absolutely critical, “because the forthcoming legislature will be responsible for selecting the constitutional committee, which will rewrite the constitution. It’s a step on the road to normalcy and regaining the legitimate part of government that had been bestowed on the military council.”

“From the beginning, there’s been a degree of understanding of the role of the military as an institution to undertake the responsibilities of government and also to safeguard the transitional period until it hands over power to an elected civilian government,” he told The Diplomat.

In the meantime, he argues that Egypt’s generals “have been doing their utmost to administer the country and rectify some of the mistakes of the past, like increasing salaries and creating social justice. And this has been a challenge, especially during a time when the perception of instability and lack of total control in the security sector has adversely affected the economy through the decline of tourism.”

Indeed, the resurgence of violence has been a further blow to Egypt’s all-important tourism sector, which had been reeling from nearly a year of instability. That included a dangerous uptick in sectarian clashes in October when the Egyptian military violently suppressed a demonstration of mostly Coptic Christian protesters in Cairo’s Maspero neighborhood, killing 27 people. That was only the latest in a long string of Muslim attacks against Copts, who comprise about 10 percent of Egypt’s population.

Joseph K. Grieboski, founder of the Washington-based Institute on Religion and Public Policy, which lobbies for religious freedom worldwide, said an outbreak of sectarian violence could prompt the military to further crack down on freedoms.

“Our institution has called on the U.S. government to put in place human rights standards for our foreign aid,” Grieboski told us. “One of the lessons we need to learn from the Arab Spring is that our outright support of countries for strategic reasons — without taking into account democracy and human rights — doesn’t work.”

Shoukry discounts suggestions that Egypt is descending into religious intolerance, pointing out that disputes between Muslims and Christians are nothing new over the course of Egypt’s long history.

“There are radical elements on both sides, but thankfully, the overwhelming majority of Egyptians recognize that they are one unified people,” he said. “There is no way to distinguish between an Egyptian Muslim and an Egyptian Copt. Both uphold the principles of equality and unity, and I think this is how Christianity has survived in Egypt for the last 1,400 years.”

Shoukry — who’s been back to Egypt twice this year — urges taking the long view of his country’s evolution since Mubarak’s overthrow. Likewise, despite fears that Egypt is plunging yet again into chaos, some experts counsel caution and patience, saying the road to democracy is a long one for any nation, let alone a sclerotic dictatorship like Mubarak’s 30-year regime.

“Everyone seems to be struggling with the complexities of the present moment. Egyptian liberals are despondent over what they fear will be a Muslim Brotherhood rout in the November elections,” wrote Steven A. Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations in the article “Egypt’s Identity Crisis” for Foreign Policy. “And the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces seems to be staggering under the pressure of a political role for which they were never trained.”

“So, is the revolution over?” he asks. “Beyond the ‘hopes dashed’ narrative, however, Egypt’s seemingly tortured present actually reveals something relatively healthy — the normalization of politics. Egyptians have long conducted an intense national debate about what Egypt is, what it stands for, and its place in the world. However, this conversation was always conducted within the circumscribed contours of an authoritarian political system…. Now, for all the problems and complexities of the new political order, Egyptians are getting an opportunity to debate the central questions of their national life in a free and unfettered manner.”

Shoukry, a career diplomat, also strikes a cautiously hopeful tone and insists that Egypt will introduce democracy to its people while climbing out of the economic hole into which it’s sunk.

“Egypt is transitioning to a full democratic government, with freedom for all ideologies to actively and openly compete in the political arena with no restrictions, conditions or controls,” he told us. “There’s been a proliferation of independent newspapers and satellite TV stations. The atmosphere is one of vibrant dialogue and debate. Everything has been undertaken within a healthy, peaceful environment.”

Healthy would certainly not be a word used to describe Mubarak, who was ousted last February after massive street protests inspired by the overthrow of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in neighboring Tunisia. Since then, Mubarak has been confined, under heavy guard, to a hospital in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, where he’s reportedly suffering from cancer, heart ailments and a variety of other illnesses — though none of them have been confirmed. Like Ben Ali, he’s suspected along with his family of stashing in foreign bank accounts untold billions of dollars in embezzled state funds.

