Commentary Magazine


Topic: Abdel Fattah el-Sisi

Does Human Rights Watch Make Up Its Numbers?

I wrote here yesterday regarding Human Rights Watch’s tendency to substitute polemic for research, and to force analysis through a political lens. At issue were questions about the circumstances surrounding the deaths in Rabaa Square in August 2013, when military forces broke up a sit-in of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamad Morsi, a Brotherhood acolyte and Egypt’s first democratically-elected president before his ouster the month before. Make no mistake: hundreds of protestors died and, according to the Egyptian government, dozens of police as well.

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I wrote here yesterday regarding Human Rights Watch’s tendency to substitute polemic for research, and to force analysis through a political lens. At issue were questions about the circumstances surrounding the deaths in Rabaa Square in August 2013, when military forces broke up a sit-in of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamad Morsi, a Brotherhood acolyte and Egypt’s first democratically-elected president before his ouster the month before. Make no mistake: hundreds of protestors died and, according to the Egyptian government, dozens of police as well.

Enter Human Rights Watch, and its publicity-seeking executive director, Ken Roth. Human Rights Watch launched an investigation into the massacre, as it should have, although from Roth’s tweets and public statements, it seems that he had already drawn his conclusions before the investigation had even begun. Nevertheless, despite his outrage, Roth’s initial tweets were somewhat restrained. For example, shortly after the massacre, he tweeted, “‘Democracy’ is not shooting people in the name of #Egypt majority. It requires operating within the limits of rights.”

After the Egyptian government denied Roth entry into Egypt on the first anniversary of the killings, he magically raised the casualties that Human Rights Watch attributed to the Egyptian government, declaring on Facebook, “I went to Cairo to present Egypt’s leaders with evidence that police slaughtered 1,000 people at Rabaa Square. They wouldn’t even let me out of the airport.” If Human Rights Watch is a serious organization, it should confirm those killed with visits to the morgue, interviews with the families, and confirmation with state records and visits to graves. It shouldn’t, with a magic wand and in a fit of pique, imply that the numbers are chosen arbitrarily depending on the mood of the analyst.

Initially, Human Rights Watch documented “at least 377 [deaths], significantly higher than the latest Rab’a death toll of 288 announced by the Health Ministry.” With time, that number grew. In its final report, Human Rights Watch put the death toll they could confirm at 817. That’s bad enough (and the Egyptian government, for what it’s worth, places the death toll in the 600-person range). But Roth’s Facebook post on the Human Rights Watch page seems to simply inflate the numbers by 25 percent. Raising the death toll in a fit of anger out of the disrespect a researcher feels at the hands of a foreign government does nothing but diminish the legitimacy of Human Rights Watch’s research.

Roth is fond of analogies as well but, again, with these he plays fast and loose. On August 13, 2014, he tweets, “Tiananmen in 1989, Andijan in 2005, and now #Egypt’s Rab’a in 2013–large-scale massacres that demand justice.” That’s true. Again, however, Roth’s bombast seemed to get the better of him, perhaps because his relatively dispassionate tweet didn’t get him the media coverage he hoped. Hence, just 17 days later, he tweeted, “17 NGOs press UN rights council to address #Egypt: bigger protester massacre than Tiananmen, mass arrests & torture.” So was Rabaa a bigger massacre than Tiananmen? Well, for this, it pays simply to look at old reports by Human Rights Watch from the days when it prioritized human-rights research and reporting above polemic. As the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square approached this past spring, Human Rights Watch released this, carefully sidestepping the question of deaths on that horrible day because Human Rights Watch doesn’t know how many hundreds died. On the 20th anniversary, Human Rights Watch mentioned “untold numbers” killed. In 2010, however, Human Rights Watch suggested 2,000 had been killed in and around Tiananmen. Perhaps my math is wrong, but I thought 2,000 was larger than 1,000 (or 817 or 377).

The point of this is not to diminish the horror of what transpired in Rabaa Square, nor the culpability of Egyptian forces who may have used unnecessary force (or the Muslim Brotherhood activists who apparently fired from within crowds in order to kill security forces and bring more casualties to some of the innocents in the square when government forces returned fire). Rather, it’s to point out that while human-rights advocacy is extremely important and, along with independent journalism, plays an important role in civil society, so flagrantly massaging numbers to support the politics or press release of the day is the hallmark of an organization gone bad, and simply enables governments across the globe to dismiss all Human Rights Watch work as unprofessional and politically biased.

Given the inconsistencies and exaggerations to which Human Rights Watch Executive Director Ken Roth appears prone, the Egyptian government would be within its rights to dismiss the Human Rights Watch report as inherently flawed. Let us hope that other organizations do a better job of shining light on an incident which so many wish would remain in the dark, because until that job is done credibly and professionally, many will get away with murder. And let us also hope that if Human Rights Watch is to salvage its reputation, it will start to pay heed to the consistency of numbers espoused by its staff.

