Commentary Magazine


Topic: Mohamed Morsi

Does Human Rights Watch Make Up Its Numbers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Should Human Rights Watch Be Trusted?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Yes, Egypt Is Playing a Constructive Role in Gaza Conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are a few problems with this argument.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama Drops the Ball in Egypt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sisi’s Brotherhood Vow and the U.S.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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No, Egypt’s Generals Don’t Cause Terrorism

Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, dedicates his monthly Washington Post column to argue that Egypt’s provisional government does not deserve U.S. support. He begins:

One wonders how much further the United States will allow itself to be dragged down into the deepening abyss that is today’s Egypt. Those in the Obama administration and Congress who favor continued U.S. military aid to the dictatorship in Cairo insist that although such aid may run counter to American ideals, it does serve American interests. I would argue the contrary, that American interests are being harmed every day that support continues.

Far from aiding the United States in the struggle against terrorism, as the Egyptian military dictatorship and its supporters claim, the military’s brutal crackdown on Egypt’s Islamists is creating a new generation of terrorists. Whatever one thought of the government of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, and there was much to criticize, it came to office by fair and legitimate electoral means, just as U.S. policy had demanded, and it was headed toward a second election that it probably would have lost.

Alas, while his argument is powerful, it is also based on several faulty assumptions. Underlying his argument is the assumption that the motivation for terrorism lies in grievance, not ideology. That may be comforting to many diplomats because it leads to the idea that if diplomats only address those grievances, terrorism will fade away. However, it completely ignores the ideological component of Islamist terrorism fully embraced by the Muslim Brotherhood, a topic which I touched upon for this COMMENTARY article a couple years back.

To follow Kagan’s logic, and admittedly, that of many others whom I admire—that the United States should have simply let the Morsi government hang the Muslim Brotherhood with a rope its leadership provided—is optimistic, for it assumes that Morsi was committed to the electoral process. In this regard, Kagan is more optimistic than tens of millions of Egyptians listening to Morsi in Arabic, living under Muslim Brotherhood rule and, frankly, millions of one-time Morsi supporters who recognized that rhetoric aside, Morsi was unrepentant and unreformed.

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Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, dedicates his monthly Washington Post column to argue that Egypt’s provisional government does not deserve U.S. support. He begins:

One wonders how much further the United States will allow itself to be dragged down into the deepening abyss that is today’s Egypt. Those in the Obama administration and Congress who favor continued U.S. military aid to the dictatorship in Cairo insist that although such aid may run counter to American ideals, it does serve American interests. I would argue the contrary, that American interests are being harmed every day that support continues.

Far from aiding the United States in the struggle against terrorism, as the Egyptian military dictatorship and its supporters claim, the military’s brutal crackdown on Egypt’s Islamists is creating a new generation of terrorists. Whatever one thought of the government of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, and there was much to criticize, it came to office by fair and legitimate electoral means, just as U.S. policy had demanded, and it was headed toward a second election that it probably would have lost.

Alas, while his argument is powerful, it is also based on several faulty assumptions. Underlying his argument is the assumption that the motivation for terrorism lies in grievance, not ideology. That may be comforting to many diplomats because it leads to the idea that if diplomats only address those grievances, terrorism will fade away. However, it completely ignores the ideological component of Islamist terrorism fully embraced by the Muslim Brotherhood, a topic which I touched upon for this COMMENTARY article a couple years back.

To follow Kagan’s logic, and admittedly, that of many others whom I admire—that the United States should have simply let the Morsi government hang the Muslim Brotherhood with a rope its leadership provided—is optimistic, for it assumes that Morsi was committed to the electoral process. In this regard, Kagan is more optimistic than tens of millions of Egyptians listening to Morsi in Arabic, living under Muslim Brotherhood rule and, frankly, millions of one-time Morsi supporters who recognized that rhetoric aside, Morsi was unrepentant and unreformed.

