Friday, November 28, 2014

What America Wants in Egypt

PRINCETON – Both the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s liberal opposition are roundly criticizing the United States. That is hard on Ambassador Anne Patterson, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who just visited Cairo. But it is also evidence that the US is trying to pursue the right policy.

The US is doing its best to support not a particular party, but rather a conception of liberal democracy that entails free and fair elections and a mode of governance that respects and includes minority views and upholds individual rights. To pursue this course, however, will require standing up to Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The young people who led Egypt’s revolution two and a half years ago have been suspicious of the US for the simple reason that it supported former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime for 30 years. From the US perspective, President Barack Obama pivoted quickly from Mubarak to the people; but it did not look that way on Cairo’s streets. When the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was elected President in 2012, many Egyptians assumed that America must have supported him, because they could not imagine that the US would accept a result that it did not want.

When Patterson tried to work with Morsi’s government in ways that allowed her to pursue US interests, including pushing for more inclusive and rights-respecting policies, the liberal opposition saw her as supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. But when the US refused to call the Egyptian military’s removal of Morsi a coup (a designation that would have required it to cut off the $1.5 billion in aid provided annually to the Egyptian army), Muslim Brotherhood supporters concluded that America supported the army’s decision.

So what should the US and other governments that support liberal democracy do now? The answer could affect Egypt’s political future and that of countries throughout the region.

As many commentators have pointed out, from the Islamists’ standpoint, Morsi’s removal looks remarkably like the Algerian military’s overthrow in 1992 (with US support) of an elected Islamist government; the Turkish military’s “soft coup” in 1997, when it forced an elected Islamist government out of power; and the US government’s reversal of its support for “Arab democracy” after Hamas won elections in Gaza in 2006. If the choice for Islamists is still bullets or ballots, bullets may now look more promising. More generally, military interference with civilian politics, for any reason, weakens the processes, institutions, and checks on state power that make liberal democracy work.

Yet an estimated 17 million Egyptians marched to protest Morsi’s government, the majority of them citizens who had been mobilized through a petition process to demand a government responsive to their needs. Morsi and his Freedom and Justice Party (the Muslin Brotherhood’s political wing) gave no sign that they were prepared to accept real compromise, as opposed to tactical delays, in achieving their vision of an Islamic state. In his final speech, Morsi rallied his troops for the barricades and bloodshed rather than for the compromise that would have kept him in office.

Genuine liberal democracy requires accepting that in a pluralist, divided country, it is possible to govern only through inclusion, not imposition. Anything else suggests that political Islam is the Marxism of our time, preparing a long-term strategy ultimately aimed at replacing the system rather than reforming it. The liberal-democratic alternative is to participate in the push and pull over the role of religion in public life within limits set by a super-majoritarian constitution, as more religiously oriented parties do in the US, Europe, and Israel.

Given these competing considerations, the US should start by calling the events that began on June 30 a coup, but not yet a military coup, on the grounds that a true military coup replaces the existing government with a military government. That has not happened, and it may not happen if genuinely free and fair elections, with the participation of all parties, take place within six months.

The US should therefore declare that it will cut off its aid to Egypt’s military at a specified date unless elections take place. But that decision involves US-Israeli relations as much as US-Egyptian relations, because US aid has been aimed at securing and preserving Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. In the last two weeks, Israel has increased cooperation with Egypt’s generals to pursue Islamist extremists in Sinai.

Equally important, the US and as many other countries as possible should make clear to Egypt’s military that the detention of Muslim Brotherhood leaders must stop unless the military tries them for publicly inciting violence. While it is legitimate to demand that the Brotherhood become a regular legal organization, rather than a shadowy network fronted by the Freedom and Justice Party, criminalization of political activity has no place in a constitutional democracy. It is the classic first step toward dictatorship, as is censorship of Muslim Brotherhood media. Egyptian elections will not be free and fair if they follow a political purge, as in Iran or Russia.

