The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Cheney, Egypt and Iraq

Dick Cheney was in Egypt today for a round of talks with Hosni Mubarak, the first such high-level visit in years. There was, predictably, a small demonstration at the Cairo High Court today against the visit by the usual leftist suspects. But the bulk of interest of the visit had to do with why Cheney was making this personal trip, since the last time he did so, I believe, was when the US was trying to get Arab support (or at least tacit collaboration) for the invasion of Iraq. The AP piece linked above has this:
Arab diplomats said high on the agenda will be the situation in Iraq following the Dec. 15 elections, the crisis with Syria over the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and a looming standoff over the Iranian nuclear program.

The diplomats, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issues, said both Saudi Arabia and Egypt are particularly concerned over the role of Iraq's Sunni Arab minority after Shiite victories in the vote.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt - both key U.S. allies - are the two Arab powers behind an Iraqi national reconciliation conference that is expected to convene next month in Iraq to clear the way for a larger Sunni participation in the political process.

Cheney's visit comes amid an escalating confrontation with Iran, with Washington and Europe moving to bring Tehran before the U.N. Security Council over its nuclear program. Both Saudi Arabia and Egypt have been reluctant to publicly criticize Iran for its nuclear activities, urging instead to declare the whole Middle East - including Israel - a nuclear free zone. Washington has rejected that idea.
This all seems rather plausible, particularly with the Egyptian-Saudi attempts to stabilize the conflict with Syria (as seen in recent weeks, notably with the dramatic shutdown of the Saudi-owned media to former Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam) and the Iran question being an issue of genuine concern for all Gulf states and Egypt as a regional player. Yet, ever since the visit was expected in early December of last year, there has been speculation that one of the reasons Cheney wanted to see Mubarak was to ask him to send Egyptian troops to Iraq. Juan Cole today expanded on that theme, quoting a story from the Iraqi paper Al Zaman. Cole says:

There has been no official acknowledgment of any such talks on either side, so it is a little speculative. But I think the reports are at least plausible, and are worth thinking about seriously.

Iraqi politicians have repeatedly said that they might accept troops from other Muslim countries, but not from any direct neighbors. Egypt might therefore in principle be acceptable to them. The problem is that the government of Iraq is dominated by Shiites and Kurds, who are fighting Sunni Arabs. The Egyptians are Sunni Arabs, and will be suspected in Baghdad of sympathizing with the guerrilla movement. Still, if it were a matter of avoiding civil war or being taken out and shot by Zarqawi, perhaps the Shiite and Kurdish leaders could accept Egyptian troops out of desperation.

Mubarak would certainly be happy to crack down on Muslim radicals such as the Zarqawi group, just as he has virtually destroyed the al-Jihad al-Islami and the al-Gama'ah al-Islamiyah in Egypt itself.

The wording of the Al-Zaman article suggests that Cheney is angling with Mubarak for a contingency plan, in case things go very badly indeed when the US withdraws its troops. In other words, the Bush administration is going on hands and knees to Cairo because it is very, very desperate and very, very worried.

Al-Zaman says that Cheney will also talk to Saudi Arabia about the issue. Since Saudi Arabia is a neighbor, and anyway doesn't have much of an army, presumably Cheney would be asking Riyadh to fund the Egyptian/ Arab peacekeeping force in Iraq. Saudi Arabia had played a similar role in funding the Syrian peacekeepers in Lebanon in the 1970s and after.

Cheney will also seek greater support in the Arab world for the new Iraqi government, which will begin being formed as soon as the final results of the December 15 elections are announced. The previous Iraqi government had sometimes tense relations with the Arab League. Arab nationalist governments had tilted toward Saddam Hussein's Baath regime and had viewed the rise of a Shiite-Kurdish government in Baghdad, established by an American military intervention and with implicit Iranian support, with sullen suspicion.
The rumors that were published in Al Zaman first appeared in Egypt in December, in the weekly independent newspaper Al Destour, if I remember correctly. Although I don't have the original articles at hand, I remember discussing them with colleagues and thinking that there was little if anything concrete about them -- i.e. they were not sourced to high level officials or any concrete information. Considering that Al Destour is a newspaper of opinion, with most of its articles being rants, satires and essays against the powers that be, it is entirely plausible that the idea that Cheney would ask Egypt for troops is merely the product of the overheated imagination of one of its more conspiratorially-minded contributors.

