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Egypt: The Futility of Foreign Intervention

18 August 2013

Egypt: The Futility of Foreign Intervention

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s a silly question, obviously, but it still has to be asked. What, if anything, should the rest of the world do about the tragedy in Egypt? The same question has been hanging in the air about the even greater Syrian tragedy for well over a year now, and it is starting to come up again in Iraq as well.

All three of the biggest countries in the heart of the Arab world are now in a state of actual or incipient civil war. The death toll in the Syria civil war last month was 4,400 people. More than 1,000 people were killed by bombs and bullets last month in Iraq, the bloodiest month in the past five years. And at least 1,000 people have been killed in Egypt in the past week, the vast majority of them unarmed civilians murdered by the army.

You will note that I did not write “killed in clashes.” That’s the sort of weasel-word formula that the media use when they do not want to offend powerful friends. Let’s be plain: the Egyptian army is deliberately massacring supporters of the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government that it overthrew last June (whom it now brands as “terrorists”) in order to terrorise them into submission.

The “deep state” is coming back in Egypt, and the useful idiots who now believe that the army is on their side, the secular democrats of the left and the opportunistic Noor Party on the religious right, will in due course find themselves back in the same old police stations, being tortured by the same old goons. So should outsiders just stand by and watch it all happen?

What are the alternatives? Well, President Barack Obama told the generals off in no uncertain terms after the biggest massacre on 14 August. “We appreciate the complexity of the situation,” he said sternly. “We recognise that change takes time,” he added, his anger mounting steadily. “There are going to be false starts and difficult days,” he said, almost shaking with rage.

“We know that democratic transitions are measured not in months or even years but sometimes in generations,” he concluded, “but our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back.” And with that, he cancelled the Bright Star joint US-Egyptian military exercise that was scheduled for September. The Egyptian generals must have been trembling in their boots.

Just in case they weren’t, Obama added that “I’ve asked my national security team to assess the implications of the actions taken by the (Egyptian) interim government and further steps we may take as necessary with respect to the US-Egyptian relationship.” Curiously, the Egyptian generals did not stop killing people upon hearing all this.

The inaction of the United States is due to two causes. First, the only major leverage at Barack Obama’s disposal, cancelling the annual $1.3 billion in aid that Washington gives to the Egyptian army, is no threat at all. It would instantly be replaced, and probably increased, by the rich and conservative Arab monarchies of the Gulf that heartily approve of the Egyptian army’s coup.

Secondly, Washington remains transfixed by the notion that its alliance with Egypt is important for American security. This hoary myth dates back to the long-gone days when the US depended heavily on importing oil from the Gulf, and almost all of it had to pass through Egypt’s Suez Canal. Today less than ten percent of the oil burned in America comes from the Middle East, and new domestic production from fracking is shrinking that share even further.

Even if Obama understood that Egypt is not a vital American strategic interest and ended US military aid to the country, it would only be a gesture (although a desirable one). The International Monetary Fund has already broken off talks on a large new loan to Egypt, and the European Union is talking about cutting aid to the country, but there are no decisive measures available to anybody outside the Arab world, and no willingness to act within it.

There will be no major military intervention in Syria either, although outside countries both within the Arab world and beyond it will continue to drip-feed supplies to their preferred side. And the Iraqi government’s request last Friday for renewed US military aid to stave off renewed civil war there has no hope of success. Getting involved again militarily in Iraq would be political suicide for Obama.

So what’s left of the Arab spring? On the face of it, not much. Tunisia, where the first democratic revolution started three years ago, still totters forward, and there is more democracy in Morocco than there used to be, but that’s about it. The non-violent democratic revolutions that have worked so well in many other parts of the world are not doing very well in the Arab world.

There may be many reasons for this, but one stands out above all the others. In the Arab world, unlike most other places, two rival solutions to the existing autocracy, poverty and oppression compete for popular support: democracy and Islamism. The result, in one country after another, is that the autocrats exploit that division to retain or regain power. Democracy may win in the end, but it is going to be a very long struggle.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 7. (“What…all this”)

Egypt: Worse Than a Crime

28 July 2013

Egypt: Worse Than a Crime

By Gwynne Dyer

Two massacres committed by the Egyptian army in one week. At least 130 people killed in the streets of Cairo for protesting against the military coup. It is worse than a crime (as the French diplomat Talleyrand remarked when Napoleon ordered a particularly counter-productive execution). It is a MISTAKE.