But stopping the military’s campaign against Brotherhood leaders requires engaging Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These two countries authorized a combined $8 billion in aid to Egypt immediately after June 30, and they make no secret of their desire to eradicate the Brotherhood. But political stability that is bought in this way cannot last for more than a few months.

Over the longer term, an elected government will have to bring enough parts of Egyptian society together to be able to make tough choices about dismantling the military’s corrupt state within a state, cutting subsidies, and rebuilding the economy’s foundations. Pushing the Muslim Brotherhood back underground is a recipe for further instability.

Revolutions often seesaw between extremes before the forces strong enough to overthrow governments become strong enough and legitimate enough to govern. All friends of the Egyptian people must support the principles and processes of liberal democracy, regardless of the politicians and parties that we offend.

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    1. Commentedhari naidu

      Liberal democracy - may it's more relevant to US Congress today - but not for Egypt. At least not right now...

      I've argued that this lady and other's (like her) who represent US-centric-mindset of Beltway Think Tanks and are principally unable to put themselves in the shoes of average Egyptian citizens - ever since Col. Nasser's coup - are the wrong people to give advise to current developments in that ancient civilization.

      US and EU must keep their fingers out of Egyptian domestic developments (Syria included), and allow the domestic situation to eventually find its own national solution without outside political/military intervention.

      Outsiders are perhaps more responsible for the current political mess in Egypt.

    2. CommentedGary Tucker

      I would presume that the society that most Egyptians want is one that has a very good chance of improving the vast majority of their lives in the not too distant future. Both Mubarak and Morsi/MB had no desire or idea of how to do that. Instead both worked primarily to entrench their fellow core members into positions of lasting power.

      As any form of government is going to have to convince both Salafist and Coptic that they have a meaningful future and contribution to any state the "devil will be in the details" as they say.

      But that alone is still not a "light at the end of the economic" tunnel as far as a far reaching comprehensive plan to put millions to work.

      There is one plan that would have an excellent chance of dramatically improving the lives of millions of Egyptians. And it would need the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist to not only agree to the concept but to be at the lead in attempting to pull it off.

      The trade off would be the acceptance of a pluralistic society for some years to come.

      What is needed is for the people of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia to unite as one nation. At this point only the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist could bring all three together. But again under the pluralistic form for some years or permanently if possible.

      It is only by having to create a form of government, much like the Salafist/Coptic model, that would provide the necessary balance of powers to bring all into the same government.

      Currently almost 1 in 6 Libyans are refugees in Tunisia or Libya. This is a unbelievable waste of talent.

      But is only by all three nations bringing their current resources and needs to a common economic and political focus can there be true progress in all three nations. Divided they are all basket cases. United they would be a nation with massive potential in just a very few short years.

      First to create a united single nation would force much of the old guards of national government to be repositioned at the governorate or local levels.

      The second dramatic change would be the receipt of foreign currency earnings and balance of payments figures of a combined nation.

      Much of the new commercial business creation would also be outside the old military controlled businesses in the expand areas of the country.

      The establishment of a much more stable legal and enforcement framework would allow the Libyan area to begin massive infrastructure building.

      A very small but significant spending to upgrade the water system of Egypt would have dramatic and quick effects.

      Mergers between banks and other businesses across old boundaries could also open new avenues of progress long closed to millions.

      The entire concept of a new nation focused on rebuilding and expanding instead of political woes would bring tourism back across both Egyptian and Tunisian areas and create what had been a very under developed Libyan tourist sector.

      This is just a short glimpse at the possibilities.

      The key to all of this is getting the Islamist's to understand that they can govern a nation of people forever poor and downtrodden or they can pitch in and help create a much more dynamic society. This is the framework they used to stay relevant for decades under Mubarak.

      Then with an economy closer to say Turkey instead of Chad, if the great majority of people continue to elect their representatives to local, provincial and national office then so be it.

      Right now, the most dramatic way for Egyptians and Tunisians to help their lives improve is to help the Libyans lives improve even more dramatically.