Nonetheless, we might consider the idea in any case, if only because the US does indeed face a problem in Iraq and that Arab troops could be a solution. Juan Cole strings up several arguments, which I think on the whole do not hold up:
1. The Egyptian regime has been afraid of Iranian-inspired Muslim radicalism ever since the 1979 revolution. The opportunity to attempt to counter Iranian influence in Arab Iraq could seem attractive to the Egyptian military, and also could strike them as a form of self-defense. It is often forgotten that Muqtada al-Sadr's Kufa is not that far from Egypt's Asyut, and although Shiites are viewed as heretics by most Egyptians, Muslim radical ideas can jump across the sectarian divide.
My immediate reaction to Egypt sending troops to Iraq is, why in the hell would it want to do that? Nor do I think that the Egyptian military is interested in adventurism, even if the enemies would be Jihadists. In fact, rather than being a form of self-defense as Cole puts it, this would probably have the effect of bring the Jihadi trend back to Egypt. That the regime fought a domestic insurgency does not mean it has an appetite to do the same elsewhere, especially when it would have to do so in collaboration with a pro-Iran Shia government that does not trust it.
2. Egypt receives $2 billion a year in US aid. Although that aid helps US corporations more than Egyptians, since it must be spent in the US, it is a prop for the regime. The opportunity to receive further aid from the US and Saudi Arabia for a role in Iraq could seem to the military regime in Cairo too good to pass up. Significantly, al-Hayat reports that Cheney is in charge of negotiating a free trade deal between Egypt and the United States, which would open the US market unrestrictedly to Egyptian exports and vice versa. Bahrain, Jordan and Morocco already have such an arrangement.
There is more to the US-Egypt relationship than mere American extortion through USAID and FTAs. Although it's plausible more aid would come from the US and Saudi if this happened, I am not sure that even then it would be worth it considering the considerable domestic opposition to the war in Iraq and the fact that Egypt has problems elsewhere, notably in the Gaza Strip.
3. If the US dumps the Iraq mess on the United Nations, and the Egyptian troops could serve under a UN command, the enterprise might be made palatable and legitimate to the Egyptian movers and shakers. That is, establishing order in the Arab nation in the wake of an imperial withdrawal (coded as a defeat) is a task that might appeal to the Egyptian political elite.
A UN command would certainly be the minimum required by the Egyptian military. But even so, in this scenario the US would essentially be subcontracting Iraq out to Egypt, and Iraq is just too messy to have much appeal to anyone, let alone and Egyptian political elite that has some serious structural problems to consider domestically in the years ahead.
4. The Egyptian military has many contacts with the old Baathist elite that is a key player in the guerrilla movement, and might be able to broker an end to the unconventional civil war.
Egypt could have has done this over the past few years. Besides, Baathist guerrillas are just part of the problems in Iraq, and in the long-term Shia militancy could prove a bigger challenge than Sunni militancy. What then? Can the former friends of Baathists really be seen as trusted mediators or peacekeepers?

5. The Arab League member states don't want Iran going nuclear, and the Saudis have spoken publicly on this. An Egyptian military and intelligence presence in Iraq might strengthen Cairo's ability to monitor the Iranian program and would be a way for the Arabs to pressure Iran over it. The Egyptians want as a quid pro quo for the Americans to pressure Israel to give up its nukes, so as to make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone and stop the arms race in the region (which the Israeli Bomb impels).

AP reported on Monday, Jan. 16 from Cairo: 'Egypt on Monday said it supported using nuclear technology for peaceful purposes but rejected the emergence of a nuclear military power in the region, in its first official reaction to the standoff over Iran's nuclear program. "All countries should adhere to their commitments in a way to allow the international community to be sure of the peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program, as we do not accept the emergence of a nuclear military power," Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said in a statement.'

If the Kurds and the Shiites could be talked into it, a US withdrawal from Iraq in favor of an Arab League peace-keeping force might be the least bad end game for a terrifyingly unstable situation.
Israel is not about to give up its nukes, the Egyptian plan is just moral grandstanding--they're right, Israel should give up its weapons, but they don't know how to convince world opinion and the great powers how to make it. This is part of the chronic instability of the Middle East that results from Israel's disproportionate military strength, which probably now also includes second-strike capability and means Israel will stay nuclear for some time to come. Egypt is no great friend of Iran and probably supports a non-nuclear Iran, but why should it take a strong stance on the issue when it knows the US, the EU 3 and the UN will do all the work anyway? The profound political conservatism that underlines the Egyptian regime compels it to seek the solution that is most pro-status quo practically every time. This is no different.

In other words, I really don't think we should expect Egyptian troops to be patrolling Falluja anytime soon. However, that doesn't mean Egyptian help in Iraq wasn't on Cheney's agenda. For over two years, there has been a standing Egyptian offer on the table to help train Iraqi troops. Thus far, only a very small number of Iraqis have actually taken advantage of this, apparently because the Iraqis (and maybe the Americans) themselves don't want to. This was reported in mid-December, coincidentally not long after the Cheney rumors popped up:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Egypt has repeatedly offered to train tens of thousands of Iraqi forces but Washington ignored this offer and chose instead to criticize Cairo for not doing enough, Egypt's envoy to the United States said.