If the Muslim Brotherhood would have held elections under the narrow and bigoted constitution they rammed through, they likely would not have entertained a wider stable of candidates than those able to run in the Islamic Republic of Iran after that theocracy’s unelected Guardian Council got through with its vetting. It is true that the Egyptian counter-revolution rejected the established electoral calendar, much as did almost every Arab Spring uprising in the first place, revolutions that Kagan (and I) both embraced.

Nor does the “product of society” argument hold much water. To imply as, unfortunately Kagan does, that it is understandable that some Egyptians will turn to terrorism as a result of last summer’s events is to accept the same logic that al-Qaeda’s terror attacks on 9/11 were somehow the understandable backlash of American foreign policy. When terrorists set off bombs in Cairo, Alexandria, or Asyut, there simply is no legitimate excuse, ever. Period.

The Egyptian generals are no saints, but they have moved forward with the electoral process. The jury is out about how genuine the roadmap to democracy is, but it is essential not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. True, Gen. Abdel Fattah El-Sisi will probably win, but he is also probably the most popular politician in Egypt right now. Hopefully, he will recognize the mistakes that led to the uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak in the first place, and not make the same compromises with crony capitalists and corrupt generals.

U.S. interests are well-served by engagement with the Egyptian leadership during the current transition and into the future. Support should not be blind, but it is essential to recognize that the best chance to encourage real and lasting democratic reform comes only when the Muslim Brotherhood—a group as antithetical to democracy as the terrorist movements it has spawned—is defeated. Just as military analysts preached the importance of stability and security in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to enable those countries to move forward, so it is true also with Egypt. It is ironic—and inconsistent—for those cheerleading security in some countries to treat it with such disdain in others.

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Will Egypt’s Elections Be Free and Fair?

After the July 2013 uprising, coup, or correction in Egypt—the debate over the terminology, while relevant to U.S. law regarding foreign assistance, can nonetheless be distracting to the broader conversation—the Egyptian military promised a quick transition back to civilian rule, a new constitutional order, and elections.

The Egyptian military has been true to its word in reality, even if Western policymakers debate the spirit of its moves. After the Egyptian military arrested former President Mohamed Morsi and ousted his government, it did appoint civilian place-keepers—Adly Mansour as president, for example, and Hazem al-Beblawi as prime minister (Beblawi resigned in February). Gen. Abdel Fattah El-Sisi might be the paramount power and he could very well be the next president, but he did not assume all power. That said, there is plenty of evidence upon which those who see Sisi’s ambitions more cynically can grasp.

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After the July 2013 uprising, coup, or correction in Egypt—the debate over the terminology, while relevant to U.S. law regarding foreign assistance, can nonetheless be distracting to the broader conversation—the Egyptian military promised a quick transition back to civilian rule, a new constitutional order, and elections.

The Egyptian military has been true to its word in reality, even if Western policymakers debate the spirit of its moves. After the Egyptian military arrested former President Mohamed Morsi and ousted his government, it did appoint civilian place-keepers—Adly Mansour as president, for example, and Hazem al-Beblawi as prime minister (Beblawi resigned in February). Gen. Abdel Fattah El-Sisi might be the paramount power and he could very well be the next president, but he did not assume all power. That said, there is plenty of evidence upon which those who see Sisi’s ambitions more cynically can grasp.

Sisi did, however, keep his word and return Egypt to a constitutional order, scrapping the constitution that Morsi pushed through that would have taken women back decades and entrenched Islamism beyond its electoral mandate. Critics, however, argued that the drafting of the new constitution was not inclusive enough. That was not entirely the interim government’s fault: With the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to reject the post-Morsi order rather than participate in it, there was little choice the new government had to move forward other than scrap the drafting of a new constitution; fortunately, they chose to push forward despite the Brotherhood’s attempts to delegitimize the new constitution.

