Showing posts with label Egypt. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Egypt. Show all posts

22 May 2015

Egypt's Religious Freedom Farce

May 21, 2015 

Sisi sounds the right notes on pluralism, but penalties for “insulting” a faith are enforced only for the majority creed.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt presents himself as an Islamic reformer. He has challenged the sheikhs of Al-Azhar University—Sunni Islam’s preeminent religious institution—to promote moderation, and took the bold step (by Egyptian standards) of wishing worshippers a merry Christmas inCairo’s Coptic cathedral. The moves are commendable, but do little to alter an unfortunate reality: while Egypt’s penal code prohibits “insulting heavenly religions or those following it,” the law is enforced for just one faith: Sunni Islam.

Egypt takes religion seriously. By law, Egyptians are only allowed to practice one of the three recognized monotheistic religions: Islam (implicitly Sunni Islam—the faith of the overwhelming majority), Christianity (representing some ten percent of the population) and Judaism (today, Egypt has exactlyseven Jews, down from 75,000 in 1947). Still, Egyptians may only practice the creed they’re born into—the government does not recognize Muslim conversions to Christianity, and conversion from either faith to Judaism is nonexistent—unless the target faith is Islam.

13 January 2015


By Toke S. Aidt, Gabriel Leon, Raphael Franck and Peter S. Jensen*

Some theories suggest that the threat of revolution plays a pivotal role in democratisation. This column provides new evidence in support of this hypothesis. The authors use democratic transitions from Europe in the 19th century, Africa at the turn at the 20th century, and the Great Reform Act of 1832 in Great Britain. They find that credible threats of revolution have systematically triggered pre-emptive democratic reforms throughout history.

The threat of revolution hypothesis

The wave of violent protests that swept across north Africa and parts of the Middle East during the Arab spring between 2010 and 2012 coincided with the fall of several long-established autocracies; in those that survived, policy reforms and redistributive policies aimed at calming the masses were hastily implemented. A century and a half before, something similar happened in western Europe. The revolutions in France and parts of Germany in 1848 were followed by democratic reforms in Denmark, Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

Episodes like these lend credence to the hypothesis that revolutions, riots, and other types of violent protest can trigger democratic change. The hypothesis is appealing because it resolves the franchise extension puzzle, namely why would incumbent autocrats with a monopoly on political power, and often on economic resources, agree to share their power with broader segments of the population whose goals they do not share? The threat of revolution hypothesis, developed in the work of Acemoglu and Robinson (2000, 2006) and Boix (2003) amongst others, suggests that autocrats might do so when they face a credible threat of revolution that, if successful, would eliminate their entire power base. Seen in this perspective, the reactions of autocrats in the Arab world today, and of monarchs in western Europe 150 years ago, are pre-emptive responses to a credible threat of revolution.

Not everyone agrees with this interpretation, however. In his discussion of democratic reforms between 1830 and 1930, Roger Congleton (2010, p. 15), for example, argues that: “In essentially all cases [countries], liberal reforms were adopted using pre-existing constitutional rules for amendment. In no case [country] is every liberal reform preceded by a large-scale revolt, and in most cases, there are examples of large-scale demonstrations that failed to produce obvious reform”.

18 November 2014

Counter-Terrorism: Egypt And Israel Unite Against Tunnels

November 11, 2014: In October Israel revealed that they had known in early 2014 of Hamas plans to use tunnels into Israel to launch a major terror attack on Israel. It was later discovered that this attack was planned for the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah), which took place on September 26th in 2014. When the fifty day war with Hamas began in July Israel still not have a lot of details about the Hamas “tunnel offensive”, but they knew that they could now go into Gaza and find out some details.

Before this ground invasion Israel had some knowledge of these Hamas tunnels, mainly because they had already found four of them in the last two years. In March Israeli troops found one that was 1,800 meters long and extended 300 meters into Israel. Hamas dismissed this find as a tunnel that had been abandoned because of a partial collapse. But the Israelis said the tunnel had been worked on recently and equipment, like generators, was found in it. The tunnel was lined with reinforcing concrete and was 9-20 meters (30-63 feet) underground.

