Commentary Magazine


Topic: Egypt

Release Apache Helicopters to Egypt

Who would have thought that, three years after the Arab Spring uprisings, the only two countries friendly to the Muslim Brotherhood would have been U.S. ‘allies’ Qatar and Turkey? In its year in power in Egypt, the only thing the Muslim Brotherhood accomplished was to turn the vast majority of the Egyptian people against it. Whereas many analysts and, apparently, the entirety of the State Department and White House, took the Muslim Brotherhood at its word, Muhammad Morsi’s rule showed that any chance within the Brotherhood was rhetorical only but that its intolerant policies and support of terror remained unchanged. Not only did the Brotherhood support and encourage Hamas terrorism emanating from the Gaza Strip, but it also empowered Al Qaeda-inspired terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula. No one should lament the Brotherhood’s fall after mass popular protests topped off by a military coup.

The Egyptian military are no angels but their year in the shadows successfully demonstrated to the Egyptian public more than any rhetoric could what would happen if the Muslim Brotherhood got its way. Now that the Brotherhood has been driven underground, the Egyptian government has once again taken up the anti-terror fight. Given what is at stake and so long as Egypt’s transition to elections and a new constitutional order continues apace, it is imperative the United States support them.

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Who would have thought that, three years after the Arab Spring uprisings, the only two countries friendly to the Muslim Brotherhood would have been U.S. ‘allies’ Qatar and Turkey? In its year in power in Egypt, the only thing the Muslim Brotherhood accomplished was to turn the vast majority of the Egyptian people against it. Whereas many analysts and, apparently, the entirety of the State Department and White House, took the Muslim Brotherhood at its word, Muhammad Morsi’s rule showed that any chance within the Brotherhood was rhetorical only but that its intolerant policies and support of terror remained unchanged. Not only did the Brotherhood support and encourage Hamas terrorism emanating from the Gaza Strip, but it also empowered Al Qaeda-inspired terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula. No one should lament the Brotherhood’s fall after mass popular protests topped off by a military coup.

The Egyptian military are no angels but their year in the shadows successfully demonstrated to the Egyptian public more than any rhetoric could what would happen if the Muslim Brotherhood got its way. Now that the Brotherhood has been driven underground, the Egyptian government has once again taken up the anti-terror fight. Given what is at stake and so long as Egypt’s transition to elections and a new constitutional order continues apace, it is imperative the United States support them.

Such was the recommendation by General Lloyd Austin last week before the House Armed Services Committee, in the following exchange with Senator Jim Inhofe, a Republican representing Oklahoma:

SENATOR INHOFE: “OK, and I appreciate that, and I agree with that. And there’s a lot of misunderstanding, back when we had the argument about the Apache helicopters. And I — I feel that — but I’ll ask you. From a military perspective, would you — would the resumption of the delivery of the Apache helicopters assist the Egyptians in their efforts to fight terrorists?”

GENERAL LLOYD J. AUSTIN III: “First, sir, I’ll say that I support the president’s policy. But from a military perspective, just looking at what the Egyptians have done in the Sinai, and the equipment that they are using — the Apache has been very instrumental in their efforts there.”

INHOFE: “Is that yes?”

AUSTIN: “That’s a yes, sir.”

The Obama administration had suspended the delivery of those helicopters. Unfortunately, while it might be satisfying on the part of some diplomats to cancel the transfer of the Apaches to Egypt such symbolic action should not come at the expense of regional security and, indeed, when it comes to Al Qaeda in the Sinai that is exactly what is at stake.

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Do Turks Want Democracy?

While some statesmen believe it is sophisticated to downplay the imperatives of freedom and liberty, across the globe ordinary people are proving them wrong. Ukrainians refused to accede to now former president Viktor Yanukovych’s efforts to reorient Ukraine to the east. They stood up for their freedoms, and fought back when attacked. Ultimately, they triumphed—at least for now—as the parliament answered popular demands and impeached the president.

Egyptians, too, were unwilling to suffer President Hosni Mubarak’s continued corruption and increasing disdain for the ordinary public, nor were they willing to tolerate President Mohamed Morsi’s evisceration of his promises and increasing disdain for the democratic principles which he had espoused during the presidential campaigns. They returned en masse to Tahrir Square to demand Morsi compromise, and when he refused, he was ousted.

In Venezuela, as well, the people are saying no more to a government that has taken potentially one of the wealthiest nations in South America and transformed it into an impoverished backwater. While many Venezuelans may have become enamored by the rhetoric of democracy and social justice that came from the likes of late president Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolás Maduro, their behavior makes clear any commitment to democracy is simply a façade in a quest for power.

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While some statesmen believe it is sophisticated to downplay the imperatives of freedom and liberty, across the globe ordinary people are proving them wrong. Ukrainians refused to accede to now former president Viktor Yanukovych’s efforts to reorient Ukraine to the east. They stood up for their freedoms, and fought back when attacked. Ultimately, they triumphed—at least for now—as the parliament answered popular demands and impeached the president.

Egyptians, too, were unwilling to suffer President Hosni Mubarak’s continued corruption and increasing disdain for the ordinary public, nor were they willing to tolerate President Mohamed Morsi’s evisceration of his promises and increasing disdain for the democratic principles which he had espoused during the presidential campaigns. They returned en masse to Tahrir Square to demand Morsi compromise, and when he refused, he was ousted.

In Venezuela, as well, the people are saying no more to a government that has taken potentially one of the wealthiest nations in South America and transformed it into an impoverished backwater. While many Venezuelans may have become enamored by the rhetoric of democracy and social justice that came from the likes of late president Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolás Maduro, their behavior makes clear any commitment to democracy is simply a façade in a quest for power.

In Turkey, too, an increasingly autocratic leader poses a challenge. While mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan quipped that democracy was like a street car, “you ride it as far as you need and then you get off.” He has proven himself a man of his word, as he has moved to consolidate power, eviscerate the judiciary, crush free speech, curb the media, and imprison political opponents. While Turks rose up to protest Erdoğan’s decision to pave over one of central Istanbul’s few remaining green areas, protestors have not persisted to the degree their colleagues have in other countries.

Too many enlightened and educated Turks have preferred to keep silent, privately expressing dismay, but publicly keeping quiet. Many Turkish analysts in Washington D.C., whether out of fear for family members back home or perhaps in a cynical attempt to maintain access to a regime that punishes criticism, self-censor or, even worse, bestow false praise on Ankara’s new tyrants. A week’s protest was not enough to bring democracy to Egypt, Ukraine, or Venezuela, but rather a sustained movement, even in the face of tear gas and police violence.

Too often in the years following Atatürk’s secularist revolution, be it under İsmet İnönü, Adnan Menderes, or Erdoğan, Turkish liberals and progressives have allowed charismatic leaders to erode the foundations of democracy and set Turkey down a dictatorial path. Once again, Turkey has fallen over the precipice into dictatorship. If Turkish liberals are content to sit on their hands instead of defend their freedoms in every city and town square, perhaps it is time to conclude that despite their professions of embracing a European outlook, Turkish liberals simply don’t want democracy enough. Ukrainians are proving daily that it is they, and not Turkey, who deserve Europe.

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Why the President Don’t Get No Respect

“For the first time,” Gallup tells us today, “more Americans think President Barack Obama is not respected by other world leaders than believe he is.” The news is a bit worse for the president than it looks, as Gallup notes that “Americans’ opinions have shifted dramatically in the past year, after being relatively stable from 2010 to 2013.” While such perceptions often track closely with presidential approval numbers, Gallup explains, President Obama’s numbers have not followed that pattern: “a majority of Americans still thought world leaders respected Obama in 2010 and 2011, when his job approval was similar to what it is now.”

It would be difficult to locate one specific foreign-policy failure that would cause such a drop in ratings precisely because there are so many to choose from. It’s both the quality and the quantity of Obama’s foreign-policy miscues at fault here. To list them actually seems almost cruel. (But necessary.) It’s obvious why events in Syria, Ukraine, Russia, China, Egypt, and similar states would give the impression Obama isn’t respected abroad. But more interesting is the fact that while Obama stands by watching the flames of conflict spread and his “red lines” get tap danced across, the administration is also furiously conducting negotiations on major conflicts like Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Are respondents in the poll who think the world doesn’t respect Obama ignoring the high-level diplomacy being conducted by Secretary of State John Kerry? Or is it possible that the way those negotiations are taking shape only reinforces the narrative of a disrespected president? Consider: the Iranians got a very favorable deal and have since regularly and loudly mocked the idea that the agreement with the West requires any real sacrifice toward their nuclear-weapons program while the country has been reopened for business by the easing of sanctions.

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“For the first time,” Gallup tells us today, “more Americans think President Barack Obama is not respected by other world leaders than believe he is.” The news is a bit worse for the president than it looks, as Gallup notes that “Americans’ opinions have shifted dramatically in the past year, after being relatively stable from 2010 to 2013.” While such perceptions often track closely with presidential approval numbers, Gallup explains, President Obama’s numbers have not followed that pattern: “a majority of Americans still thought world leaders respected Obama in 2010 and 2011, when his job approval was similar to what it is now.”

It would be difficult to locate one specific foreign-policy failure that would cause such a drop in ratings precisely because there are so many to choose from. It’s both the quality and the quantity of Obama’s foreign-policy miscues at fault here. To list them actually seems almost cruel. (But necessary.) It’s obvious why events in Syria, Ukraine, Russia, China, Egypt, and similar states would give the impression Obama isn’t respected abroad. But more interesting is the fact that while Obama stands by watching the flames of conflict spread and his “red lines” get tap danced across, the administration is also furiously conducting negotiations on major conflicts like Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Are respondents in the poll who think the world doesn’t respect Obama ignoring the high-level diplomacy being conducted by Secretary of State John Kerry? Or is it possible that the way those negotiations are taking shape only reinforces the narrative of a disrespected president? Consider: the Iranians got a very favorable deal and have since regularly and loudly mocked the idea that the agreement with the West requires any real sacrifice toward their nuclear-weapons program while the country has been reopened for business by the easing of sanctions.

And neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians seem all that patient with Kerry’s diplomacy there, which they consider a vanity project. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon caused quite a stir by dismissing Kerry as a blundering obsessive with a messiah complex. While certainly impolitic, over time it appeared to be not so much a gaffe as a calculated, if indecorous, risk. Last month I quoted Shmuel Rosner’s explanation, which has plenty of logic: Yaalon “was a messenger that had to be sacrificed in order to send a clear message of dissent to the American mediator, a message that no polite disagreement behind closed doors can convey.”

