Conversation with Dr. Eric Trager


A Guide to the Perplexed: Post-Arab Spring Egypt

By Cindy Mindell


Dr. Eric Trager

Dr. Eric Trager

Dr. Eric Trager, the Esther K. Wagner Fellow at The Washington Institute for New East Policy, is an expert on Egyptian politics and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. He was in Egypt during the 2011 anti-Mubarak revolts and returns frequently to conduct firsthand interviews with leaders in Egypt’s government, military, political parties, media, and civil society. His writings have appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Wall Street JournalForeign Affairs, the Atlantic, and the New Republic.

Trager is an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where his doctoral research focused on Egyptian opposition parties. From 2006 to 2007, he lived in Egypt as an Islamic Civilizations Fulbright fellow, where he studied at the American University in Cairo and received his M.A. in Arabic studies with a concentration in Islamic studies.

Trager will discuss post-Arab Spring Egypt on Wednesday, April 23 at The Conservative Synagogue in Westport. Recently, he spoke with the Ledger about still-unstable Egypt in the wake of the revolution.


Q: What are currently the most perplexing aspects of Egyptian politics and government?

A: During the revolution, a large segment of Egypt’s political society unified against Mubarak, but that unity was deceiving – in fact, the opposite was comprised of deeply divided and diverse elements, none of which could claim to have led the uprising. That allowed the Muslim Brotherhood, the best organized party, to quickly mobilize and win the elections that followed, first in the Parliament and then in the presidency.

The Muslim Brotherhood is not democratic. It’s a totalitarian vanguard founded in 1928 to conquer Egyptian society, take over the Egyptian state, establish a global Islamic state, then dominate the Middle East. It rejects Western political influence and culture. The Brotherhood viewed its diplomatic victories as a sign that its time had come and it tried to consolidate its authority through a variety of measures that alienated many of its supporters. The fall of the Brotherhood, despite its totalitarian demeanor, has not in any way brought something more democratic because now you have a scenario in which the Egyptian military, which removed Morsi, is in an existential conflict with the Brotherhood. The fear is that, if the Brotherhood is allowed to enter politics, they will win elections and kill generals; it’s a “kill or be killed” dynamic that will not be resolved anytime soon and Sisi’s election will only make it more acute.


Q: What is the state of the moderate political voice in Egypt?

A: I think the big misperception from Egypt’s uprising was that Tahrir Square was representative of Egypt and it was not. Egypt is a very traditional society; people are religious but not necessarily Islamists – it’s a big difference – and the unfortunate reality is that those who wanted a more open political environment were pretty small in number and many of those who said they wanted it suddenly rethought that when open politics brought the totalitarian Muslim Brotherhood. They then made the decision that they would be better off with the military than with theocratic rule. Moderate voices exist but are few and far between and are not well-organized. When push came to shove this summer, many of them embraced the military coup. My basic view is that there are no heroes for us and we shouldn’t be in the business of looking for heroes. The U.S. should deal with Egypt as it is: maintaining a strategic relationship with the military but having no illusions of the likelihood of democracy, and not making democracy a priority right now, because there are no real or organized democratic players.

We should be looking toward the long term, when more progressive voices are committed to bringing change on the ground movement and we should be partners with them.


Q: What is the relationship between Egypt and Israel?

A: On one hand, Israel benefits from a very good relationship with the Egyptian military right now. There’s a joke in the region that in the past, Henry Kissinger had to do shuttle diplomacy between Egypt and Israel, and now the Israelis do shuttle diplomacy between Egypt and Washington. There were Egyptian military delegations to Israel in March, recently announced publicly, when Egyptian Foreign Minister al-Sisi met with Netanyahu and Israeli military officials.

But it was better for Israel under Morsi than under the first military regime, ironically. On the other hand, if the outcome of the events of the last three-and-a-half years is more instability and the decline of the Egyptian state and the military’s failure to stem jihadism in the Sinai, Israel is not better off at all, especially given the fact that it’s bordering an increasingly hostile state. The Egyptian military has led a campaign against jihadis in the Sinai since September, the first time in many years that the military is taking an active role in that region; in the past, it was left up to the Egyptian police. There have been many attacks west of the Suez Canal in major population centers, and the Egyptian military has been bombing from the air but not arresting on the ground. Every time the military hits a building and fails to catch jihadis, they alienate the Sinai public. Sisi is aware of this. But how he puts that understanding into action remains to be seen.


Q: How realistic is the U.S. policy toward Egypt?

A: The key point is that Washington is not going to get the Egypt it wants anytime soon – more democratic, open to the world, at peace with its neighbors – but it can get the Egypt it needs – a strategic relationship with the U.S., fighting terrorism in the Sinai, allowing us access to the Suez Canal, allowing our planes to fly over its airspace, and continued strategic cooperation. If we focus narrowly on that, we will have success. If we focus on broader aspirations, we’ll come up short. The existential conflict between the military and the Brotherhood makes a more democratic politics impossible.

In the White House, there’s still the view that Egypt was on a transition toward democracy but that transition was stunted by Morsi’s removal. That ignores the fact that there was no transition to democracy. The struggle for Egypt’s future continues and America’s role should be ensuring that our strategic interests don’t get burned in the process.


Dr. Eric Trager will speak on Wednesday, Apr. 23, 7:30 p.m., at The Conservative Synagogue, 30 Hillspoint Road, Westport. Admission is free. Reservations required: or (203) 454-4673.


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