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A Rabbi Upsets the Church of Liberalism

Last week, Rabbi Richard Block caused a bit of a stir by announcing he was canceling his subscription to the New York Times. It caused a stir because of who he is: “a lifelong Democrat, a political liberal, a Reform rabbi, and for four decades, until last week, a New York Times subscriber,” as he wrote in Tablet.

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Last week, Rabbi Richard Block caused a bit of a stir by announcing he was canceling his subscription to the New York Times. It caused a stir because of who he is: “a lifelong Democrat, a political liberal, a Reform rabbi, and for four decades, until last week, a New York Times subscriber,” as he wrote in Tablet.

Every so often, someone surprises and offends the intelligentsia by revealing they don’t read the Times. National Review’s Jay Nordlinger wrote the definitive column on the subject back in 2004 (reprinted online at NRO a few years ago). Because Block represented a somewhat prominent liberal defector, the true believers of the religion of liberalism were aghast.

Perhaps no one took this more personally than Chemi Shalev, columnist for Haaretz. Most of Shalev’s column is pretty silly, accusing Block of intellectual retreat because he no longer will give his money to the house organ of the Church of Liberalism. This is, essentially, the I know you are but what am I response to Block, since the Times’s extreme ideological rigidity and enforced narrative conformity are precisely what Block objects to about the newspaper. But Shalev’s column–actually, one sentence of the column–is interesting for two reasons.

The first is the extent to which the rise of conservative and pro-Israel alternative media has slowly driven the left mad. Shalev writes:

Really, Rabbi Block? You won’t miss the New York Times? You’ll make do with Fox News and the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Free Beacon, because they report on Israel in the way you deem acceptable? You’ll give up the Times because they upset you on Gaza?

It’s the third sentence there, of course, that is the interesting one. Can you imagine, Shalev asks, someone giving up the Times? What will they read, the Washington Free Beacon? This is supposed to be an insult directed at the Free Beacon, but of course a Haaretz columnist taking a shot at the reporting chops of the Beacon is actually punching up. (Sample piece from today’s Haaretz: Sefi Rachlevsky’s argument that the country’s Orthodox Jewish schools are putting Israel in danger of transforming the Jewish state into “the world of ISIS.” Haaretz tweeted out a link to the article, writing: “Israel needs humanistic science education, not religious – or else it will become like ISIS.”)

The other reason that line is interesting is because it offers an opportunity to point something out about the Wall Street Journal. Shalev includes the Journal with Fox and the Beacon, presumably to impugn the objectivity of its reporting. Shalev, in other words, has no idea what he’s talking about. As everybody knows, the Journal’s editorial page is conservative but its reporting–as the data make explicitly clear–is not. There is a view among many leftists that if the editors of a publication are reliably supportive of Israel, the entire publication isn’t to be trusted. It would be shame if Shalev subscribed to this mania.

But more importantly, the summer war with Gaza made clear that when it comes to reporting on the conflict in the Middle East, no one holds a candle to the Journal. It was by far the most important newspaper to read, at least outside of Israel, to understand the complex web of diplomacy before and during the war. Adam Entous, in particular, was head and shoulders above any of his peers.

Entous had two major scoops during the war, in addition to excellent general reporting. The first told the story of how the alliance between Israel and Egypt’s new strongman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi formed after the Egyptian military overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi in a coup. The story explained how Egypt’s policies changed toward Gaza, how Israel’s assessment of Sisi developed, and how and why the ceasefire diplomacy during the war took shape.

The second was the major scoop that the Obama administration had downgraded its military cooperation with Israel during the war and even withheld a missile shipment in order to tie Israel’s hands and force it to accept a ceasefire opposed not just by Israel but by the Arab states in the immediate vicinity who understood the deal would benefit Hamas and its benefactors, Qatar and Turkey.

Meanwhile, the Times was making a fool of itself. It wasn’t just biased; it was, as the better reporting elsewhere showed, creating a version of events so far removed from reality as to make the reader wonder which war the Times was covering. This wasn’t altogether surprising: the Times Jerusalem bureau chief has had a disastrous tenure and does not appear to be at all familiar with the basic geography of the country she covers and the municipality out of which her bureau is based. And the Times’s Gaza correspondent was apparently using a photo of Yasser Arafat as his Facebook profile picture.

In sum, the point is not about bias: that’s nothing new. The point is that if you read the Times’s war coverage you did not learn anything about the war. You simply read proofread versions of Hamas press releases. I can’t speak for Rabbi Block, but I get the impression he’s not canceling his Times subscription because he can’t deal with inconvenient facts. I imagine he’s canceling his subscription because he is seeking out the facts, and this summer proved he’d have to go elsewhere for them.

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Should Human Rights Watch Be Trusted?

Human Rights Watch (HRW) likes to consider itself the authority on human rights and adherence to international law. Unfortunately, in recent years it has weathered a number of scandals and prioritized its own subjective worldview above any objective standard for measuring human rights. Five years ago, for example, HRW spokeswoman Sarah Leah Whitson held a fundraiser in Saudi Arabia promising to use the money to counter the influence of “pro-Israel pressure groups in the US, the European Union and the United Nations,” never mind that Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s most egregious violators of human rights.

