Egypt’s Presidential Elections: Implications for the Region and the U.S.

By Nadav Morag, Ph.D.

Muhammad MursiThe recent Egyptian presidential elections have led to the victory of the country’s first Muslim Brotherhood (MB) candidate, Muhammad Mursi.  Despite the media’s efforts to trumpet the “profound change” in Egypt, it is far from clear what the election of Mursi really means for Egypt and the rest of the world. Things are likely to remain murky for some time to come; and here’s why:

On one level, this event represents a profound change for Egypt. Since 1952, the country has been ruled by military men and the Muslim Brotherhood has been a consistent opposing force never given the opportunity to take the reins of power. 

On the other hand, the Egyptian military has scaled down the powers of Egypt’s president so he has limited control over the military.  The military disbanded the recently elected parliament – which had a MB majority – meaning Mursi will not have the ability to pass any laws. Egypt also plans to write a new constitution and it is possible that Mursi will have to stand for election again in the near future. Of course, running for election always involves the risk of losing!

Theoretically, Mursi could surprise people by finding ways to limit the influence of the army in Egyptian politics, but it is not clear at all that he can succeed in doing this. 

The Muslim Brotherhood
The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is a Sunni Muslim organization that advocates Islamic rule through the use of the Sharia. Sharia is commonly referred to as “Islamic Law,” although it is really more of a moral code that uses the Quran, statements attributed to the Prophet Muhammad and stories about the Prophet as guidelines for what is permissible. Its slogan is “Islam is the Answer” and its central thesis is that Egypt’s problems are the result of straying from Islamic values and teachings – and thus from God’s favor. Further, it is believed that Egypt can be a great nation again if it returns to those core values.  The MB was founded in Egypt in 1928 and has branches in virtually all Sunni Arab countries.  The Syrian MB appears to be active in anti-government fighting in Syria, the Gaza Strip is ruled by the Hamas, the Palestinian version of the MB; and Tunisia is also run by an MB-type political party.

Egypt is the largest Arab state by population and the strongest Arab state in terms of military power.  From a cultural perspective, it is also very influential in the rest of the Arab world. Egypt, for example, possesses the largest and most important Arabic-language entertainment industry: movies, music, etc. Egypt also has a large footprint across the region, so changes in the area tend to act as a bellwether and model for the rest of the Arab world. Indeed, the MB victory in Egypt will embolden other MB organizations and may herald the eventual domination of MB parties across the region; particularly as dictators and perhaps, Kings, collapse in the wake of popular frustration with the region’s traditional rulers. 

Global Impact
All of this, of course, has implications for the region and the United States. Egypt is a critical country in terms of U.S. interests in the Middle East and the U.S. provides military and economic support to the country to the tune of $2 billion per year – all while helping to arm and train the Egyptian military. If Mursi is able to eventually wrest significant power from the military and decides to commit to a policy that is contrary to American interests, the U.S. may lose additional influence and stature in the Middle East.  Such policy moves could include partially or fully voiding the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, supporting Hamas, strengthening ties with Iran or other acts. It is for this reason that Egypt will undoubtedly loom large in the calculations of American policymakers for some time to come.

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