A popular military coup is at this moment underway in Egypt. At best, Egypt’s liberal opposition has made a Faustian bargain. The Egyptian military now has the popular right to replace any democratically elected government. That right will not end just because liberals replace Muslim Brothers. At worst, this is the start of a civil war.

 

A popular military coup is at this moment underway in Egypt, with the military having banned Muslim Brotherhood members from leaving the country and troops taking positions with heavy weapons in various quarters of Cairo and other major centers. This is all being done in the name of the people’s will, and certainly the enormous crowds of protesters in the streets calling for President Moursi’s fall support that idea. Of course, the almost equally large crowds of Moursi supporters suggests that the people’s will is, at best, divided.

There’s been a lot of coverage on the two causes, and how the Egyptian military has positioned itself, restoring its image in the minds of most Egyptians. My own contacts there don’t seem to share that benevolent view of the military, but they take cooperation with it and the even more stridently Islamist al-Nour as the only option they have to “reclaim their revolution.”

They may be right. I certainly wish them well. But I fear they’ve made a Faustian bargain. At best, the Egyptian military now has the popular right to intervene and suspend or replace any democratically elected government. That right will not end just because liberals replace Muslim Brothers. Living within a very narrow political space, defined by the military, is the best that will likely come out of this.

The worst, and just as likely right now, is civil war. I doubt very much that the Muslim Brotherhood will take removal from power in good humor. Those heavy weapons the military is putting in place are meant to be used.

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Steve Cook at CFR has offered his latest analysis of the rapprochement between Israel and Turkey, a thing he readily admits to having incorrectly dismissed. In it, he points to several matters of shared strategic interests and material concerns (energy and possibly Iran) that might encourage such a renewal of ties, and some that might not (Syria) – all of which I largely agree with.

What’s interesting is that having laid the groundwork for the materialist/realist argument, he then concludes that it is a result purely of personalistic politics; that President Obama essentially shamed Erdogan and Netanyahu into making up. I can’t help but wonder if this explanation overlooks the deep history that these two states share. Maybe it was the breakup that had more to do with personalities and politics than does the reunification?

Good discussion over at Abu Aardvark’s about alternative US policy ideas towards Egypt. I make two appearances (though I’ll leave you to figure out which).

A new strategic alliance between Egypt and Iran is not likely in a region currently being contested by four would-be hegemons, though the US might find unintended consequences stemming from its attempts to further isolate Tehran, or in leaving Cairo to collapse.

 

While most attention is on renewed protests throughout the Arab Spring countries, I wanted to look briefly at news this past week of Iranian President Ahmedinijad’s visit to Cairo. This is the second time leaders from the two countries have met, the first being President Moursi’s visit to Tehran last August. This time, Ahmedinijan called for a strategic alliance between the two countries. So, do we have the beginnings of a new power axis across the Middle East that will redefine international affairs for generations to come? I rather doubt it.

There is some historical precedent for an alliance. Before the 1979 Iranian Revolution and before Egyptian President Mubarak’s reign, the two countries had some ties and the exiled Shah is even still buried in Egypt. But even if the only thing holding back diplomatic relations until now was just the personal enmity between rulers, I’d argue that the Middle East is no longer an environment supportive of such a friendship.

The MENA region is developing into a four-way contest between Iran, Egypt, Saudi, and Turkey, each seeking to assert their control. Each can lay claim to being a regional power with a certain manifest destiny, and each sees great opportunity in the new Middle East. Egypt desperately wants to be the center of power it once was, but its economy is in tatters and its political situation dangerously unstable. Iran has a leg up on Egypt, but that leg’s pretty firmly weighted down by sanctions just now.

This is not to say that the two countries won’t be able to improve their relations or manage some form of cooperation on certain issues, and certainly Egypt could use some cash about now (though sanction-beset Iran is not in the best position to offer any), but whatever ties resurface now that Mubarak is out of the way, they will likely stop prior to true friendship. Simply put, this region ain’t big enough for the both of ’em.

But is there anything that could change that calculus and get Iran and Egypt on the same side? I think the defining of sides in this case from the US might, under the right circumstances, lead to such an arrangement. Ahmedinijad’s call for an alliance is based on the idea that each country has more to lose in a region controlled by the US and its allies (read Israel) than in one controlled by either of them. Right now, I don’t think Egypt’s leaders see it that way, but the  US’ policy of trying to turn the entire world against Iran for the sake of Israel doesn’t go down very well with people in the region (in Egypt any more than in Iran), and an Iran seeking to recoup its losses from a chaotic Syria might just redouble its charm offensive elsewhere. Also, if both countries are teetering on their own, there might be some appeal in trying to hold each other up instead.

On a side note, it is good to see that the shoe-throwing-protest meme from several years ago is alive and well. Also, the triple slow-mo in this video is amazing.