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Human Rights Watch (HRW) likes to consider itself the authority on human rights and adherence to international law. Unfortunately, in recent years it has weathered a number of scandals and prioritized its own subjective worldview above any objective standard for measuring human rights. Five years ago, for example, HRW spokeswoman Sarah Leah Whitson held a fundraiser in Saudi Arabia promising to use the money to counter the influence of “pro-Israel pressure groups in the US, the European Union and the United Nations,” never mind that Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s most egregious violators of human rights.

Its founding chairman took to the pages of the New York Times to castigate the organization he created for prioritizing politics over mission. Iraqis of all stripes tend to despise HRW because HRW’s leadership refused to provide evidence and documentation about Saddam’s genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds for the trial of Saddam unless Iraqis agreed to forgo capital punishment. Blackmail and imperialism are both unbecoming for an NGO.

In this month’s COMMENTARY, Jonathan Foreman chronicles “The Twitter Hypocrisy of Kenneth Roth,” the executive director of Human Rights Watch, who throughout the recent Gaza violence put politics and polemics above both fact and devotion to the international humanitarian law he and HRW claim to uphold. During the conflict, Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, highlighted Roth’s tweets which suggested Roth was even willing to cast aside the Geneva Conventions in order to support and advance the Hamas narrative.

Roth, however, appears not only a partisan in terms of his animus toward Israel, but also with regard to his embrace more broadly of political Islam. Because Roth wears his politics and polemics on his sleeve, and has seemed long ago to embrace detached neutrality when conducting research for HRW reports, the Egyptian government recently denied Roth entry into Egypt, where Roth hoped to unveil HRW’s report on the deaths of hundreds in a Cairo clash last summer.

Egypt acted correctly. Human Rights Watch may believe it wears the mantle of legitimacy in human-rights research and can be both a credible judge and jury, but that ship sailed years ago. The Egyptian government was able to quickly point out a number of well-documented factual errors. HRW, for example, claimed security forces did not provide adequate warning, but television footage showed warnings issued by loudspeaker and broadcast on television. HRW said 85,000 people were in the protest camp at the time the Egyptian police sought to disperse the crowds, but it is doubtful whether the Rabaa Square could accommodate that number. Nevertheless, the Egyptian government had timed the operation for hours when camp numbers were suppressed. And while HRW claimed there had been no investigation, former President Adly Mansour did order an inquiry; whether that inquiry is credible remains to be seen but, as Bahrain showed with the Bassiouni Commission, it would be silly to dismiss indigenous attempts at investigation and justice; in fact, encouraging countries to investigate themselves should be the paramount goal, one that trumps the jet-setting, headline-seeking culture that now infuses some of HRW’s top leadership.

Almost immediately after his return from Cairo, Roth started addressing his allegations against the Egyptian government in the most polemical ways. He took to the airwaves with Amy Goodman, an unabashedly partisan anchor, to accuse Egypt of engaging in a massacre worse than Tiananmen. Never mind that in Tiananmen, only one side was doing the shooting and one side was doing the dying, whereas in Cairo the Muslim Brotherhood was fighting. Here he is making the same accusations in an op-ed in an Australian paper. Roth’s prolific tweets from mid-August grow increasingly polemical and unprofessional. Letting Roth into Egypt would be akin to hiring a kleptomaniac as the night guard in a jewelry shop.

Now, make no mistake. I mourn the loss of life in Rabaa a year ago, although I am not so certain that the situation was as black and white as Roth finds it politically convenient to claim. Nor do I see the Muslim Brotherhood as having been committed to democracy. President Mohamad Morsi made that clear when he sought to take dictatorial power.

Admittedly, I shed no tears over Morsi’s ouster, and while I also consider the current NGO law difficult to justify, the Egyptian government—and every other government, for that matter—is entirely justified denying Roth and HRW researchers access until such a time as HRW upholds professional standards to separate polemic and politics from more serious assessment, investigation, and analysis. I have also known—and sat down with—many HRW researchers over the years and many are hard-working, professional, and committed to human-rights work. Unfortunately, HRW’s leadership seems to subordinate such concerns to their own personal agendas, eroding the credibility of the entire organization. Rather, if the truth will be known, it is essential that professional journalists do the job (and be allowed to do their job) rather than partisans claiming privilege under the cloak of an organization coasting on its former reputation.

Let us also hope that General Sisi can rectify Egypt’s myriad financial problems and overcome the pressures of those in the military who might be more comfortable with the old crony capitalist system rather than one which puts both Egypt’s economic stability and the Egyptian peoples’ opportunity on firmer ground. Let us also hope that the West will not cease its pressure on Sisi to implement substantial reforms, all the while providing the Egyptian government the means to counter a real al-Qaeda and the terrorist threat within Egypt’s borders. The two goals need not be mutually exclusive. One-thing is certain, however: true human-rights advocacy should mean more than the political polemic and individual self-aggrandizement which some in HRW now seem to embrace.