The next step is elections. U.S. policymakers should certainly recognize by now after its democracy promotion experience of the Bush and Obama years that elections do not make a democracy. Nor are all elections free and fair. While many critics of the Egyptian government effectively want to move back to the pre-July order and allow the Muslim Brotherhood to hang itself with a rope of its owning making, that sentiment discounts the fact that Morsi and the Brotherhood did not seem to be as committed to democratic checks and balances once they entered office and consolidated control, and so may never have allowed the public to try them at the ballot box. Regardless, it is simply impossible to go back to the past. The question then becomes how to push ahead into the future. It would be self-defeating to call for democratization but denounce any attempt at a new election. At the same time, there is no reason to take the Egyptian government at its word when it says that it wants free and fair elections.

That is why last week’s announcement by the Egyptian government that they will allow not only outside observation of the May 26-27 elections, but credible outside observation, is good sign. Allowing the European Union to send observers is probably the best possible choice. Neither the National Democratic Institute nor the International Republican Institute would be keen let alone welcome to send observers after the Egyptian military had scapegoated them against the backdrop of the initial Arab Spring protests. Nor is the Carter Center credible, given President Jimmy Carter’s outspoken and seemingly unbalanced support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

There is a lot of anger on all sides relating to the situation in Egypt. No one is satisfied. Rather than nihilistically condemn Egypt to limbo because of anger over the events of last July, however, it is important to make the most of the current situation, and push Egypt to the reforms it so desperately needs to make so that the next president doesn’t simply engage in the same corruption and crony capitalism that led to anger boiling over in 2011. Let us hope that the European Union monitors will observe Egypt’s elections both in the long and short term, and that the Egyptian government will continue to have the self-confidence to embrace transparency as it moves forward. If the authorities in Cairo are showing good faith, that should be reciprocated.

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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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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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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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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 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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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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Egyptian Military Is on the Clock

Foreign policy realpolitikers who favor backing the Egyptian generals argue that they have already ended the threat posed by Muslim Brotherhood rule and that they will now destroy the Brotherhood as a future threat to Egypt–and by implication to the U.S. and Israel. Some other analysts have been dubious about this argument not because we don’t share the goal of ending Brotherhood rule in Egypt but because we fear that the military crackdown will not succeed in suppressing the Brotherhood and, by forcing it underground, will only make it a greater terrorist threat in the future.

So far evidence has been lacking as to which view is right. Egypt has certainly not been thrown into the cauldron of civil war since the military coup in July. It looks nothing like Syria or even Iraq. But nor is the military crackdown entirely unopposed. The latest news:

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Foreign policy realpolitikers who favor backing the Egyptian generals argue that they have already ended the threat posed by Muslim Brotherhood rule and that they will now destroy the Brotherhood as a future threat to Egypt–and by implication to the U.S. and Israel. Some other analysts have been dubious about this argument not because we don’t share the goal of ending Brotherhood rule in Egypt but because we fear that the military crackdown will not succeed in suppressing the Brotherhood and, by forcing it underground, will only make it a greater terrorist threat in the future.

So far evidence has been lacking as to which view is right. Egypt has certainly not been thrown into the cauldron of civil war since the military coup in July. It looks nothing like Syria or even Iraq. But nor is the military crackdown entirely unopposed. The latest news:

Deadly violence against the government broke out around Egypt on Monday as health officials raised to 53 the number said to have been killed the day before in clashes between supporters and opponents of the military takeover that ousted President Mohamed Morsi three months ago.

Unidentified gunmen in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia killed six soldiers, including a lieutenant, in a drive-by shooting, while a car bomb at the security headquarters in the southern Sinai town of El-Tor killed two police officers and injured nearly 50 other people, state media reported. In Cairo, assailants fired at least one rocket-propelled grenade through a satellite dish used to transmit Egyptian state television.

This is ominous–but hardly determinative. Supporters of the military coup have to acknowledge that the threat of civil war–and with it the creation of fresh terrorists–is rising. Critics of the coup, including me, have to acknowledge that our worst fears have not come to pass yet and may never do so.

