Sunday, January 30, 2011

Egypt: Sentiments vs. Advice

“Some may argue that the events unfolding in the Middle East now are too unpredictable to warrant a wholesale shift in U.S. foreign policy, that transferring support from loyal satraps to an untested popular opposition may backfire if that opposition fails or is put down, that the U.S. needs reassurances of friendly allies (often at the expense of democracy). But America is not simply a bystander in all of this -- its actions and words will affect the outcome. They will signal to opposition and regimes alike how far each can expect to go in challenging -- or repressing -- the other. Opposition movements (and would-be opposition movements) secular or Islamist are not only waging a battle against authoritarian oppression -- but a battle against the ways in which the U.S. manifests its quest to secure its geo-strategic interest."

I know and respect the three authors (Amaney Jamal, Ellen Lust and Tarek Masoud) of this piece, but I do not fully share their prognostication.  No doubt, the Obama administration like its predecessors has been complacent about the stability of Egypt, as a number of scholars and analysts have warned.  Nonetheless, despite a few misstatements along the way, including by VP Biden and SecState Hillary Clinton, the Obama administration has handled the Egypt crisis sensibly, if not deftly.  When the demonstrations began on January 25th, it was not clear how much momentum the protests would sustain.  It is unreasonable to expect the U.S. to turn its policy on a dime, and the administration would have been derelict to do so.

By January 29th (Saturday), it was clear that Mubarak would not survive, and official U.S. rhetoric began to reflect that view.  The challenge for the administration now is to help support a transition in Egypt, a country where the regime has assiduously attempted to depoliticize civil society and to repress any serious effort at mounting a political opposition.  

If George W. Bush erred by assuming that a couple of Thomas Jefferson aspirins at bedtime (e.g., democratic elections) would suffice to transform an authoritarian political system, then scholars err, even highly qualified ones, in assuming that "supporting those calling for democracy and knowing it is in our best interest" constitutes serious policy advice.

As the authors know, I have been a long-term supporter of political reform and democratization in the Middle East, and I have certainly been critical that stability has often been the drug of choice of U.S. administrations.  Yes, the U.S. needs to embrace reform not dictators, but its also needs to play a constructive role and not instill instability and chaos, as it did in Iraq.

Turning to the Egyptian case, the urgent question is transition. There are respected institutions in Egypt, including the judiciary, which has often proven its integrity and the judiciary stands ready for this historic moment.  The military remains an essential player.  Like it or not, the military infiltrates many segments of the government, and it is hard to imagine a stable transition unless the military plays a constructive role (so far, the restraint of the army has been commendable).  Any transition that does not take account of the military’s corporate interests is likely to fail.  [See this smart piece by the widely respected Bassma Kodmani.]  Of course, many players in Egypt’s rich civil society will need to have a role as well, including the vocal opposition parties, ranging from the Wafd, Tagammu and the al-‘Araby al-Nasseri, and others including al-Wasat, which has been seeking official status for more than a decade and a half.  The largest opposition group in Egypt is the Muslim Brethren, which despite being banned has sustained an impressive level of support in Egypt’s middle class.  (Ideas about excluding the Ikhwan are just plain naïve.)  In my view, the Ikhwan has demonstrated that it is willing to play by the rules of participant politics, but there are many other Egyptians who are suspicious of its agenda.  There is, in short, a lot to be discussed.

It seems that Muhammad Baradei enjoys a mandate from the Ikhwan and several other opposition groups to play a leading hand in negotiating a political transition, but the process of constructing a transition compact is going to take time and good will on all sides.  [Added: Among Baradei's advisors is Osama el-Ghazali Harb who had a deep knowledge of Egyptian politics and also knows where many of the skeletons are hidden.]

In that regard, it serves no useful purpose for the U.S. to rush to publically pull the rug from Mubarak (as some academic colleagues urge), or to raise misgivings in the top reaches of the military.  And, by the way, what about all those NDP functionaries who have been beneficiaries of the regime? They will not—poof! —just disappear.

As for U.S. policy imperatives, I think the authors are not being particularly realistic in addressing the U.S.-Israeli relationship.  I may regret that the U.S. has allowed itself to become so entangled and ensnared with Israel's self-destructive polices, but the U.S. and Israel are tightly connected.  It is fine to argue that “real peace needs to reflect the interests of citizens in Tel Aviv, Ramallah and Cairo”; however, you cannot build a policy on that fine but difficult-to-realize sentiment.  It is a fact of life (and domestic American politics) that the U.S. will take into account its relationship with Israel. The U.S. will want to encourage any government that emerges in Cairo to respect the existing (but very chilly) peace with Israel.  As the authors know, if you put the Egypt-Israel peace treaty to a popular vote in Egypt, the results would not even be close; it would fail. 

So, Ellen, Amaney and Tarek, here is my request: I might share your sentiments, but let’s get down to the nitty-gritty about how this transition will work.  We all know that it is going to be messy and probably disappointing in some respects, but the transition to post-Mubarak is an historic opportunity to address the legitimate needs and hopes of Egypt’s long-suffering people.  Slogans are fine, but let’s move on to the hard work and give policymakers some advice they can use.

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