Falling Off a Cliff in Egypt

Paul Pillar

The most important consequences of the Egyptian military's ouster of President Mohamed Morsi will become clear only over a long term. But for anyone who believes the coup was on balance a favorable event, an awful lot of favorable news will have to come out in the months ahead to offset what has already happened in the first few days after the generals moved. The most visible disturbing developments have occurred on two fronts, neither of which should have been altogether surprising.

One is a manifestation of the principle that closing political channels for more moderate Islamists increases the influence of less moderate Islamists. The immediate beneficiaries in this case are the hard-line Salafists of the Al Nour party, who are seizing the opportunity to assert themselves as their more moderate and compromising rivals in the Muslim Brotherhood are knocked off balance, with the army incarcerating their leaders. Al Nour includes the folks who want sharia to be the law of the land, unlike the Brotherhood, who in the writing of a constitution agreed with secularists that it ought only to be a source of principles in shaping the law. Al Nour so far can be said to be extreme only in objectives, not methods. Its assertiveness has included vetoing the candidacy for prime minister of former nuclear diplomat Mohamed El Baradei, who is the closest thing to a Western favorite among prominent Egyptian political figures.

The question of methods was raised by an even more disturbing development Monday morning, when dozens were killed as pro-Morsi protestors were gunned down in front of a military headquarters. This is likely to be a defining event for Egypt similar to, even if on a smaller scale than, bloody suppression of protests in past history, from Saint Petersburg to Beijing. The bloodshed will be associated with whoever is put into office in Cairo with the sufferance of the military. Most worrisome is how such an event may lead to an all-around escalation of violence. One can read in several ways a statement the Muslim Brotherhood issued after its supporters were felled in the street, calling for an “uprising” by Egyptians against those who would “steal their revolt” with tanks and massacres.

As with other phases of political upheaval in Egypt, the United States lacks the power to repair, much less control, the course of events there. The task of dealing with those events, if only as a matter of bilateral relations, has just become even more difficult. It now ought to be harder than ever to do the Egyptian military the favor of not calling their coup a coup.

TopicsDemocracyHuman RightsReligion RegionsEgyptUnited States

Liz Cheney, Neocon Senator and President?

Jacob Heilbrunn

So Liz Cheney is thinking about running for the Senate. Anyone who thinks that her ambitions will stop there if she is elected doesn't understand the real Cheney game plan. Daughter Cheney is the Cerberus guarding her father's reputation—she apparently wrote much of his memoir—and has tried, as best she can, to protect his reputation, which, it seems safe to say, suffered a few dings over the past decade, not least because of his huffing and puffing about the terrorist threat emanating from Iraq, which proved not just to be wrong but actively destructive. No matter. Cheney has dismissed it as the niggling complaints of liberal squishes who fail to recongize the advances for justice and democracy that occurred on his watch.

This Sunday's New York Times report that Liz Cheney is mulling over whether she should challenge Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi is already causing palpitations among liberals and conservatives alike. Liberals love to loathe her. And conservatives, at least traditional ones, are worried that she would divide but not conquer the Republican party in Wyoming, thereby setting the stage for a Democrat to nab the seat. Is this a new version of Back to the Future or is it Groundhog Day? What cooler heads in the GOP worry about is that this is the Tea Party all over again, at least the more extreme candidates who went down in flames in various states, costing the party control of the Senate. Meanwhile, Cheney is touting her Wyoming bona fides, posting pictures of her children riding horses and engaging in the other strange things they practice way out West.

What this is really about, however, is back East, where political power has always tempted the Cheney clan, from Dick to Lynne. Another grouping has a profoundly deep interest in Cheney's success as well. That would be the neocons, the ones clustered around William Kristol. For the neocons, a Cheney candidacy would be a great cause, a way to revivify the movement politically. Currently, the neocons enjoy respectability, at least in Washington. But they are not enjoying the kind of political power that they commanded under George W. Bush. Perhaps Cheney could be the horse that they could ride back to the White House. She has served in the Bush administration as principal deputy assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs. She is a chairman of Keep America Safe—William Kristol is its director and Michael Goldfarb, another leading neocon, helped establish the organization in 2009. She routinely accuses President Obama of trying to "appease"—a favorite neocon term—Iran and Russia. Not the greatest or most careful rhetorician—she claimed Obama had betrayed "Czechoslovakia" which hasn't existed as a country for several decades—she prefers to paint with a broad brush. Writing in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, for example, she offered standard boilerplate:

The president has so effectively diminished American strength abroad that there is no longer a question of whether this was his intent. He is working to pre-emptively disarm the United States. He advocates slashing our nuclear arsenal even as the North Koreans threaten us and the Iranians close in on their own nuclear weapon. He has turned his back on America's allies around the world and ignored growing threats.