It was, then, almost something of an intervention. This is the single most recognizable aspect of Kerry-as-diplomat: a man who will talk to everyone but listen to no one. The insult from Yaalon stung because it was true. It certainly didn’t help matters much when Susan Rice tweeted out her defense of Kerry that pleaded with others to stop making fun of Kerry and let him eat lunch at their table.

The episode was reminiscent of when Obama, anticipating criticism of letting Vice President Joe Biden handle important tasks, playfully warned “Nobody messes with Joe!” It was laughable, Rob Long commented at the time, “Because everybody messes with Joe.” He summed up the general attitude toward Biden’s oversight authority: “Biden couldn’t oversee a ham sandwich.”

Obama-era diplomacy ostensibly designed to increase respect for America abroad is having precisely the opposite effect. In fairness, however, there is much overlap between the world-on-fire conflicts and the administration’s negotiations. Syria is the prime example: a desire for a negotiated solution caused the administration to preempt its own military action in order to talk about getting rid of Syria’s chemical weapons. The Assad regime is, unsurprisingly, ignoring its responsibilities under the deal and letting the deadlines evaporate. While this is a case of America trying to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the conflict, it’s clear that the Obama administration’s interlocutors think the president is a bit of a joke. A procession of empty threats will usually have that effect.

And the violence in Ukraine ended–or at least was greatly reduced–by a negotiating process that excluded the United States. The message is clear: productive diplomacy is conducted without the Obama administration. So it’s important to note that the impression of Obama as weak or not worth respecting abroad is not–as perhaps members of the administration might like to believe–a result of a lack of the use of force. It’s not solely about projecting strength; it’s also about projecting competence and trustworthiness. That the Obama White House doesn’t project any of the three helps explain his poll numbers abroad.

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Is Now the Time to Punish Egypt?

An experts’ Working Group on Egypt comprised of serious and, indeed, quite distinguished foreign-policy practitioners have released an open letter to President Obama advising a tougher line toward Egypt’s provisional government. They write:

The idea that there will be a trade-off between democracy and stability in Egypt is false. A realistic assessment of what is happening in Egypt—a massive crackdown on members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, mounting repression of peaceful critics of the coup, societal polarization and troubling vigilante violence, persistent demonstrations, escalating militant attacks on police and military targets—shows that repressive, security-dominated rule will not produce long-, medium-, or even short-term stability. Especially since the events of 2011, the populace is more mobilized, more involved in politics, and more divided than ever. In these circumstances, pluralistic democratic institutions, and an opportunity for freedom of speech and assembly, will be necessary to allow citizens to struggle peacefully to resolve those divisions through compromise and democratic decision-making.

They also suggest that U.S. assistance be contingent on Egypt “end[ing] the broad security and media campaign against those who peacefully oppose the actions of the interim government and the military, releas[ing] the thousands of opposition group members, supporters, and activists now detained on questionable charges and with disregard for their due-process rights, and allow[ing] all citizens not implicated in violence to participate fully in political life,” as well as Egyptian authorities ending the use of live ammunition against protestors, a cessation of repression against peaceful dissidents, and the dropping of investigations into young activists, former parliamentarians, journalists, and academics, as well as an end to the media campaigns fanning the flames of anti-Americanism.

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An experts’ Working Group on Egypt comprised of serious and, indeed, quite distinguished foreign-policy practitioners have released an open letter to President Obama advising a tougher line toward Egypt’s provisional government. They write:

The idea that there will be a trade-off between democracy and stability in Egypt is false. A realistic assessment of what is happening in Egypt—a massive crackdown on members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, mounting repression of peaceful critics of the coup, societal polarization and troubling vigilante violence, persistent demonstrations, escalating militant attacks on police and military targets—shows that repressive, security-dominated rule will not produce long-, medium-, or even short-term stability. Especially since the events of 2011, the populace is more mobilized, more involved in politics, and more divided than ever. In these circumstances, pluralistic democratic institutions, and an opportunity for freedom of speech and assembly, will be necessary to allow citizens to struggle peacefully to resolve those divisions through compromise and democratic decision-making.

They also suggest that U.S. assistance be contingent on Egypt “end[ing] the broad security and media campaign against those who peacefully oppose the actions of the interim government and the military, releas[ing] the thousands of opposition group members, supporters, and activists now detained on questionable charges and with disregard for their due-process rights, and allow[ing] all citizens not implicated in violence to participate fully in political life,” as well as Egyptian authorities ending the use of live ammunition against protestors, a cessation of repression against peaceful dissidents, and the dropping of investigations into young activists, former parliamentarians, journalists, and academics, as well as an end to the media campaigns fanning the flames of anti-Americanism.

It’s hard to argue with some of the recommendations, although why such recommendations should be limited to Egypt is another question. After all, while Egyptian incitement against the United States is acute, this was also the case under Hosni Mubarak. It is a fact of life in the Palestinian Authority and in Turkey and in Jordan. Perhaps it is time simply to make state incitement a factor more broadly in U.S. aid, which should never be considered an entitlement.

There is a logical problem in calling for a cessation of investigations into activists—whether they are young or not should be beside the point—and then calling on full participation for citizens not implicated in violence. As U.S. authorities know from investigating terror in both Iraq and Afghanistan, it is not enough to catch the person carrying a bomb; it is far more important to uproot the network of the person who is carrying that explosive, and that requires extensive investigation.

In the run-up to the Iraq war and then during the time of the Coalition Provisional Authority, there was a constant debate—though many policymakers did not see it in such terms—between those who believed democracy in the process should trump democracy in the end result, versus those who prioritized democracy in the end result.

A superficial reading of events in Egypt gives great reason for sympathy toward the Muslim Brotherhood. After all, Mohamed Morsi won a democratic election but the Egyptian military ousted him before he could serve out his full term. The real situation is more complex: Morsi dispensed with democratic checks and balances shortly after taking power and, in November 2012, sought to place himself and his decrees above judicial review. Behind the scenes, the Brotherhood also worked to coordinate with terrorist groups like Hamas and, perhaps in the Sinai, even some al-Qaeda-affiliated groups which had taken root.

While the initial Tahrir Square protests had targeted first Egypt’s interior minister and, as the Mubarak regime bungled its response, ultimately Mubarak himself, Morsi’s dictatorial tendencies had antagonized the broad swatch of the Egyptian public to the point that when the military acted—after Morsi ignored their calls to compromise—they moved in.

Morsi is gone, and much of the Muslim Brotherhood is underground. They should be. In the year they wielded real power rather than simply the rhetorical power of opposition they demonstrated that they had lied not only to Western diplomats and journalists but also their own members. They had not evolved, either in ideology or structure, and so young Egyptians who had flocked to them seeking an alternative to the corrupt and dictatorial Mubarak discovered that their input was not welcome, and that they were expected only to listen and obey.

In addition, the Egyptian constitution that Morsi imposed—also in a less-than-democratic fashion by claiming he would not abandon autocratic powers until it passed—was noxious toward women, minorities, and others.

General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi could prove to be as corrosive a figure toward democracy as was Morsi. It is unclear whether he is prepared to reverse the crony capitalism that was the hallmark of the Mubarak regime or whether he will cut deals with the army in exchange for their continued support. Rather than simply shout into the wind and try to turn back time, however, it would be far more productive to focus on the transition moving forward. It is not productive for the United States to focus its diplomatic pressure on restoring power to a movement like the Muslim Brotherhood that is as hostile to the United States as it is to democracy. Rather than restore American credibility in the region, the continued floundering support for the Muslim Brotherhood is antagonizing the few allies the United States has left in the region, from the United Arab Emirates to Morocco.

Democracy is important, and for too long successive administrations and almost everyone in the State Department treated it as a throwaway line rather than something to really prioritize. Rather than treat the provisional government and all that comes after it as illegitimate, U.S. pressure would be far better spent ensuring that elections are free and fair, not only on election day but in the campaign that precedes it. At the same time, it is long past time that the United States recognizes that there are two faces to the Muslim Brotherhood: That which it presents to diplomats and journalists, and that by which it operates. A choice between democracy in the process or democracy as a result may seem unfortunate to make, but reality intrudes. Faced with such a decision, democracy as the result should be the ultimate goal. It is unfortunate that the signatories of the Egypt Working Group letter seem not to think so.

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Is Al Jazeera Innocent in Egypt Dispute?

The New York Times carries an op-ed today raising the troubling case of Egypt’s arrest of a number of journalists affiliated with Al Jazeera. Marwan Bishara, a political analyst at Al Jazeera, writes:

The Egyptian authorities have rounded up several of our colleagues at Al Jazeera Arabic, our Middle East service, confiscated their cameras and shut down our bureau. While all except one were released, arrest warrants were also issued for 20 people who, the government says, either currently work for Al Jazeera or have done so in the past, among them several foreigners. They include three journalists from Al Jazeera English, the English-language network that also includes Al Jazeera America, who were arrested in December: Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed. They have now been charged with broadcasting false reports of unrest with the intention of helping the Muslim Brotherhood destabilize Egypt. This is merely propaganda to cover up censorship and repression. Mr. Greste, our award-winning foreign correspondent, wrote from his cold cell: “How do you accurately and fairly report on Egypt’s ongoing political struggle without talking to everyone involved?”

Bishara address a number of key points, and while I cannot comment on the merits of the specific case, not having seen the Al Jazeera reports to which Egyptian authorities reacted nor the evidence the Egyptian government plans to use to back formal charges, there are no angels in this dispute. Certainly, Egyptian authorities have misused the judiciary in their increasingly paranoid drive to stifle both civil society and criticism. The United States, for example, remains deeply troubled with regard to the case of National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute employees arrested in Egypt.

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The New York Times carries an op-ed today raising the troubling case of Egypt’s arrest of a number of journalists affiliated with Al Jazeera. Marwan Bishara, a political analyst at Al Jazeera, writes:

The Egyptian authorities have rounded up several of our colleagues at Al Jazeera Arabic, our Middle East service, confiscated their cameras and shut down our bureau. While all except one were released, arrest warrants were also issued for 20 people who, the government says, either currently work for Al Jazeera or have done so in the past, among them several foreigners. They include three journalists from Al Jazeera English, the English-language network that also includes Al Jazeera America, who were arrested in December: Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed. They have now been charged with broadcasting false reports of unrest with the intention of helping the Muslim Brotherhood destabilize Egypt. This is merely propaganda to cover up censorship and repression. Mr. Greste, our award-winning foreign correspondent, wrote from his cold cell: “How do you accurately and fairly report on Egypt’s ongoing political struggle without talking to everyone involved?”