The United States has consistently accused Arab countries, including Egypt, of not doing enough to stabilize and rebuild Iraq, but Egyptian Ambassador Nabil Fahmy said on Thursday this criticism was unfounded.

"We have offered to train Iraqis for over two years," he told reporters at a breakfast at his residence.

Fahmy said he offered Egypt's help in troop training during discussions with officials from the Pentagon, the State Department and members of Congress but they gave no response.

"It's got to the point that I have stopped begging," he said. "It's mind-boggling," he added.

Asked to comment on Fahmy's complaint, a State Department official said Iraqi troop training was a bilateral issue between Egypt and Iraq and not the United States.

He added that the training of Iraqi forces would most likely not be cost-efficient in Egypt.

The Pentagon did not have any immediate comment.

Fahmy said Egypt, which did not want to send its own forces into Iraq, had the capacity to train 3,000 Iraqi troops every three months at a school outside of Alexandria in Egypt.

So far, he said Egypt had trained 146 Iraqi forces.

"Iraqis don't want Arab forces in Iraq and we are offering to train Iraqi forces and no one is listening," he said.
Claude Salhani of UPI commented on Fahmi's statement at the time:

WASHINGTON, Dec. 15 (UPI) -- The United States is overwhelmed in Iraq as it struggles to train Iraqi forces, hoping they will eventually replace American combat troops, in turn allowing for a gradual reduction of U.S. forces in Iraq.

Only then, once properly trained Iraqi forces are in charge of their own destiny, can American troops start to deploy out of the area and begin trickling back home.

But before any of this can happen, Iraq needs its soldiers, officers and security personnel trained. Yet, inexplicably, the Bush administration, which in the past has asked for help from Arab and European countries, has not responded to offers from Egypt to help train Iraqi troops, said Nabil Fahmy, Egypt's ambassador to Washington.

Egypt is one country that has repeatedly offered its services to Iraq and to the United States but, he says, the offers on military training are consistently ignored.

Shortly after the capitulation of Saddam Hussein's regime, when U.S. forces entered Baghdad in 2003, Paul Bremer, then the U.S. administrator in Iraq, dissolved the Iraqi army and security force and discharged anyone from the civil service who had been a member of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.

Since then the Bush administration has sought Arab and international participation to help rebuild Iraq's military and its security forces.

Few countries have stepped up to the plate. Among the few that have are Germany, Jordan and Egypt. Germany and Jordan were taken up on their offers and thousands of Iraqi troops traveled to those two countries to undergo military training. But inexplicably, repeated offers from Egypt went unanswered.

Meanwhile, the Iraq military remains in desperate need for additional training as it struggles to rebuild a military and security apparatus capable of taking over the task of securing the country -- a job currently in the hands of the U.S. military.

"We have the capacity to train about 3,000 Iraqi troops in Egypt every three months," said the Egyptian ambassador, speaking to a group of journalists over breakfast in his Washington residence Thursday morning.

While thousands of Iraqis were sent to train in Germany and Jordan, only "146 or 147 Iraqi troops have trained in Egypt so far," laments the ambassador.

Maybe the ambassador did not approach the right people?

"I spoke to the Pentagon, I spoke to the people at the State Department and I spoke to the National Security Council," he said. The ambassador says he did not get a clear-cut answer from practically anyone as to why Egypt's repeated offers over a period of almost two years were ignored.

"It's at this point where I stopped begging," said Fahmy.

United Press International asked the Pentagon why this was so. Col. Fred Wellman, public affairs official for the Security Transition Command in Iraq, explained: "We have many training offers from all over the world. I am not the person in charge of saying 'Yes' or 'No.' There is an overall training plan. We check all the offers. We have offers to train them in Germany, or also in individual schools within the U.S. There is, for instance, a training operation in Jordan. But it is better for the Iraqis to be trained within their own soil."
It could be that Cheney was asking Mubarak to send trainers to Iraq so they could do their job there (again, I would expect both Egyptian and Iraqi resistance.) This is more plausible, although considering the recent news about Iraqi Ministry of Interior Shia death squads, I'm skeptical. There is, after the dismantling of the Iraqi army, a lot of work to be done on its structure, logistics and doctrine. Egyptian military officers, in a training capacity, could do that (although considering the "cost-efficient" comment above, I wonder how much they're asking.) And that could be used by the Bush administration to claim Arab support for its policies in Iraq and a broadening of the coalition. But I doubt that any of the heavy fighting, patrolling, etc. will be done by anyone else than Americans and Iraqis for some time to come. In the meantime, rather than: Cheney may have just come to negotiate the Egyptians' asking price in training troops, and get the Saudis to pay for it.