After passing a flawed constitution through brutal intimidation and attempts to silence political opposition leaders, Egypt may follow the Iranian model of a religiously based underground movement appropriating a revolution that it did not start and  creating authoritarian system as stringent and intolerant as the one it replaced. But hope endures so long as political opposition remains vocal.

Been away a long time; my apologies. But at least nothing important was happening in the region during my absence.

Of course, the big stories have been Egypt’s stumbling revolution and the Syrian civil war. Of the latter, I’ll have more to say in another post. Of the former, I tend to agree with Marc Lynch’s summation:

What has unfolded in Egypt is not a morality play, with good and evil clashing by night. Nor was it the unfolding of an Islamist master plan.  This was … hardball, strategic power plays by sometimes obtuse and occasionally shrewd actors in a polarized political environment with no clear rules, unsettled institutions, high stakes, intense mutual mistrust and extremely imperfect information.

However, I disagree with Lynch that hope for a successful democratic outcome remains even a modest possibility. He maintains that passing a flawed constitution under specious means could still put Egypt in a “good place”:

It would not be the worst outcome for a chaotic transition if Egypt emerges in March with a constitution establishing institutional powers and limiting the powers of the Presidency, a democratically elected but weakened President, a Muslim Brotherhood in power but facing unprecedented levels of scrutiny and political opposition, the military back in the barracks, a mobilized and newly relevant political opposition, and a legitimately elected Parliament with a strong opposition bloc.  The costs may have been too high and the process a horror movie, but getting a Constitution in place and Parliamentary elections on the books puts Egypt just a bit closer to that vision.

If that were all that has been going on, I’d agree (and have), but the investigation of all of Moursi’s opponents for sedition and the virtually unnoticed presidential decree neutering independent labor unions add additional layers to this. I think we have to consider that Egypt may well follow the Iranian model, in that a religiously based underground movement has appropriated a revolution that it did not start and seems to slowly be moving towards an authoritarian system as stringent and intolerant as the one it replaced. Whether or not that is a “good place” is debatable – I am no ideologue and do not hold that democracy is necessarily a good in and of itself or that all societies must adopt such a system of governance – but we’ve countless examples of worthless constitutions, and Egypt does not have a strong tradition of being bound by one.

Not everything is doom and gloom, of course. While ElBaradei, Mousa, and Sabahi are under investigation, they weren’t arrested and are currently “free.” The threat of incarceration looms over them no doubt as an attempt to keep them in line, but that Mousri feels compelled (by an insecure political base or true love of democracy) to hold back is a good sign. This situation is a bellwether for Egypt, and we should all be watching closely what happens. So long as Moursi is constrained in exerting power, I’ll go along with Lynch and hope that the passing of a constitution – any constitution – ultimately proves to be a good thing. But my optimism is wearing extremely thin.

Israel’s offensive in Gaza is not likely in preparation for a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, though such a disastrous campaign cannot be dismissed.   Israeli feelings of being besieged from twin threats – external enemies and internal demographic changes – make it possible, if unlikely, that Israel might engage in otherwise counterproductive behavior.

In my last post, I looked at some of the strategic considerations for Israel in manning a ground campaign in Gaza versus its current airstrikes in terms of the costs of operating in the Arab Spring-thawed Middle East. Mostly, I was looking at its relationship with Egypt and just how far it would be willing to go without endangering the peace treaty. But it is worth pivoting east, as some have, to look at what this might mean in terms of Israel’s continuing confrontation with Iran.

Jerry Seib suggested in a Wall Street Journal blog post that Iran might have promoted HAMAS to attack Israel in order to tie them up militarily. Iran has, after all, been HAMAS’ main supplier of weapons, including the more advanced missiles seen over the last week. Then again, he also points out that this course might backfire and allow Israel to free itself of the HAMAS deterrent.

In short, this would be a stupid plan for Iran even if the assumed relationship between Iran and HAMAS were true. HAMAS is not a proxy for Iran in the same way that one could describe Hizballah – and even there, you run into problems thinking the relationship so unidirectional.

I think it likely that HAMAS wasn’t pressured by anyone (other than Israel) to resume its missile strikes. And its building of a better arsenal over the past year or so doesn’t have to stray beyond basic military precautions to make sense (those home-made mortars weren’t doing anything other than making potholes in the desert).

Others have  further speculated that the campaign in Gaza might be but a precursor to an offensive in Iran to destroy that country’s nuclear program. The logic goes that Iran supplied the advanced missiles to HAMAS as a deterrent against Israeli aggression, and so by dismantling that deterrent  Israel should feel more free to act directly against Iran.

