The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts in Asides
Does Egypt Still Matter?

Samuel Tadros, of the Hudson Institute, says that while the conventional wisdom is that Egypt is a central player in MENA politics, it is not and its importance is as a playing field:

Is it time then for the United States to abandon Egypt? The answer is a resounding no. It is precisely because of Egypt’s movement towards the regional abyss that the United States needs to reinvest in the American-Egyptian relationship. Egypt is no longer a regional player but rather a playing field where local, regional and international powers are in competition over the country’s future. The country may no longer be a contestant for regional hegemony, but it is today the primary contested prize in a struggle over the region’s future. If the Westphalian order is to be defended in the Middle East amidst state collapse and the rise of Caliphate revivalist movements, this defense has to start with the most natural of the Arabic speaking states. With ninety two million people, a state collapse in Egypt would lead to a refugee crisis of historical proportions. No one wants a Somalia on the Nile, a Libya on Israel’s borders, or a Syria in control of the Suez Canal, the United States least of all.

But if this scenario is to be averted, the United States needs to adjust its policies accordingly. The United States should no longer base its policy on an Egypt that no longer exists. U.S. interests in Egypt are no longer maintaining the peace treaty or passage in the Suez Canal, but rather strengthening state institutions to make sure a regime collapse does not lead to a state collapse. Instead of focusing on military cooperation, the United States needs to develop a new partnership with Egypt that addresses the growing terrorist threat in the country, the collapse of the rule of law, the failed economic policies, the educational vacuum, and the growing sectarian hatreds that threatens the fate of the Middle East’s largest Christian community.

The argument merits developing – what policies, who is competing for Egypt, and if the US should reinvest in Egypt, does it really have a partner in its current leadership, or a source of the above-mentioned problems?

Saudi Arabia and Egypt warm up again

Heba Saleh and Simeon Kerr, writing in the FT:

Analysts said the election of Donald Trump in the US, who considers Egypt and Saudi Arabia as important allies in his anti-Isis strategy, had focused minds on a rapprochement. Saudi Arabia is also keen to rally Sunni Arab support in its efforts to counter Iran’s influence across the Middle East, and believes it can benefit from reasserting a strong axis with Cairo, analysts said.
“Because of the Trump factor and the new Saudi strategy to counter Iran, we are back into a ‘forgive and forget policy,’” said Abdullah Alshammri, a former Saudi diplomat. “Riyadh’s policy towards Egypt can be described as emergency diplomacy — it is time to work only against Iran, and we need Cairo.”

This is an interesting take and always one of the major reasons that any chill in Saudi-Egyptian relations was going to be temporary. However, this likely does not mean it's all hunky dory from here on. There are limits to how anti-Iran Egypt will want to be, especially in light of its improved relations with Hamas, which is once again warming to Tehran. Like it or not Tehran has leverage with Hamas, which has leverage on the situation in Sinai. This is one of the ways in which the emergent MENA geopolitics are tangled and complicated. The Trump administration could arguably get on board with an anti-Iran policy that would please most (but not all) GCC countries and that would structure a major aspect of power politics in the region. And some are calling for this (surprise: it involved members of the Kagan family of neocon grandees) – specifically a Middle East strategy focused around Iran rather than Sunni radicals, including empowering a Sunni ally against Iran and (if you read between the lines) embracing anti-Shia sectarianism. Ironically, they are doing so when Saudi Arabia may to be shifting emphasis from a sectarian to a more ethnic framework for containing Iran.

Yet a country like Egypt has far more complicated interests: anti-Islamism (which brings it closer to the Assad regime and hence Russia and Iran), maintaining its strong relations with the GCC (solidarity on Yemen etc.) and the Nile water issue with Ethiopia and the Sudans (which is a theater where you have a strong local actor in Ethiopia but also much external influence from Western countries, Iran, Saudi Arabia and China). So I would not fall for an "all is fine" narrative: as in the past, the Egyptian-Saudi relationship is likely to have its ups and downs because of regional developments that are hard to predict and where their interests diverge. 

Sloppy scholarship and the Arab uprisings

Bassam Haddad, in Jadaliyya:

Much of the writing on the Arab uprisings continues to suffer from the new think-tank-ish, self-important, semi-casual, sloppy-analysis syndromes. It is as if having a platform and a mandate are sufficient to produce sound knowledge. For the most part, the proof is in the pudding. Follow platforms and individuals across time and space and this becomes clear: zigzagging and pendulum-swing judgments and analysis, driven more by events and politics than by historical and analytical depth. Worse still, this sloppiness has extended to scholars who frequently opine on social media and electronic publication platforms that seek content quantity over quality in a mutually beneficial exercise. Rigorous analysis that stands the test of time suffers.