It is also a crime, of course. The killing has been deliberate and precise: only trained snipers could produce so many victims who have been shot in the head or the heart. General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Adly Mansour, the tame president he has installed, tell the kind of lies that generals and politicians always tell when this sort of thing is going on, but the reports of the journalists on the scene leave no room for doubt: this is murder.

But it is, above all, a mistake. When the army fulfilled the demands of the anti-government demonstrators in Tahrir Square on 3 July by overthrowing the elected president, Mohammed Morsi, after only a year in office, it must have known that his supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood would protest in the streets. And it must have had a plan for dealing with those protests. Soldiers always have plans.

The simplest plan would be just to wait the protesters out. The Muslim Brotherhood could put large numbers of people on the streets, but at least in Cairo even larger number of people would go to Tahrir Square and support the coup. Use minimum force, contain the demonstrations by both sides, and wait for people to get bored and go home.

In the meanwhile, push on with the process of rewriting the constitution to remove the Islamic bits inserted last year by Morsi’s party and hold a new referendum to ratify it. By the time fresh presidential and parliamentary elections are held early next year, the Muslim Brotherhood will presumably have found more modern and moderate leaders to replace Morsi – and in any case the secular parties will win the election.

Was this really General Sisi’s scenario for the future when he overthrew Morsi’s government? Perhaps: the army’s moderate behaviour in the first week after the coup could support that hypothesis. But it wouldn’t have taken long for the soldiers to understand that things were unlikely to work according to plan.

The problem was not so much the imprisoned president’s refusal to legitimise his overthrow by cooperating with the military, or the tens of thousands of peaceful pro-Morsi demonstrators camped out in the streets. Morsi’s non-cooperation was predictable and so were the pro-Morsi crowds, but his supporters were patient and peaceful. Wait another month or so, and most of them would probably go home.

In this scenario, the turning point would have come when Sisi or his advisers finally realised that the Muslim Brotherhood could wait it out too. Whatever the intervening process, if the Brotherhood was really free to run again in the promised election next year, it might win again. That would be catastrophic for the army’s very privileged position in Egypt – so the Brotherhood had to be excluded from politics.

That is a charitable take on the army’s motives. The likelier explanation, alas, is that Sisi planned to ban the Brotherhood from the start. Democracy be damned: the “deep state”, that permanent collusion between well-fed Egyptian soldiers and bureaucrats and the foreign military and commercial interests who feed them, is making a come-back. And the political idiots on Tahrir Square are cheering it on.

Either way, the army’s political project now requires the massive use of force: the supporters of the Brotherhood must be driven from the streets, by murder if necessary, and its leaders must be criminalised and banned. And other political idiots, in Washington, London and Paris, are going along with that too.

President Barack Obama is uncomfortable with what is happening, but he won’t call it a coup because then he would be obliged to cut off $1.5 billion a year in aid to the Egyptian army. Instead, he calls it a “post-revolution transition”, and promises that the United States will be a “strong partner to the Egyptian people as they shape their path to the future.”

His loyal sidekick William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary (also known as “Tonto”), asks the Egyptian authorities politely to refrain from violence because “now is the time for dialogue, not confrontation.” ‘Fraid not. Now is the time for murder, and foreign democrats are holding the murderer’s coat.

Egypt is the biggest Arab country by far, and so long as the democratic revolution prospered in Egypt you could still say that the “Arab Spring” was changing things for the better, even despite the calamity in Syria. But it’s very hard to see how the Egyptians can find their way back from where they are now.

Even worse, the Egyptian coup is stark proof that political Islam cannot succeed by taking the democratic path. The message it conveys to devout Islamists all over the Arab world is that Osama bin Laden was right: only by violence can their political project succeed. Thanks a bunch, General Sisi.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 12. (“The problem…home; and “His loyal…coat”)

End of the Arab Spring

7 July 2013

End of the Arab Spring?