Bishara address a number of key points, and while I cannot comment on the merits of the specific case, not having seen the Al Jazeera reports to which Egyptian authorities reacted nor the evidence the Egyptian government plans to use to back formal charges, there are no angels in this dispute. Certainly, Egyptian authorities have misused the judiciary in their increasingly paranoid drive to stifle both civil society and criticism. The United States, for example, remains deeply troubled with regard to the case of National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute employees arrested in Egypt.

At the same time, Al Jazeera reporters have sometimes violated basic journalistic ethics. On several occasions during the Iraq war, according to U.S. army officers, American servicemen received anonymous calls drawing them to a certain location, only to observe Al Jazeera reporters manning positions around what later turned out to be a massive booby-trap. Watching American servicemen murdered might make good ratings, but coordinating with insurgents and terrorists ahead of time certainly is not the proper role of journalists. Nor did Al Jazeera exemplify honest journalism when it threw a birthday party for Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese terrorist who had killed a four-year girl he had kidnapped by crushing her skull with a rifle butt.

There is no such thing as a legitimate target, regardless of the politics of Al Jazeera or any other media outlet. At the same time, outlets like Al Jazeera have proven that its employees are not above reproach. Just because someone carries a press card does not mean that they should enjoy immunity for behavior that may not conform to the who, what, where, why, and when of traditional journalism. The United States, for example, would certainly prosecute a Xinhua journalist if that individual moonlighted in espionage for the Chinese state.

So what to do? In such a situation, no one deserves benefit of the doubt. It behooves the Egyptian authorities to show that their accusations are warranted; if they are, then there is no reason why the individuals arrested should not be prosecuted. If Egypt is simply acting out of animus toward Al Jazeera’s home state of Qatar, the main sponsor of the Muslim Brotherhood, however, then Cairo risks losing all credibility. While journalists too frequently express professional solidarity with their colleagues across countries, the only thing that is certain right now is that there are no angels in the Egyptian conflict.

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History, Democracy, and Egypt’s Revolution

In his 2001 book on Russia’s post-Soviet political development, Michael McFaul makes an incisive point about the role of history in a country’s progression. Not all history influences the future, and of the history that does, its distribution of influence is unequal. McFaul explains the importance of timing: “It is precisely during periods of institutional breakdown or crisis that the greatest opportunity occurs for initial decisions to have lasting, path-dependent effects.”

The Soviet experience shaped how Russian society would react to the introduction of a market economy, and that rocky transition shaped how many Russians would view the idea of democracy: in the end, with suspicion and from a distance. This was always a risk with the Arab Spring as well. Dictatorships that disappear not through gradual reform but through sudden uprisings experience democracy in the wrong order: without the institutions that make it stick and insulate the public from its initial turbulence. The Soviet Union was ended after a period of real reform, and yet still experienced the convulsions of national rebirth.

Thus one of the lessons of the Arab Spring, as the “realist” illusion of stability was in ruins across the Middle East, was that the freedoms won were immediately at risk of being lost. That is unfortunately exactly what has happened in Egypt, as both Jonathan and Max discussed yesterday. The Muslim Brotherhood, currently on the receiving end of the country’s newest authoritarianism, is not blameless in finding itself there, and here it’s worth recalling that the pro-democracy voices in the West were sometimes far more realistic in their assessments at the outset of the Egyptian turmoil.

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In his 2001 book on Russia’s post-Soviet political development, Michael McFaul makes an incisive point about the role of history in a country’s progression. Not all history influences the future, and of the history that does, its distribution of influence is unequal. McFaul explains the importance of timing: “It is precisely during periods of institutional breakdown or crisis that the greatest opportunity occurs for initial decisions to have lasting, path-dependent effects.”

The Soviet experience shaped how Russian society would react to the introduction of a market economy, and that rocky transition shaped how many Russians would view the idea of democracy: in the end, with suspicion and from a distance. This was always a risk with the Arab Spring as well. Dictatorships that disappear not through gradual reform but through sudden uprisings experience democracy in the wrong order: without the institutions that make it stick and insulate the public from its initial turbulence. The Soviet Union was ended after a period of real reform, and yet still experienced the convulsions of national rebirth.

Thus one of the lessons of the Arab Spring, as the “realist” illusion of stability was in ruins across the Middle East, was that the freedoms won were immediately at risk of being lost. That is unfortunately exactly what has happened in Egypt, as both Jonathan and Max discussed yesterday. The Muslim Brotherhood, currently on the receiving end of the country’s newest authoritarianism, is not blameless in finding itself there, and here it’s worth recalling that the pro-democracy voices in the West were sometimes far more realistic in their assessments at the outset of the Egyptian turmoil.

On February 5, 2011, CNN featured the Egyptian-American leftist Mona Eltahawy and Alan Dershowitz arguing over Egypt’s future. Eltahawy was filled with righteous anger and a sense of her own superior perspective on the issue. She also turned out to be wrong on everything, and Dershowitz right. That in itself isn’t too surprising; Eltahawy flaunts her hostility to Western liberalism, which often leads her down the path of spite and illogic when she claims to know better. But it was Dershowitz’s caution that was notable: he understood from the outset that the worst outcome for Egypt would be a replica of Hamas’s rise next door in Gaza, when the Islamist terrorist group won an election and immediately rolled back any scrap of democracy to secure its tyrannical rule.

Dershowitz warned that the strongest party in the emerging Egyptian power vacuum was the Muslim Brotherhood, and that a Brotherhood election victory could actually be a setback for democracy in Egypt. Of course he was obviously correct even then, but Eltahawy angrily shot back that Dershowitz was a hypocrite, and the following discussion ensued:

ELTAHAWY: You know, it’s interesting to hear Alan used the word democracy because that’s exactly what Egypt is working on right now. These millions of Egyptians who have been on the streets for the past 12 days want to be democratic.

So it’s very hypocritical to describe Israel as a democracy and be alarmist about what’s happening in Egypt because surely you and everyone in Israel should be happy that your neighbor wants to be a democracy and democratic neighbors are happy.

DERSHOWITZ: If it’s a real democracy, not a Hamas-type democracy.

ELTAHAWY: You know, you can’t label democracy. Democracy is the people choosing the government they want and what you’re doing is being alarmist. This is not about Muslim Brotherhood. This is about Egyptians determining their future without anyone else’s interference.

MALVEAUX: David, you want to respond –

DERSHOWITZ: The people chose Adolf Hitler in 1932 by democratic means and the people would probably have chosen Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by democratic means. So democracy has to be both structural that is elections, but also functional. If you elect people who then take away all the rights and make women wear Burqas and deny people the right of –

ELTAHAWY: Wait, wait, wait. Who said — this is utter nonsense. This has nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood and burqas. You’re talking nonsense.

DERSHOWITZ: You’re just wrong. You’re just wrong. Of course, it has everything to do with the Muslim Brotherhood.

I remembered the debate at the time because it was so typical of the two sides of this argument: Eltahawy’s ignorance (“you can’t label democracy”; “This has nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood”) and Dershowitz’s historical awareness. It turned out that past was prologue, in Egypt as elsewhere.

The Egyptian army’s displacement of the Brotherhood government was indeed a military coup. But the Brotherhood government not only wasn’t a democracy; it actually went a long way toward discrediting democracy in the region precisely because of the principle McFaul espoused with regard to Russia. Westerners may be criticized for a bias toward democracy abroad, but in some cases–as with Egypt–they are more realistic about the nature of democracy than they are usually given credit for.

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What’s the Alternative in Egypt?

Today’s announcement that Egypt’s ruling council of military leaders has given its stamp of approval to General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi’s intention to run for president was an ominous sign that the country had come full circle in the last three years. The Arab Spring protests that began in 2011 toppled the military dictator, Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled the country for three decades. But after their brief experiment with democracy that resulted in a brush with an Islamist dictatorship led by the Muslim Brotherhood, the generals and perhaps even a majority of Egyptians aren’t taking any chances. With the Brotherhood crushed by a military crackdown, el-Sisi’s “electoral” victory is a certainty. After the hopes that the Arab Spring raised and all the suffering and sacrifices made over the course of two protest movements—one to oust Mubarak and another, even larger, to bring down Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government—it now appears to have all been for naught.

As our Max Boot noted earlier today, the military government’s intolerance of any dissent—whether from the Islamists or liberals—is deeply worrisome. As Max writes, terrorists operating from Gaza could exploit the developing chaos. The increase in violence throughout Egypt, as well as the persistence of the Wild West atmosphere in the Sinai where jihadi groups are still operating as they did during the year of Muslim Brotherhood rule, raises serious doubts about the capacity of the military to restore stability. But acknowledging these facts doesn’t mean that the U.S. should go even further than the Obama administration has already gone in distancing itself from the Egyptian government.

The key question to ask about America’s policy toward Egypt isn’t whether the U.S. approves of military rule; we don’t. But the question becomes whether a decision to further restrict aid to the military would make matters even worse, both for the Egyptians as well as for Israel. The answer to these questions is clear. There is no alternative to the military that would not be far worse for Egypt and U.S. interests, and any American move to undermine el-Sisi would only increase the chances of a disaster there.

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Today’s announcement that Egypt’s ruling council of military leaders has given its stamp of approval to General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi’s intention to run for president was an ominous sign that the country had come full circle in the last three years. The Arab Spring protests that began in 2011 toppled the military dictator, Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled the country for three decades. But after their brief experiment with democracy that resulted in a brush with an Islamist dictatorship led by the Muslim Brotherhood, the generals and perhaps even a majority of Egyptians aren’t taking any chances. With the Brotherhood crushed by a military crackdown, el-Sisi’s “electoral” victory is a certainty. After the hopes that the Arab Spring raised and all the suffering and sacrifices made over the course of two protest movements—one to oust Mubarak and another, even larger, to bring down Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government—it now appears to have all been for naught.

As our Max Boot noted earlier today, the military government’s intolerance of any dissent—whether from the Islamists or liberals—is deeply worrisome. As Max writes, terrorists operating from Gaza could exploit the developing chaos. The increase in violence throughout Egypt, as well as the persistence of the Wild West atmosphere in the Sinai where jihadi groups are still operating as they did during the year of Muslim Brotherhood rule, raises serious doubts about the capacity of the military to restore stability. But acknowledging these facts doesn’t mean that the U.S. should go even further than the Obama administration has already gone in distancing itself from the Egyptian government.