To have Liz Cheney in the Senate, in other words, would be like having Dick Cheney back in the spotlight. The Cheneys, a threatening family, live themselves in a permanent state of fear and threats. They see foes and problems where there are none and none where they do exist. Liz is doing her best to keep up that family tradition. For his eldest daughter to claim a Senate seat would, moreover, be a way for Cheney to assert himself against the Bushs, who have shunned him, particularly George W.

Cheney could point to himself as the founder of a promising new dynasty. To be sure, Cheney was never officially president. But no one doubts that the man who proclaimed recently that "I had a job to do" was president all but in name. Liz could take it a step further if she ran for the Oval Office, championing democracy abroad even as she breathes contempt for it at home, just as her father did. It may be a bit early for her to challenge Hillary in 2016. But then again, Obama didn't wait long, either. The Republican presidential primary could get a lot more interesting before long.

The tenacity of the Cheneys mirrors that of the neocons more generally. Iraq? WMD? Say what? In Washington accountability is so yesterday. The Cheneys, you could even say, aren't making a comeback. They never went away.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

One Man, One Vote, One Year

Paul Pillar

Amid the fast-moving political drama in Egypt, we should think about larger messages the events there are sending, to those outside as well as inside Egypt, that may prove more important than who is in the presidential palace in Cairo next month or even next year. Egyptian dissatisfaction with Mohamed Morsi was grounded primarily in the dismal state of the Egyptian economy. But national leaders in many other countries have presided over economic failure without getting overthrown by military coups. Morsi was freely and fairly elected, just as much as many of those other leaders were. In this respect, the action the Egyptian military took this week is quite different from its ouster two years ago of Hosni Mubarak, whose entrenched position in power was the result of a rigged system in which no opposition leader ever had a fair chance to displace him.

Because Morsi bears the Islamist label, his election resurrected old phobias about whether democratically elected Islamists would respect democracy once in power. Some of the histories of fascist and communist parties may provide a good basis for asking such a question, although no one ever persuasively made the case as to why Islamists per se should be any more prone than those of other political stripes to put a nation into a “one man, one vote, one time” situation. The fear nonetheless has been widespread. It underlay international (including U.S.) acquiescence when the Algerian military in 1992 aborted an electoral process in which, after the first round of what was supposed to be a two-round national election in Algeria, it was apparent that the Islamic Salvation Front was going to win a overwhelming victory.

Similar fears persist today, as reflected in Islamophobically-enhanced characterizations of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood as “a secretive, ideological Islamist underground movement” that “methodically engineered a takeover of Egypt's political system.” That is a grossly inaccurate description of what has happened in Egypt over the past year. Morsi and the Brotherhood never came close to “taking over” the Egyptian system, as demonstrated in recent days especially by the postures of the police and the military. Jonathan Steele in The Guardian, while making no apologies for Morsi's overall performance, goes into more detail about how his conduct during his one year in the presidency gives scant evidence for making an argument that he was knavishly taking Egypt in an undemocratic direction. Morsi quickly retreated, for example, when decrees expanding presidential power proved unpopular. The Brotherhood-heavy composition of the cabinet was a result largely of opposition parties' refusal to participate in it.

The Muslim Brotherhood was necessarily an “underground” organization during the many years under Mubarak and before, when it was legally banned. When it was given the opportunity to play by democratic rules, it did so.

That leads to what ought to be our main concern about this week's events in Egypt, which is nicely articulated by Ed Husain of the Council on Foreign Relations. Husain also is no apologist for Morsi, saying that he is “not a fan of the Muslim Brotherhood” and opposes “their politicization of my religion.” But he observes that given the Brotherhood's prominence among Islamist organizations in the Middle East, what has happened to the democratically elected Morsi will lead extremist Islamists in the Arab world to say, “We told you so. Democracy does not work. The only way to create an Islamist state is through armed struggle.”

Those who, out of their distaste for anything Islamist, are welcoming the Egyptian military coup, ought to be careful what they wish for. They may wind up with something that is not just distasteful but dangerous.

As for near-term U.S. policy, President Obama ought to ignore advice for the United States to try to stage-manage the next chapter in the Egyptian political story. The futility of doing so is reflected in the negative reactions from different sides to just about anything the able American ambassador, Anne Patterson, has said that can be interpreted as weighing in on internal Egyptian politics. U.S. military aid to Egypt, however, provides some leverage over the generals. That leverage ought to be used to encourage a prompt return to a democratic process—which would not be telling Egyptians what sort of government they ought to have but instead would be help in enabling Egyptians to determine themselves what sort of government they should have. Existing U.S. law providing for suspension of military aid after a coup ought to make the exertion of such leverage easier. 

