The new normal in Damascus

Sarah Birke, reporting from Damascus for the NYRB blog: 

While the brutal devastation caused by the Syrian conflict, now entering its third year, has affected many parts of the country, the Syrian government has long sought to portray the capital as an oasis of calm. Unlike Aleppo, parts of which have been destroyed by a year of battle, central Damascus shows few physical scars of war, apart from the many roadblocks and checkpoints, and the burned-out remains of a building northeast of the city that was bombed. Unlike Raqqa, a city in the east of Syria that is in the hands of extremist rebels, Damascus looks like a bastion of tolerant, vibrant life. In this view, the functioning city demonstrates both the continued strength of the regime and the dangers of the increasingly fractured opposition. But as my visit to the Umayyad Mosque revealed, under the surface things aren’t the same in the Syrian capital.

The same day, I went out for dinner with a well-connected businessman—he went to school with Bashar al-Assad and Bashar’s elder brother Bassel and has flourished under the regime, even more so since the crisis started. The restaurant served a take on continental food and any type of alcohol you might fancy. A coiffed young woman with a photo of Bashar as her iPhone cover sang songs as her smiling companions knocked back drinks at a price that would pay the rent of a displaced family for a month. At one point, the businessman got up to use the bathroom and something clattered to the floor. It was a pistol. “Oh, that,” he said. “I am so afraid of being kidnapped. I would rather kill myself than have that happen to me.”

Two quotes from Sisi

The Washington Post  — possibly the publication that is most critical of the Egyptian military in the US – has landed an interview with the generalissimo himself. He uses it for chastising Washington: 

“You left the Egyptians. You turned your back on the Egyptians, and they won’t forget that,” said an indignant Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, speaking of the U.S. government. “Now you want to continue turning your backs on Egyptians?”

So does he want the US to not turn its back and lend support? Because the official media in Egypt seemed to be arguing that the US should not involved at all. 

And then there's this gem: 

The most important achievement in my life is to overcome this circumstance, [to ensure] that we live peacefully, to go on with our road map and to be able to conduct the coming elections without shedding one drop of Egyptian blood,” he said, before adding, “When the people love you, this is the most important thing for me.”

Surely too late about the blood? 

Kagan: The U.S. is complicit in Egyptian military’s actions

Robert Kagan weighs in on the question of Egypt-US relations: 

Some supporters of the aid claim that it gives us leverage over the military’s behavior — that fear of an aid cutoff will curb Sissi’s more extreme inclinations and lead the government to moderation. Recent events suggest the opposite. Why should military leaders fear losing aid when the Obama administration did not even abide by U.S. law requiring it to cut off that aid after the coup? The recent delay of F-16 deliveries had no effect.

Egypt’s military knows there has been only one constant in U.S. policy toward its country over the past three decades, including during the turbulence of the past three years: Regardless of who has been in power — Hosni Mubarak, the military, Morsi and now the military again — and how that government has behaved, military assistance has flowed. We didn’t use our military aid to pressure Mubarak to reform; we didn’t use it to pressure Morsi to govern more democratically; and we are not using it now to pressure the military to cease its violent, undemocratic behavior.

Quite aside the merits of this argument, there is a logical flaw in the "we can't pressure them because we'll lose the only leverage we have" argument: if you can't use your leverage because you'll lose your leverage, then you do not in fact have leverage. 

Democracy and hypocrisy

The Economist on the lack of Western condemnation after the killing of some 150 protestors in Cairo: 

After the killing, Barack Obama kept his counsel. It fell to John Kerry, the American secretary of state, to speak out—and then he merely called on Egypt’s leaders to “step back from the brink”. Likewise in Britain David Cameron, the prime minister, left it to William Hague, the foreign secretary, to rap the generals over the knuckles. America’s protest at the ousting of Mr Morsi had been to delay the supply of some F-16 fighter jets to Egypt. But that modest gesture was more than undone just before the shootings. In an unwise precedent, the administration declined to say Egypt had suffered a coup, because to do so could have triggered an automatic block on aid.

The Muslim Brothers—and other Muslims across the Middle East—will conclude from all this that the West applies one standard when secularists are under attack and another when Islamists are. Democracy, they will gather, is not a universal system of government, but a trick for bringing secularists to power. It is hard to think of a better way for the West to discourage the Brothers from re-entering Egypt’s political process.

In any case, even supposing that the Brothers wanted to return to politics, it is unclear whether the army would let them back in. The generals now know that the West has given them more or less a free hand to do as they will. The army chief, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has claimed that marches on July 26th gave him a “mandate” to confront “potential terrorism”. Already, the new government is resurrecting the hated arms of Hosni Mubarak’s security state.

The editors go on to argue that "the only way they [the MB/Islamists] can be excluded from politics is if the security forces hold much of the power" - they're right.