The key question to ask about America’s policy toward Egypt isn’t whether the U.S. approves of military rule; we don’t. But the question becomes whether a decision to further restrict aid to the military would make matters even worse, both for the Egyptians as well as for Israel. The answer to these questions is clear. There is no alternative to the military that would not be far worse for Egypt and U.S. interests, and any American move to undermine el-Sisi would only increase the chances of a disaster there.

While concerns about the situation in Egypt spiraling out of control are far from unrealistic, the situation there should not be mischaracterized. Any increase in violence should be deplored, but it’s far from clear that either the Brotherhood or terrorist elements that might be aligned with it or based in Hamas-ruled Gaza is capable of destabilizing the country, let alone toppling the military. The Brotherhood has been taken down not only by the ruthlessness of the military crackdown but by the realization on the part of the Egyptian people that Morsi’s Islamist government was a greater threat to their future than a return to a Mubarak-style authoritarian regime. Tens of millions of Egyptians took to the streets to call for Morsi’s overthrow and largely applauded when the military complied with their wishes.

They may not be cheering the military’s crackdown on liberal critics quite as enthusiastically. But as much as we may deplore this development, if there is anything Americans should have learned about Egypt and the Arab Spring in the past three years it is that the expectation that democracy was possible was an illusion. The choice was always between the military and the Brotherhood. Neither is palatable but those of us who, however briefly, held onto the hope that Egyptians could go down a path that might lead to genuine democracy must admit we were wrong.

That admission requires us to be both realistic about what is possible in Egypt and vigilant against any American measures that could exacerbate an already bad situation. In the past three years, the Obama administration has gone from one blunder to the next. First it championed Mubarak. Then it dumped him. Then it embraced the Brotherhood and warned the military not to interfere with its rule. It reluctantly accepted the military coup that ended that unfortunate chapter last summer, but has since cut back on aid to the military, further reducing U.S. influence in Cairo.

While chagrin at the turn of events in Egypt is understandable, it cannot be used as an excuse for any action that would weaken the military government at the expense of its Islamist foes. The administration as well as its critics who support the idea of the spread of democracy must understand that, among many bad options, the Egyptian military is the best.

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Egypt’s War on Dissent

The revolution which overthrew Hosni Mubarak is now three years old, and Egypt’s future seems less promising than ever.

General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, the military commander, is preparing to run for president—and if he runs he will certainly win, becoming, in essence, a new Mubarak. The army has not only driven the Muslim Brotherhood from power, it has also declared war on all critics of the regime, whether Islamist or liberal. As the Guardian notes:

Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel peace prize winner once billed as a potential president, is in exile. So too is Wael Ghonim, the Google executive whose Facebook campaign against police thuggery brought many to Tahrir Square. Ahmed Maher, the activist whose 6 April movement helped drive anti-Mubarak dissent, is in jail along with the group’s co-founders, Ahmed Douma and Mohamed Adel.

In the cell next door is Alaa Abd El Fattah, a renowned activist first jailed under Mubarak. Abd El Fattah returned from exile during the 2011 revolution to help build a new Egypt. Instead he was detained, first under the military dictatorship that followed Mubarak, then under the presidency of Mohamed Morsi, and now under the de facto leadership of General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.

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The revolution which overthrew Hosni Mubarak is now three years old, and Egypt’s future seems less promising than ever.

General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, the military commander, is preparing to run for president—and if he runs he will certainly win, becoming, in essence, a new Mubarak. The army has not only driven the Muslim Brotherhood from power, it has also declared war on all critics of the regime, whether Islamist or liberal. As the Guardian notes:

Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel peace prize winner once billed as a potential president, is in exile. So too is Wael Ghonim, the Google executive whose Facebook campaign against police thuggery brought many to Tahrir Square. Ahmed Maher, the activist whose 6 April movement helped drive anti-Mubarak dissent, is in jail along with the group’s co-founders, Ahmed Douma and Mohamed Adel.

In the cell next door is Alaa Abd El Fattah, a renowned activist first jailed under Mubarak. Abd El Fattah returned from exile during the 2011 revolution to help build a new Egypt. Instead he was detained, first under the military dictatorship that followed Mubarak, then under the presidency of Mohamed Morsi, and now under the de facto leadership of General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.

What happens when it’s impossible to express dissent peacefully? That becomes an open invitation for radicals to take matters into their own hands, and that is precisely what is happening in Egypt today. The latest news on this front is ominous, namely that militants in the Sinai shot down an Egyptian military helicopter with a surface-to-air missile, killing all five soldiers aboard. Such missiles, in the wrong hands, can be a threat not just to helicopters but to civilian aircraft, including those flying in and out of Israel. Meanwhile, on Friday, four bombs went off in Cairo, killing six people.

These are worrisome signs of what some of us have feared all along: By declaring war on dissent, Sisi risks driving his country into a full-blown civil war. At the very least the terrorist threat is increasing, and it is unlikely to stay confined to Egypt—not when there are such close links among jihadists operating in the Sinai and the Gaza Strip. The situation got bad enough under the Muslim Brotherhood government, but there is little sign of improvement under the emerging military dictatorship whose ascension many Israelis understandably cheered. Sisi’s heavy-handed crackdown—undertaken by a corrupt and ineffective regime—unfortunately has the potential to spark a full-blown insurgency that will make current troubles seem benign by comparison.

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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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Is Egypt Headed Back Toward Civil War?

If Egypt’s new military rulers–pretty much the same as the old, only more truculent–want to ignite a civil war, they’re going about it the right way. Not only are they prosecuting the senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, but they are also outlawing the entire organization as a terrorist entity and targeting its funding.

That is hitting the hospitals operated by the Islamic Medical Association, a Brotherhood offshoot which serves roughly a million, mostly poor, patients every year in a country where public medical care is poor to nonexistent. Already the hospitals are seeing fewer patients because ordinary people are scared of associating with the Brotherhood; if the government crackdown continues, the hospitals could close altogether. That is not going to endear the military leadership to the populace in whose name they claim to rule.

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If Egypt’s new military rulers–pretty much the same as the old, only more truculent–want to ignite a civil war, they’re going about it the right way. Not only are they prosecuting the senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, but they are also outlawing the entire organization as a terrorist entity and targeting its funding.

That is hitting the hospitals operated by the Islamic Medical Association, a Brotherhood offshoot which serves roughly a million, mostly poor, patients every year in a country where public medical care is poor to nonexistent. Already the hospitals are seeing fewer patients because ordinary people are scared of associating with the Brotherhood; if the government crackdown continues, the hospitals could close altogether. That is not going to endear the military leadership to the populace in whose name they claim to rule.

Nor is the military limiting its crackdown to Islamists. It is also jailing more secular pro-democracy activists and bloggers who led the original demonstrations that overthrow Hosni Mubarak.

Already there are signs of a backlash against the military crackdown. A few days ago the police headquarters in the town of Mansour was leveled by a bomb, killing at least 14 people. That brings the toll of police officers killed since August to more than 150. As the New York Times notes, “The attacks have affected police morale, officers said, and raised troubling questions about the government’s ability to secure the country in the face of increasingly frequent attacks by militants.”

And it is not just police officers who are being targeted. Recently a crude pipe bomb went off on a public bus in Cairo, injuring at least five.

These are small, early signs of how the Brotherhood and other, even more extreme Islamists are capable of hitting back against the security forces, and they run the risk of expanding into a higher level of violence that will make it impossible for the generals to revive the Egyptian economy, which depends so heavily on tourism. (Would you travel to Egypt today with your kids?)

Field Marshal Sisi, Egypt’s actual ruler today, and his subordinates in the military hierarchy appear to be punch drunk from the wave of affection that greeted their usurpation of power last summer. At that point the people of Egypt were sick of Brotherhood mismanagement and open to a more effective, secular alternative. Even many Brotherhood leaders saw that they were losing popularity and were no doubt open to some kind of accommodation with the military. By taking such a hard line, however, the military is pressing its luck and risking sending Egypt down the vortex of civil strife.

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The Problem of the Middle East’s First Sons

The Turkish corruption scandal continues to boil as, in Ankara, the ministers of finance, interior, and environment have resigned. The latter, Erdoğan Bayraktar, went even further, calling on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also to step down. Bayraktar is not simply spitting into the wind. A cabinet reshuffle also claimed Egemen Bağış, Turkey’s widely disliked European Union affairs minister. As I wrote here last week, the investigation also appears to be closing in on Prime Minister Erdoğan’s son Bilal Erdoğan.

That rumors of shady business surround the prime minister’s son surprises no one. Years ago, as Prime Minister Erdoğan sought to explain his sudden increase in wealth that far outpaced his salary by suggesting that his mansions and millions of dollars were due to wedding gifts given to his son. Alas, when it comes to the Middle East—and, make no mistake, Erdoğan has moved Turkey so far from Europe and into the Middle Eastern sphere that it cannot be extricated—the problem of first sons is becoming the rule rather than the exception.

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The Turkish corruption scandal continues to boil as, in Ankara, the ministers of finance, interior, and environment have resigned. The latter, Erdoğan Bayraktar, went even further, calling on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also to step down. Bayraktar is not simply spitting into the wind. A cabinet reshuffle also claimed Egemen Bağış, Turkey’s widely disliked European Union affairs minister. As I wrote here last week, the investigation also appears to be closing in on Prime Minister Erdoğan’s son Bilal Erdoğan.

That rumors of shady business surround the prime minister’s son surprises no one. Years ago, as Prime Minister Erdoğan sought to explain his sudden increase in wealth that far outpaced his salary by suggesting that his mansions and millions of dollars were due to wedding gifts given to his son. Alas, when it comes to the Middle East—and, make no mistake, Erdoğan has moved Turkey so far from Europe and into the Middle Eastern sphere that it cannot be extricated—the problem of first sons is becoming the rule rather than the exception.

