The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

The Arab Spring, US foreign policy, the Status-Quo Lobby and the Dream Palace of the Zionists

I'd like to touch upon America and Egypt, because I've seen a lot of hand-wringing in American newspapers about the future of that relationship and a sense of misplaced buyers' remorse about the Egyptian revolution – misplaced because the US had little to do with the revolution, and because it is wrong-headed thinking about an unstoppable, irreversible event.

Generally speaking, the American foreign policy establishment is stuck on Egypt. It is having a hard time imagining a different Middle East. Its path of least resistance is banking on their financial and political relationship with the generals now in charge and maintaining the ability to project power in the region that it has had since 1945 to some extent and since 1990 in particular. If it continues on this path, which is unfortunately likely, because of the dearth of imagination in a foreign policy elite that has grown lazy in its imperial thinking, and because of the dire state of American politics, it will fail. 

The most important thing you can do about Egypt right now is be patient and not try to force things or maintain a system that Egyptians clearly want to change. This is what worries me the most: that the US will choose to encourage the perpetuation of military rule in Egypt, as people like Jon Alterman have already subtly advocated and many others in Washington are discreetly but more vigorously doing in games of "armchair generals". They are the Status Quo Lobby.

America is a country that has grown complacent in its assumptions about the Middle East and its politics, and too wedded to the idea of having an imperial role in the region (of which CENTCOM is the embodiment) and the world more generally. For several years I have advocated an American withdrawal from the Arab world. The Arab uprisings have made this all the more urgent, although it is a delicate, difficult, and potentially dangerous matter. But that's a debate for another day.

Let me focus now on a few pieces by people who have written very unwise things, and who are the other bigpart of the problem with American foreign policy in the region: those who primarily see US Middle East policy through the lens of Israel. 

Robert Satloff, a leading hack of the Israel lobby think tank WINEP, and Eric Trager have a piece in the WSJ you can read here. A few years ago Satloff was all into pressuring Egypt on democracy issues, but now has buyer's remorse – confirming my long-held suspicion that people like him and Elliott Abrams (and many others) were only tactically interested in democracy promotion as a manner to wield greater influence over the Mubarak regime. Now that Islamists have won a majority in Egypt's parliament, they are shitting their proverbial pants.

Their piece, however, is weak in its argumentation and is a transparent attempt at scaremongering for Israel's sake.

They worry that Camp David will be submitted by the MB to a popular referendum, which not certain at all. the real issue is how Egyptian politics react the next time – and that time will soon come – Israel decides to commit atrocities like the Gaza war of 2009 or the Lebanon war of 2006. And the honest answer is no one knows, and the honest solution is that the US can no longer sanction such atrocities as it did in 2006 and 2009.

They make a big deal of the Gamaa Islamiya joining the MB's coalition, even though the reconciliation process by which Gamaa members recanted the use of violence was backed by the US and followed closely by the CIA in Cairo over the past decade and heralded as a deradicalization model (despite the human rights costs of the Egyptian government's campaign against the Gamaa). I can't stand the Gamaa and their call for Omar Abdel Rahman's release (basically because the Gamaa sees mostly composed of his sons these days) but it's rather disingenuous to point this out when you have Kahanists in the Knesset they never mention.

They then turn to the frivolous lawsuits against Naguib Sawiris (brought forward, among others, by a Salafist MP) and talk about the future of the Coptic minority – a real cause for concern, but one that WINEP was hardly vocal about under Mubarak. The Muslim Brothers and others could worsen the situation, true, but they're not even really in power yet. I don't remember Satloff & co. calling for a freeze of US military aid to SCAF after the Maspero massacre.  

One thing I agree with them on is the need for Egypt to carry out robust policing and deradicalization in Sinai, for many reasons including to prevent armed groups operating from there to carry out attacks against Israel. But I would add to that the urgent need for Egypt's policy towards Gaza to change, by opening the border for goods and people, and to vocally push back against the current framework of the Middle East peace process (the Quartet and its conditions).

Overall, though, this piece is so telling of the mainstream American Zionist mindset: it's all about Israel, and about maintaining the status quo – even in a region where everything is pointing towards change. These are the same people (like Martin Indyk, like Dennis Ross) who spent the 1990s massaging Israel's violations of the letter and spirit of the Oslo process and rendered it meaningless.

This piece by Elliott Abrams, defending the neo-con push for Arab democracy under the Bush administration, is self-serving bullshit. People like Abrams were only interested in Arab democracy when it suited their plan to remodel the region, and as a pressure tool to secure Israeli regional dominance. The Arab Spring is partly a reaction to their plans, not a result of it. Abrams might be credited with being more consistent than Satloff, though, but he's also more cynical. 

A more radical, and barely coherent rumination on the Arab Spring can be found in this long TNR essay by Marty Peretz, who in any case doesn't like Arabs much. Peretz has rejoined the ranks of the essentialist theorists of the Arab world like Lee Smith – in other words, he's dropped the politically correct niceties he would adopt when he was closely involved with his magazine's liberal (on everything except Palestine!) writers. The piece is so meandering, so pettily sullen about the rise of Islamists (and, although he does not acknowledge it, secularists) who don't like Israel, or ignorant of the realities of the region's history (it's full of mistakes about what women wear in the region, confuses the UAR and UAE, etc.) that I won't even excerpt it. One of the early commenters has it right:

People who want an informed opinion about Arabs and seek out Martin Peretz must be the same people who seek out David Duke for his views on African-Americans.

Peretz calls his piece "The failure of the Arab Spring" – but he never considers to ask: failure by whose standards? Those Zionists who initially cheered for the Arab Spring were so caught up in their illusions – to borrow from Fouad Ajami their "dream-palace".  They never stop to try to see things from an Arab perspective.

The world has entered a dangerous transition, which the Arab Spring is part of. There are many risks ahead, for the possibility of Arab democracy, for American policy and interests in the region, and the possibility of a regional conflict. The biggest mistake, the biggest delusion, outsiders can make is to think that, even as everything around them is changing, that they can stay the same. The Status Quo Lobby and the Zionist Lobby are the biggest problem for American foreign policy because they will create friction by resisting change.