Kagan & Dunne: Time to get tough on Egypt

This is one of those times that I wished that the Washington Post's editorial board hadn't spent the last four years making all-too-often spurious criticism of the Obama administration's foreign policy, because this quite good op-ed by Robert Kagan and Michele Dunne would have more punch. Neoconservative wonk Kagan (perched at Brookings) and Egypt expert Dunne (who has done a sterling job running the Atlantic Council's Egypt Source) have good credentials to speak about this, they have been engaged in the democracy debate for years and Kagan is probably the only neocon whose intellectual credentials are respectable (and isn't mostly motivated on this issue by the question of Israel's interests). They call on Obama 2.0 to get tough on Egypt right now.

A few excerpts and comments:

The Obama administration has treated Egypt primarily as an economic problem and has urged Cairo to move quickly to satisfy International Monetary Fund (IMF) demands to qualify for financing. But there is no separating Egypt’s economic crisis from its political crisis — or from the failures of its current government. Egypt’s economy is struggling, and disorder is rampant primarily because the country’s leaders the past two years — first the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, now President Mohamed Morsi — have failed to build an inclusive political process. Until they do, no amount of IMF funding will make a difference.

It is true one of the two main areas of focus of the Obama administration since Mubarak's overthrow has been the economy — I remember attending a briefling by Robert Bill Burns in February 2011 where it was his main focus. But the other one the administration focused on was the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, often giving the impression the only thing it cared about was hearing the magic words "we will respect Egypt's international obligations" (they didn't mean the Convention of the Rights of Children, which the MB opposes!). So basically the equation was Israel + economy (meaning economic stability so things don't degenerate further creating political instability, which in turn would threaten Israel and other US strategic interests). They are right that politics (realizing the need for inclusiveness during a transition period, a decent transition framework, actually setting out an agenda for things like security sector reform, transitional justice, etc.) deserved greater focus. After all, today we have the Suez Canal zone and parts of Sinai in their fourth day of civil disobedience for political, not economic reasons (economic neglect being a political issue).

Under Morsi’s rule, Egyptian society has become polarized between Islamists and non-Islamists. Enraging the political opposition late last year, he railroaded through a new constitution that contains inadequate protections for the rights of women and non-Muslims and leaves open the possibility of Islamic clerical oversight of legislation. Ignoring protests about the flawed process by which the constitution was drafted and passed, Morsi is moving ahead to legislative elections based on an electoral law to which the opposition objects. Meanwhile, his government has cracked down on journalists, brought spurious charges against opposition leaders and limited the right to public protests. It is considering legislation that would constrain the activities of non-governmental organizations even more than Hosni Mubarak did.

This may all be true — but does the sin of ignoring negatives signs begin with Morsi? Let us not forget that under SCAF, security forces killed some 150-200 people, put thousands through military trials and severely restricted the press and civil society. There was very little speaking out then apart during the NGO crisis and briefly in late November 2011 when the White House expressed the desire for a quick end to SCAF's inter-regnum. The tentative pact early after Mubarak's ouster between the MB and SCAF over how the transition should proceed was seen as "stabilizing" by Washington, just as the tentative MB (and sundry 'liberals' in the "Council of the Wise") pact with Omar Suleiman between January 29 and February 6 2011 had US backing. The problem in terms of US policy is not that Morsi is a destabilizing influence, as much as that stability is the wrong thing to prioritize — especially seeking to produce real stability.

It’s time for a new approach. Both the administration and Congress need to fully review military and economic assistance to Egypt. What does the Egyptian army need to bring security to the Sinai? Probably not F-16s. What conditions should Congress place on aid? Previous packages have appropriately been conditioned on progress toward democracy, but the administration has insisted on a national security waiver and has exercised it to provide the aid regardless of Egypt’s behavior. Perhaps Congress should not permit such a waiver in the next aid bill.

This paragraph reflects the fact that one of the admistration's main concern is to protect whoever is in charge in Egypt from the latest fad in Congress. But is Congress really the answer, in any case? Will politicians who are easily swayed by various lobbies (Egyptian, Islamist, Israeli, defense) really provide the backbone necessary? I'm not convinced the answer is to let Congress take the lead — the administration needs to do it itself, through political pressure (i.e. diplomacy) first and foremost.

