Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr resigned Tuesday, becoming the most high-profile minister to step down since protests against the rule of President Mohammed Morsi began over the weekend. Amr’s resignation came after the Egyptian military issued an ultimatum Monday, demanding that Morsi and the ruling Muslim Brotherhood start a dialogue with opposition members within 48 hours, or risk the military stepping in to impose a “political roadmap” on all parties. This move comes amid the latest in a series of political crises in Egypt since the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.
The political turmoil facing Egypt, its political class and its powerful military has become almost a given, with all sides turning to public displays of unrest and emotion as often as they do to the democratic process. And as Egypt’s political system evolves, it is becoming clear that — with the exception of a few critical issues, including Gaza, the Suez Canal and the Egyptian military’s ability to secure both — Western and regional governments are viewing Egypt’s affinity for unrest with diminishing concern.
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Egypt was once the political and religious lynchpin of the Sunni Arab world. Egyptian institutions such as the religious Al-Azhar University and the Islamism championed by the Muslim Brotherhood continue to have significant regional influence, but Egypt is far from being a contender for the role of Arab hegemon. Larger regional issues, such as the Syrian War and the Sunni push back that has placed a formerly ascendant Iran on the defensive, take priority over Egypt’s political morass in the eyes of the United States and its Western allies, who have grown weary of intervening in the Middle East.
Egypt’s geopolitical relevance will endure for quite some time, even if the country ceases to be a confident leader of the Sunni Arab world. The Suez Canal is and will remain a vital path for global shipping, and Egypt’s proximity to the Gaza Strip, as well as its long-standing cease-fire with Israel, will influence Washington to maintain links with the Egyptian military, if not the government in Cairo. The Egyptian military is the primary guarantor of the security of both the Suez Canal and Egypt’s border with Gaza. As long as the military maintains its position as the strongest pillar within the Egyptian state, the United States is unlikely to interfere with Egyptian affairs.
The Egyptian army shows no signs of faltering. Its stability is both a blessing and a curse; free from the meddling of stronger foreign actors, the military is becoming increasingly responsible — and accountable — for Egypt’s continued domestic unrest. In the absence of Western support or intervention, regional actors such as Qatar, and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia and Libya, are helping to relieve some of the economic pressures facing the Egyptian state. No one, however, is offering an easy fix for Egypt’s millennia-old economic and geographic challenges.
No one wants to see Egypt collapse, but no Western or regional actors are willing to step in and shoulder the burden of rebuilding the Egyptian state, either. And the ongoing stability and pervasiveness of the Egyptian military helps assuage foreign concerns that such a collapse might occur. The result is a domestic quagmire of competing political and sectarian interests, and an increasingly beleaguered Egyptian army forced to act as a referee among fractious competitors. Unable and unwilling to step in and establish military rule directly, the military’s reliance upon and subsequent empowerment of various political and public forces mean that the current cycle of Egyptian politics — elections, opposition, protest and unrest — will not likely change in the near future.
Underlying this dynamic is a serious imbalance in the country’s economy, with a growing population that far outweighs the desert country’s resources. As Egypt’s focus turns inward and its regional position falters, its economy will continue to decline even as its population keeps growing. In short, its larger problems will cease to be addressed even as its political situation continues to grab headlines.