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Yes, Egypt Is Playing a Constructive Role in Gaza Conflict

With Hamas’s strategy of using human shields and threatening journalists, the blame-the-Jews strain running as strong as ever around the world, and the undeniably atrocious behavior of John Kerry, Egypt has mostly avoided the world’s ire as the conflict in Gaza continues. But with Cairo hosting the repeatedly failed talks, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s luck was bound to run out. And now his government is being unfairly castigated for its role in the ceasefire negotiations.

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With Hamas’s strategy of using human shields and threatening journalists, the blame-the-Jews strain running as strong as ever around the world, and the undeniably atrocious behavior of John Kerry, Egypt has mostly avoided the world’s ire as the conflict in Gaza continues. But with Cairo hosting the repeatedly failed talks, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s luck was bound to run out. And now his government is being unfairly castigated for its role in the ceasefire negotiations.

The complaint centers on Egypt’s post-Morsi role in the region. When the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was in power in Cairo, its Palestinian offshoot Hamas had a powerful friend next door. When violence last flared up between Israel and Hamas, Cairo facilitated a ceasefire–a process which left Hamas mostly unscathed and able to replenish its arsenal for the next round of fighting. But Sisi heads a military government that deposed the Brotherhood’s men in a coup. As such, Sisi doesn’t want Hamas to be able to rearm at will and cause trouble indefinitely.

It’s a logical position, and one that should be echoed in the West. But not everyone’s happy with Sisi’s lack of urgency in ending the fighting. An example of this argument comes from Michele Dunne and Nathan Brown:

This subtle shift — from mediator with interests, to interested party that also mediates — has led to a longer and bloodier Gaza war than might otherwise have been the case. And while a strong Egypt-Israel alliance was supposed to cut Hamas down to size, this strategy has also backfired on the diplomatic front. However much it has bloodied Hamas — and particularly the population of Gaza — the war has actually led to a breaking of international taboos on dealing with Hamas, a former pariah.

Egypt has always brought its own long-standing national security interests to the table in previous Gaza mediation efforts. Cairo has never wanted militants or weapons to enter Egypt from Gaza, nor has it wanted to take over responsibility for humanitarian or security affairs there, having had the unhappy experience of occupying the Gaza Strip for almost 20 years following 1948. Egyptian intelligence officials have always taken the lead in dealing with Gaza — even during the yearlong presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi. While one might have thought that Morsi would have opened the floodgates to Hamas, the Brotherhood’s ideological bedfellow, in actuality Egypt kept the border with Gaza largely closed during his presidency and continued efforts to destroy tunnels. Whatever his personal sympathies, Morsi stayed within the lines of a policy designed to ensure that Egypt was not stuck holding the Gaza hot potato.

But after removing Morsi in a July 2013 coup, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, then defense minister and now president, transformed Egypt’s policy toward Gaza into part of his larger domestic and international political agenda. He is clearly using Gaza to prosecute his own relentless crackdown against the Brotherhood — an effort that also helps cement his alignment with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

There are a few problems with this argument.

First of all, Nunne and Brown claim that Hamas has punctured its isolation thanks to Cairo’s tough line. I’m not at all convinced this is really the case, but let’s say it is. The more important question than whether the world is talking to Hamas is how the world is talking about Hamas. There is an unprecedented consensus that this is the moment to disarm Hamas and demilitarize Gaza. Is it a pipe dream? Maybe. But the Israeli/Egyptian opposition to letting Hamas off the hook has raised serious discussions about ending the Gaza blockade in return for demilitarizing the strip. And this idea has broad support at the Pentagon, in Europe, and among Arab states in the Middle East.

It might be true that if this doesn’t happen, Dunne and Brown have a case. But that leads to the second problem with their thesis: they have fallen into the classic trap of prioritizing ending this war over preventing future wars. They are nearly mutually exclusive goals. “This war” is not really a separate war, after all, from the last one or the one before that. As long as Hamas is in power in Gaza and able to rearm and threaten Israel, each truce is temporary and each ceasefire comes with an expiration date.

Another problem is that Dunne and Brown give Morsi a bit too much credit for containing Hamas. It’s true that Morsi cracked down on tunnels to Egypt. But as the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month:

Under the protective umbrella of Mr. Morsi’s Islamist-led government, Hamas had imported large quantities of arms from Libya and Sudan, as well as money to pay the salaries of government officials and members of their armed wing, Israeli and U.S. officials said. His successor abruptly changed that.

That’s a significant difference. Enabling weapons flows to Hamas guarantees future violence, so it’s a bit rich to see Morsi praised and Sisi criticized on this score.

And finally, Dunne and Brown–and the other critics of Egypt’s new role under Sisi–don’t seem to appreciate the fact that Sisi’s goals align quite nicely with those of the West. Doesn’t the West want terrorist groups like Hamas, al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the rest to be defeated? I would think so.