Moammar Gaddafi had Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, held by the new Libyan government and wanted by the International Criminal Court; and Hosni Mubarak had Alaa and Gamal Mubarak, both awaiting trial on various corruption charges (despite being acquitted in one case last week). Ailing Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s eldest son Bafil is facing trial in Great Britain for defrauding investment partners in Iraqi Kurdistan, while younger son Qubad is neck deep in the family business. Iraqi Kurdish regional president Masud Barzani’s eldest son Masrour is, in theory, the intelligence chief for the autonomous Kurdish government. In practice, according to conversations with human-rights monitors, he uses his position and the security forces he has under his control to ensure businessmen understand that he and his family should get a piece of the pie. When Masud Barzani’s second son Mansour Barzani lost $3.2 million gambling in one of Dubai’s illegal casinos, the Kurdish leader quickly cut short an official visit and left the United Arab Emirates. The pattern continues: Iraqis resent the involvement of Ahmad Maliki, the son of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in businesses which benefit from his father’s position. Such business dealings and relationships go without saying in the monarchies of the Persian Gulf with the exception, of course, of Oman whose ruler Sultan Qaboos is unmarried and has no children.

It is true that such a pattern is not limited to the Middle East. While his father Kofi Annan was secretary-general of the United Nations, Kojo Annan sought to profit from UN deals. And both Africa’s dictatorships and its nascent democracies also see sons of presidents and rulers seeking to cash in on their fathers’ positions.

It may be fashionable to look the other way and pretend such corruption does not occur. Western universities go farther and happily welcome donations of questionable money to honor dictatorial dynasties. But building false images of such countries does no favors, nor does it reflect well on a new generation of rulers that they encourage their sons to accumulate as much money as possible rather than distinguish themselves as doctors, lawyers, or other professionals.

Erdoğan has been fond of describing Turkey as a democracy and bragging for more than a decade about the reforms he claims to have implemented. If attorneys are allowed to question Bilal Erdoğan and, if warranted, force him to face justice as a man equal to any Turk or Kurd in Turkey, then he should be congratulated for standing on principle. If he wants his son to stand above justice, however, then Recep Tayyip Erdoğan confirms the notion that Turkey is no democracy and  he himself is little more than yet one more self-important Middle Eastern potentate.

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Cairo Drama: Morsi, Hamas, and Obama

Human-rights organizations and many other Egypt-watchers are pouring scorn on the charges levied on deposed president Mohamed Morsi and other Muslim Brotherhood activists by the military government in Cairo this week. The military has already charged Morsi for his complicity in attacks on demonstrators seeking his overthrow last summer. This is, of course, terribly hypocritical since, if anything, the military may have killed more people when it cracked down on the Brotherhood in the aftermath of the coup that knocked Morsi out of power and into jail. But they didn’t stop there. The government has now charged Morsi and others with engaging in terrorist plots with Hamas and Hezbollah operatives.

Much of the skepticism put forward by Human Rights Watch about all of this is justified. If the point of the charges is to claim Morsi was handing Hamas or Hezbollah control of Egypt or conspiring to give them vital national secrets, the whole thing is ridiculous. But Western observers should not be blinded to the basic facts upon which military prosecutors seem to have embroidered an extra layer of conspiracy theory. There is little doubt that Morsi regarded Hamas, and to a lesser extent Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors, as natural allies in a nation and a region where the Brotherhood is regarded with suspicion and fear. Take away the paranoia about foreign influences that lies not far below the surface in Egyptian culture and what you have is the reality of a Muslim Brotherhood government that naturally looked to Hamas for support in a pinch. Rather than all this being a cause for the Obama administration to further distance itself from the current Egyptian government, it ought to provoke some soul-searching on the part of those in the State Department and the White House that were prepared to assist Morsi’s ascent to the presidency of Egypt and his efforts to stay there.

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Human-rights organizations and many other Egypt-watchers are pouring scorn on the charges levied on deposed president Mohamed Morsi and other Muslim Brotherhood activists by the military government in Cairo this week. The military has already charged Morsi for his complicity in attacks on demonstrators seeking his overthrow last summer. This is, of course, terribly hypocritical since, if anything, the military may have killed more people when it cracked down on the Brotherhood in the aftermath of the coup that knocked Morsi out of power and into jail. But they didn’t stop there. The government has now charged Morsi and others with engaging in terrorist plots with Hamas and Hezbollah operatives.

Much of the skepticism put forward by Human Rights Watch about all of this is justified. If the point of the charges is to claim Morsi was handing Hamas or Hezbollah control of Egypt or conspiring to give them vital national secrets, the whole thing is ridiculous. But Western observers should not be blinded to the basic facts upon which military prosecutors seem to have embroidered an extra layer of conspiracy theory. There is little doubt that Morsi regarded Hamas, and to a lesser extent Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors, as natural allies in a nation and a region where the Brotherhood is regarded with suspicion and fear. Take away the paranoia about foreign influences that lies not far below the surface in Egyptian culture and what you have is the reality of a Muslim Brotherhood government that naturally looked to Hamas for support in a pinch. Rather than all this being a cause for the Obama administration to further distance itself from the current Egyptian government, it ought to provoke some soul-searching on the part of those in the State Department and the White House that were prepared to assist Morsi’s ascent to the presidency of Egypt and his efforts to stay there.

The facts about relations between the Morsi government and the Brotherhood and their putative allies in Gaza and Lebanon are a little murky. It’s difficult to judge from afar exactly where the reality of a Brotherhood-Hamas alliance ends and the judicial railroading of Morsi and his colleagues by the military government begins. Suffice it to say that some of the charges may be either exaggerated or misinterpretations of routine interactions between these groups. It should also be noted that relations between the Brotherhood and Hamas were not all peaches and cream during their year in charge of things in Cairo. At various times, Morsi shut down the smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza in a belated effort to rein in the growing chaos in the Sinai that had been unleashed by the fall of Hosni Mubarak and the infiltration of al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups.

But what can’t be denied is that Morsi still regarded Hamas as a close ally and a potential resource in the Cairo power game as well as the regional balance of power. Hamas had, as we have long known, helped Morsi break out of jail during the waning days of the Mubarak regime. Hamas was originally founded as an offshoot of the Brotherhood and Morsi looked to it as a natural ally. The notion that he helped arm it as well as being prepared to cooperate in various other ways–including as a backup against domestic opposition–shouldn’t strike anyone as far-fetched. Nor should we be surprised by allegations about Morsi and his crew contemplating an opening with fellow Islamists in Iran.

The prosecutions against Morsi and other Brotherhood officials are politically motivated and no one should expect them to get a fair trial from the military. But had he remained in power there’s equally little doubt that the Islamist alliances he was making could have altered not only the face of Egypt but also that of the rest of the region.

All this should serve as a reminder to Washington of how foolish its policies were in the prelude to the Brotherhood’s brief period of power as well as during its period of ascendancy. The Obama administration always sought to portray itself as neutral as to who ran things in Cairo, but the only times it has exercised its considerable leverage over Egypt is when it persuaded the military to let the Brotherhood take power and afterwards to punish the generals for ousting Morsi.

In doing so, it undid decades of hard work and investment of billions of aid dollars by previous administrations to keep Egypt as a U.S. ally so long as it kept the peace with Israel. It first failed to see the danger in allowing an Islamist authoritarian group to take control of the most populous Arab nation and then miscalculated how its pique about the coup would cause the military to embrace the efforts of the Russians to get their foot back in the door in Cairo. As I wrote earlier this week, the culmination of an arms deal between Russia and Egypt sets the stage for a decline in U.S. influence in the region and enhances Vladimir Putin’s ability to make mischief.

The reassertion of brutal military rule in Egypt is nothing to cheer about. But the only alternative in the form of an Islamist Brotherhood government was far worse. Morsi’s ties with Hamas are being used to trump up a dubious legal case against him, but they were still a threat to U.S. influence and regional stability. Instead of crying crocodile tears for Morsi (who is now getting the same treatment that he was happy to dish out to his foes), those who care about peace should be glad that the military is doing its utmost to ensure that he never gets another chance to disrupt the Middle East.

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The Problem with Turkey’s “Zero-Problem” Foreign Policy

With the Iranian nuclear deal dominating news from the Middle East last week, another significant development got less attention than it deserved: the expulsion of Turkey’s ambassador from Egypt. For a country that once boasted of “zero problems with its neighbors,” losing ambassadors in three Mideast countries–Israel, Syria, and Egypt–in roughly two years is no mean feat. To grasp how extraordinary this latest downgrade is, consider the fact that Cairo has never expelled Israel’s ambassador, even during high-tension periods like the second intifada.

This, of course, shows once again that Arab leaders care much less about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than their rhetoric might imply. But beyond that, it points to a serious problem with Turkey’s foreign policy that ought to prompt some rethinking in Washington–not only about its reliance on Turkey hitherto as its key Mideast partner, but also about its burgeoning romance with Iran.

Ostensibly, Turkey’s breaks with Israel, Syria, and Egypt are completely unrelated: They were prompted, respectively, by Israel’s 2010 raid on a Turkish-sponsored flotilla to Gaza, the Syrian uprising, and Egypt’s military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood government. In fact, however, all stem from a common cause: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist worldview and policies.

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With the Iranian nuclear deal dominating news from the Middle East last week, another significant development got less attention than it deserved: the expulsion of Turkey’s ambassador from Egypt. For a country that once boasted of “zero problems with its neighbors,” losing ambassadors in three Mideast countries–Israel, Syria, and Egypt–in roughly two years is no mean feat. To grasp how extraordinary this latest downgrade is, consider the fact that Cairo has never expelled Israel’s ambassador, even during high-tension periods like the second intifada.

This, of course, shows once again that Arab leaders care much less about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than their rhetoric might imply. But beyond that, it points to a serious problem with Turkey’s foreign policy that ought to prompt some rethinking in Washington–not only about its reliance on Turkey hitherto as its key Mideast partner, but also about its burgeoning romance with Iran.

Ostensibly, Turkey’s breaks with Israel, Syria, and Egypt are completely unrelated: They were prompted, respectively, by Israel’s 2010 raid on a Turkish-sponsored flotilla to Gaza, the Syrian uprising, and Egypt’s military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood government. In fact, however, all stem from a common cause: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist worldview and policies.

This worldview is what led him to actively support the flotilla, sponsored by a terror-affiliated Islamist organization, despite knowing violence might ensue; downgrade ties with Israel in a fit of pique after a UN investigation of the incident upheld the legality of Israel’s naval blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza; and refuse to restore them even after President Obama personally brokered a reconciliation deal, since the deal didn’t include ending the blockade. Supporting his fellow Islamists in Hamas trumped realpolitik and his country’s interests.