By Gwynne Dyer

If the people in charge of the various opposition parties in Egypt had any strategic vision, they would not have launched the mass protests that caused the army to oust President Mohammed Morsi on 4 July. They would have bided their time and waited for the next election. Because there is probably still going to be a next election in Egypt, despite the coup, and now the Muslim Brotherhood might actually win it.

There is a good deal of chatter in the media at the moment about the “end of the Arab Spring,” some of it by commentators who can barely conceal their delight. Egypt, with almost one-third of the world’s total Arab population, was the great symbol of the democratic movement’s success, and now Egyptian democracy is in a mess. But the drama still has a long way to run.

Morsi is now under arrest, as are many other leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the passionate demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in the streets of Egypt’s cities make it hard to imagine that any compromise is possible. Indeed, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin warned last weekend that Egypt risks stumbling into a civil war like the one that has devastated Syria.

Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei, on the other hand, justified the military coup by claiming that it had been the only alternative to civil war – which could, he said, have been as bad as Somalia. Really? One suspects that he doesn’t know much about Somalia. Indeed, one suspects that he doesn’t really know much about his own country either (he has spent most of his career abroad).

There was no risk of civil war in Egypt before last week’s military intervention, and there is no risk of civil war now either. What we are seeing is a no-holds-barred struggle for power between rival political movements, in a system where the political rules are newly written, hotly disputed, and poorly understood. And all the players have made some serious mistakes.

The Muslim Brotherhood, on the basis of last year’s 51.7 percent majority for Morsi in the presidential election, assumed that it had the unquestioning support of half the population. This was probably not true.

Many voted for Morsi in recognition of the Muslim Brotherhood’s long resistance to six decades of military dictatorship. Others voted for him in gratitude for the Brotherhood’s unfailing support for the poor, or in disgust at the fact that Morsi’s only opponent in the second round of the election was a left-over from the Mubarak regime.

Perhaps as few as half of them actually voted for the Brotherhood’s core project of Islamising Egyptian law and forcing its own version of Islamic values on Egyptian society – but the Brothers seemed to think they all had. Even if that had been true, trying to impose fundamental changes on a country with the support of only half the population was not wise.

Some of the constitutional changes that Morsi imposed, and some of his tactics for pushing them through, may actually have been the result of political compromises within the Brotherhood, where he constantly had to fend off the fanatics who wanted even more extreme measures. Nevertheless, the secular opposition parties inevitably saw him as an extremist, and genuinely feared that he would somehow manage to force the whole package on Egypt.

So the secular parties responded with extra-constitutional tactics of their own: mass demonstrations that were explicitly intended to trigger a military take-over that would sideline Morsi and the Brotherhood. In only four days of demos, they succeeded, in large part because the army, a resolutely secular organisation, had its own grave misgivings about where Morsi’s government was taking Egypt.

But the army hasn’t actually seized power. It has appointed Adly Mansour, the head of the Constitutional Supreme Court, as interim president, with the task of organising new parliamentary and presidential elections. It will not be possible to exclude the Muslim Brotherhood from those elections without turning the whole process into a farce – especially since the Brotherhood will probably be going through some changes of its own.

The Muslim Brotherhood took little part in the 2011 revolution, and the men at the top, including Morsi, were utterly unprepared for power. They are now likely to be replaced by a younger generation of leaders who are more flexible and more attuned to the realities of power. They might even win the next election, despite all Morsi’s mistakes this time round.

That’s the real irony here. If the opposition parties had only left Morsi in power, his unilateral actions and his inability to halt Egypt’s drastic economic decline would have guaranteed an opposition victory at the next election. Now it’s all up in the air again.

But democratic politics is far from over in Egypt. Foolish things have been done, but the Arab Spring is not dead.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraph 3 and 4. (“Morsi…abroad”)

 

 

Egypt and Turkey

3 July 2013

Egypt and Turkey: Democracy in Trouble

By Gwynne Dyer

Egypt and Turkey have the same basic political problem. Democracy can work despite huge ideological differences, but only if everybody is willing to be very tolerant of other people’s ideas and values.