And this is even more important in light of the news yesterday that Israel derailed an attempted West Bank coup by Hamas. According to Israel’s security officials, as the Times of Israel reported, “the plot was orchestrated by senior Hamas official Saleh al-Arouri, who is based in Turkey and enjoys the support of the local officials there.”

Any assessment of the balance of power in the Middle East has to incorporate the fact that Turkey is now not only helping Hamas, but enabling the planning of a coup against Mahmoud Abbas’s government in the West Bank. Egypt’s shift to dedicated foe of Hamas is a boon to the West’s otherwise fading influence in the region, and persuasively rebuts the idea that Cairo’s actions don’t align with Western strategic objectives.

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Obama’s Love–Hate Relationship with Retrenchment

Does the Obama administration actually want to step back from world affairs, or does it want to control them more than ever but through obedient proxies? Until recently, the answer seemed to be closer to the former. Obama himself is noticeably uncomfortable on foreign affairs, often displaying his lack of interest in filling the gaps in his knowledge. But perhaps there’s a degree of control the president is unwilling to give up after all.

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Does the Obama administration actually want to step back from world affairs, or does it want to control them more than ever but through obedient proxies? Until recently, the answer seemed to be closer to the former. Obama himself is noticeably uncomfortable on foreign affairs, often displaying his lack of interest in filling the gaps in his knowledge. But perhaps there’s a degree of control the president is unwilling to give up after all.

Israel has always been the exception to Obama’s approach to the world. He has long denounced American meddling, though he tried in his first term (rather transparently) to collapse Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition and force a change in Jerusalem. When it comes to American retrenchment, then, Israel seems to be an exception to the rule yet again.

The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the development of the Israel-Egypt relationship since the coup that replaced the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi with General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Here is some key background:

At first, Israeli intelligence officials said they didn’t know what to make of Mr. Sisi, a devout Muslim who in previous posts treated his Israeli counterparts coldly, a senior Israeli official said. As Mr. Sisi moved to take control of the government, Israeli intelligence analysts pored over his public statements, writings and private musings, Israeli and U.S. officials said.

The Israeli intelligence community’s conclusion: Mr. Sisi genuinely believed that he was on a “mission from God” to save the Egyptian state, the senior Israeli official said.

Moreover, as an Egyptian nationalist, he saw Mr. Morsi’s Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, and its Palestinian offshoot, Hamas, as threats to the state that needed to be suppressed with a heavy hand, the Israeli official said.

Israeli intelligence analysts interpreted Mr. Sisi’s comments about keeping the peace with Israel and ridding Egypt of Islamists as a “personal realization that we—Israel—were on his side,” the Israeli official said.

Here’s how Hamas in Gaza viewed the change:

Under the protective umbrella of Mr. Morsi’s Islamist-led government, Hamas had imported large quantities of arms from Libya and Sudan, as well as money to pay the salaries of government officials and members of their armed wing, Israeli and U.S. officials said. His successor abruptly changed that.

“One day we had been sitting having great conversations with Morsi and his government and then suddenly, the door was shut,” Ghazi Hamad, Hamas’s deputy foreign minister, said in an interview last month.

And here’s the most important point of all, on the war in Gaza:

U.S. officials, who tried to intervene in the initial days after the conflict broke out on July 8 to try to find a negotiated solution, soon realized that Mr. Netanyahu’s office wanted to run the show with Egypt and to keep the Americans at a distance, according to U.S., European and Israeli officials.

The Americans, in turn, felt betrayed by what they saw as a series of “mean spirited” leaks, which they interpreted as a message from Mr. Netanyahu that U.S. involvement was neither welcomed nor needed.

Reflecting Egypt’s importance, Mr. Gilad and other officials took Mr. Sisi’s “temperature” every day during the war to make sure he was comfortable with the military operation as it intensified. Israeli officials knew television pictures of dead Palestinians would at some point bring Cairo to urge Israel to stop.

The Americans felt betrayed, and were clearly frustrated–as other accounts have explained in detail–by their lack of control. Walter Russell Mead calls it an “irony” that the administration wanted to have some way to step back from the world, especially the Middle East, without having it all go to hell, and yet when that opportunity arose they didn’t know what to make of it.

I think Mead is being overly generous. Obama and is advisers were more than surprised; they were resentful to such a degree that it was reflected in their public statements. But they can’t have it both ways. Obama can’t pull back from the world and put more of the burden on our allies to pick up the slack and then complain when those allies think for themselves instead of applying Obama’s magical thinking to serious conflicts.

The real irony is that all this brought Israel and the Arab states much closer together–a perennial goal of American foreign policy–only to make Obama complain they were ganging up on him. It was the one possible success in Obama’s rebalancing efforts, yet it’s the one that really bothers him.

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Obama Drops the Ball in Egypt

It must be hard for President Obama to keep up with the cascade of crises that have erupted on the world stage, especially when there are more pressing issues such as a discussion with American Indian youth in North Dakota, a trip for which Obama could find no room on Air Force One for his national security advisor.