This is also what led him to actively support the Sunni rebels–and particularly the most radical Islamists among them–against Syria’s Alawite regime, and why he’s never stopped denouncing the Egyptian coup, even as the rest of the world has long since accepted that it’s not only a fait accompli, but enjoys broad popular support. In these cases, too, loyalty to his fellow Islamists trumped realpolitik and his country’s interests.

Such a principled foreign policy might be admirable if it weren’t for one problem: The principle Erdogan is supporting–Islamism–happens to be a destabilizing one. Inter alia, the Islamist governments and movements he’s supported have produced nonstop rocket fire on Israel from Gaza, a brutal civil war in Syria, and governmental abuses and incompetence in Egypt on a scale that generated massive support for the coup. Hence Erdogan’s commitment to his Islamist foreign policy has only further destabilized an unstable region.

Iran, of course, is also committed to Islamism, albeit the Shi’ite rather than the Sunni variety. Indeed, its foreign policy has been even more aggressive and destabilizing than Turkey’s: Witness its support for the Assad regime’s brutality in Syria and for Hezbollah’s virtual takeover of Lebanon. And since Islamism is the Iranian regime’s raison d’etre, no deal with Washington is going to end its commitment to an Islamist foreign policy.   

The lesson for America ought to be that Islamists–even “moderate” ones, to quote the Washington elite’s favorite adjective for both Erdogan and new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani–don’t make good foreign-policy partners. Unless, that is, one thinks even more instability in a volatile region is a good idea.

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Governing Ukraine

With popular protests shaking governments from Bangkok to Kiev, after previously having toppled regimes from Cairo to Tunis, it is a wonder that anyone bothers with guerrilla or terrorist tactics to seize power. Insurgent campaigns are much less successful than popular uprisings. The reason why they are not more widespread, of course, is that guerrillas often do not champion a particularly popular cause. The Taliban, for instance, have no hope of bringing millions, or even thousands, of people out into the streets of Kabul to demand a reimposition of their tyrannical rule. They can only aspire to power by the gun.

The problem that all anti-government movements confront–whether they employ violence or peaceful protests–is what to do if the government actually falls and they manage to seize power.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood already flunked the test of governance and odds are the military, which displaced the Brotherhood with popular support, will fare little better once the subsidies from the Gulf countries run out. In Ukraine, the Orange movement which toppled Viktor Yanukovych in 2004 had equally little success in jump-starting a moribund economy or eliminating rampant corruption. The result: Yanukovych managed to stage a come back and win a democratic election.

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With popular protests shaking governments from Bangkok to Kiev, after previously having toppled regimes from Cairo to Tunis, it is a wonder that anyone bothers with guerrilla or terrorist tactics to seize power. Insurgent campaigns are much less successful than popular uprisings. The reason why they are not more widespread, of course, is that guerrillas often do not champion a particularly popular cause. The Taliban, for instance, have no hope of bringing millions, or even thousands, of people out into the streets of Kabul to demand a reimposition of their tyrannical rule. They can only aspire to power by the gun.

The problem that all anti-government movements confront–whether they employ violence or peaceful protests–is what to do if the government actually falls and they manage to seize power.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood already flunked the test of governance and odds are the military, which displaced the Brotherhood with popular support, will fare little better once the subsidies from the Gulf countries run out. In Ukraine, the Orange movement which toppled Viktor Yanukovych in 2004 had equally little success in jump-starting a moribund economy or eliminating rampant corruption. The result: Yanukovych managed to stage a come back and win a democratic election.

But for Yanukovych, old authoritarian habits die hard. He jailed his political adversary Yulia Tymoshenko and cozied up to Moscow. His rejection of an association agreement with the European Union, which would have benefitted Ukraine economically, was widely seen to have been done under pressure from Vladimir Putin. But while this was a momentary victory for Putin and Yanukovych, it has spurred massive resistance in Kiev that recalls the Orange Revolution. The results are unpredictable and could range from a bloodbath among the demonstrators to the toppling of Yanukovych (again!) or, more likely, some kind of muddled compromise that would allow him to serve out his remaining 16 months in office.

The West has a clear stake in blocking Yanukovych’s attempt to cozy up to Moscow. Secretary of State John Kerry is right to skip an international meeting in Ukraine and instead head to Moldova, another embattled state in Eastern Europe that is resisting Russian pressure. EU ministers should follow suit. But whatever happens with the current crisis in Ukraine, its intractable political and economic and social problems will remain intact. That is why it is so important for Ukraine to affiliate with the EU, which will open up a brighter economic future long-term along with more political transparency. But EU affiliation is no panacea and whoever rules in Kiev will have to make tough political choices, which so far have not been forthcoming from either side.

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The Brotherhood Waves the White Flag

A few weeks ago I wrote about the capture of a Muslim Brotherhood leader by Egypt’s military government and observed that the bloodbath and popular revolution that many observers expected after last summer’s coup hadn’t materialized. Today comes news that seems to make plain what was just an informed guess in October: the Brotherhood knows it is beaten. As Haaretz reports,

A Muslim Brotherhood-led coalition of organizations in Egypt announced Saturday that it wants to engage in dialogue with the interim government in order to put an end to the current political impasse.

The call by the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy is the first formal proposition by Morsi supporters, who have organized near-daily protests demanding his return to office since he was removed in a popularly supported military coup on July 3. It also marks the first time the group has not demanded Morsi’s return to power.

In other words, the organization is conceding that ousted Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi is never going to be president of Egypt again and that if they want any say in their country’s future it will have to be on the military’s terms. This is big news for Egyptians, since it signals that a repeat of Algeria’s decade-long bloody civil war after that country’s army ousted an Islamist government is now off the table. This puts to rest the argument often heard in this country calling for a stern U.S. response to the coup since it was thought in some quarters to not only a guarantee a long terrorist war but suppression of a legitimate point of view that could count on the support of a critical mass of Egyptians. But if the Brotherhood is waving the white flag and appealing for the tolerance of the government, if not peace with it, it is as strong an indication as we are likely to get that the group knows it’s licked.

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A few weeks ago I wrote about the capture of a Muslim Brotherhood leader by Egypt’s military government and observed that the bloodbath and popular revolution that many observers expected after last summer’s coup hadn’t materialized. Today comes news that seems to make plain what was just an informed guess in October: the Brotherhood knows it is beaten. As Haaretz reports,

A Muslim Brotherhood-led coalition of organizations in Egypt announced Saturday that it wants to engage in dialogue with the interim government in order to put an end to the current political impasse.

The call by the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy is the first formal proposition by Morsi supporters, who have organized near-daily protests demanding his return to office since he was removed in a popularly supported military coup on July 3. It also marks the first time the group has not demanded Morsi’s return to power.

In other words, the organization is conceding that ousted Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi is never going to be president of Egypt again and that if they want any say in their country’s future it will have to be on the military’s terms. This is big news for Egyptians, since it signals that a repeat of Algeria’s decade-long bloody civil war after that country’s army ousted an Islamist government is now off the table. This puts to rest the argument often heard in this country calling for a stern U.S. response to the coup since it was thought in some quarters to not only a guarantee a long terrorist war but suppression of a legitimate point of view that could count on the support of a critical mass of Egyptians. But if the Brotherhood is waving the white flag and appealing for the tolerance of the government, if not peace with it, it is as strong an indication as we are likely to get that the group knows it’s licked.

Let’s specify that the process by which the army has repressed the Brotherhood was based on repression, not debate. The military has killed Brotherhood protesters and done everything possible to hinder their ability to organize opposition to their rule. But their victory was made possible by something that many critics of the coup did not understand or sought to deny: the toppling of Morsi’s government was as much an expression of the will of the Egyptian people as the movement that led to the fall of the Hosni Mubarak regime.

Tens of millions of Egyptians took to the streets of Egyptian cities in the last days of the Morsi government calling for it to cease its drive for total power and to allow the people a vote on whether it should hold onto power. But if the military had not stepped in, there is little doubt that Morsi not only would have stayed in office but that he would have continued his efforts to ensure that he could never be defeated by fair means or foul. Though it had been able to call on the support of many Egyptians in the wake of Mubarak’s ouster and won an election, the year of Brotherhood rule that followed convinced many of those who voted for them they had made a mistake. Though some Western journalists were fooled into thinking the Brotherhood had no intentions of transforming the country into an Islamist state, the Egyptian people were not fooled.

That is why when some Brotherhood leaders vowed vengeance after the coup and sought to create an uprising, few supported such a move. The Islamists were not only intimidated by the military’s show of force; they were rejected by the people among whom they had thought to hide in plain sight, as is the case with successful guerrilla wars. Egyptians understood, even if many Americans did not, that democracy was not an option and that if they had to choose between the military and the Brotherhood, there was no doubt which was the more preferable option.

It is in this context that the Obama administration’s aid cutoffs to Egypt should be viewed. While it is proper for the U.S. to encourage a turn to democracy in Egypt, it must be on terms that will make it impossible for a totalitarian movement like the Brotherhood to win back power.

The Obama administration has foolishly downgraded ties with Egypt and even acted as if it wished for a return of the Morsi government that it had for a time embraced. This shortsighted policy has left an opening for Russia to seek to revive an alliance with Egypt that was ended by Anwar Sadat. But the moral of this story remains clear: while some in the West seemed to accept the Brotherhood’s claim that Islamism was the wave of the future in the Middle East and that they could not be defeated, the military and people of Egypt have proved the contrary to be true. Islamists can be beaten. That’s something the U.S. should be celebrating, not condemning.

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Islamist Tyrant Morsi’s No Martyr

The optics weren’t ideal for Secretary of State John Kerry. The day after he visited Egypt to try and mend fences with the country’s military government, deposed President Mohamed Morsi went on trial in Cairo during which he challenged that regime’s legitimacy and defied the court’s right to try him. The juxtaposition of these events was enough to earn Kerry a rhetorical spanking from the New York Times editorial page that chided him for backtracking on the administration’s effort to distance itself from the military after it deposed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood in July. Kerry’s effort was late and clumsy, especially coming only a week after National Security Advisor Susan Rice told the Times that Egypt was just not a priority for Washington in the wake of its decision to cut military aid to Cairo. But however inept this administration’s Egypt policy has been, there should be no doubt about one thing: no one should be buying Morsi’s martyr act.

