Middle East Expert Discusses Egypt

Professor Nathan Brown answers questions about the deadly conflict and whether the U.S. should end aid.

August 19, 2013

As the death toll in Egypt mounts, Nathan Brown, professor of political science and international affairs, analyzes the crisis and what, if anything, the international community can do to help resolve it.

Q: Were you surprised at the level of violence in Egypt in the past week?

A: Such violence was an obvious possibility. Back in the spring, when it was clear that the opposition to Morsi was determined to bring him down, I think most experts thought that could spark violent conflict. If anything, the low level of violence surrounding demonstrations on June 30 and the coup on July 3 surprised people. There was violence at that time, but the Brotherhood seemed not to be resisting as much as had been expected.

Following the coup, there were several mediation efforts both international and domestic. Those failed, in part because neither side found making concessions easy, but also because they each mistrusted the other.  

When the mediation broke down, it was clear there was a strong impulse in the new regime to disperse the sit-ins that were backing ousted President Morsi. Nobody expected such a dispersal to be peaceful. There were some arms among the demonstrators, which meant violence was always possible. But Egyptian security forces have an extremely brutal record and have used live ammunition on numerous occasions to disperse demonstrators.  

What made the situation especially volatile was the widespread popular support for crushing the demonstrators. That meant the security forces could act with impunity.  

Q: Who are the supporters of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood generally?

A: They stand at about 20 percent of the population—the Brotherhood's members and people who admire it without being formal members. There are others with Islamist inclinations who are very active in Egyptian life. Most of those have remained on the fence.

Q: How likely is an all-out civil war?

A: A prolonged period of civil strife is possible. A short period is almost inevitable. But thus far, the violence is not highly organized or militarized; it does not fall along ethnic or geographical boundaries. A full civil war is unlikely. But that is small consolation.   

Q: Should America cut off aid?

A: Our law requires us to cut off aid after a coup. The supporters of the new regime in Egypt—and they are many—deny that a coup took place; they insist it was a popular revolution. There is some truth to that claim since the popular uprising on June 30 had wide participation. But it is still undeniable that the military deposed Morsi. There is a civilian acting president, but even he cites the military action as the source of his authority.  

Respect for our own laws should lead us to suspend aid. And I think it would have been politically wise as well, especially if coordinated with other donors (chiefly in Europe) to communicate to Egypt's new leaders that they are operating under an international cloud. In a sense we could have used the law as a bad cop: "We would like to continue military assistance but we can't until you restore democratic rule."

I am not sure it would have made much of a difference over the short term. But over the long term it might strengthen the hands of those in Egypt who seek a political, rather than security, solution for the country's divisions. It is not too late to adopt this approach, but its value has diminished.

Q: What can the UN and international community do?

A: Not that much. Most political actors in Egypt are focused on each other, not what is happening internationally. But I think it might help to communicate that there are clear international human rights standards that the new regime is violating. The extent to which such a message is delivered multilaterally—rather than through the channel of bilateral threats—the more likely it is to have some effect over the medium term.