It seems like ancient history now, but before the current crisis in Iraq, and before the Russian invasion of Crimea, and before China began threatening its maritime neighbors from Japan to the Philippines to Vietnam, Egypt was at the eye of the storm. In the weeks and months after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s fall, al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist groups established themselves in the Sinai Peninsula. During Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s abbreviated tenure, the Muslim Brotherhood turned a blind eye to the worsening security situation in the Sinai and, indeed, may even have encouraged it.

After the Egyptian people rose up against Morsi, an event followed in short succession by the Egyptian military’s putsch, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi moved to restore security. He sought American assistance, but received only lackluster commitment. Finally, however, the Obama administration came around and approved the transfer of ten Apache helicopters to Cairo in order to assist the Egyptian fight against terrorism. Both Secretary of State John Kerry and CENTCOM commander Lloyd Austin have testified that the Apaches were a central part of Egypt’s fight against terror. Egyptians celebrated the administration’s decision to lift the ban on sending the Apaches to Egypt as a sign that, despite disputes regarding Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the democratic process, Washington was ready to re-engage with Cairo and move on.

Enter Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont): Upset with Morsi’s fate, Leahy put a hold on $650 million in security assistance to Egypt, although he has now approved $572 million. What he continues to put his foot down upon is the transfer of the Apaches, currently warehoused in Fort Hood. The longer the Apaches sit in Texas, the more potent the threat in the Sinai becomes. If there’s one lesson the administration and Congress should have learned, it is that allowing al-Qaeda affiliates to sink roots in any territory spreads instability.

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It must be hard for President Obama to keep up with the cascade of crises that have erupted on the world stage, especially when there are more pressing issues such as a discussion with American Indian youth in North Dakota, a trip for which Obama could find no room on Air Force One for his national security advisor.

It seems like ancient history now, but before the current crisis in Iraq, and before the Russian invasion of Crimea, and before China began threatening its maritime neighbors from Japan to the Philippines to Vietnam, Egypt was at the eye of the storm. In the weeks and months after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s fall, al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist groups established themselves in the Sinai Peninsula. During Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s abbreviated tenure, the Muslim Brotherhood turned a blind eye to the worsening security situation in the Sinai and, indeed, may even have encouraged it.

After the Egyptian people rose up against Morsi, an event followed in short succession by the Egyptian military’s putsch, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi moved to restore security. He sought American assistance, but received only lackluster commitment. Finally, however, the Obama administration came around and approved the transfer of ten Apache helicopters to Cairo in order to assist the Egyptian fight against terrorism. Both Secretary of State John Kerry and CENTCOM commander Lloyd Austin have testified that the Apaches were a central part of Egypt’s fight against terror. Egyptians celebrated the administration’s decision to lift the ban on sending the Apaches to Egypt as a sign that, despite disputes regarding Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the democratic process, Washington was ready to re-engage with Cairo and move on.

Enter Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont): Upset with Morsi’s fate, Leahy put a hold on $650 million in security assistance to Egypt, although he has now approved $572 million. What he continues to put his foot down upon is the transfer of the Apaches, currently warehoused in Fort Hood. The longer the Apaches sit in Texas, the more potent the threat in the Sinai becomes. If there’s one lesson the administration and Congress should have learned, it is that allowing al-Qaeda affiliates to sink roots in any territory spreads instability.

It would be wrong for Obama to simply blame Leahy for the failure of the United States to uphold its commitments. The White House actually has various tools at its disposal to legally maneuver around Leahy’s hold. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

The Pentagon does have some budgetary discretion and flexibility, although it needs direction from the White House and Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Some more familiar with procedures on Capitol Hill than I am point out that the Apaches were procured and transfer funding was included in the FY 2009 funding package, and so OMB has some flexibility to reprogram that funding. If the question is merely funding for the transfer and Leahy won’t budge, perhaps it is worthwhile to see whether a third party could provide that resource: After all, many countries have a joint interest in denying safe-haven for al-Qaeda, even if the good senator from Vermont does not.

It does not seem, however, that Leahy is intractable. The administration has yet to actually fight Leahy. Given the chaos in Iraq and Syria, the necessity for Egypt to protect itself against terrorists based in the Sinai is clear. Unfortunately, once again, it seems the White House is letting the ball drop.

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Sisi’s Brotherhood Vow and the U.S.

Later this month, Egyptians will go to the polls to vote for a replacement for deposed President Mohamed Morsi, but there is little mystery about the result. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former head of the Egyptian military that toppled Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood government last summer after tens of millions of his countrymen took to the streets to call for a change, and the head of the interim authority that succeeded him, is certain to win the vote. With the party that won the elections that took place after the Mubarak dictatorship was overthrown in 2011 now banned, there is little doubt Sisi’s governing faction will prevail.