Hindsight is 20/20, but I feel comfortable at least that, since late 2011 at least, I expressed reservations about the manner in which the US reached out to the Brotherhood and rushed to give it recognition with no counterpart save reassuring statements about Israel and the peace treaty. I argued, including with officials, that this was the wrong approach: the Israel question would take care of itself, since Egypt under any leadership is in no position to enter into a confrontation with Israel. More important was to focus on the future of Egypt's domestic politics and sending the message that a government willing to carry out fundamental reforms (and not just economic ones) would be supported: transitional justice, security sector reform, political culture. It may not have been the intended effect, but the impression many in Egypt (from secularists to the military) got was that Washington was annointing the Muslim Brothers as the next poeple in charge. The problem got worse after the parliamentary elections because of the FJP's success, despite the fact that parliament was actually fairly diverse, the results were obviously not a conclusive, long-term political map of the country, and the FJP did not have a majority.

The point at which there should have been a forceful US reaction was November 23, 2012, the day after President Morsi's Constitutional Declaration, the Muslim Brothers' march on the Cassation Court and the massive and unexpected protests in reaction. No act could have been more worsely calculated by the presidency, and in those first few days there were signs that the Brotherhood thought it had made a mistake. Its choice, though, was to rush through to get to a constitutional referendum that would justify its choice rather than back down, mirroring SCAF's strategy in February-March 2011 to rush to a referendum to justify its rule, ignoring demands for the consideration of alternatives by leaders of the revolution and many secular movements.

Western diplomats, these days, generally make excuses for the Brotherhood and blame the opposition for its fecklessness, its idiotic backing of the dissolution of parliament (imagine if that parliament was still there, if the secularists and Islamists had negotiated a date for its dissolution after a new constitution was voted in: you'd have secularists and moderate Islamists controlling almost 30% of seats, a much better pulpit to face the MB — possibly with a tactical alliance with Nour's 25% — than the television shows and press conferences it must settle with now). The opposition's uselessness is acting as a shield for the Brothers — who could use being saved from themselves rather than encouraged in their current path. I have sat through more than one meeting hearing these diplomats rant about the opposition, and some of its backing for Ahmed Shafiq and potential alliance with the felool, with a straight face: we don't know what Shafiq would have done (I doubt it would have been pretty) but Morsi has already done plenty, and how come they suddenly object to the likes of a Shafiq (i.e. a Mubarak lite)? Puh-lease.

There is an idea out there that accepting political Islam is a great geo-strategic move that will put the nail in al-Qaeda's coffin, and that the Brothers' failure would be a disaster because it would feed the jihadist international. Really? Al-Qaeda continues to metastasize into new and different things across the world, and while a Muslim Brotherhood in opposition at this stage is a scary thought because of its power of obstruction, there is no reason to believe it would become al-Qaeda (after all, why didn't it before? Perhaps because it genuinely has abandoned violence as a movement a while back, even if embraces state violence today?) Embracing the Brotherhood because of fear of uncertainty is the wrong choice, just like embracing Mubarak for fear of alternatives was the wrong choice. 

Kagan and Dunne make this point in their conclusion:

The United States made a strategic error for years by coddling Mubarak, and his refusal to carry out reforms produced the revolution of Tahrir Square. We repeat the error by coddling Morsi at this critical moment. The United States needs to use all its options — military aid, economic aid and U.S. influence with the IMF and other international lenders — to persuade Morsi to compromise with secular politicians and civil-society leaders on political and human rights issues to rebuild security and get the economy on track.

The question is, is it already too late? Have the events of November and December and their consequences already set in motion an economic collapse, made securing an IMF deal exponentially more difficult, and set Egypt's political forces on a confrontation path that encourage either chaos, eventual military intervention, or the dominance of the Brotherhood through authoritarian rather than electoral means?

That's what I ask myself today, and I'm not sure that in light of what appears to be coming in Egypt anyone has the appetite to "get tough."


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.