Three of these tunnels were near the town of Khan Younis and apparently part of a plan to kidnap Israelis for use in trades (for prisoner or whatever) with Israel. Israeli intelligence knew Hamas leaders were discussing a much larger tunnel program, involving dozens of tunnels. This plan included building the tunnels but not completing them (by tunneling upwards to create the exit in Israel). As long as the tunnel construction stayed deep the available monitoring equipment was slow and often ineffective if there was no one actively working on the tunnel below or if there was no exit (yet) on the Israeli side. Hamas had been building and “stockpiling” these tunnels for at least two years and most of the completed ones could only be detected inside Gaza, where their entrances were.

These were also hidden, at least from aerial observation. Israeli intelligence had discovered some of these entrances by detecting the Hamas activity around the entrances (entering and leaving, removing dirt). Hamas tried to hide this activity and Israel knew this meant they probably succeeded in some cases. Thus before the Israeli troops went into Gaza on July 17th, commanders had lots of information on where to look. Israeli combat engineers had been trained to destroy the tunnels, which was not easy because Hamas had booby-trapped some of them. Israel at first suspected there are over fifty of these tunnels and soon decided it was essential to stay inside Gaza until they were sure they had found all of them, and collected information on how they were built and how they could be detected from the ground or air. If Israel knows where a tunnel is, before they destroy it they can run some tests with their sensors and that knowledge will make it more difficult for Hamas to build new tunnels.

5 June 2014

Interpreting the Egyptian mandate


Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s election confirms that Egypt has a military-guided democracy. But this should not make us jump to the conclusion that it is not democracy at all

Egypt has a new President. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was the country’s Army chief and Defence Minister, has won a landslide victory in the presidential election held in the last week of May. He defeated his opponent, Hamdeen Sabahi, by securing 96.91 per cent of the votes polled.

Mr. Sisi, 59, is Egypt’s sixth President (not counting interim heads of state), and the fifth with a military background, since the country became a republic in 1953 following the removal of King Farouk by the Army. The only non-military person ever to become Egypt’s elected President was Mohamed Morsi, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and now in jail. Mr. Sisi’s election marks both a closure and, perhaps, partial continuation of the strong socio-political turbulence that has gripped Egypt for over three years. It began with a popular uprising in 2011, known as the January 25 Revolution, which brought Mr. Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year-long dictatorial reign to an end. Mr. Morsi was elected in June 2012, only to be unseated from power in July 2013, when he became the target of an even bigger, popular uprising.

 A majority of Egyptians are against religious extremism and prefer peace, safety and stability. 

The yearning for a strong leader

Mr. Sisi’s victory was a foregone conclusion going by the immense popularity he gained after he, as Army chief, backed the huge countrywide protests against Mr. Morsi. He earned the reputation of being a strong leader when he served Mr. Morsi an ultimatum to resign within 48 hours. When the Muslim Brotherhood protested angrily by staging indefinite sit-ins in Cairo squares, he ordered a crackdown by security forces in which nearly a 1,000 of Mr. Morsi’s supporters were killed. He was the de-facto ruler of Egypt even during the reign of the post-Morsi interim government, when a new Constitution was adopted. This is when the Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed and declared a “terrorist organisation.” In the run-up to the presidential poll, Mr. Sisi went to the extent of saying that the Muslim Brotherhood would cease to exist during his presidency.

His election confirms that Egypt has a military-guided democracy. But this should not make us jump to the conclusion that it is not democracy at all, simply military rule in a civilian garb. This is unlikely to happen. The tumultuous events since the overthrow of the hated Mubarak regime have shown that there has been a democratic awakening and activism on a scale unprecedented in Egypt’s history or even Arab history. This mass awakening cannot be suppressed. After his victory, Mr. Sisi has sought to quash apprehensions on this score by saying, “We know that some people fear a return to the past, but this will not happen, there is no going back and we will move forward.”

10 May 2014

The Conspiracy Theory Capital of the World

4 May 2014

Conspiracy theories exist everywhere in the world, but they’re especially common in the Middle East and are rampant in Egypt even by regional standards. They’re generally harmless when only crackpots on the margins believe them, but when they go mainstream and infect the highest levels of government and the media—watch out.

National Geographic has the story on the latest ludicrous theory making the rounds in Egypt, this one put forward by the governor of Minya province.

Local mobs looted a museum and burned fourteen churches to the ground a while back, and he’s blaming the United States in general and the White House in particular.

