The Gulf and Egypt: Long transitions and Marshall plans

Over the past few years, Egypt’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on one hand, and with Qatar and Turkey on the other, witnessed a complete reversal, twice over.

Up until the 2011 uprising, Egypt maintained cool relations with Qatar and Turkey who had hosted Muslim Brotherhood leaders, while at the same time maintaining strong ties with the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Following the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in 2012, the equation was completely reversed.

The Brotherhood government strengthened their ties with Qatar and Turkey and cooled off the relations with the UAE and Saudi. Following the uprising/coup of July 2013, Egypt’s relations returned once again to their pre-2011 position; this time, however, with added hostility towards Qatar and Turkey, evident in the downgrading of diplomatic relations with both states, who continued to support and host Brotherhood members and leaders in exile.

This dizzying rollercoaster of international relations was accompanied with generous financial packages, grants, and investments to Egypt.

For instance, over the year of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt, Doha pledged several billion dollars to Cairo and promised to invest up to US$18 billion. Turkey offered Egypt a $2 billion loan package.

Following former President Mohamed Morsi’s removal from power, aid from Qatar dried up and Egypt returned a total $2 billion to Doha. While the UAE, Saudi, and Kuwait generally steered clear of Egypt’s Brotherhood government in 2012-2013, they immediately pledged $12 billion in 24 hours, with the UAE further increasing its pledges in the following months. The UAE has also taken a proactive role with regards to assistance to Egypt, with much of the aid going towards development and infrastructure projects.

The dire condition of the Egyptian economy is no secret. The country will likely need investments from as many friends as it can have. But certain financial support could also be detrimental to the country.

In fact, Qatar’s generous aid to Egypt may have resulted in negative repercussions for the Brotherhood government and allowed it to stave off talks with the IMF on essential reforms and political compromise that would have potentially opened up the country to further aid and investments. Saudi, Kuwait, and the UAE must make sure they do not allow their aid to delay critical reforms in Egypt.

There seems to be an understanding among Gulf countries that a return to a Mubarak-era state is unsustainable in the medium- to long-term. When asked by the BBC about the possibility that Colonel General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will run for Egypt’s presidency, Mohamed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the UAE’s prime minister, said “I hope he stays in the army. And someone else [runs] for the presidency.” A civilian Egyptian state that is stable and prosperous would definitely make a better ally to Gulf states.

The structural socioeconomic deficiencies that existed in Egypt pre-2011 still exist today. In fact, in many ways, matters have only gotten worse with the rising unemployment and the apprehension resulting from killings of protestors, crackdown on dissidents, and the drying up of the revenue-generating tourism sector. A senior ranking UAE official alluded in November 2013 that Gulf aid cannot last forever and that “Egypt must think of innovative and unusual ways (to boost the economy).” If this says anything, it is indicative that Egypt’s government simply cannot take indefinite aid for granted.

When Egyptians camped out at the square for the glorious 18 days, it was probably not clear then that democracy is at least a decade away. And today, three years on, Egypt’s transitional struggle is not at all exceptional.

Let’s take, for example, Samuel Huntington’s proposition that countries that transition from “emerging democracies” to “stable democracies” need to go through a “two-turnover test.” The premise of the theory is that stable democracy only truly emerges in a newly democratic country after it survives two turnovers of power. A country passes the two-turnover test when “the party or group that takes power in the initial election at the time of transition loses a subsequent election and turns over power to those election winners, and if those election winners then peacefully turn over power to the winners of a later election.”

So, in order for Egypt to qualify as a stable democracy, as per Huntington’s theory, the shortest scenario is as follows: A (hopefully civilian) president is elected sometime in the next few months, serves his or her full four-year term until 2018, then, provided he or she decides not to run a second term, a new president takes office in 2018 and serves until the summer of 2022 before leaving office. Finally, when a third turnover of power occurs democratically in 2022, Egypt will qualify as a “stable democracy”. Of course, there is more to democracy than procedural turnover of power, and Huntington’s theory has been criticized for ignoring the substance of democracy. 

But the two-turnover test is an interesting electoral number puzzle to show that Egyptians could be looking at the better part of a decade before they get through the current transition phase.

Egypt’s path to becoming a democratic, just, and prosperous state will be a long trek that requires many sacrifices and compromise both inside and outside the country, including amongst the Gulf states themselves.

Egypt-Gulf relations would need to grow out of the traditional aid schemes to develop long-term developmental plans. Perhaps working together in what the UAE proposed as a Marshall Plan for Egypt may be of greater benefit to Egyptians to ensure the aid and investment get channeled properly over a long period of time.

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Sultan al-Qassemi 
 
 

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