The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Jon Alterman responds on the "SQL"

Jon Alterman, an prominent Egypt expert who is the director of the Middle East program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, felt I treated him unfairly in a recent post when I took a piece he had written in the NYT as an example of the "Status-Quo Lobby" or SQL. For clarification, what I meant by SQL is not Egypt-specific, but the perpetuation of a strategic situation in the region in place since the end of the Cold War at least, and I remained convinced that the notion the SQL is a useful one, separate from that of the Israel lobby.

I appreciate that Jon took the time to write in and am glad to be corrected in my initial interpretation of his NYT article. Here is his letter.


You write that I am part of the “status quo lobby” in Washington on Egypt affairs. I’m not sure from whence the perception comes that such a lobby exists, or why you would think I am a member of it.

There is, of course, a group of lobbyists the Egyptian military pays to push its arguments in Washington. I don’t know anyone not on their payroll who accepts their arguments.

As far as I can tell, there are two principal lobbies in Washington on Egypt: the group that wants this political transition to fail, and those who want it to succeed. On the failure side are those who fear that a more democratic Egypt is a more dangerous Egypt. They see salvation in what they believe to be secular-oriented generals who trust Israelis, distrust Islamists, and have a healthy disdain for the appeals of the Egyptian street. As far as I understand it, they hope that the newly elected government in Egypt will utterly fail to address the country’s problems, discredit itself, and arouse such popular discontent that a coalition of army officers and liberals will be swept into power to right Egypt’s course.

On the success side – the one on which I put myself – are those who see promise in democratic change and in broadening Egyptians’ political participation. The hope is that more robust politics will make for a more resilient Egypt that is more responsive to its citizens.

The two camps differ on the future role of the military. The former group hopes it will strengthen, and the latter that it will diminish.

Within the success camp, there are differing views on tactics. Having spent an awful lot of time reading and interviewing about the 1950s , I am especially conscious of the ways in which changes in government take years to unfold and often do so in unpredictable ways. Just under a year ago, I was cautious about how much of a change Mubarak’s deposing actually represented; that’s why I was so impressed when I was an election “witness” in Beheira December and saw how the military allowed essentially free and fair elections to take place even as it lays the groundwork for their disempowerment.

It seems to me that there is the prospect of what political scientists refer to as a “pacted transition” in Egypt, which political scientists began describing in the 1980s as a pathway toward durable shifts toward democratization. In it, each side has some ability to negotiate retaining some its “vital” interests, The dangers to such a pacted transition are if the population grows so agitated at instability that they abandon support for the civilian politicians and call for a law and order campaign, or if the seated power (in this case, the military) grows so agitated at its disempowerment that it shuts down politics and rules by fiat and repression. O’Donnell, Linz, Stepan, and others have written about it at length, and I won’t belabor it here.

As I look forward to the next six months, I see an emerging economic crisis (concerning the necessary devaluation of the pound in order to deal with the reserves problem, leading to high inflation) coinciding with a political crisis (who gets to write the constitution and what it says, how the presidential elections are set up). I am concerned that the coincidence of the two could plunge Egypt into turmoil, and I am not persuaded the outcome will be in Egyptians’ interest. Understandings that will take Egypt through this period strike me as a preferable alternative.

That’s not to change the medium-term goal. That is, the army must return to the barracks, and the politicians must try their hand at ruling. If the Gallup Abu Dhabi Poll can be believed, 82 percent of Egyptians polled in December 2011 believe the SCAF will turn over power to a civilian government, and by a 2-1 margin they say the army must return to the barracks. I hope they are right on the former, and I agree on the latter. I am not part of a “Status Quo Lobby” at all.

Perhaps the confusion stems from drawing too many conclusions from a relatively short piece in the NY Times. My views are more fully expressed in this report [PDF], which I wrote after consulting with some of the smartest Egypt experts I could find in the States (listed in the back). I was able to get endorsement of the recommendations from a bunch of heavy hitters in Washington. You may not agree with all of the points in it, but I do think you agree with this one:

“The United States should continue with statements and actions that bolster a transfer of power to civilian rule, and make clear to the military that a close and enduring military partnership between Egypt and the United States relies in part on the military loosening its grip on domestic affairs.”

I do not always have a firm grip on how Washington looks from Cairo, but I do have a fair sense of how Cairo looks from Washington. I don’t think there is a Status Quo Lobby at all, because the status quo is untenable (as the SCAF seems intent on reminding the US government daily through its actions). The choice is whether the United States is on the side of trying to make this all work, or trying to make this all fail. I’m strongly on the former side.

Best wishes,