North Africa


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.

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.

The protests that raged across the Middle East and North Africa over the last week have prompted many questions, but perhaps not the right ones. The attacks on American embassies in nascent democracies are not betrayals of some utopic, democratic future, but the a further playing out of larger geopolitical forces we are still struggling to understand. 

I may be coming a little bit late to the game on this one, but the protests throughout the MENA region last week, while now thankfully died down, have raised a number of questions back in the US region. Most of these questions are quite old and tend to resurface as new and salient any time people “over there” act or react in ways that uncomfortably call attention to what might not be as impartial, mature, logical, and just generally correct behavior on our part as we would like to think.

“Why do they hate us?” “Why can’t they take criticism?” “So illogical!” (note this last might as well read: “how uncivilized!”) Some commentators have seemed shocked that the new political openings in the region hadn’t precluded such a thing, that this was a betrayal of the democratic promise made to us (thus adding the idea that not only are they irrational, but they are untrustworthy as well). In some ways, then, asking these questions about the recent protests comes back to asking what the Arab Spring really is.

See for example, this op ed from Fouad Ajami in the Washington Post. As he makes clear from his introduction, “Modernity requires the willingness to be offended. And as anti-American violence across the Middle East and beyond shows, that willingness is something the Arab world, the heartland of Islam, still lacks.” What follows is a long summary of colonial history in the region and the general feeling that the Arabs just haven’t quite been able to get with it, to keep up with the times, to modernize. There is nothing imperialist about this; it is what the modern world demands of everyone.

Ajami’s recounting of history is correct in the details, but I disagree with his thesis and dangerous misuse of terms. By “modernity” – a term that can mean everything and nothing – what he really means is “Western culture.” So, Arab culture is lacking Western culture. I see where this is going. Ajami in effect says that decades of colonialism and historical humiliation have led Arabs to be perpetually thin-skinned. They are trapped by history, as unchanging in their ways as the great deserts they inhabit.

The idea that a century or more of being a “subject people” is solely responsible for rough relations with Western society is pretty specious, given that more than half of the cultures in the world can be described in the same way. It doesn’t help, but there’s nothing particularly exceptional about the Arab or Muslim worlds in this regard.

One might say that to the extent that societies are not secularized, that any political differences of significance are bound to be religious in appearance. But that, I fear, misunderstands the secular mindset as a norm (and monolithic) and once again places the arguer in a position of self-defined superiority.

One possible argument for an essential cultural component to what’s going on is that Arab culture (and most others except ours) places a high priority on honor (or “face”). Disagreement is fine and healthy, but public insults are another matter. In America, we thrive on insults (giving more than getting, of course). I would hardly put that on the list of essential elements of our way of life, but it is a vibrant character trait/flaw.

I have no doubt that the history of Imperialism is terribly important and is material for resentment. From the American standpoint – and it is that standpoint which is of primary concern to me – we must find ways to “bridge the gap” with these societies, help with their disastrous youth-unemployment problems, and somehow desist from playing the role of regnant Imperialist power.

More and more, I think Sam Huntington had it right. This is one aspect of what he would have termed a “fault-line conflict,” which also helps to explain why it never goes away. Elites manipulate issues to gain and  retain power, and such a public clash of cultures (or civilizations) is an expedient means to do it.

So then, if not oriental thin-skinnedness, what are/were the protests about? How much is religious? How much political? As to the political: why?

I suspect that the attack in Libya wasn’t entirely linked to the anti-Muslim film that spurred on the Egyptian riots and which then spread to Pakistan and elsewhere. Of the others, who really needs a reason to protest the US? People have been deeply resentful of the US for decades. The yoke of empire sits heavy, and without a unifying story of a battle of good vs evil (the Cold War) to justify hegemony, it is not just heavy but unjust.

But it is far more complicated than that, of course.Tony Karon wrote a good overall assessment of the situation in Libya shortly after the attack. I think he overplays the danger in Libya and also doesn’t distinguish between different types of salafis; however, he does help to show the ways that elites manipulate issues in the region to their own advantage and he highlights the ways that the new political situation in Libya (and perhaps elsewhere) presents challenges and opportunities.