There’s little doubt that, as the Times indicated, the generals are hypocrites for trying Morsi for inciting the killing of protesters when they have been guilty of treating the Brotherhood in the same manner. The military is determined to crush the Brotherhood and Morsi has no chance of being acquitted of the charges. But even those like the Times and the people inside the administration that were happy to embrace the Brotherhood during its year of power need to admit that the deposed leader is almost certainly guilty. Moreover, though his deposition was the result of a coup, Morsi’s defiance of the court told us all we need to know about why the military decided to act after tens of millions of Egyptians took to the streets to call for his ouster.

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The optics weren’t ideal for Secretary of State John Kerry. The day after he visited Egypt to try and mend fences with the country’s military government, deposed President Mohamed Morsi went on trial in Cairo during which he challenged that regime’s legitimacy and defied the court’s right to try him. The juxtaposition of these events was enough to earn Kerry a rhetorical spanking from the New York Times editorial page that chided him for backtracking on the administration’s effort to distance itself from the military after it deposed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood in July. Kerry’s effort was late and clumsy, especially coming only a week after National Security Advisor Susan Rice told the Times that Egypt was just not a priority for Washington in the wake of its decision to cut military aid to Cairo. But however inept this administration’s Egypt policy has been, there should be no doubt about one thing: no one should be buying Morsi’s martyr act.

There’s little doubt that, as the Times indicated, the generals are hypocrites for trying Morsi for inciting the killing of protesters when they have been guilty of treating the Brotherhood in the same manner. The military is determined to crush the Brotherhood and Morsi has no chance of being acquitted of the charges. But even those like the Times and the people inside the administration that were happy to embrace the Brotherhood during its year of power need to admit that the deposed leader is almost certainly guilty. Moreover, though his deposition was the result of a coup, Morsi’s defiance of the court told us all we need to know about why the military decided to act after tens of millions of Egyptians took to the streets to call for his ouster.

While denouncing his captors, Morsi declared that he was still the president of Egypt in the courtroom. Though his claim of a democratic mandate was undermined by his distinctly undemocratic behavior, he probably can make some claim to still hold office until a successor is elected. But the conceit of his stand is not so much that the coup is wrong, as it is that no one had a right to judge him: not the court, the military, nor the millions of protesters who sought his ouster.

Although the Brotherhood attained power via an election, their ouster should in no way be considered a blow to democracy. The Islamist leader seems to be taking the line that he is above the law. The Islamists have always refused to play by anyone’s rules but their own, so while it is true that his treatment may seem harsh, it is in keeping with the methods he sought to employ against his rivals. He is simply a tyrant who failed in his attempt to impose a totalitarian system on Egypt, not a martyr.

This is the core issue behind the debate about whether to punish the military for its efforts to crush the Brotherhood. Once in power, Morsi and his party had one goal: the imposition of its Islamist beliefs on the entire country and ensuring that no opposition would ever be allowed to make them accountable or to evict them from office. If the military has been able in the four months since the coup to decapitate the once popular Islamist party and to ensure that it has not been able to mount a serious terrorist threat against the new government, it is because many Egyptians who supported the Brotherhood as the only alternative to the Mubarak dictatorship now see that the cure was worse than the disease.

The conflict in Egypt is a zero-sum game in which the only choices available to the West are the Brotherhood and the military. That’s why Kerry is right to start and retreat from the president’s foolish decisions on Egypt. As Eric Trager writes in The Atlantic, the Brotherhood is far from dead, and it will require vigilance in order to ensure that it will not again become a serious threat to Egypt or the region. But it should gain no traction or sympathy from Westerners who are moved by Morsi’s pleas and crocodile tears about the democratic process.

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Beating the Brotherhood Isn’t Impossible

Last summer when Egypt’s military intervened in a conflict between a protest movement composed of what appeared to be tens of millions of citizens and the country’s Muslim Brotherhood government, critics of the coup warned the generals not to exclude the Islamist party from government. While there was a case to be made against overturning the results of an election, the Brotherhood’s use of the power it gained to try to transform Egypt and to ensure it could never be challenged galvanized public opinion against it. But those calling for a cutoff of U.S. aid to Cairo to punish the military for usurping Mohamed Morsi also warned that any effort to defeat the Brotherhood rather than to bring it into the next government would backfire. The Brotherhood would, we were told, go quickly underground and be impossible to root out. The assumption was that the Islamists would not only survive but that it would transform Egypt into another Algeria where, in a similar fashion, the military denied power to Islamists and plunged that country into a bloody conflict.

But more than three months later, it appears that the predictions of doom were exaggerated. As the New York Times reports, the military just announced the arrest of one more Muslim Brotherhood leader, Essam el-Erian, a senior leader and advisor to ousted president Morsi. With el-Erian, the military has now effectively decapitated the Brotherhood with virtually every member of the group’s leadership now in prison. The capture of this particular figure is especially satisfying for the military since he is thought of as being, along with Morsi, a symbol of Islamist overreach and a key figure in the group’s attempt to establish hegemony over Egypt. But the main point is that, without much in the way of resistance from the Brotherhood and its vaunted underground capabilities, the military looks to have won its battle. Indeed, as the Daily Beast reported earlier this month, Gen. General Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi has become a popular figure. This is especially true since the Obama administration foolishly cut off most of the aid the U.S. sends to Egypt annually.

There are two conclusions that may be drawn from this.

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Last summer when Egypt’s military intervened in a conflict between a protest movement composed of what appeared to be tens of millions of citizens and the country’s Muslim Brotherhood government, critics of the coup warned the generals not to exclude the Islamist party from government. While there was a case to be made against overturning the results of an election, the Brotherhood’s use of the power it gained to try to transform Egypt and to ensure it could never be challenged galvanized public opinion against it. But those calling for a cutoff of U.S. aid to Cairo to punish the military for usurping Mohamed Morsi also warned that any effort to defeat the Brotherhood rather than to bring it into the next government would backfire. The Brotherhood would, we were told, go quickly underground and be impossible to root out. The assumption was that the Islamists would not only survive but that it would transform Egypt into another Algeria where, in a similar fashion, the military denied power to Islamists and plunged that country into a bloody conflict.

But more than three months later, it appears that the predictions of doom were exaggerated. As the New York Times reports, the military just announced the arrest of one more Muslim Brotherhood leader, Essam el-Erian, a senior leader and advisor to ousted president Morsi. With el-Erian, the military has now effectively decapitated the Brotherhood with virtually every member of the group’s leadership now in prison. The capture of this particular figure is especially satisfying for the military since he is thought of as being, along with Morsi, a symbol of Islamist overreach and a key figure in the group’s attempt to establish hegemony over Egypt. But the main point is that, without much in the way of resistance from the Brotherhood and its vaunted underground capabilities, the military looks to have won its battle. Indeed, as the Daily Beast reported earlier this month, Gen. General Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi has become a popular figure. This is especially true since the Obama administration foolishly cut off most of the aid the U.S. sends to Egypt annually.

There are two conclusions that may be drawn from this.

One is that those who warned that the Islamists were, if not invincible, at least impossible to defeat, were wrong. It is true that the last word has not been spoken on the conflict in Egypt and the Brotherhood may well rally itself to cause more harm. But it is also clear that, at least for the moment, it doesn’t appear that the group is capable of mounting an insurgency that could threaten the military. Rather than make the country unstable, as critics of the coup warned, it seems to have had exactly the effect the military hoped it would have. While democracy is nowhere in sight in Egypt, it has also not descended into chaos, let alone civil war.

Also instructive is the fact that the Brotherhood is not as popular as its American cheerleaders (including, unfortunately, much of the administration) thought it was.

When the Mubarak regime fell in 2011, the Brotherhood was the only organized opposition party and took full advantage of its advantage in the rush to transform the country into a democracy. With powerful friends in Turkey and in Gaza (where its ideological offshoot Hamas ruled), the Brotherhood was popular and powerful. Other new parties, especially those that were secular or liberal, were no match for it and it breezed to victory in the elections that followed.

The assumption was that not only would the Brotherhood quickly adapt to the coup and resume its status as the leader of the opposition in the underground but that it could still count on the backing of a critical mass of Egyptians.

But the year in power may have degraded the Brotherhood’s ability to pose a terrorist threat to the new regime in Cairo.

On the one hand, assuming office took them public in a way they had never done before. That makes it much harder for them to operate underground. But their time in power, and the enormous hostility they generated among ordinary Egyptians, may have also made it impossible for them to lead any kind of clandestine effort. Not only are they more visible but their unpopularity—tens of millions took to the streets to protest against them—may have rendered it impossible for them to practice the classic technique of the guerilla and to hide in plain sight.

This should also call into question the judgment of the Obama administration’s policies toward Egypt. Not only, as the New York Times reported last weekend, is the United States still laboring under the burden of the president’s embrace of the Brotherhood during its year of power. But it is also now deeply resented by most Egyptians for its disdain for a change in power that most of them approved. And the military, which was long a bastion of sympathy for America, is now alienated and perhaps tempted by Russia’s efforts to revive the ties it had with Egypt until Anwar Sadat dumped them.

The U.S. miscalculated badly in Egypt. Not only is the military firmly established in power, but the most populous Arab nation may also be drifting out of the U.S. orbit. But as bad as that may be, there is something in this tale of failure that should encourage the West. The Arab spring may have turned in many places into an Islamist winter, but their eventual triumph is not certain. Totalitarian movements like the Brotherhood can be defeated.

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Barack Obama, Unilateralist

Barack Obama and his crew came into office criticizing George W. Bush and his crew for being too unilateralist. Quelle surprise. Turns out that Obama is, if anything, more unilateralist. That, at least, is one conclusion you can draw from Susan Rice’s interview with the New York Times, which Jonathan has already commented on.

The article details a policy review at the NSC that Rice supervised this summer whose results were unveiled in President Obama’s speech at the UN in September. To wit: “The United States, he declared, would focus on negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, brokering peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians and mitigating the strife in Syria. Everything else would take a back seat.”

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Barack Obama and his crew came into office criticizing George W. Bush and his crew for being too unilateralist. Quelle surprise. Turns out that Obama is, if anything, more unilateralist. That, at least, is one conclusion you can draw from Susan Rice’s interview with the New York Times, which Jonathan has already commented on.

The article details a policy review at the NSC that Rice supervised this summer whose results were unveiled in President Obama’s speech at the UN in September. To wit: “The United States, he declared, would focus on negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, brokering peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians and mitigating the strife in Syria. Everything else would take a back seat.”