Sisi’s victory and the brutal suppression of the Brotherhood, which was highlighted by the handing out of more than 1,200 death sentences to its members in recent months, will be rightly seen as putting an end to any hope that the Arab Spring protests that ended Mubarak’s authoritarian rule would lead to anything better. Sisi’s government is in many respects a rerun of the old regime with the military firmly in control and any semblance of democracy an afterthought at best. All this will be seen as justification for a further downgrading of U.S. relations with the Egyptian government and more cuts in the more than $1 billion in aid that still flows to it. But though no one in the West should be cheering Sisi’s installation as the new rais neither should sensible observers be in mourning about his ascension. That is not because Sisi is someone who can be counted on to eventually encourage progress toward Egyptian democracy or that he is any more likely to do much of what is necessary to revive its crumbling economy. Sisi’s only virtue in the eyes of the West is the same one that recommends him as the better of all the available evils to most Egyptians: his vow to “finish” the Brotherhood if he is elected. Though, to this day, many Westerners still they think have a third choice in Egypt between a military dictatorship and an Islamist tyranny, that is a myth.

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Later this month, Egyptians will go to the polls to vote for a replacement for deposed President Mohamed Morsi, but there is little mystery about the result. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former head of the Egyptian military that toppled Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood government last summer after tens of millions of his countrymen took to the streets to call for a change, and the head of the interim authority that succeeded him, is certain to win the vote. With the party that won the elections that took place after the Mubarak dictatorship was overthrown in 2011 now banned, there is little doubt Sisi’s governing faction will prevail.

Sisi’s victory and the brutal suppression of the Brotherhood, which was highlighted by the handing out of more than 1,200 death sentences to its members in recent months, will be rightly seen as putting an end to any hope that the Arab Spring protests that ended Mubarak’s authoritarian rule would lead to anything better. Sisi’s government is in many respects a rerun of the old regime with the military firmly in control and any semblance of democracy an afterthought at best. All this will be seen as justification for a further downgrading of U.S. relations with the Egyptian government and more cuts in the more than $1 billion in aid that still flows to it. But though no one in the West should be cheering Sisi’s installation as the new rais neither should sensible observers be in mourning about his ascension. That is not because Sisi is someone who can be counted on to eventually encourage progress toward Egyptian democracy or that he is any more likely to do much of what is necessary to revive its crumbling economy. Sisi’s only virtue in the eyes of the West is the same one that recommends him as the better of all the available evils to most Egyptians: his vow to “finish” the Brotherhood if he is elected. Though, to this day, many Westerners still they think have a third choice in Egypt between a military dictatorship and an Islamist tyranny, that is a myth.

Sisi’s election campaign has done nothing to alter his image as a slightly less refined but perhaps slightly less corrupt version of Mubarak. Just as Mubarak pandered to the virulent anti-Semitism that rages in Egypt while still preserving the peace treaty with Israel, Sisi is playing the same game by promising to revise the pact and doing nothing to improve relations with the Jewish state. If anything, by the time he is done, Sisi may make many Egyptians long for the more easygoing tyranny of the man who succeeded Anwar Sadat as he has taken his “mandate” from the anti-Brotherhood street demonstrations as an excuse for the kind of brutal rule that makes his government one of the most repressive in a region where dictatorships are a dime a dozen.

What is also missing from the Sisi regime is even the occasional lip service about freedom that Mubarak would utter as part of his efforts to maintain good relations with his American patrons. President Obama’s decision to back Mubarak’s ouster and his subsequent efforts to maintain good relations with the Brotherhood government undermined any good will even with the Egyptian military that has thrived on U.S. aid. Sisi’s statement last week that the U.S. had sought at the last minute to keep Morsi in power or to at least delay the coup—a request that Sisi contemptuously refused—signaled just how little the Egyptian leader thought of Obama and that he believes that most of his countrymen share his opinion. U.S. influence in Egypt is at a low point despite the leverage that the aid ought to provide.

But despite all this, Americans should resist the temptation to damn Sisi and cut him off without a U.S. penny. For all of his bluster, Sisi still probably prefers a relationship with the U.S. to any of the alternatives, none of which will match Washington’s cash contributions to Cairo. Though Obama has seemed more interested in offending allies in the Middle East than helping them, Egypt remains the most populous Arab country and a linchpin of any U.S. strategy for influence in the region. More to the point, as much as Sisi’s methods may be distasteful, his promise that the Brotherhood will never get a chance at power is one that Americans as well as Egyptians should hope he fulfills.

Though many Americans still labor under the delusion that the Brotherhood might have been moderating its Islamist stance rather than seeking to create a theocracy, Egyptians know better. The Brotherhood’s year in power was a wake-up call for a country that had voted the Islamists into power because they were the only organized opposition to Mubarak. The fact that more Egyptians demonstrated to oust Morsi—a man who had actually won his office in an election—than Mubarak should have tipped Obama off to the error he made by embracing the Brotherhood.

Last year many feared that driving the Brotherhood underground would make it even more dangerous, but the evidence of the last several months shows that though it is by no means finished yet, its lack of support among the Egyptian people makes any attempt at an Islamist insurgency a doubtful prospect. Sisi’s genius lies in his understanding of this fact. His decision to use this opportunity to wipe out the Islamists—a difficult task but one toward which he has been making progress—shows a genuine strategic vision that the Americans who are chiding him for brutality lack.