People don’t like the US. The US and Israel, in the local mindset, are responsible for every ill. That’s silly, of course, but also understandable to a degree. People in the region now have the physical ability to mobilize and act, where they couldn’t before under dictatorial rule. They also have the the encouragement to act, in that they’ve seen what collective action can bring.

Getting back to Huntington, I do think that the end of the Cold War is largely responsible for the Arab Spring generally (and I include the earlier Iranian Green Movement here) in that, along with a growing “middle-ish class” and 20% youth bulge, it upset the traditional balance of powers. We are in the process of seeing the cards settle after a good shuffle.

In many ways, I think events today resemble 1848, with a series of revolutions that produced, in that case, the dawn of ideological politics in Europe and throughout the world. That year saw the publication of the Communist Manifesto, and while communism played little to no part in any of the revolutions then underway, the “specter” of communism (to use Marx’s phrase) thereafter became the most potent ideological force available to anti-establishment forces. If the parallel is a good one, however, I think we have to ask what is the “specter” today? Is it Islamism or salafism, as some suggest? Or is it a greater geopolitical shift?

Just as I was at long last getting ready to turn my attention to Libya and Tunisia – the forgotten but oh-so-important arena of the Arab Spring – Egypt thrusts itself back into the limelight. And even though I feel we pay too much attention to Egypt when it comes to understanding the wave of revolutions sweeping through the region, I like everyone else, must pay heed.

Over the weekend, Egyptian president Moursi at least rhetorically, if not in actuality, dismissed the military junta controlling the state and took the reigns for himself. Questions abound. Thankfully, Marc Lynch does a superb job asking those questions, if not always in answering them.

Abu Aardvark asks here:

were Tantawi and Anan consulted, or did they find out on TV?  did junior officers collude with the Presidents office, or were they equally surprised?  And the behavior of key actors in the coming weeks will shed light on their intentions this weekend:  does Morsi move to impose an Islamist vision or reach out to create a broadly based constitutional convention?  does the military strike back in some form?

There’s no way to answer those questions just now, alas, but as Lynch states, the truth will trickle out. In lieu of comprehensive answers, he proposes three routes along which events might unfold:

1) Those who believe the SCAF remains fully in control see a clever scheme to cement long-term military rule in alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood by gently dumping the unpopular figureheads while retaining an institutional hold on power. 

2) Those who fear the Muslim Brotherhood see the makings of a full-scale Ikhwanization of Egypt, with Morsi seizing dictatorial powers, brushing aside the secular bastion of the SCAF, and putting himself in place to shape the new constitution.   

3) And those who still see the prospect for some kind of real democratic transition can find some comfort in an elected President removing the senior leaders of the outgoing military junta without a bloody fight and asserting the principle of political control by an elected President.

This “long, grinding war of institutional position,” as he states, will take time to play out and much of the action will necessarily be out of sight.

Been away for some time as part of a major move, but slowly settling into things. While there’s been a lot of news coverage on the region, there’s been little to alter any of the previous questions – no major game changers. If anything, the situation in Egypt confirms that the Muslim Brotherhood, the Moursi government, and the SCAF have found (or are finding) a way to live together. That’s good for the country, though we will have to wait and see how good that will prove for Egyptians or others (read: the United States).
In the meantime, here is a decent, if somewhat superficial, rundown of the major figures in the Brotherhood. Many questions surround each of them.

One thing I really like about Marc Lynch is his humility, as evidenced in his Thursday post at FP: “I was joking on Twitter yesterday [Weds] that the expert consensus that today [Thurs] would be a big crisis day in Cairo probably meant nothing would happen, since everybody (including me) is always wrong.”

Well, as it happens, yesterday (Thurs), the Cairene house of cards caved in when the Constitutional Court lived down to everyone’s expectations and not only ruled in favor of Shafiq’s right to run in the presidential elections, but also dissolved the newly elected Parliament for having violated its own rules in running parties for independent seats. The thing is, they’re right on both counts, but those rules are holdovers from the previous regime (i.e., the current regime), and in making that call, the Court has announced that it firmly stands with the SCAF against the people. Perhaps more importantly, it signals that any chance of the SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood coming to some sort of political arrangement is dead.

