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.

Egypt, according to seasoned Middle East diplomat Dennis Ross, is living in denial. Ross says in an op ed in the Washington Post that Egyptian President Moursi and the Muslim Brotherhood are denying reality by disavowing sending a response message to Israeli President Perez’s note even while bowing to pragmatic pressures by reversing its stance on accepting IMF assistance. From this, Ross interprets a dangerous “alternative reality” forming in the mindset of the Brotherhood; something for the US to steadfastly confront in its dealings with the new government.

What conclusions should be drawn about an organization that cannot admit the truth? That insists on living in its own reality? If nothing else, it’s clear that the group the Brotherhood [sic] is wedded to its ideology and cannot admit anything that might call its basic philosophy into question.

What conclusions should be drawn about an organization that cannot admit the truth? Possibly that they are in politics?

Not being able to admit fault in its central tenets is a quality of ideology—political or religious—to be sure, but public statements disavowing unpopular but pragmatic actions is also the hallmark of politics. That the Brotherhood is unused to playing such politics and may stumble embarrassingly upon occasion is to be expected. One could point to any number of incidents in American politics as proof of either party in the US insisting on living in its own reality despite overwhelming evidence of “truth” to the contrary.

Ross is, of course, a diplomat, and his overall point is that the US should not tolerate actions or statements by foreign powers that it doesn’t agree with. Particularly as the Moursi government is in the process of forming what Egyptian politics is the mean, this is a critical period in which to establish the bases of the bilateral relationship and the US should take a hard stand now or lose the ability to do so later on.

Fair enough, but his chosen argument is a poor one. Most other states contend that the US doesn’t abide by the arbitrary rules it sets for others, that it punishes others for unfair trade relations while enacting protectionist measures at home, that it insists upon democratic reforms abroad while stifling dissent at home and supporting friendly dictatorships around the world.

And what conclusions should be drawn about a state that cannot admit the truth but insists on living in its own reality?

Politics as usual.

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.

Now that the hemming and hawing of the Egyptian presidential elections has passed (in what Marc Lynch dubbed a game of “Calvinball”) and Moursi declared the winner, we have a number of vital questions to ask. That the SCAF was willing to accept Moursi as a de-fanged president may have been obvious by their last-minute attempt to defang him or whoever else came into office, though they no doubt would have preferred Shafiq (one of their own). What isn’t obvious is to what extent Moursi and the Muslim Brotherhood are willing to accept the SCAF. What’s unknown here is principally what does the Brotherhood truly want and how savvy are they at getting it?

Some have speculated that Moursi’s next few weeks must be filled with trying to wrangle a compromise from the SCAF, to get them to devolve some power to the presidency and parliament, and ideally to agree (via the election commission and high court) to hold a rerun for only the third of parliamentary seats that were contested by parties running as independents. If the rest of the two-thirds of parliament could be reconvened, they say, Moursi and Egyptian democracy would have a real chance (There’s even a site to hold Moursi to account for these changes within his first hundred days, a la American presidents, here).

Fine enough, but it is not out of bounds to ask if Moursi or the Brotherhood even care about this. I along with everyone else have been assuming that the goal of both was to rule and that they were conducting behind-the-scenes negotiations towards that end, but there’s no hard evidence of this. It is possible that the Brotherhood has decided it can live with a symbolic presidency; that holding such a high-profile position, even devoid of true power, would help them in their larger goal: bringing Egyptian society more in line with their view of Islamic morality.

If this is the case, then there may not be any negotiations and those waiting for reform will wait a long time. But I have to say that if this is the case, then the Brotherhood may find itself in the unenviable position a year or so from now of appearing to the general public to be in power, and thus responsible for “fixing” many facets of Egyptian life, but without actually being able to do anything about it. This would likely suit the SCAF just fine: setting up a fall-guy administration to take the heat for failure to fix the economy and a host of other issues. Shafiq’s next run for president might go somewhat better.

But assuming that Moursi and the Brotherhood do want to rule, and are trying to cut deals to do just that, my question is are they going to try and win back concessions from the SCAF, or outmaneuver them? The scenario I outlined above works both ways: since the economic issues are not likely to be solved by the Brotherhood or the SCAF, there’s a good chance that in a year’s time public anger will be focused on whomever they see as being chiefly responsible for the continued failure. If the SCAF can use Moursi as a patsy to take the heat, then they win. If Moursi can make the SCAF look responsible, then he and the Brotherhood win. So look for major PR campaigns with Moursi & Co. clamoring about how the SCAF is preventing them from making real change, and vice versa.

The biggest problem with this strategy for the Brotherhood is that there’s no easy endpoint in sight. The Brotherhood can’t force the SCAF to give up power just by channeling popular anger. One way or another, to get real power from them, it has to come to blows. I can’t help but feel that this week’s machinations have only succeeded in kicking the problem down the field, perhaps for another year—it might not even make it until the next elections.

One final thought: all of the above assumes much in regards to how much Moursi and the Brotherhood’s interests converge. That’s probably fair to assume at the moment, but will that still be the case a year hence? Moursi has been picked on for seeming unsophisticated and politically unsavvy, but that reminds me of how the unsavvy Nouri al-Maliki was characterized when first elected Iraqi PM as a compromise candidate. Say what you will about al-Maliki, he managed to survive and against the odds recreate himself as a major power player. If I were the SCAF, I would be making sure to give cash incentives to Moursi and other key figures even while setting them up for the fall. When the Brotherhood decides that they need to act, will they find that Moursi is still their man?