Extending beyond quick platforms, the deluge of books on the uprisings is staggering and qualitatively inconsistent across publications, with some coming out within the first year of these protracted events, yet they do not consciously address their own temporal (premature?) shortcomings. Other books are published within months of the emergence of new phenomena (e.g., ISIS) and extrapolate from that particular phenomenon to all cases that experienced an uprising. Finally, as I already shared, a continuing trend of erroneously addressing the uprisings, or the odd title “Arab Spring," as one event lingers, with insufficient attention to the vast variance across cases. For the most part, the best work on the uprisings has not been written yet, and for good reason.

I suspect we will see really good literature about the uprisings before we see really good non-fiction. I don't think anyone has really put their finger on the real story here yet.

Trump faces the same question as Bush and Obama in Afghanistan

From today's New York Times' editorial:

Before he agrees to increased troop numbers, Mr. Trump would be wise to order a full assessment of the war to consider whether sending in more Americans can reasonably be expected to succeed in weakening an insurgency that has sprung back after earlier increases of American force.

Unless the Pentagon delivers a strategy that is significantly different from previous ones, Mr. Trump would be sending more men and women into a deadly war zone while, at best, only temporarily delaying Afghanistan’s descent into further chaos and violence.

Actually the question Trump has to answer is bigger than this – one that neither Bush nor Obama ever really answered: what is the mission in Afghanistan? What are the criteria of success and, ultimately, exit? I don't think we've ever had answers to these questions.

Hillary Clinton, Michigan and Arab-Americans

Quoted in the Independent by Robert Fisk, Nick Noe thinks that Clinton might have won the election, or at least done better in states like Michigan, had she put more effort into courting Arab voters:

Nicholas Noe was Hillary’s senior man in Michigan, the beating heart of 186,000 residents who claim Arab ancestry. Noe also lives in Beirut where he runs Middle East Wire, which translates the Arab media, and writes long – sometimes over-wordy but often all too accurate – analyses of the Arab world. “We lost Michigan with its 16 electoral votes – and we lost it by a little more than 10,000 votes,” Noe says. “We were never able to get Hillary herself in front of the Arab community to listen to them. She went to Detroit but she never came to see this community – even though she was nearby.”
It’s easy to think that Hillary, whose sense of entitlement never stopped her currying up to the wealthiest or most powerful lobby groups in Washington and New York, was frightened of offending the pro-Israeli lobby and thus avoided Dearborn and its residents’ questions on "Palestine" and Israel. But so far as Noe is concerned, “most pundits believed that Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric would be sufficient to give the Arab-American vote to Hillary – but they needed to hear from the candidate herself.”

Who knows how much difference this might have made – the Arab-American vote is far from united and often goes Republican – but this kind of thing reinforces my view that Clinton was not only the wrong candidate for the Democrats, but also ran a poor campaign.

The Egyptian Muslim Brothers' media war

Mokhtar Awad, for POMEPS, on how the divisions inside the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood have played out onto their media outlets:

Both traditional and new media have been critical tools in this internal struggle. Different satellite channels compete to “set the tone” for the group’s struggle against the regime and the rhythm of the organization through their programming and guests they allow on air. Rival factions now operate two different websites and have two different spokesmen on social media. Each first and foremost concerned with securing the loyalty of the MB rank and file. Senior leaders post rival statements on websites and followers instantly react on their Facebook walls, sometimes arguing with each other. Other members have also set up independent Facebook pages to assert their demands or act as privateers on behalf of one faction to land blows against their rivals.

This fascinating new environment naturally allows forces outside the MB’s traditionally rigid structure to interfere in this internal struggle with either their financing or through media activism. This has significant consequences for the organization and the Egyptian Islamist movement overall as different Imams and ideologues—ranging from the “moderate” to the outright Takfiri—can compete for ratings and as a consequence possibly influence. The new diverse media environment also provides a useful tool to help analyze internal MB dynamics and help answer the fundamental question of who speaks for the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s dissident Islamists.

The Democratic Party establishment is finished after Trump

Before Trump was elected, everyone was saying the Republican Party will need overhaul after the election. The Republicans - even the ones who were anti-Trump - are now rushing to feed at the trough. As Jim Newell writes for Slate, it's the Democratic Party that needs a radical overhaul. 