The SCAF’s power grab in the final days looks more like panic than the execution of a carefully prepared master scheme. It likely reflected a combination of fear of rising Islamist power, self-preservation, and growing confidence in its ability to control street protests.  The prospect of the Muslim Brotherhood controlling Parliament and the presidency likely scared them more than many people conditioned by speculation about a MB-SCAF alliance recognized…. Of course it wanted to preserve its economic empire and political protections. But both of those were constant over the course of the transition, and don’t explain its heavy-handed moves at the climax of the process. 

I couldn’t agree more. What then is in store for the future? It seems to me that the most important question now is what will the Brotherhood do with this news? They were immediately convening strategy meetings, last I heard, but I’m not sure if they’ve decided anything. Many will likely boycott the runoff election this weekend. The Brotherhood may, therefore, decide that their lead over Shafiq is enough that they should continue with the process; that they have more to lose than gain by exiting the process, sham though it may be.

As Lynch says:

The SCAF likely believes that a renewal of massive, sustained protest is no longer in the cards through a combination of its own repression and relentless propaganda, along with the strategic mistakes by protestors themselves. It doesn’t feel threatened by a few thousand isolated protestors in Tahrir, and probably is gambling that they won’t be joined by the masses that made the Jan. 25 revolution last year. They may also feel that the intense rifts of suspicion and rage dividing the Muslim Brotherhood from non-Islamist political trends are now so deep that they won’t be able to cooperate effectively to respond. Or they may feel that the MB would rather cut a deal, even now, than take it to the next level. They may be right, they may be wrong. But I wouldn’t bet on stability.

Nor would I, though the relative quiet on the streets may suggest otherwise. I think it likely that the Brotherhood will decide that since a deal could not be worked out with the SCAF (and I assume here that they’ve been trying), that the only real option for them is take things back to the street. If so, they will this time lead the revolution from the start. They may also try to mobilize their members in the military. If the SCAF isn’t watching for that, they’re likely dead already. If they are … well, any way you look at it, this seems likely to get messy.

This weekend and next week seem like critical moments in determining what comes next. I find it difficult to think that there’s any future without blood in the streets in store, but politics are often surprising, and stranger deals have been cut in darkened rooms.

The SCAF may be right that the Brotherhood is still willing to deal, but we can’t ignore that the next move may well be the start to the real revolution—the equivalent to the October Revolution in Russia vice the earlier February Revolution that put the members of the Duma in charge. Are Moursi and Shater up to the Leninist mantel? We’ll see.

Marc Lynch had, on the whole, a pretty good post over at FP the other day. While I disagree with a few of his points, I thought this was well said:

The results are mainly surprising given popular ideas about the elections in advance.  Polling was indeed almost completely useless, radically exaggerating Amr Moussa’s share of the vote and missing the appeal of the actual front-runners.   Shafik was likely underestimated because people (on all sides) assumed that Moussa was the real candidate of the SCAF and that the fix was in on his behalf.  Morsi was dismissed because many observers confused the individual with the movement;  in fact, helped by the relatively low turnout, the Brotherhood’s electoral machine probably performed just as well for him as it would have for the disqualified Khairet el-Shater.  Democratic elections often fail to produce desirable results — it’s the nature of the beast.  

He also points out that the US was quietly hoping that Amr, with whom they feel comfortable they could work, would win. This is true, though it is debatable how quiet they were. The Intelligence Community and policymakers did the same thing over Saif al-Islam in Libya, hoping beyond hope that he would be a reformer that would keep things in line but allow enough democratic and economic reform that we could stop worrying about the sorts of terrible people we tend to support. This sort of deus ex machina faith also led the US to place bets on Bashar al-Assad, Nuri al-Maliki, and even Saddam Hussein once.

But beyond that, I disagree with Marc that a Moursi win would lack credibility in the eyes of the Egyptian public; in the eyes of the secular liberals, sure, but they are a small, discombobulated minority. I also think he takes the clarity of hindsight too far in thinking that Shafiq’s electoral standing was inevitable.

The real fault in this piece, however, stems from a basic assumption that many make in assuming that electoral politics in the US (or the West more generally) is universal; that politics in Egypt can be analyzed with the same sort of jaded and blasé attitude to which we are accustomed by pundits here. Frankly, those pundits are often wrong in the case of US politics, so there is little reason to assume that such thinking should be accurate in a society that is only now developing a political logic. However politics in Egypt will work, we  just don’t yet know.

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