Earlier this year, Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia, was sentenced in absentia to 35 years in prison. The trial of Mubarak, who’s charged with complicity in the killing of some 800 anti-government protesters, began in August but has been postponed until Dec. 28. If convicted, Egypt’s former president — whose co-defendants include his two sons, security chief and six top police officers — could face the death penalty.

“This trial is important because of the desire to bring closure to the very tragic incidents related to the revolution,” said Shoukry, declining to speculate on Mubarak’s fate. “People are watching it very closely for its symbolism. The message is: No one is above the law; everyone will be accountable sooner or later.”

It’s easy to forget though that for three decades Mubarak was indeed above the law, and Washington didn’t quibble much when it came to its go-to man in the region. The White House though broke with its longtime ally, but since then it has remained relatively silent on Cairo’s progress, or lack thereof. Whether that’s the result of not wanting to meddle in the formation of Egypt’s future government or sheer uncertainty as to how to respond to fast-changing events is unknown.

Regardless, Egypt continues to rank second in the world in U.S. foreign assistance (only Israel gets more), receiving $1.5 billion every year from American taxpayers, the bulk of which goes to the military. To spur much-needed economic development, President Obama in May offered the country $1 billion in debt relief through a debt-swap mechanism that aims to invest the money to boost youth employment and support small- and medium-size businesses in Egypt.

According to Shoukry, contrary to what many Americans may think, Egypt has not distanced itself in any way from the United States since Mubarak’s ouster.

“Bilateral relations are based on mutual interests, and there are many areas where our interests coincide,” he said. “U.S. aid has reinforced our army and has contributed to peace and stability in the region, and has supported the Egyptian economy at a time when it was under enormous stress.”

But U.S. assistance has been predicated on supporting the military, which is now the one under fire. Dunne of the Atlantic Council, speaking to NPR, said, “It’s extremely important that the United States stand clearly for a real democratic transition in Egypt. The United States has had a longstanding assistance relationship with Egypt including a great deal of military assistance, $1.3 billion a year. That makes Egyptians assume that the United States would be happier to see the military in control. That’s not necessarily the U.S. government's real position, but I think the U.S. government has been a bit ambivalent in the way it has expressed its position.”

She adds: “I think it’s time for the United States to say clearly both to the Egyptian military privately and also publicly that we would like to continue our support, but we can only do that in a situation where the military is really helping a democratic transition go forward.”

David Schenker, director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Eric Trager, the institute’s Ira Weiner fellow, write in a recent policy watch report that whatever happens, Washington has a mess on its hands.

“For Washington, the current situation in Egypt is a nightmare. Contrary to popular impressions, the Obama administration did not embrace the anti-Mubarak protestors last February but rather supported the Egyptian army in facilitating a change from Mubarak’s rule to an uncertain military-led transition. Since then, Washington has vacillated on who its allies in Egypt really are,” they argue.

“Is it the military, with whom the administration shares certain strategic understandings on key national security issues? Or the Muslim Brotherhood, which many in Washington view as both the authentic voice of the people and, given its ‘inevitable’ electoral victory, a faction America should court?

Or the secular liberals, who — despite being the most ideologically congenial to America’s democratic spirit — have shown themselves to be poor political organizers often too willing to cooperate with illiberal forces (e.g., Salafists) for short-term gain? The absence of clarity on this issue has paralyzed U.S. policymaking, and as a result, the administration now has little sway with any of these key constituencies.

“In fairness, Washington’s policy options would be limited even in the best of diplomatic circumstances,” they add, noting that “the forces at play throughout Egypt may still be in such a revolutionary fervor that even Washington’s best ideas wind up having little impact.”

Shoukry doesn’t underestimate the dangers ahead, but says that “despite the initial vacuum that occurred, and despite the challenges and economic difficulties, Egyptian society in general has held together. There’s been a degree of solidarity, and political participation is very high, as demonstrated by the referendum on constitutional amendments.”

He adds: “It’s a time of transition but also a time of nation-building. By virtue of our size, the experience Egypt is undertaking, and the degree of success it will be able to achieve, and its ability to transform and establish a new system of governance, will have positive repercussions not only on Egypt but also its neighbors.”

As for those neighbors, Shoukry agrees that the popular revolt that brought down Mubarak played a direct role in the eventual ouster and killing of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi after 42 years in power — and could yet inspire similar protesters trying to oust Bashar al-Assad, whose increasingly ruthless regime has ruled Syria for the last 11 years.