The party establishment made a grievous mistake rallying around Hillary Clinton. It wasn’t just a lack of recent political seasoning. She was a bad candidate, with no message beyond heckling the opposite sideline. She was a total misfit for both the politics of 2016 and the energy of the Democratic Party as currently constituted. She could not escape her baggage, and she must own that failure herself.
Theoretically smart people in the Democratic Party should have known that. And yet they worked giddily to clear the field for her. Every power-hungry young Democrat fresh out of law school, every rising lawmaker, every old friend of the Clintons wanted a piece of the action. This was their ride up the power chain. The whole edifice was hollow, built atop the same unearned sense of inevitability that surrounded Clinton in 2008, and it collapsed, just as it collapsed in 2008, only a little later in the calendar. The voters of the party got taken for a ride by the people who controlled it, the ones who promised they had everything figured out and sneeringly dismissed anyone who suggested otherwise. They promised that Hillary Clinton had a lock on the Electoral College. These people didn’t know what they were talking about, and too many of us in the media thought they did.
We should blame all those people around the Clintons more than the Clintons themselves, and the Clintons themselves deserve a ridiculous amount of blame. Hillary Clinton was just an ambitious person who wanted to be president. There are a lot of people like that. But she was enabled. The Democratic establishment is a club unwelcoming to outsiders, because outsiders don’t first look out for the club. The Clintons will be gone now. For the sake of the country, let them take the hangers-on with them.

Off with their heads – it's time to declare open season against the Clintonistas.

The Syrian Trauma

Sit yourself down to read, without distraction, this essay by our friend Peter Harling. It drives through, with unforgiving force, through the apathy that many of us who watch Syria from afar (and indeed those of us for whom Syria is a professional interest). There is a "Syria" out there that is synonymous with evil, misery, apocalypse and the collapse of a regional, or even global order. There is a "Syria"that is a "problem from hell" or an argument about i teventionism. And then there is Syria, the country, the complicated people, which is what Peter is reminding us to listen to:

Syrians don’t need more people lecturing them on what their future should be. There are plenty of them, none with any claim to knowing what is best until they do some demonstrable good on the ground. A mere ceasefire may be a start in principle. But it also has been, repeatedly, an alibi, for the US and the UN to pretend to have achieved something, and for others—such as Russia and the regime—to regroup and push their advantage militarily. Whenever gaining time is the only outcome, Syrians lose collectively.

Our massive moral failure has been a source of public embarrassment and personal unease for many officials involved in the conflict’s management. Gradually they have been gravitating toward a solution to their own psychological tension: “stopping the violence” to appease themselves, even at the expense of diminishing any prospect of closure for Syrians. Such self-centeredness has become, in itself, an obstacle to any progress: all the policy talk about “what can we do” will remain empty until its meaning becomes “what can we do for millions of Syrians” and not “what can we do to rid ourselves of the problem.”

Our moral stupor is not inconsequential, although many people would be tempted to say so, on the basis of some cynical view about archaic struggles between sects and tribes, the intrinsic ugliness of war, a lack of “national interests” in Syria, or foreign policy understood as the natural realm of unprincipled goals. A parallel with a molested child bluntly illustrates the callous logic that seems to apply to Syria: should a victim, raped by its relatives, stay silent? Is it more convenient than shame? Is it more cost-effective than years of an arduous process toward uncertain recovery? Why even take the trouble? How can such questions have obvious answers when applied to one person, yet meet only confusion when they concern millions?

AsidesThe EditorsSyria
Dissidence and Deference Among Egyptian Judges

For Egypt judiciary nerds (you know who you are), this article by Mona El Ghobashy for Middle East Report is just such a great read that weaves so many threads together, I have to link to it again. Money quote:

It is tempting to dismiss pro-government judges as lackeys of military rulers, automatons who move only at the behest of the de facto center of power. The reality is far more troubling. Many judges are active, self-willed architects of an expanded regime of legal exception and legal repression.

. . .

There have always been judges who see their role as applying, not checking, punitive laws. The zeal with which these judges and prosecutors are expanding the infrastructure of legal repression and resuscitating Mubarak’s paradigm of permanent emergency suggests that political dissidence is not their only target. A broader pacification of the population seems to be the goal, to punish the rampant disobedience and disrespect for authority that ruling elites remember as the revolution. Commenting on an avalanche of summary expulsions of students from universities, an administrative court judge said, “The reasons behind the expulsions [nowadays] weren’t there during Mubarak’s time. There wasn’t a revolution during Mubarak’s time.”

Bidoun #25 in Arabic

Our friends at Bidoun write:

This issue of Bidoun was assembled in Cairo between March and April of 2011. It remains, if nothing else, a true record of an uncertainty — so rare that even those who experienced it can hardly imagine it today.
We're making this Arabic-language version available more than five years later. We had originally hoped to launch it in Egypt, but the moment wasn’t right. We’re still waiting.