Three weeks ago the streets of Turkish cities were full of protesters demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who won his third straight election in 2011. Why? Because, they say, he is shoving conservative Islamic values down their throats.

The Turkish protests have now died down, but this week the streets of Egyptian cities have been full of protesters demanding exactly the same thing for exactly the same reason. The Egyptian army has now intervened to remove the Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, and the very survival of the new Egyptian democracy is in doubt.

Neither Erdogan nor Morsi could have come to power in a country that wasn’t fully democratic. Turkey has been a partly democratic country for sixty years, but if a politician with a religious agenda won, the army would remove him. It even hanged one prime minister in 1960.

In Egypt, three generals had ruled the country in unbroken succession since the mid-1950s. Latterly they allowed “elections”, but their party always won, and the main religious party, the Muslim Brotherhood, was always banned.

The Turkish and Egyptian generals were mostly devout Muslims themselves, but they were willing to kill to keep religion out of politics. Islamic parties were a vehicle for traditional and anti-modern values, and the generals’ goal was to modernise their countries so they would be strong enough to stand up to the West.

There was some cynicism in their policy, too. The secular political parties in Turkey (and in Egypt too, until they finally withered away under 60 years of military dictatorship) were too fragmented and disunited to pose any real threat to the army’s power, whereas a single Islamic party with broad popular support might do just that. So religion must be firmly excluded from politics.

In both countries, the generals’ modernising agenda had considerable success. Turkey is now a powerful middle-income nation, and at least half of its 75 million people are secular and “modern” in their political values. So they wanted the military out of politics, and finally the army withdrew – only to see the new Justice and Development (AK) Party, a “moderate” Islamist party led by Erdogan, win the 2003 election.

The Turkish generals let the AK rule because it didn’t try to impose its own religious values on the whole population. It refrained because even in its best result, in 2010, the AK only won 50.3 percent of the vote – and some of that support came from secular voters who saw it as the best hope for permanently excluding the army from politics.

Egypt is a much poorer, less educated country than Turkey, but at least a third of the 85 million Egyptians would also qualify as “modern” people with secular values. They were the ones who made the revolution happen in 2010 – but in the new democracy’s first free presidential election last year the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohammed Morsi, won 51.7 percent of the vote.

The Muslim Brotherhood promptly started writing its conservative religious values into the new constitution. More recently, Erdogan’s AK Party in Turkey passed some laws that imposed its religious values too.

It wasn’t a wholesale assault on the secular society – in Turkey they just placed some restrictions on the sale of alcohol – but in both countries it greatly alarmed the secular part of the population. So it took only the slightest pretext – a demonstration over the destruction of a park in Istanbul, the first anniversary of Morsi’s election in Egypt – to bring huge crowds of protesters out on the street in every city.

At that point, both Islamist leaders stopped pretending that they governed in the name of the entire nation. “Let them go into mosques in their shoes, let them drink alcohol in our mosques, let them raise their hand to our headscarved girls,” said Erdogan of the Turkish protestors. “One prayer from our people is enough to frustrate their plans.” He blamed the protests on an international conspiracy by something called the “interest-rate lobby.”

In Egypt, Morsi vowed to “give my life” to defend the new constitution written by his Islamist colleagues last year, and blamed the unrest on a plot by remnants of the ousted Mubarak regime. The Egyptian army has now suspended the constitution, but it is a “soft coup” that will almost certainly leave Morsi alive. Perhaps even free.

The Islamists are to blame for this crisis in both countries, because their political programme does ultimately involve shoving their values down everybody else’s throats. But the secular parties are also to blame, because it is their inability to unite behind a single candidate and programme that has let the Islamists win power in both Turkey and Egypt.

It is hard for democracy to survive in a country where large parts of the population hold radically different ideas about the purposes of the state and the rights of its citizens. Urbanisation will ultimately resolve this conflict, for in one more generation most of the recent immigrants to the fast-growing cities will have adopted secular values. But in the meantime, Egypt will have a very rough ride. Maybe Turkey too.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 13 and 14. (“There was…politics”; and “At that…him”)