The reason why Egypt has been stumbling along since July is probably because the Brotherhood sacrificed so much legitimacy with its bumbling while in power. The military, aided by a massive cash infusion from the Persian Gulf monarchies and a willingness to undo the minimal privatization that took place under the now-released despot Hosni Mubarak, has been able to kick start the economy at least temporarily, thus enhancing its short-term popularity.

But Egypt is still in a parlous economic condition and its top hard-currency earner–tourism–is not going to revive while potential travelers are reading headlines about clashes and casualties. The billions sent by the Saudis, Emiratis, and others will not last forever. Already economists are saying that Egypt will grow at only 2.6 percent this fiscal year, well below the government’s objective of 3.5 percent growth. Faster growth is a necessity, lest large numbers of unemployed young men prove to be a destabilizing force.

The military has only a limited amount of time to show that it is better at governance than the Brotherhood or it is likely to face the same sort of backlash that Mohamed Morsi & Co. faced–and that backlash could easily produce more violence.

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Embrace the Anti-Islamist Backlash

Against the backdrop of Washington’s collective Attention Deficit Disorder, the coup in Egypt is ancient history and the Gezi Park demonstrations in Turkey are forgotten. Neither should be, as they are indicative of a trend that the United States should both recognize and upon which it should act.

The coup in Egypt was against political Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood had promised Egyptians accountability and economic development, but ousted President Mohamed Morsi gave the ol’ bait-and-switch and focused on imposing the Brotherhood’s intolerant and religiously conservative social agenda. To convince Egyptians, disgusted with decades of the military’s corrupt and authoritarian rule, to reconsider the military as the lesser of evils took special skill. Read More

Against the backdrop of Washington’s collective Attention Deficit Disorder, the coup in Egypt is ancient history and the Gezi Park demonstrations in Turkey are forgotten. Neither should be, as they are indicative of a trend that the United States should both recognize and upon which it should act.

The coup in Egypt was against political Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood had promised Egyptians accountability and economic development, but ousted President Mohamed Morsi gave the ol’ bait-and-switch and focused on imposing the Brotherhood’s intolerant and religiously conservative social agenda. To convince Egyptians, disgusted with decades of the military’s corrupt and authoritarian rule, to reconsider the military as the lesser of evils took special skill.

This summer’s protests in Turkey were also the result of a long-simmering liberal backlash against the ruling party’s autocracy and Islamism.

Now, there are signs that Islamists have jumped the shark in Jordan as well. David Schenker—the best analyst of Jordan (and Syria) in Washington—points me to this story, from the Arabic press in Jordan: An Islamist deputy proposed a bill that would mandate that Jordan’s laws be harmonized with Sharia, Islamic law. Bad news for the Islamists, though: They could muster only 27 votes out of 150. Jordan is by no means a democracy and its elections are far from free and fair, but it does allow Islamists to run and, at times, the Muslim Brotherhood has been effectively the largest parliamentary bloc.

In Tunisia, secularists are also rallying as Islamists increasingly turn to assassination and show their true, anti-democratic colors. In the United Arab Emirates as well, the Islamist al-Islah party is on the defensive, its own coup plot disrupted.

Iranians repeatedly have shown their disgust with the theocrats who have eviscerated their sovereignty in the name of religion.

For too long, the United States has reacted to events without a clear strategy. While George W. Bush articulated a strategy in the wake of 9/11, his national-security staff lacked the will and ability to transform vision into reality and enforce policy discipline on the interagency process.

Democratization is an important—and laudable—goal, but it cannot come instantly, only when the right circumstances are set. This should not be an excuse to embrace the status quo (as too many in the State Department do), but to push the region in a direction where true liberalism is possible. To do so requires defeating the ideology of political Islam, an ideology no less noxious than the various autocratic ideologies which blighted the 20th century. In the current issue of National Review, I argue that the United States should embrace a ‘roll-back’ strategy against the Muslim Brotherhood and, more broadly, political Islamism.

