Egypt updates

A lot of open browser windows, no time to put them in a coherent narrative. So here are my notes for the past week:

✩ In an argument that's about Russia or Iran more than Egypt, James Traub discusses the Obama administration use of the blanket term "engagement" do get business done (like finding a modus vivendi with Putin's Russia or resolving the nuclear issue with Iran). He concludes:

Sometimes, as in China or Egypt, engagement with the state seems to preclude engagement with the aspirations of citizens and you get, well, realism. 

Eric Martin at American Footprints and David Schorr at the Progressive Realist responded to that piece.

But in an earlier piece Traub had talked about Obama's democracy-promotion policy, or lack thereof, and there Egypt was prominent. He sees it as a complete rejection of Bush's Forward Agenda for Freedom (which was never very serious anyway, more of a post-facto legitimization of the invasion of Iraq once nukes were not found). It's nice to see a writer finally acknowledge the Cairo speech was a big piece of poop, as I had argued at the time:

Nevertheless, engagement contains its own contradictions. Although it's true that the threat of disengagement is unlikely to produce political reform, it's also true that a show of deference to authoritarian states, no matter what its avowed purpose, is likely to be heard as a message of impunity. The most vivid proof is Egypt, where the contrast between Bush and Obama is most striking. After declaring, in his second inaugural address, that the United States would henceforth require from other governments "the decent treatment of their own people," Bush used Egypt as an object lesson, publicly pressuring President Hosni Mubarak to expand the space for political campaigning and public commentary. And it worked -- until Mubarak cracked down and the Bush administration responded with mild bleats.

Shadi Hamid, deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center, says that Obama "learned the wrong lesson" from the Bush episode. The lesson was not that public pressure doesn't work, but rather that such pressure must be measured and consistent and backed up by deeds. Neither Obama nor other senior officials have publicly criticized authoritarian allies in the Middle East (though one hears a great deal about things allegedly said in private). Hamid says that Obama's Cairo speech was almost "pitch perfect," but that the lack of follow-up has provoked a "visceral" sense of disappointment among local reformers.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently announced that the Cairo initiative would include three areas of engagement: entrepreneurship, science and technology, and education. There would be nothing that would even faintly discomfit the region's autocratic leaders. Perhaps there will be more to come. When I ticked off this list to one administration official, he said grimly, "That drama's not over."

It might be added here that not only has the Obama administration worked to restore US relations with Egypt by largely ignoring democracy and rights issues, but also by lavishing reward (I see holding that speech in Cairo as the first of these rewards). Like the massive F-16 deal approved late last year, or the creation of a endowment for Egypt — although, interestingly, that had been written in at the last minute by a lawmaker, and quickly endorsed (and reduced) by the administration. The more important question here, what does the US get out of it. There is a draft letter circulating in Congress at the moment that might, or might not, be sent to Obama to voice protest over Egypt policy. We'll see how much traction that has in Washington these days.

Meanwhile, Joshua Kurlantzick in Newsweek argues that the "age of global human-rights advocacy has collapsed, giving way to an era of realism unseen since the time of Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon."

✩ The Carnegie Endowment, among the most prolific Egypt-watching think tanks, recently put out a piece mulling over Egypt's current predicament. It's good (except for it unwillingness to consider, ahem, extra-constititional solutions), concluding straight-forwardly:

For all practical purposes, Egypt has turned in a politically one-dimensional country where the ruling establishment has succeeded in undermining the opposition to such an extent that the nominally multi-party system is in reality a single party one.

It also considers US strategy (I suspect along the same lines as some in Congress):

By not speaking up as Egypt moves toward a meaningless election cycle, the Obama administration is damaging its standing in the eyes of Egyptians and, more broadly, the Arab public without gaining anything in return. Favorable views of the United States in the Arab region started inching upward after Obama’s election, but many are now beginning to question his commitment to changing U.S. policy in the region. And while most Arabs regarded the efforts of the Bush administration with suspicion, viewing democracy promotion as a thinly disguised code for getting rid of regimes the United States did not like, they now interpret the silence of the Obama administration as a sign that the United States stands behind its long-standing policy of supporting authoritarian Arab regimes. Furthermore, it is not necessary for the United States to keep silent about the increasingly open authoritarianism of the Egyptian regime: while Egypt would certainly resent criticism of its politics, it is not going to change its international alignment as a consequence. It will not renege on the peace treaty with Israel, it will not align itself with Iran, and it will not support Hamas and Hizbollah, because such steps are anathema to the beliefs of the Mubarak administration. 

 Its prescriptions:

  1. A statement of principles about what the US would like to see;
  2. Widen the scope of people US Embassy staff interact with;
  3. Engage with the government over restrictions on political activity and the 'principles' that should govern regional politics, both for the region's states and the US.

My reading of that is basically criticism of policy under Amb. Margaret Scobey, who — as widely known in Egypt-US circles — has shied away from doing anything to upset the Egyptian government, and largely adhered to the Egyptian government's red line of who is frequentable. This usually applies to the Muslim Brothers. Overall, it's something of an inadequate list. I think the opportunity may be emerging again in the next few months for US engagement with certain elements of the regime, shaken by the ElBaradei wildcard into pushing for a more credible reform agenda. It depends where you stand: if you think ElBaradei's best chance is to pressure the regime to change, this may work. If you want him to destabilize the regime and actually become president, then you'd be against this.

✩ One interesting development in Egypt last week as the State Council's decision to bar women judges. It sparked protests from female judges which I would regard as a great, positive development. A few years ago conservative judges would have gotten away with this entirely, now there is pushback — it's the beginning of the eventual integration of female judges at all levels, hopefully.

✩ Terrible precedent for Egyptian bloggers with the court-martial, essentially, of Ahmad Mostafa, who blogged about nepotism in the armed forces. From CPJ:

New York, March 1, 2010—The Committee to Protect Journalists today called on Egyptian authorities to drop the charges against blogger Ahmad Mostafa, who is facing up to one year in prison pending the outcome of his ongoing trial in a military court.

Mostafa was arrested on the orders of a military prosecutor on Thursday in Kafr el-Sheikh, a city north of Cairo, on charges of “disseminating false information” and “tarnishing the image of the military,” Reuters reported. In February 2009, Mostafa recounted on his blog Matha Assabak ya Watan? (What has afflicted you, my country?) the story of a student who had allegedly been forced to give up his seat at the Egyptian Military Academy in favor of another applicant who had paid a bribe to gain admission.

Mostafa's case was adjourned till Sunday.

✩ Finally, al-Gomhouriyya — the most sycophantic of Egypt's state papers — counters ElBaradei-mania by hinting at Hosni Mubarak's next campaign promises. Unfortunately this link only works on the day the article appears, and I can't find a permanent link, so here's a PDF capture. Also, Abdel Moneim Saeed counters ElBaradei.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.