I’m sure that Israel would feel much better knowing that Iran’s supply of arms to HAMAS has been weakened, but I don’t think that the situation is quite so simple. Deterrence probably was part of Iran’s reasons for supplying HAMAS, as it also supplies Hizballah and Islamic Jihad, as might the general theory that the enemy of my enemy is my friend; however, none of these are probably a large enough deterrence to stop Israel from striking Iran if it thought it could take our that country’s program. It after all did exactly that to Iraq and Syria.

The largest deterrence to Israel in striking Iran is that Iran’s program is much bigger, more complex, more advanced, and better defended than either Syria or Iraq’s programs were. A full-on war effort by Israel would be unlikely to do more than set Iran back a few months or maybe a year.

The second biggest deterrence to Israel is the US, which thus far has managed to hold its ally back from the brink. But the US is limited in its ability to do this, and Israel is spurred on to action by domestic political interests as well as security concerns.

That same mixture of concern for security and political machination also goes far towards explaining Israel’s offensive in Gaza on its own. Israel has always verged on paranoia in its foreign policy, and the Tip O’Neill axiom that all politics are local is far more true of Israel than it ever was for the US. It is evident in its concern over Iran’s nuclear program and in HAMAS’ rocket campaign, neither of which could ever constitute a existential threat. That said, Israel’s paranoia is occasionally justified, and it has fought its fair share of defensive wars over the years.

Politically, Israel has seen a massive shift towards the right – defined in Israel between Hawks and Doves – in the last decade, in part because of structural considerations that gives inordinate political weight to fringe groups and in part due to demographic changes that threaten to to make Jews a minority. Feelings of being besieged from twin threats make it possible, if unlikely, that Israel might engage in otherwise counterproductive behavior. So we can’t rule out an Israeli strike on Iran, but we can be reasonably sure that whatever its motivations in Gaza, preparing the ground for a strike on Iran isn’t among them.

The past several days have seemed like a nostalgic return to the MENA of old, with HAMAS launching rockets into Israel and Israel responding with air strikes and threats of a ground invasion. So repetitive has been this pattern that one could almost forget that the region within which it is occurring now is so very different than the one in which that pattern emerged and, more or less, worked for Israel.

Israel (and HAMAS) now have to deal with a region in which the Muslim Brotherhood rules Egypt (albeit in a sort of power-sharing agreement with a partially reformed military which still benefits from its peace agreement with Israel) within a democratic framework, HAMAS’ traditional power base in Damascus is gone along with Assad’s support, Lebanon is caught up in the Syrian fight, Jordan is facing its first serious calls for the overthrow of the monarchy (in part from Palestinians, who make up the majority of the population), and Israel’s traditional ally of Turkey has shown itself unwilling to back Israel against Palestinian resistance. The ties between HAMAS and the Islamist governments of Egypt and Turkey can easily be overstated–HAMAS is NOT the Muslim Brotherhood, though it does share an ideological heritage and members of both groups hold affinities for one another–but it is a thing to be reckoned with from the perspective of Israel.

What then does all this mean? Will there be a ground war? What will be the repercussions, for Israel, HAMAS, FATAH, Egypt, and your grandmother?

By far the biggest, and least asked, question from all of this is, so what? Whether Israel invades on the ground of continues to pummel and kill from the air, does it make a difference to the regional political situation, to states’ security, or to US interests? I like it when others ask the right questions:

This poses the first real test of some of the biggest questions about the real strategic significance of the Arab uprisings of the last two years.  Do the uprisings really constrain Israel’s ability to wage wars such as the 2006 war against Hezbollah or 2008/09 war against Gaza?  In what way?  Would the empowerment of a mobilized Arab public force Arab leaders to adopt significantly different policies towards Israel?  Would democratically elected Islamist leaders like Morsi really change core foreign policy positions such as the commitment to the Camp David peace treaty? Would intense political competition, popular mobilization, or different ideologies outweigh the cold calculations of Realpolitik and hopes for international acceptance?  

Mubarak would have crushed real dissent, allowing only a show of solidarity while maintaining the peace with Israel; Moursi may not have that leeway. My own assessment is that this will not likely lead to a ground war, as that may be the line that Egypt cannot allow Israel to cross. They will strive to maintain the status quo that so benefits them, especially in the current uncertain period of transition, but in the face of a ground occupation, they be compelled to act by the vast majority of Egyptians angry over their Muslim brethren (and blood relatives in many cases) being killed.

But what of the last part of my question? Would any outcome affect US interests, and therefore get the US to intervene on either side?

Since the US is still trying to build relations with the new Egypt, it is unlikely to have much in the game at this point. And the US is likely still to back Israel no matter what. So regardless of what Israel does, it is essentially guaranteed political (and military, if need be) support from the US and there will be no major changes in the US-Egypt relationship.

Ah, nostalgia.