The signs are many that ordinary Arabs, Turks, and Iranians have started to recognize that religion is no panacea for worldly ills. How unfortunate it is that U.S. policymakers are not seizing this opportunity—and even appear willing to seize defeat from the jaws of victory in Iran, Turkey, and across the region.

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What’s Motivating Erdoğan on Egypt?

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has become the most outspoken international leader condemning the coup in Egypt and calling for the restoration of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. Certainly, part of Erdoğan’s commitment to Morsi is ideological: Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party is, at its roots, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Both share an ideological and religious agenda and hope to remake their societies fundamentally.

It would give Erdoğan too much credit to suggest his only motivation is religious. Erdoğan is no saint; he is vain, coarse, and has amassed an amazing amount of money far beyond his salary or religious alms. In the months before Morsi’s ouster, Turkish defense contractors cultivated Egypt. From Hürriyet Daily News:

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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has become the most outspoken international leader condemning the coup in Egypt and calling for the restoration of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. Certainly, part of Erdoğan’s commitment to Morsi is ideological: Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party is, at its roots, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Both share an ideological and religious agenda and hope to remake their societies fundamentally.

It would give Erdoğan too much credit to suggest his only motivation is religious. Erdoğan is no saint; he is vain, coarse, and has amassed an amazing amount of money far beyond his salary or religious alms. In the months before Morsi’s ouster, Turkish defense contractors cultivated Egypt. From Hürriyet Daily News:

An Arab diplomat in Ankara said he expected “difficult times” in Turkish-Egyptian relations, which may disrupt economic relations too, unless Ankara and Cairo prefer to pursue a pragmatic line… In May Turkey granted Egypt a $250 million loan to finance Turkish-Egyptian joint defense projects. The loan, the first of its kind, intends to boost defense cooperation and Turkish defense exports to Egypt. Earlier, Egypt expressed an interest in buying the new ANKA Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial vehicles built by Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI). Egypt was one of the pioneers in unmanned aerial systems, fielding the Teledyne Ryan Model 324 Scarab high speed drone and SkyEye tactical UAVs since the early 1980s. The addition of a MALE platform will fulfill the gap offering better persistence, improved imagery and multi-payload capacity. The potential sale of six to 10 ANKA systems to Egypt was discussed during Erdoğan’s visit to Cairo last November… In a separate deal, Ankara had approved the sale to Egypt of six multi-role tactical platforms, MRTP-20 “fast-intervention crafts,” produced by the privately-owned shipyards Yonca-Onuk.

Erdoğan may be angry at the financial hit Turkey took in Egypt, but the episode should also be a wake-up call to the changing military balance in the Middle East. While the United States provides Turkey with high-end military platforms, Turkey has been building up a military industry which potentially can change the military balance in the region. The coup may have voided Turkish military contracts in Egypt, but it is an open question what Turkey has provided to Islamists in other Arab Spring countries.

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When Is a Coup Not a Coup?

If you walk into Grand Central Terminal from Lexington Avenue, you will see a clock on the wall above the entrance to the Main Concourse. Below, carved in the stone, it says, “Eastern Standard Time.” That was Grand Central’s year-round time zone when it opened in 1913. But these days, from mid-March to early November, the clock displays eastern daylight time, not standard time.

The lesson here, obviously, is be careful what you carve in stone.

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If you walk into Grand Central Terminal from Lexington Avenue, you will see a clock on the wall above the entrance to the Main Concourse. Below, carved in the stone, it says, “Eastern Standard Time.” That was Grand Central’s year-round time zone when it opened in 1913. But these days, from mid-March to early November, the clock displays eastern daylight time, not standard time.

The lesson here, obviously, is be careful what you carve in stone.

Putting something into law is carving it in stone. Laws are always far easier to enact than they are to repeal. And we have just had a beautiful example of why putting something into law is often a dumb thing to do. Since 1961, when the Foreign Assistance Act was signed, the law requires that should a foreign country experience a coup d’état, U.S. aid to that country must cease. This is fine in theory. This country would very much like the whole world to be governed by democratic governments elected in free and fair elections. We could cut the military budget by ninety percent if it were.