This is billed by Rice as “a more modest approach — one that prizes diplomacy, puts limits on engagement and raises doubts about whether Mr. Obama would ever again use military force in a region convulsed by conflict.” In fact it’s a more high-handed and unilateralist approach. How so? Because it rests on the assumption that the administration can choose to get involved only in the issues it has pre-determined beforehand are of interest, and that it can pursue a predetermined approach to those issues even if it flies in the face of reality and what our allies advocate.

This is a natural continuation of the president’s conceit that he can “end” wars by pulling U.S. troops out; in fact in Iraq he has re-started a war by pulling U.S. troops out. But it is part and parcel of Obama’s overweening self-regard that he imagines that his actions, and his actions alone, will determine what happens in far-off regions.

It hardly works that way. The struggle for democracy in Egypt or indeed across the Middle East–to take but one example–will not disappear simply because the administration chooses to ignore it. Nor will the Israelis and Palestinians reach a peace deal simply because the administration wills it to happen.

If President Obama were actually listening to what U.S. allies in the Middle East want, he would be focusing on toppling Bashar Assad and doing whatever it takes to stop the Iranian nuclear program rather than engaging with the Iranian regime. Nor would he be loudly proclaiming his desire to disengage from the Middle East and never again to use force. Like his ill-considered timeline in Afghanistan, those are signals that encourage aggressors and discourage our friends. Which may be why both the Saudis and Israelis, different as they are, both are signaling their disenchantment with the administration’s policies.

Meanwhile Obama has been alienating France, Germany, Brazil, and other countries over alleged NSA spying. The U.S. may have a strong case for what it is doing, but even those of us who defend NSA actions have to admit they’re–yup–unilateralist. So who’s the unilateralist now, President Obama?

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The Bizarro Doctrine

American foreign policy in the Middle East has now entered Bizarro World–a place made humorously famous by comedian Jerry Seinfeld, describing a parallel universe where “up is down, down is up,” and where the opposite of what one expects occurs. Seinfeld was riffing off the comic book character Bizarro, the parallel character to Superman, who lived on a strange planet called Htrae (Earth spelled backwards).

Well, welcome to the Elddim Tsae. It’s a place where long-standing state sponsors of terrorism Iran, Syria, and Sudan are basking in the warmth of America’s evolving Middle East policies, while long-standing American allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others are increasingly sidelined.

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American foreign policy in the Middle East has now entered Bizarro World–a place made humorously famous by comedian Jerry Seinfeld, describing a parallel universe where “up is down, down is up,” and where the opposite of what one expects occurs. Seinfeld was riffing off the comic book character Bizarro, the parallel character to Superman, who lived on a strange planet called Htrae (Earth spelled backwards).

Well, welcome to the Elddim Tsae. It’s a place where long-standing state sponsors of terrorism Iran, Syria, and Sudan are basking in the warmth of America’s evolving Middle East policies, while long-standing American allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others are increasingly sidelined.

Iran, a country that has sponsored nearly every terrorist group on the planet and is now hurtling toward a nuclear weapon, is the biggest winner in the Elddim Tsae. Newly elected President Hassan Rouhani has Washington eating out of his hands after a charm offensive consisting of 140-character vows promising moderation, even as his boss, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, keeps the centrifuges spinning. The Obama administration is now mulling a grand nuclear bargain, which will provide Iran sanctions relief in exchange for vague promises of change.

Syria is also benefiting from America’s Bizarro Doctrine. In the span of days, America went from threatening punitive strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime for launching a chemical-weapons attack on his own people to enlisting Assad as a partner in his own disarmament, and then praising him for compliance he has yet to deliver on. Even if Assad does fully disarm, he will effectively have a green light to get back to the business of mowing down the Syrian opposition, which fights to end his family’s decades-long dictatorship.

Then there is Sudan, where the leadership has been indicted for genocide and which provided a headquarters to al-Qaeda in the 1990s. Khartoum is now indicating that ties with Washington are warming. This comes after two cordial meetings between Sudan’s foreign minister and Secretary of State John Kerry, first in New York and then Washington.

On the flip side of our parallel universe is Saudi Arabia. Admittedly, Riyadh is more of a frenemy. But America’s Saudi policy, designed to maintain good ties to the ruling family and access to an affordable and steady supply of their oil, has never wavered–until now. Riyadh is outwardly displeased with America’s warming ties to its arch-foe Iran, with fears that an ascendant Iran could pose a direct threat to the Kingdom’s stability. Washington’s recent lifeline to Syria, after months of calling for Assad’s removal, also has the Saudis seething.

Turkey and Qatar, it should be noted, are equally vexed by Washington’s Syria policy, prompting both countries to consider charting their own courses, which may involve the co-opting of jihadi groups to fight the Assad regime.

Egypt, another ally of the United States, has also recently fallen victim to the Bizarro Doctrine. To be sure, Egypt has brought many of its problems upon itself. The military’s toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was not its finest moment. But Washington has now taken it upon itself to cut aid to Egypt, dismantling an alliance that could require years to properly rebuild.

Then there is Israel, which is reeling from America’s decision to cut aid to Egypt. That aid was a cornerstone of the 1978 Camp David Accords, a peace agreement that has kept Israel’s southern flank quiet since the Accords were inked. It now is entirely unclear whether Cairo will want to uphold that agreement. The Israelis are further unnerved by America’s backtracking on Syria, particularly after Washington enlisted its help in calling for military intervention. And finally, the rapprochement with Iran has the Israelis wondering whether America will have its back when Tehran invariably makes that final dash for the bomb.

Fittingly, Bizarro World was first depicted by DC Comics in 1960. Today, Washington D.C. has become a parallel universe of a superpower’s foreign policies of the past.

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Re: About That Gaza Humanitarian Crisis

As Jonathan noted Sunday, many diplomats, journalists and human rights organizations spent years loudly condemning Israel for a “humanitarian crisis in Gaza” that never existed. The truly remarkable thing, however, is how silent all these parties have fallen over the last few months, when Gaza has been suffering far worse than it ever did back when its “humanitarian crisis” was a cause célèbre. The reason, of course, is that there’s no possible way to blame the current crisis on Israel: The culprits are Egypt and the Palestinians’ own rival governments; Israel, in contrast, has been trying to alleviate the distress. And it turns out that if Palestinian distress can’t be used as a stick to bludgeon Israel, Gaza’s erstwhile champions have no interest in it whatsoever.

Ever since the Egyptian military overthrew the elected Muslim Brotherhood government this summer, it has cracked down ruthlessly on Gaza, accusing that territory’s Hamas government of complicity in jihadist terror in Sinai and of conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood to attack police stations and prisons. As journalist Khaled Abu Toameh wrote recently, this crackdown is hurting Hamas far worse than Israel’s military offensives in Gaza ever did. Here are just a few of the steps Egypt has taken:

  • It has destroyed an estimated 90% of the tunnels from Sinai into Gaza. This move is entirely Hamas’s own fault: Its purpose is to stop is the extensive two-way traffic in arms and terrorists that Hamas presided over for years, and which has fueled much of the terror in Sinai. But since the tunnels were also a source of cheap Egyptian goods, their demolition has caused real hardship for impoverished Gazans.

To compensate, Israel has increased its own shipments of food and other supplies to Gaza, but Israeli goods are more expensive than their heavily subsidized Egyptian counterparts. Moreover, Hamas rejected an Israeli-Egyptian offer to send one particularly critical product previously brought in through the tunnels – cheap Egyptian fuel – via Israel instead, leading to serious shortages.

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As Jonathan noted Sunday, many diplomats, journalists and human rights organizations spent years loudly condemning Israel for a “humanitarian crisis in Gaza” that never existed. The truly remarkable thing, however, is how silent all these parties have fallen over the last few months, when Gaza has been suffering far worse than it ever did back when its “humanitarian crisis” was a cause célèbre. The reason, of course, is that there’s no possible way to blame the current crisis on Israel: The culprits are Egypt and the Palestinians’ own rival governments; Israel, in contrast, has been trying to alleviate the distress. And it turns out that if Palestinian distress can’t be used as a stick to bludgeon Israel, Gaza’s erstwhile champions have no interest in it whatsoever.

Ever since the Egyptian military overthrew the elected Muslim Brotherhood government this summer, it has cracked down ruthlessly on Gaza, accusing that territory’s Hamas government of complicity in jihadist terror in Sinai and of conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood to attack police stations and prisons. As journalist Khaled Abu Toameh wrote recently, this crackdown is hurting Hamas far worse than Israel’s military offensives in Gaza ever did. Here are just a few of the steps Egypt has taken:

  • It has destroyed an estimated 90% of the tunnels from Sinai into Gaza. This move is entirely Hamas’s own fault: Its purpose is to stop is the extensive two-way traffic in arms and terrorists that Hamas presided over for years, and which has fueled much of the terror in Sinai. But since the tunnels were also a source of cheap Egyptian goods, their demolition has caused real hardship for impoverished Gazans.

To compensate, Israel has increased its own shipments of food and other supplies to Gaza, but Israeli goods are more expensive than their heavily subsidized Egyptian counterparts. Moreover, Hamas rejected an Israeli-Egyptian offer to send one particularly critical product previously brought in through the tunnels – cheap Egyptian fuel – via Israel instead, leading to serious shortages.

  • Egypt has shut down the Rafah border crossing almost entirely, turning Gaza, for the first time, into the open-air prison its erstwhile champions used to falsely proclaim it. As long as Rafah was open, Palestinians were never imprisoned; they could travel to and from Gaza via Egypt. Now, however, they truly lack any way to enter and leave.

But here’s the kicker: Sympathetic to their distress, Israel offered to reopen its own crossing with Gaza, on condition that the Palestinian Authority handle security on the Palestinian side. That would solve the problem that originally led to the crossing’s closure: Since Hamas refuses to recognize Israel, security can’t be coordinated with it. But Hamas rejected this offer – and if it hadn’t, the PA almost certainly would have, given its rejection of a similar Egyptian proposal to enable the reopening of Rafah.

  • Egypt has razed houses along the Gaza border to create a buffer zone and shot at Palestinian fishing boats seeking to evade Israel’s naval blockade of the Hamas-run government. Needless to say, both are steps the world denounced when Israel took them in the past.

These and other measures have produced a crisis of unprecedented severity in Gaza. But since there’s no way to blame Israel for it, Gaza’s erstwhile champions have gone AWOL. One can only pity any Palestinians naive enough to have thought the world actually cared about their suffering.

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