After the military coup in Algeria two decades ago, militant Islamists took up arms and the country was plunged into civil war. Over the next several years as many as 200,000 Algerians were killed. The same demonstration to Algerian Islamists that they would not be allowed to participate successfully in democratic politics was not lost on Islamists elsewhere in the region. It was in the early and mid-1990s that violent Egyptian Islamists conducted most of their ultimately unsuccessful terrorist campaign in Egypt. Back in Algeria, the civil war finally concluded around 2002, when the Armed Islamic Group was vanquished. An even more radical splinter of the AIG called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat survived. It continues to operate today across much of western Africa under the name it later adopted: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

TopicsDemocracyIdeologyReligion RegionsAlgeriaEgypt

Kerry's Peace Diplomacy

Paul Pillar

Mark Landler and Jodi Rudoren in the New York Times raise the question of whether Secretary of State Kerry and President Obama have their priorities straight regarding Middle Eastern issues when Kerry spends copious amounts of his valuable time trying to get Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations under way while other situations in the region are in flames, sometimes literally. It is appropriate to question whether Kerry's effort is worthwhile, but not for the reasons most often mentioned.

When reading in the article that “resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the magic bullet for the region that some once thought,” one has to wonder who the “some” are. This magic bullet is a straw man. Referring to it leads to the logical fallacy, which arises all too often with this issue, that if something doesn't explain everything then it explains nothing. The unsettled Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not influence and explain everything in the Middle East, but it influences and explains a lot.

Despite all those flammable distractions elsewhere in the region, this unsettled conflict and the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian-inhabited land continue to be one of the most frequently and widely cited causes, grievances, and sources of resentment in the Middle East—and beyond, especially among Muslim populations. Opinion polls consistently show that the issue has not lost the tremendous resonance it has had for decades. The issue also consistently is high on the list of issues that regional governments raise both publicly and in dealing with U.S. officials. And the issue is one of the most frequently mentioned complaints that extremists use to rationalize their violence. Even terrorists who may not care about the Palestinians exploit the issue's appeal.

All of this matters significantly for U.S. interests. Because of the extraordinary relationship in which the United States almost automatically condones, defends and facilitates Israeli policies, the United States is paired with Israel as a target of anger and resentment. The extremist emphasis on Israel and the Palestinian issue points to one of the most direct and visible consequences for U.S. interests, which is to stoke or support terrorist violence against the United States. Less visible and less traumatic are the responses of governments, which nonetheless can impede and complicate the pursuit of other U.S. objectives for which the cooperation of those governments is needed, and which is limited by the tolerance of their own populations.

Upheaval elsewhere in the Middle East, far from being unconnected to the festering conflict with Israel, is linked to it in numerous ways. As the Times article mentions, for example, Hezbollah cites Israel and the need to confront it as its fighters join the Syrian civil war on the side of the Assad regime. During the two and an half years of political change in Egypt the status of the peace treaty with Israel has been an object of questioning and worry, mainly because of continued Egyptian resentment over the other half of the Camp David agreements—the part dealing with the Palestinians—never having been fulfilled.

The continued Israeli occupation is a prominent reason for skepticism and cynicism whenever the United States talks about championing political rights, the cause of democracy or national self-determination. The isolation of the United States and Israel from nearly everyone else on this issue—as reflected in many lopsided votes in the United Nations General Assembly—is also a recurring and embarrassing demonstration of a lack of U.S. power and influence.

If none of this is enough to sway one's thinking, there is the basic injustice of the occupation. And for those who profess love for Israel and whose formula for deciding Middle East policy is to ask what is in Israel's interest, there is something else to think about: what Israel's future will look like as an increasingly beleaguered, perpetually at war, apartheid state if the conflict with the Palestinians is never resolved.

Former Israeli ambassador to the United States Sallai Meridor is cited in the article as saying that most Israelis would rank Syria, Iran, Egypt and Jordan ahead of the Palestinians in “importance and urgency.” This overlooks two distinctions. One is between importance and urgency, which are two different things. The depressing familiarity into which the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian seems to have settled after 46 years of occupation does not, through that passage of time, make it any less important.

Another distinction that is critical for U.S. policy is between what is important and what the United States can do anything about. The United States has the leverage—so far unrealized—to do a lot about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, given the extraordinary diplomatic and material largesse it bestows on Israel. By contrast, there is much less it can do about some of those other problems in the Middle East. Without obvious levers to pull, efforts to do something are less likely to solve problems than to exacerbate them or to incur additional resentment against the United States for trying to manipulate someone else's internal affairs. That doesn't stop many American participants in policy debates, of course, from pretending that the United States really can solve some of those problems. And so we get the pressure that resulted in indirect intervention in the Syria civil war that is likely to fan the flames there without getting closer to a settlement. We also get recommendations for the United States to declare “redlines” to get Egyptians to behave. (“Redlines” ought to be banished from the vocabulary of policy discourse.)

