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.

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.

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.

A quick note about this. I would say that events on the ground may well have shortened that wall I last discussed considerably.

Neil MacFarquhar does a good job of asking, and at times answering, the big questions. It does seem to me that he puts too much emphasis on the bombing being in Damascus. A regime can survive for a long time with low-grade insurgent violence in the capital – it can lead to successful ethnic cleansing, as happened in Baghdad – but the idea that the inner circle – and not just the Sunni components – may be cracking is a threat.

My friend may think Assad has a year at least, but I think he may be operating under a few assumptions as to how much in control of the Alawi he is. The Alawi have really staked much on the Assads, but i think if it seemed worth while to them, if they felt vulnerable enough or if an alternative seemed alluring enough, they would abandon him. The idea shouldn’t be dismissed, at least, that Assad will fall far quicker than a year. What is to come after, though, may not make many here or there too happy.

It would seem that the elite defections are starting in earnest now in Syria. The Syrian ambassador to Iraq has resigned and defected. Fares’ defection, along with the earlier defection of Gen. Tlaf, plays into the narrative of the crumbling regime in the ways that we’ve seen before, for example in Libya. I tend to be in the camp of thinking that the writing is on the wall for Assad, but the question is, how long is that wall?

Are these two high-profile defections bellwethers for immanent collapse of the regime? I think, perhaps, not. Unlike Libya, you don’t have NATO adding pressure with military force. That sped up everything. Plus, despite what the mainstream media is saying about Tlas being a personal friend to Bashar and Fares being an important, senior diplomat, it may be that what we’re seeing here is a result of the increasingly sectarian nature of the Syrian revolt.

Tlas and Fares are Sunni, and the armed opposition is increasingly majority Sunni and radical. These defections show that the Sunni elite that has existed just outside the inner Alawi core is crumbling. That’s not good for Assad, but it doesn’t spell doom just yet. If anything, I would expect the lines to harden. Assad has no compunction using extreme violence and force to sustain his rule, and the core around him may well be prepared to go as far as necessary as a means of keeping the Sunni bogeyman at bay.

Then again, such a situation may be ripe for a palace coup, as Reva Bhalla and Kamran Bokhari have pointed out in Strafor (via Josh Landis’ site).

So, more crumbling at the edges, but the wall still stands. For how long? A friend with good insight says at least another year. Half the military and the entire diplomatic corps could defect in that time. Assad’s state may shrink before it falls.