Averting DisasterPosted: May 29, 2013
For the second week in a row Steven Cook has urged urgent help to Egypt . His arguments must be taken seriously on account of both his keen scholarship and genuine affection for Egypt. No sensible person would want Egypt to fail. But the nature and timing of help depends on the view of current Egypt and on the likelihood of the emergence of a stable and tolerant political order. We should proceed by looking closely at Cook’s arguments, identifying any flaws before suggesting an alternate recommendation.
Steven Cook is exceptional among Western experts on Egypt in that he never bought the view that the Muslim Brotherhood is tolerant or democratic. His analysis, however, displays a certain fatalism about the lack of an alternative to the woeful Brothers. He rightly dismisses a return to Army rule as both undesirable and unrealistic. He then runs through a list of possible alternative to President Morsi, finding all of them wanting. The list includes one notorious non-candidate (El Baradei) and three candidates who never made it into the final round (Aboul Foutoh, Moussa and Sabahi). Curiously, he omits the man who did make it into the final round and almost into office, Ahmed Shafiq. Failure to appreciate the Shafiq phenomena is a major blind spot in the conventional view of Egypt today, second only to hagiography of the January 25 revolution. Prior to the first round of voting, all the smart money followed Amr Moussa and Abdel Moneim Aboul Foutoh. The first was a familiar face from the old regime, while the second, with his telegenic orange-clad youthful followers, promised a replay of the Eugene McCarthy 1968 campaign in the US. But the reality was far different and more “political”.
In any large country, presidential politics comes to down to Man and Machine. The Brotherhood had the machine to put a hectoring hothead into the final round, regardless of the the justifiable jokes about him. But even the most modest reading of Egyptian voices would have selected Shafiq as the “Man“. Those who cast Shafiq as “Mubarak 2.0” blinded themselves to his campaign and what light it sheds on Egypt today. His kind words about the disgraced Mubarak appealed to those who still genuinely supported Mubarak, and to a basic Egyptian view that holds grateful men in high esteem. He put together a remarkable coalition of business people, Copts and conservative non-Islamist countryside notables. Perhaps more importantly he offered his vision of Egypt through his staff and tactics. He empowered sober young people as campaign staff, who are revolutionary in their own way of wanting a progressive and prosperous Egypt with no apology or tetchiness toward the West. Watching Shafiq’s campaign was a lesson for how future “liberal” politics might be conducted in Egypt. Clever tongues could joke about Terminal 3, but to many average Egyptians the new airport that Shafiq built was a symbol of the country they wanted. In the waning days of his campaign he offered a vision of a more diverse Egypt and warned of the dire consequences of unfettered Brotherhood rule. Even his most dire warnings underestimated the future. Shafiq would have been dismissed if he warned that Morsi would attempt to grab unfettered power, or ram a venal constitution through, or bus Brotherhood hooligan to Heliopolis to bust heads, or tolerate and justify a sustained day-long attack by thugs and the police on a Cathedral holding the relics of St. Mark the Apostle and the oldest continuous Christian archives.
We need to be careful about what constitutes “liberal” in Egypt. Egypt is conservative and religious and is unlikely to produce an “Olof Palmer” who can win. The man in fine German horn-rimmed glasses and British tweeds appeals to the West, but perhaps not to the voters. The revolutionaries are often too sincere for their own good. Their opposition to Shafiq, and joining in the Brotherhood campaign to tarnish him, was a massive error. Shafiq is unlikely to make a comeback, but the lessons of his campaign must be learned if a tolerant liberal order is to emerge in Egypt. It is telling that only the Brothers recognized the danger of Shafiq’s campaign, and telegraphed their future intentions by Al Shater’s threat to have “blood in the streets” if Morsi doesn’t win.
But what of the role of the United States? Policy makers need to arm themselves with a thorough understanding of Egypt’s history and the tactics of hostage negotiations. For this is Egypt’s predicament today. The Brothers believe that they can hold out for their demands from the weak West because they hold all the cards. After all, who would want Egypt to collapse? But giving in to this threat will endanger the long-term interests of both Egypt and the US, without any discernible short term gain. If practical steps are sought, then a short list will do:
1- Stop pushing the IMF to lend to Egypt. The dalliance between the Brothers and Madame Lagarde is amusing but unlikely to be consummated. The loan was once a good idea, but like fresh bread left out too long, it is now nearly poisonous. The government has managed the purchase and pricing of wheat ineptly. If Egypt does run out of funds to import wheat, then the US can provide wheat directly, emblazoned with American flags. Certainly there is no point in providing aid implicitly to the Brothers to dispose of as they wish. In any case, fuel subsidies are a bigger ( and more soluble) issue, and one where the government refuses to tackle for its narrow political ends.
2- Don’t be overly concerned about the “hard interests”. Point out (only slightly incorrectly) that US is bi-coastal and does not need the Suez Canal, and in any case global warming is opening a Northwest passage between Asia and Europe. Relationship with the Egyptian Army will remain strong, as their tactics and training leave them no choice but to get their support from the US.
3- Provide loan guarantees and direct assistance directly to businesses in Egypt, and not to the government. Also, exclude businesses controlled by the Brothers or their supporters. They should seek their money from places other than the decadent West. The US embassy should reach out to experienced young Egyptian entrepreneurs, even if they make less colorful guests than bearded Salafis.
4- Make a clear and unambiguous statement that any future support to any government is tied to the repeal of major sections of the current venal constitution. This document is tearing Egypt apart and no order favorable to US interest will emerge from it. Changes to the constitution will force a healthy internecine struggle among Islamists.
5- Don’t be shy or reticent about supporting future Shafiq-like candidates (many are in the wings, invisible to pundits). There are many ways to do so, including support for modifications to the peace agreement with Israel under the leadership of such a candidate.
The current struggle in Egypt is far from over, even if the country is on the verge of anarchy. US support is most effective when coupled with a realistic and clear statement of its values and hopes for Egypt. The US quickly withdrew support from Mubarak after a week of sustained protests. What lessons will be learned if it offers continued and sustained support to the Brothers after nearly a year of increasing resistance from a significant fraction of the population?
– Maged Atiya