Get it here.

AsidesThe Editorsbidoun
On US aid and human rights in Egypt

For Forbes, Charles Tiefer on some of the main points in a US Government Accountability Office on how the Defense and State Dept. have gone around laws placing restrictions on US aid to Egypt:

The report is a major exploration (77 concentrated pages) of how the U.S. State (and Defense) departments turn a blind eye to measures like, most recently, el-Sisi’s current brutal crackdown which includes recent massive arrests of peaceful protesters, long prison terms for demonstrators, smashing of human rights groups and jailing their attorneys, and the infamous covering-up at the highest levels of the torture-murder of the Italian student, Giulio Regeni.

Throughout the world, U.S. law requires its basic law of aid – known as the “Leahy Law” – that forbids aid to those with credible evidence of human rights abuses.  The GAO studied (for 2011-2015 with aid of roughly $1.3 billion aid to Egypt annually) the workings in the U.S. Embassy in Cairo of the U.S.’s worldwide (for relevant aid receivers) database of rights abusers.  The abuser database did, occasionally, flash red lights about units like the Ministry of the Interior, and, the Cairo police.  There were even infrequent occasions (in Morsi’s time) that the State Department did its job and created barriers or “tensions” about aid going to some abusive Egyptian officials and security units.

But, then, the U.S. system has used many ways, the GAO report showed, to condone the Egyptian government despite abuses.  First, it simply allows Egypt to get away with not responding to questions.  “In a postshipment check involving the transfer of riot control items, such as rubber ball cartridges and smoke grenades, to the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior, the Egyptian government did not respond to a [State Department] question . . . . [Yet]  State closed [this] . . . as favorable.”  “Riot control” sounds like el-Sisi’s version of crushing the demonstrations — what observers reported as peaceful protest.

Second, State was slightly tougher on the Morsi regime ending in 2013, but seems fully to condone the worse abuses of the el-Sisi regime.  The GAO closely analyzed statistical evidence of the vetting of security forces that got coveted U.S.-funded training.  While overall “State rejected” in 2011-2015 “less than 1 percent of the total cases vetted,” the figures for el-Sisi’s time were even more condoning – the State Department “has not rejected any cases since fiscal year 2013, including no cases since the removal of President Morsi in July 2013. (Pages 37-38)”  No cases?  At all? Is this the same Egypt of el-Sisi that is constantly castigated by international human rights groups, and has outraged all Europe by the Regeni matter?

By the way, in what might be deemed the cover-up in Washington of the cover-up in Egypt, State gagged the GAO about telling how bad State was in its delinquency in vetting.  These figures were key to GAO’s blunt conclusion: ‘State and DOD [Defense] are not in compliance with their policies regarding human rights vetting (page 38).”  State gagged GAO this way:  “State deemed our [GAO] estimate of the percentage of Egyptian security forces that were not vetted . . . to be sensitive but unclassified information.  We therefore omitted that information from this report. (page 38)”

You can read the whole GAO report here.

US "meh power" in Libya

This two-part New York Times feature (one, two) on US policy in Libya is to a large extent about Hillary Clinton’s advocacy for an intervention in 2011 and her subsequent disengagement as other priorities took hold. It in an indictment of Clinton that should give anyone want to vote for her some pause, but it is an even bigger indictment of the policy process in the Obama administration and the lack of thinking-through the Libya issue. Clinton thinks of the 2011 Libya intervention as "smart power" (the most overused and meaningless foreign policy cliché of the last two decades) but it looks more like "meh power": apart from short-bursts of activism (by Clinton mostly) driven by political ambition, there is mostly lack of sustained interest. They just don't care that much about what they started.

It actually lets off fairly easily the cheerleaders for intervention on Clinton’s team, such as Anne-Marie Slaughter, who advocated for intervention but did not press on the aftermath. It makes a rapid mention of the fact that the US scuttled potential negotiations with the Qadhafi regime, not giving them a chance to see what they could deliver (arguably the worst decision in the whole episode). Allies that act in a duplicitous manner to railroad the US into certain actions or to create facts on the ground, like France or Qatar, are never pushed back. It reveals that there was a US program to provide weapons to the rebels – in other words, that Washington joined Paris, Doha, Abu Dhabi and others in flooding Libya (and hence its neighbors) with weapons – but does not dwell on it. So much more could be made of the abundant material in these pieces, but what is most odd is that it suggests that both Obama and Clinton have drawn the wrong conclusions from the Libya debacle.

Still, excellent reporting and contains some scoops.