But that is not the way the whole world works and we have to live with reality. The purpose of U.S. foreign aid is not to convince the world that we are a bunch of nice guys but to advance American interests. And sometimes interests other than fostering democratic government must take priority. During the Cold War, we had to make nice with some very unsavory regimes.

What happened in Egypt on July 5 was as clearly a coup as anything could be. The Egyptian military, employing force majeure, overthrew the first democratically elected government in Egyptian history and took the president into custody, where he remains, incommunicado. If that wasn’t a coup, whatever could be? But for valid reasons of state, the Obama administration has been flatly refusing to call a coup a coup. To be sure, the Morsi government had been democratically elected, but so had Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany in 1933. And, like the Nazis, once in office, the Morsi government immediately began subverting democracy at every turn. Given what we know now, would we have objected to the Wehrmacht giving Hitler the boot in 1934? It would have been a coup, for sure, but thank God for it. After all, both Hitler and Morsi were, in effect, carrying out their own coups d’état from within.

Politicians have often had to be semantically artful. In 1941, as FDR slowly maneuvered the country into joining the allies in a war the country did not want to fight but which Roosevelt knew had to be fought, he agreed to take over the defense of Iceland from the hard-pressed British. But he had a problem: he had promised the American people he would not station U.S. forces outside North America.  What to do? Simple: Roosevelt just declared that Iceland was actually part of North America. It was geographically doubtful to say the least, but politically sound.

The Obama administration is anything but artful when it comes to foreign policy. They have managed to alienate just about every political faction in Egypt. But they’re right not to call a coup a coup in this case.

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Egypt’s Return to Military Rule

Governments, understandably, have a history of not tolerating large sit-ins occupying a substantial area in the middle of their capital. But attempts to end such sit-ins have a way of turning out badly. It was not just the Tiananmen Square protest in Beijing in 1989 that ended in a bloodbath. On a lesser level there was Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s heavy-handed dispersal of the Bonus Army, made up of World War I veterans, in Washington in 1932, which forever sullied his image.

Now comes the Egyptian army’s dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood protesters in Cairo, an attack which has left at least 95 dead (a toll that is certain to grow) and led Mohamed ElBaradei, one of Egypt’s vice presidents, to resign in protest. ElBaradei’s departure from the government, to which he was providing a fig leaf of civil legitimacy, may prove especially significant because it is making the regime in Cairo look increasingly not like a transitional military regime but a permanent military regime.

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Governments, understandably, have a history of not tolerating large sit-ins occupying a substantial area in the middle of their capital. But attempts to end such sit-ins have a way of turning out badly. It was not just the Tiananmen Square protest in Beijing in 1989 that ended in a bloodbath. On a lesser level there was Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s heavy-handed dispersal of the Bonus Army, made up of World War I veterans, in Washington in 1932, which forever sullied his image.

Now comes the Egyptian army’s dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood protesters in Cairo, an attack which has left at least 95 dead (a toll that is certain to grow) and led Mohamed ElBaradei, one of Egypt’s vice presidents, to resign in protest. ElBaradei’s departure from the government, to which he was providing a fig leaf of civil legitimacy, may prove especially significant because it is making the regime in Cairo look increasingly not like a transitional military regime but a permanent military regime.

This impression is heightened by the fact that 19 out of 25 of the provincial governors just named to office yesterday are generals. Moreover, Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who led the military coup that toppled Mohamed Morsi (now being held at a secret site and likely to be tried on treason charges), has not ruled out running for president himself.

It is looking increasingly as if very little has changed since Hosni Mubarak was toppled–except the name of the general in charge. Egypt appears to be returning to military rule, in ways both good (increased cooperation with Israel in rooting out security threats) and bad (increased repression and the heightened risk of a civil war). If this is the way Egypt’s military goes about restoring “democracy,” I would hate to see how it imposes dictatorship.

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