“We’re very satisfied with the developments in Libya. We were, from the outset, in close communications with the interim government in Benghazi, and we’ve just received the president of the interim government in Cairo, opening channels of cooperation and doing whatever we can to help Libya through its transition,” he said.

Ali Aujali, who resigned earlier this year as Libya’s ambassador to the United States to protest Qaddafi’s iron-fisted rule, was quickly reinstated once Washington recognized anti-Qaddafi rebels as the official government of Libya.

“Both the Egyptians and the Libyans were inspired by what happened in Tunisia,” Aujali told The Diplomat. “These revolutions were started by the young, and they feel it’s their responsibility to get rid of these regimes.”

Aujali noted that “if the Egyptian revolution had not succeeded, there would be no revolution in Libya, because Qaddafi would have been able to crush the Libyan people.” The important thing now, he said, is for “these dictatorships to be brought to justice for what they did to their people. Otherwise, they will return.”

Case in point: Syria, where the Assad regime has killed more than 3,500 people since anti-government protests began in mid-March. “In Syria, we’ve taken a position that this is an issue which cannot be resolved militarily,” said Shoukry. “We deplore the loss of life and we’ve called for the cessation of military actions and the opening of a dialogue and reform process that will respond to the demands of the Syrian people.”

But it’s Egypt’s ice-cold relations with neighboring Israel that concern most Americans, and in particular Israel’s supporters in Congress. In 1979, Egypt became the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish state; Jordan’s King Hussein followed suit in 1994.

During his entire rule, Mubarak preserved that agreement, which opened the door to limited tourism and cultural exchanges between the two former enemies. But the chilly peace was never warmly welcomed by average Egyptians, and deals under which Egypt sold natural gas to Israel were harshly criticized after Mubarak’s departure. Israel gets about 40 percent of its natural gas from Egypt, though opposition groups have long complained that the gas was being sold at preferential prices, resulting in losses of $714 million to the Egyptian state.

“Egypt honors its international commitments, among them the peace treaty with Israel. It has provided Egypt with the ability to focus its efforts on economic development, and it continues to impact the region positively,” said Shoukry. “This constant question of [the future of Egyptian-Israeli relations] has been clarified over and over again. The long-term potential of this relationship is contingent upon the degree to which the treaty serves the interests of both parties.”

Yet the 1979 Camp David accords remain deeply unpopular among vast segments of Egyptian society — and that bitterness has begun to explode into violence. In recent months, there have been several attacks on the pipeline in northern Egypt that carries gas to Israel, and in September, Egyptian protesters ransacked the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, further straining what had been a cornerstone relationship in the Arab world.

“There’s a discomfort related to Israeli policies, which have not granted Palestinians their rights,” Shoukry acknowledged. “Israel remains an occupying power, and this creates a sense of anger and resentment. But this doesn’t necessarily impact the mutual interests associated with the peace treaty.”

From the Israeli rift to the growing outcry against Egyptian military control, this last year has been a constant test for the approachable, calm and collected diplomat, who’s served in Washington since 2008. Shoukry is nearing the foreign service’s mandatory retirement age and will most likely retire sometime next year. The seasoned envoy says he doesn’t feel the least bit awkward or ashamed about having represented the Mubarak regime — not only as ambassador to the United States, but also as permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva (2005-08), director of cabinet for the minister of foreign affairs (2004-05), ambassador to Austria (1999-2003), and as Mubarak’s secretary for information (1995-99). In addition, he’s been posted to Egyptian missions in London, Buenos Aires and New York.

“We are an apolitical institution. Most of our diplomatic corps are professional career diplomats,” explained Shoukry, who joined the Egyptian Foreign Service in 1976, when Anwar Sadat was president. “By law, we are prohibited from being associated with any party or expressing any political inclination. So that makes us immune from any direct association with the regime. Personally, I’ve always been proud to represent my country in the various stages of its evolution.”

Shibley Telhami, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, recently singled out Shoukry for not shying away from the media during and after the daily protests at Tahrir Square that eventually ousted the hated Mubarak dictatorship.