The valid basis for questioning whether the secretary of state is making good use of his time is this: suppose Mr. Kerry somehow manages to get Israeli and Palestinian representatives to sit at the same table and to engage in a dialogue that is called a negotiation—then what? Will there be reason to believe that this will be anything other than another phase in which talk goes on and on, but so does the occupation, with the Palestinians not really getting any closer to having their own state? Unless more is done to change incentives for the Israeli government, the answer to that question is probably no. Some members of the ruling coalition in Israel have been quite outspoken in firmly opposing a relinquishing of land for peace. Meanwhile, a start to negotiations would be a public relations plus for Benjamin Netanyahu by making it slightly easier for him to pose—similar to how, to incredulous Arab ears, George W. Bush once described Ariel Sharon—as “a man of peace.”

If these observations sound asymmetrically aimed at the Israeli side of the conflict, that is because the situation itself is highly asymmetrical. Israel is the occupier. The Israelis could end the occupation at any time. The Palestinians cannot.

Secretary Kerry and President Obama have their priorities straight insofar as they devote significant time and attention to trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We should applaud Secretary Kerry for his energetic efforts. But we should otherwise reserve judgment until we see whether enough else will change in U.S. policy to yield anything other than talk.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsHuman RightsPublic OpinionPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelUnited StatesPalestinian territories

The Arab Spring and Dashed Hopes in Egypt

Paul Pillar

I observed early during the Arab Spring, with specific reference to the danger of extremists making greater inroads in the Middle East, that the regional tumult had multiple positive and negative aspects. On the plus side was the fact that significant political change was achieved in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt without resort to extremist violence, thereby disproving the part of the extremist message that argues such violence is necessary. In ousting Hosni Mubarak, the demonstrators in Tahrir Square achieved what Ayman al-Zawahiri, who now heads what is left of al-Qaeda, tried and failed for many years to achieve through terrorism. Moreover, to the extent that the revolts may increase the total amount of democracy in the Middle East, the added peaceful channels for pursuing political objectives will make the path of extremist violence all the more irrelevant and unattractive.

An offsetting negative is that instability and breakdown of order opens the field for a game in which anyone, violent extremists included, can play. We have seen that happen in Libya. It is happening as well in Syria.

I also mentioned another negative that was less generally recognized than the hazard of extremists exploiting chaos and instability. This is the hazard of the extremist message regaining credibility if popular hopes and expectations that accompanied peaceful political change went unrealized. The country of most concern was Egypt, where public expectations that Mubarak's departure would quickly usher in substantial economic as well as political improvement became unrealistically high.

We are seeing today in Egypt a consequence of those inflated expectations going unfulfilled. The expectations were so high it is unlikely that any Egyptian government, with or without Mohamed Morsi, could have met them. The complaints repeatedly voiced by those now filling Tahrir Square center chiefly on Egypt's dismal economy, with many also mentioning insufficient security. Placing top priority on one's standard of living and the prospects for improving it is a universal tendency.

Issues more specific to Morsi and to the Muslim Brotherhood from which he emerged are factors but lesser ones. Some express dissatisfaction with Morsi being insufficiently inclusive in the making of appointments and formulation of policy. The Islamist nature of the Brotherhood has been one of the less important aspects of the newest round of protest. Morsi has done little to Islamicize Egypt from above during his year as president. He is facing at least as much dissatisfaction from Salafists in not doing enough in that direction as he is from secularists in doing too much.

Egypt being one of the most important Arab countries, we should watch the ongoing events there with interest and concern but also with the realization that there is little the United States can or should do in response to those events. Anything that smacks of U.S. intervention in the internal politics of Egypt would only antagonize one or more elements there. The United States should be prepared to develop a good relationship with whoever is in charge in Cairo once the dust settles.

Whether extremist messages do regain credibility in Egypt remains to be seen. In the meantime, we should reflect on what the events in Egypt imply regarding our tendency to gauge everything in the Middle East in terms of Islamists versus non-Islamists. Oversimplification of fault lines and popular priorities is one problem with that tendency. A presumption that Islamists are worse than non-Islamists for U.S. interests is another problem. Yet another is that even if one is uncomfortable with Islamists in power, the best way to deal with that discomfort may be to let the Islamists fail. That is partly what is happening in Egypt today. The Muslim Brotherhood developed much of its organizational strength and the positive part of its public image during many years as the most important, albeit formally banned, opposition group in Egypt. It is hard to maintain such an image when people hold you responsible for the price of bread and whether sewers work.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/لؤي عمران. CC BY-SA 3.0.

TopicsDemocracyPublic OpinionReligionTerrorism RegionsEgypt