Masoud: MB's sin was that it failed to work with felool

Tarek Masoud, writing in Foreign Policy: 

Though there is some truth to this narrative, June 30 was less a revolution than a counter-revolution, carried out not by the photogenic young people who made Tahrir Square a household name two-and-a-half years ago, but by the orphans of the regime that those young people had overthrown. Morsy's sin was not that he sought to Islamize the state -- Hosni Mubarak had done a pretty good job of that himself, and the temporary constitution issued by the new interim government includes all of the shariah-talk that liberals supposedly found so objectionable. It wasn't even that it tried to exclude liberals like Hamdeen Sabahi and Mohamed ElBaradei from governing. According to Sabahi himself, Morsy offered him the vice presidency shortly after coming to power last year. And although ElBaradei has just been named vice president for international affairs, it's safe to assume that the number of protesters who took to the streets to put this widely (if unfairly) maligned man in government is vanishingly small.

No, the sin of the Muslim Brotherhood was not that it failed to work with liberals, but that it failed to work with the old regime. For the almost the entirety of its time in power, the Brotherhood has demonstrated a remorseless, unyielding obsession with rooting out Mubarak's National Democratic Party from Egypt's political life. This extent of the obsession was on full display in one of the last speeches of Morsy's presidency. Before a crowd made up of equal parts dignitaries and rowdy Muslim Brothers from the provinces, he railed against the remnants of the ancien regime -- commonly called the fulul -- and then took a few minutes to tell an unflattering story about a man named Kamal el-Shazly, who was Mubarak's parliamentary enforcer -- and who has been dead since 2010. This odd detour into what is now ancient history reveals the extent to which Morsy and his Brothers viewed as Egypt's primary problem as not the crumbling of its economy or the decay in public order, but the continued presence of Mubarak's allies and appointees in almost every corner of the state apparatus. "One year is enough," the president declared, suggesting that the gloves were soon to come off and a full-blown purge was in the offing. In the end, he was the one who was purged.

Another way to see it was that Morsi and the MB completely failed to understand the fragility of their situation, their need for allies (and thus concessions to those allies), and that neither the army nor the Americans were reliable partners to maintain them in power.

"Egypt is too important to be ruled by its people"

Baheyya, on the speech by al-Sisi we linked to yesterday

The speech is the intellectual gloss on the July 3 coup. Its point is that Egypt is too important to be ruled by its people. Too many regional and world powers are vested in the direction this country takes and how it gets there. Its population will be corralled to the side and left to practice their charming folkloric political rituals, with parliamentary elections and even presidential elections and what have you. An arena of electoral democracy will be constructed, but many matters of grave national import will be outside its purview. And anyway, its outcomes can always be reversed.

 

Was there army unity on #June30?

Interesting allegation from Cherif Bassiouni's through and well worth reading analysis of the situation Egypt: 

It is also reported, and that is the second story, that then-President Morsi was going to appoint Lieutenant General Ahmed Wasfy who is a member and the commander of the second field army stationed in the Sinai, to replace General al-Sisi. General Wasfy is believed to have opposed the action by the SCAF as led by General al-Sisi. Shortly thereafter, a military spokesperson issued a statement that General Wasfy had been attacked while in the Sinai but was not killed. The statement indicated that a male civilian together with his 6-year-old daughter were killed in the car by military fire, which presumably occurred in the belief that the car in which these two civilians were was planning an attack upon Wasfy. This statement was later withdrawn by the military authorities. But independent sources confirm the death of a civilian adult and a 6-year-old child. For the last week, General Wasfy has not attended the meetings of the SCAF, and a military spokesperson stated that this was because he was too busy with the security situation in the Sinai. Some observers, however, believe that Wasfy may be under some form of arrest because he was supportive of then-President Morsi and could have been tapped by him to take over from General al-Sisi— much as the latter took over from Field Marshall Tantawi. The hypothesis that President Morsi wanted Lieutenant General Wasfy to replace General al-Sisi is plausible. 

A definition of excessive force

AP, reporting on yesterday's killing of at least 50 Muslim Brotherhood supporters: 

The shootings Monday of Morsi supporters prompted questions about whether troops used excessive deadly force, an accusation the military dismissed as unfair.

"What excessive force? We were dealing with people shooting at us with live ammunition," chief military spokesman Co. Ahmed Mohammed Ali told The Associated Press. "It would have been excessive if we killed 300."

Confident in the army's position, Ali asked those at a televised news conference to stand in silence to mourn the dead. Later he expressed regret for the loss of life, but did not accept blame for the killings.

The US and the coup

Some great reporting in this NYT piece: 

CAIRO — As President Mohamed Morsi huddled in his guard’s quarters during his last hours as Egypt’s first elected leader, he received a call from an Arab foreign minister with a final offer to end a standoff with the country’s top generals, senior advisers with the president said.
The foreign minister said he was acting as an emissary of Washington, the advisers said, and he asked if Mr. Morsi would accept the appointment of a new prime minister and cabinet, one that would take over all legislative powers and replace his chosen provincial governors.
The aides said they already knew what Mr. Morsi’s answer would be. He had responded to a similar proposal by pointing at his neck. “This before that,” he had told his aides, repeating a vow to die before accepting what he considered a de facto coup and thus a crippling blow to Egyptian democracy.
His top foreign policy adviser, Essam el-Haddad, then left the room to call the United States ambassador, Anne W. Patterson, to say that Mr. Morsi refused. When he returned, he said he had spoken to Susan E. Rice, the national security adviser, and that the military takeover was about to begin, senior aides said.
“Mother just told us that we will stop playing in one hour,” an aide texted an associate, playing on a sarcastic Egyptian expression for the country’s Western patron, “Mother America.”