“When Mubarak was in trouble, Shoukry tried to be analytical and push forth his own analysis in a way that was relatively credible,” Telhami, who’s also a scholar at the Brookings Institution, told The Diplomat earlier this year. “The ambassador conducted himself reasonably well, under very difficult circumstances, and he never stopped representing his government. Nobody knew what the outcome would be, but he was not an apologist [for the Mubarak regime]. Then when the transition happened, he embraced the change and went on.”

In our interview, Shoukry certainly didn’t sound like an apologist for either Mubarak or the National Democratic Party, which wielded uncontested power in Egypt since its founding by Sadat in 1978 until it was dissolved last April by court order.

The ambassador — in remarks he would never have dared utter a year ago — criticized what he called the NDP’s “overbearing nature as represented by the last elections, which were marred by widespread rigging and the inability of independent or opposition figures to gain seats in parliament.”

But he praised Egyptian society as a whole, saying it “has shown its resiliency and its ability to produce four Nobel Prize winners in the last 30 years: [novelist] Naguib Mahfouz, [diplomat and opposition politician] Mohamed ElBaradei, Anwar Sadat and [Egyptian-American chemist] Ahmed Zewail.”

Egyptians are notably proud of their legendary history and modern-day character, but the question of which direction Egyptian society will take in the future is foremost on everyone’s minds.

Specifically, while the upcoming parliamentary election is expected to field some 15,000 candidates and 35 new parties, many in the West fear the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood will take over the emerging political scene, forcing Egyptians to trade in the constraints of Mubarak’s autocracy for the Brotherhood’s rigid brand of conservative religious values. Those fears were compounded by the recent deal between the military and the Brotherhood to move up the presidential race to next June, but go ahead with the parliamentary vote as scheduled — because the group has the most to gain in the election.

But some observers are voicing hope that the recent election in Tunisia could signal a new era for meshing Islam and democracy — with Turkey’s government often cited as a model — while pointing out that Islamist parties throughout the region (and even within the Brotherhood, which has nearly 90 offshoot branches in the Islamic world) are hardly monolithic.

“‘The Islamists are coming, the Islamists are coming!’ is the new refrain across Western capitals. In some quarters, the Islamists’ electoral prospects have even unleashed a bit of wistfulness for the old secular dictators. But democratic politics and piety are not necessarily contradictions, even for the nonobservant,” wrote Robin Wright of the U.S. Institute of Peace in a recent Foreign Policy article.

“No question, Islamist parties are more assertive and ambitious than ever. And yes, the next decade will be far more traumatic for both insiders and outsiders than the last one, though often due more to economic challenges than Islamist politics.”

But Wright adds that “the most dynamic debate will be among the diverse Islamists, not between Islamist and secular parties. These political tensions will play out as they vie to define Islam’s role in new constitutions — and then implement it in daily life. These trends should not come as a surprise: Many Muslims share conservative values even as they push for freedoms. The right to human dignity, Muslims believe, is God-given — a view shared by Thomas Jefferson and engraved on the walls of his memorial. The values of their religion are a starting point for all other aspects of life.”

For his part, Shoukry says that while religion is important to most Egyptians, he strenuously dismissed speculation that post-Mubarak Egypt will go the way of Iran following that country’s 1979 Islamic revolution, when Tehran’s new rulers declared Iran an Islamic state and adopted sharia as the law of the land.

“I don’t think there are really any similarities between Egypt and Iran. They are two different countries, and it would be superficial to generalize,” the ambassador said. “Egypt is a much more diverse society with many ideologies: leftist, socialist, right-wing, liberal, Islamist. There are so many divergent views and opinions that are recognizably part of the fabric of Egypt’s political life.”

Shoukry puts the Muslim Brotherhood’s popular support at between 25 percent and 30 percent, “though no serious polling has been undertaken to give us an indication.”

The Institute on Religion and Public Policy’s Grieboski agreed. “While the Muslim Brotherhood has some support, Islam has never been seen as the solution to the country’s problems, the way it was in Iran, or the way Hezbollah used it in Lebanon, or Hamas in Gaza,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean Egypt will become a multiparty democracy by December.

“I do not expect there will be [presidential] elections anytime soon,” said Grieboski. “I’m not sure we’ll hear another discussion about elections until after the first of the year. I suspect the Egyptian military will keep things in their own control as long as they possibly can.”

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