In a war against Islamists, Sisi understands there are only two options: victory or defeat. How he wins that victory will win him no friends. But the consequences of the fulfillment of his vow will help isolate the Brotherhood’s Hamas allies in Gaza, solidify the treaty with Israel, and ensure that Islamists will never be able to seize control of Cairo and with it the region. That’s good news for the United States and its friends, even though few in Washington will be honest or wise enough to admit it.

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U.S. Should Support Egypt’s New Constitution

Egyptians have gone to the polls over recent days in order to cast their vote in a referendum with regard to a new constitution. According to the Voice of America:

​The vote comes six months after Egypt’s military toppled the country’s first democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi in July after large protests against him and his government. Initial reports show the new charter winning overwhelming approval of those who voted. Final vote counts from around the country scrolled across the screens of Egyptian satellite channels throughout the day, showing “yes” votes in most districts of between 90 and 98 percent. Many analysts say the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to boycott the referendum may explain the lack of a significant “no” vote.

Even though the Muslim Brotherhood boycotted the vote, turnout appears to be high. According to Egypt’s presidential spokesman:

Early indications point to the fact that Egyptians made history this week with a high level of participation in the vote on the draft Constitution. This is a wonderful day for Egypt, Egyptians and for democracy, despite the extraordinary circumstances. This vote represents a resounding rejection of terrorism and a clear endorsement of the roadmap to democracy, as well as economic development and stability.”

Many in Washington—among Obama administration officials, academic cheerleaders for the Muslim Brotherhood, and many traditional neoconservatives—are understandably quite hesitant to support Egypt’s transitional government going forward, and may be even more hesitant should Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi run for president. Whatever rhetorical hoops the Obama administration jumps through, the fact of the matter is that the Egyptian military staged a coup and overthrew Egypt’s first elected president.

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Egyptians have gone to the polls over recent days in order to cast their vote in a referendum with regard to a new constitution. According to the Voice of America:

​The vote comes six months after Egypt’s military toppled the country’s first democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi in July after large protests against him and his government. Initial reports show the new charter winning overwhelming approval of those who voted. Final vote counts from around the country scrolled across the screens of Egyptian satellite channels throughout the day, showing “yes” votes in most districts of between 90 and 98 percent. Many analysts say the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to boycott the referendum may explain the lack of a significant “no” vote.

Even though the Muslim Brotherhood boycotted the vote, turnout appears to be high. According to Egypt’s presidential spokesman:

Early indications point to the fact that Egyptians made history this week with a high level of participation in the vote on the draft Constitution. This is a wonderful day for Egypt, Egyptians and for democracy, despite the extraordinary circumstances. This vote represents a resounding rejection of terrorism and a clear endorsement of the roadmap to democracy, as well as economic development and stability.”

Many in Washington—among Obama administration officials, academic cheerleaders for the Muslim Brotherhood, and many traditional neoconservatives—are understandably quite hesitant to support Egypt’s transitional government going forward, and may be even more hesitant should Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi run for president. Whatever rhetorical hoops the Obama administration jumps through, the fact of the matter is that the Egyptian military staged a coup and overthrew Egypt’s first elected president.

That said, President Mohamed Morsi had ceased to be a democrat pretty much the second he took office. He had dispensed with any notion of a broad-based constitution, and moved to undermine separation of powers. A year ago November, be sought to effectively seize dictatorial powers for himself, placing the presidency above the judicial decisions (much like Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is doing now). It is important to recognize that the choice confronting advocates of democracy moving forward isn’t between democracy and el-Sisi, but rather between two imperfect scenarios.

The question then becomes, which provides a better path toward democracy? The Muslim Brotherhood does not. It uses democracy as a means to an end, but that end is not democratic. And while many American academics and journalists cringe at the Egyptian designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, one look at the group’s ideology, its cell structure, and its past and present actions suggest that the designation may very well be warranted. Just because a terrorist group has survived eight decades does not somehow launder its ideology or tactics.

The new constitution may not be perfect, but it is a real step forward over the constitution the Muslim Brotherhood sought to impose on the Egyptian public. Here is a fact sheet produced by the Egyptian Embassy in Washington on the document.

The danger with Sisi is that he will seek to replicate the worst tendencies of the Mubarak era. The Egyptian public, however, have shown that they have little tolerance with leaders who believe themselves above the people and not accountable to them. That was a lesson Hosni Mubarak learned the hard way, and it was a lesson that Morsi learned to his detriment.

The best path forward, therefore, is to support the interim process and new constitution and maintain the expectation that any new president, Sisi or otherwise, will respect a system of checks and balances, and continue to enable an open press and free and fair elections in order to remain accountable to the people as Egypt undertakes the economic reforms which are both overdue and necessary.

To undercut the new president at this point in time is nihilistic: It will not bring democracy; at best it would result in the empowerment of hardcore Islamist radicals, increase Russian influence, and could ultimately result in state failure.

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