What good faith?

Mara Revkin, with advice that's unlikely to be heeded:

While analysts and politicians engage in semantic sparring matches over whether or not the regime change in Egypt can properly be defined as a “coup,” what is indisputable is that the events of the past week have pushed this country toward an explosive ideological standoff in which political disagreements are being fought out in the streets, rather than rationally negotiated through democratic institutions. After last night’s stalemate, violence in Egypt is unfortunately likely to continue, and Egypt’s fractured political forces cannot afford to waste time blaming one another. While it is the right of every Egyptian to peacefully demonstrate, this right comes with a moral duty to prevent protests from degenerating into urban warfare. After a week of violence and at least seventy casualties, it is now time for the Brotherhood and Egypt’s new interim government to stop using the threat of street mobilization as a bargaining chip in conflicts that must ultimately be resolved through dialogue and political institutions—not mob violence. Until the country’s leaders are willing to negotiate in good faith, Egyptians will continue to pay a heavy price for their reckless brinksmanship. 

Linkdump 5 July 2013

Normally these are posted to Twitter, in this case I am just dumping all opened tabs from Safari: 

Morsy role at Syria rally seen as tipping point for Egypt army

That speech was definitely one of Morsi's top five mistakes. 

Army concern about the way President Mohamed Morsy was governing Egypt reached tipping point when the head of state attended a rally packed with hardline fellow Islamists calling for holy war in Syria, military sources said.

At the June 15 rally, Sunni Muslim clerics used the word "infidels" to denounce both the Shi'ites fighting to protect Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the non-Islamists that oppose Morsy at home.

Morsy himself called for foreign intervention in Syria against Assad, leading to a veiled rebuke from the army, which issued an apparently bland but sharp-edged statement the next day stressing that its only role was guarding Egypt's borders.

"The armed forces were very alarmed by the Syrian conference at a time the state was going through a major political crisis," said one officer, whose comments reflected remarks made privately by other army staff. He was speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to talk to the media.

 

El-Ghobashy on Morsi

Mona El-Ghobashy with some insights on Morsi and the MB's mistake of opting for "elite-level machinations", in the NYT: 

Mr. Morsi and the Brotherhood faced daunting obstacles, said Prof. Mona el-Ghobashy, who teaches political science at Barnard College and studies the Brotherhood. “The first elected president as a product of revolutionary upheaval is already in a hazardous position,” she said. “He was not only the first, but he was elected by the skin of an onion,” she said, with just over 51 percent of the vote.

Mr. Morsi was ill equipped to soothe the nation, a party oligarch who hailed from the “most conservative flank of the most conservative organization,” Professor Ghobashy said. And the Brotherhood, seeking to tighten its grip on power, favored “elite level machinations” — like neutralizing the military — rather than the public and its needs, she said.

“They are old-style politicians. The people are trotted out to give you their vote. Then, ‘Go back home, and let the leaders take care of you,’ ” Professor Ghobashy said. “The newly empowered public, which doesn’t have fixed allegiances to the felool” — the remnants of the old government — “or the Brotherhood, need you to deliver.”

 

"For secular Arabs, these are good time"

Asa'ad Abukhalil aka Angry Arab:

The disaster of the Brotherhood is that they don't have any viable options anymore: if the MB gives up power, they will be exposed for their utter bankruptcy and for failing to deliver on their promises only after one year in power.  And if they stick to power, they will also reinforce the fears and perceptions that they are not truly democratic.  For secular Arabs, these are good times.  Who could have predicted that that the Brotherhood would lose their luster, promise, and credibility after mere months in power?  This is quite amazing.  If the Brotherhood in any Arab country raises the slogan of the "Islamic solution", people know that it has no meaning or promise.  If they raise the slogan of Jihad, people will remember the letter of Morsi to Shimon Peres.  If they speak about the dignity of the ummah, people will remember the cozy relationship between Morsi and the US administration.  There is a window for new groups to emerge now, and the beauty of it all is that the lousy Salafis are tainted along with the MB.

Wishful thinking. Don't write Islamism off just yet, and don't ignore the possibility of the crisis evolving through much more violence.  

In Translation: the Egyptian army's first #june30 decree

Thanks to Geoffrey Aronson for sending me this, translated by Philip Sweigart. Posting here for the record.

General Sisi’s Ultimatum: July 1, 2013
[Begin]
In the name of God, the Compassionate and the Merciful
An announcement from the leadership of the armed forces:
Egypt and the world have seen unprecedented protests, in which the great people of Egypt have filled the streets to express their opinions and desires in a peaceful and civilized way.
Read More