Joel Beinin is the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and a former Director of Middle East Studies at the American University in Cairo. As Egypt continues to grapple with the aftermath of a military-assisted popular uprising against the incumbent president, Beinin talked with The Daily about the recent events in Egypt, the role of the military in bringing about a change of government and how the transition may affect American foreign policy towards the African nation.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): What do you make of the recent events in Egypt?
Joel Beinin (JB): It's not at all clear, first of all. What happened is a combination of a popular uprising — in a sense, a continuation of the popular uprising — and also a military coup. At the end of the day, even with billions of people in the street…the rebellion didn't actually have any [ability] to [force out former President Mohamed] Morsi if he didn't resign on his own. So they knew that they would have to rely on the army to do that, and they were okay with it. So it wasn't your classic military coup where army officers or a group of army officers commune and decide that they're going to take over the government and run it as they see fit. You can already see by who they have appointed as prime minister and other cabinet ministers…that it's a lot more popular government than the outgoing cabinet of President Morsi.
TSD: Is the consolidation of so much power in the hands of the military beneficial or even safe for Egypt?
JB: It's in fact terrible that they have that power anyway. The Egyptian army has been the power behind the throne since 1952. That didn't change under Nasser, under Sadat, under Mubarak. Under Mubarak you could say the Egyptian army's power relative to the internal security apparatus declined, but that's not very healthy for a young democratic regime either. So no, it's not safe — it's in fact terrible — but there's no other option right now. What were millions of people going to do when it was clear that they represented the majority and the majority lost confidence in Morsi? They don't have an army and they don't have minutemen or militias or anything. How will they get him out? It was the only option.
TSD: Where do you think that Egypt will head in the next few months?
JB: No one knows. I'm a historian, I'm not a prophet, so I could tell you what happened in the past, but I cannot tell you what's going to happen in the future. There's really no way to know. And anybody who tells you that they do know is silly.
TSD: What do you think will happen to Egyptian democracy in the wake of the coup?
JB: So in the first place, there wasn't what we would call a fully-fledged democracy in place before. The constitution [was passed] in a referendum [in 2012], but only 30 percent of the population eligible participated, which means 18 percent of all the potential eligible voters approved this constitution. It contains a good number of undemocratic laws. Probably more importantly, neither the Ministry of Interior, with its control of the billion and a half different people employed in different branches of internal security, nor the Ministry of Justice, and certainly not the army – none of those institutions were reformed in the slightest by the government of Mohamed Morsi.
And moreover, we had clues that he made the decision not to do so because he was afraid that if he did move against those forces, which are the real powers of Egypt, he would be deposed. So there were serious problems with considering Egypt to be fully democratic post-Mubarak. Democracies typically take decades to crystallize. Even in the United States, after the Revolutionary War the Articles of Confederation…didn't work out and we [then] had the Constitution. And after the Constitution, African-Americans didn't have the right to vote – it's really until the Voting Rights Act of 1965…before you could say the United States was fully democratic.
So who knows exactly where we are today? Democracy is not simply an election. It's a much broader and deeper concept. Egypt is still on that path, I think. It's not going to be a smooth path – it's always a rocky path. The United States, the classic [example] of democracy, took almost 100 years to crystallize. England had decades of conflict before a constitutional monarchy was established.
TSD: What has been the military's traditional role in Egyptian affairs?
JB: Since 1952, they have been one of the pillars of the regime. There is no question about that. It was the case since the army did undertake a real coup [against] the monarchy on July 5, 1952.
TSD: What do you think of the American reaction – or lack of reaction – to the events?
JB: The Obama administration has been [as] muddled and opportunistic as it was in January and February 2011. [It has been] muddled because there have been differences of opinion internally in the administration. The Ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, was quite conciliatory toward the Muslim Brotherhood and tried to convince people in Washington that they were fine. And from the point of view of American interests as they are defined in Washington, that was true. They supported liberal economics, just like the Mubarak regime did. They maintained Israel['s right to exist].
TSD: How will American foreign policy change in the wake of these events?
JB: The expression of the American-Egyptian relationship is the $1.3 billion in military aid that the United States gives [Egypt] every year. And that's going to continue. And the American relationship with the Egyptian army is just going to continue as it was.
This interview has been condensed and edited.