      And this alignment of three nations all in search of a way forward, at the same time, with many of the same basic goals and ideals will perhaps never come again in anyone's lifetime. To miss the opportunity to at least broach the topic in a meaningful way at the highest levels of all concerned would be a monumental economic and political blunder.

    3. CommentedWim Roffel

      As I see it Obama started on the wrong foot when he more or less threw Mubarak to the hyena's. Instead of betting on "regime change" he would have done much better by betting on negotiations and reforms.

      Such a negotiated transition would have avoided the power vacuum that both allowed and sometimes pressed Morsi to step far beyond the formal limits of his power.

    4. CommentedPaul A. Myers

      Ms Slaughter pushes for "liberal democracy" probably too fast for the situation in Egypt. A slower approach that first tries to establish pluralistic politics in representative legislative bodies would be a better first step. This might be implemented over time by an inclusive national government broadly inclusive but with military support. So, first work at pluralistic local elections, then state and national parliaments, then finally a national presidential election. Do this over a period of years.

      The idea that we can have "liberal democracy" in a matter of months and that this "liberal" government will get tough with the army is laughably naive, particularly if the army is supported by cold cash from the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia.

      I am sure Ms Slaughter's views are fashionable among the elite in Washington DC. Getting something to work in the Arab world seems an entirely different kettle of fish.

      In a way, Ms. Slaughter eerily echoes the democracy enthusiasts of the Bush era. The Bush enthusiasts has hundreds of billions to play with. Today, the government in Washington is on very short rations. Resources count. Big bucks are almost as good as big battalions.

    5. CommentedJohn Brian Shannon

      Hi Anne Marie,

      Nice article.

      You certainly see all sides of this and see it well, however, I wish to draw attention to several points.

      First off, in your final paragraph, you state;

      "All friends of the Egyptian people must support the principles and processes of liberal democracy, regardless of the politicians and parties that we offend."

      Why should the U.S. or any country get involved in the internal affairs of any country, let alone poor Egypt, which can't even decide for itself which path it wants?

      What would be the measure of success for such involvement?

      What timetable would be placed on the success of the endeavor?

      What could possibly be accomplished, in such a fractured society?

      I see nothing but future disappointment on all fronts in Egypt, whether America renders assistance or not, especially with all sides criticizing America there.

      Second, $1.5 billion dollars is a trifling amount among nations these days. Even tiny Norway, or Qatar, could donate that amount per year and not even notice it.

      It's not even what the Greek government pays in debt servicing costs per month.

      I suspect that trying to leverage change in a divided Egypt with that tiny commitment, would be akin to trying to tear down the former Berlin Wall with one carpenter's hammer.

      The Saudi's walked in with $8 billion dollars and probably would double it if they saw some positive change in Egypt.

      Other GCC states would probably follow suit, although not at $8 or $16 billion, more likely in the $2-$6 billion range.

      My feeling is, that the U.S. will only lose place in this present game and will not prove to be effectual in affecting positive change in Egypt.

      More than 84 million people have yet to make up their minds. How can you give people what they want, when even they haven't decided what that might be?

      Thirdly, what is wrong with 'calling a spade, a spade' and declaring that this was a military coup?

      It is, after all, plain for the whole world to see, a military coup!

      Think of the benefits! Call it a 'somewhat benevolent military coup' in the newspapers -- and immediately save $1.5 billion!

      U.S. taxpayers will like the sound of that.

      Next, the President should convene a special meeting of all stakeholders at the UN to lead a plan towards measurable steps towards democracy for Egypt.

      Of course, the Egyptian's should be the largest group with the State Department taking a leadership role towards sustainable pathways toward democracy.

      At the very least, Egypt needs a 10-year plan, this is no 'just add water' democracy project!

      But I must reiterate, before any of that, the Egyptian people must decide what kind of society they want, and that will determine what kind of government they want.

      Putting the horse before the cart, always pays dividends!

      As always, very best regards, JBS