“It was Obama,” he said. “And all of the American politicians who have divided all of the world. They are the only people who supported the Muslim Brotherhood because they knew that the Muslim Brotherhood would destroy all of Egypt.”

This kind of talk is typical in Egypt and has been for decades. If you don’t think so re-read the essay Samuel Tadros recently wrote about Egypt’s Jewish problem inThe American Interest.

“Israel, Turkey, the United States, the European Union, and Qatar are all conspiring against Egypt, screams a self-proclaimed Egyptian liberal; the United States is working against Copts for the benefit of Jews, shouts a Coptic activist; the Brotherhood is implementing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, writes thenewspaper of what was once Egypt’s flagship liberal party; Israel aims to divide Egypt into a number of smaller and weaker states, writes another; Brotherhood leaders are Masonic Jews proclaims a Sufi leader; no, it’s the coup that is working for the benefit of the Jews, declares the Brotherhood’s website. These are all symptoms of a decaying society.”

The only difference between those outrageous theories—which span the political spectrum—and the latest is that the United States rather than Israel is at its center.

First let’s get the obvious out of the way. American politicians can’t be the only people in the world who supported the Muslim Brotherhood. Their candidate Mohammad Morsi won 51 percent of the vote in the presidential election, the first and only free and fair one in history.

The Brotherhood’s support cratered, of course, after an epic bout of buyer’s remorse, but nobody—nobody—forced millions of Egyptians to vote for Morsi and his party. That’s on them.

I’m not sure why so many Egyptians think Israelis and Americans are hell-bent on destroying their country. Maybe it’s related to the spotlight effect. But for whatever reason it’s a startlingly common belief. I heard some version or another repeatedly in Cairo even, occasionally, from people who otherwise seemed semi-reasonable.

1 May 2014

Egypt: Danger in the Sinai

Published on The National Interest (
April 30, 2014

When Egypt’s long-time President Hosni Mubarak fell to the throes of the people in 2011, one of his crony institutions to also collapse was the Mabahith Amn ad-Dawla, Egypt’s State Security Investigations Service, responsible for security in the Sinai Peninsula. Already a weak link in the Egyptian security chain, Sinai has since become a semiautonomous zone, proliferated with Salafi-Jihadist groups, Bedouin militias, militant members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Al Qaeda.

To plug the security vacuum in Sinai, Egypt and Israel have made bilateral, de facto modifications to their 1979 peace treaty which imposed strict limitations on the number of soldiers, type of weapons, and areas within Sinai where Egypt could deploy its forces. The agreement has permitted a greater number of heavily-armed Egyptian military forces into much of Sinai, resulting in a large-scale crackdown on the insurgency. However, Egypt’s counterinsurgency effort has neglected any population-centric initiatives, which is resulting in casualties in the indigenous Bedouin communities. Egypt has failed to understand that insurgencies promote fragility—they grow stronger from chaos. Through the use of brute force, Egypt is actually fueling the fire of extremism in Sinai, where Bedouin support for extremists is growing.

Projecting sovereignty across its entire territory is not a new problem for Egypt, but the revolution of 2011 and the coup d'état in 2013 have hastened Egypt’s need to quell the unrest. For Egypt to regain control of Sinai, at least to the level that it existed prior to the revolution, it is important to understand the changing dynamics of Sinai, and how this is impacting security in the region.

The Muslim Brotherhood

With the former head of Egypt’s armed forces, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, almost certain to be elected as Egypt’s next president, his main priority once in power will be to suppress the current wave of Islamist anger, which Egypt claims is being led by the Muslim Brotherhood, who consider the current government as illegitimate following the overthrow of President Morsi in 2013. However, the recent bombings [3], which have swept through Cairo and other cities, have largely been carried out by Sinai’s most active militant group—Ansar Bait al-Maqdis. Recently designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States, the jihadist group has claimed responsibility for a host of terrorist attacks since the revolution of 2011, yet the Egyptian government has shifted the blame for the attacks and ensuing chaos onto the Muslim Brotherhood. While this move has worked politically to discredit the Muslim Brotherhood, it is foolhardy for Egypt to heighten the perceived threat of the Brotherhood, while lessening that of Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, especially when there have been allegations of financial and military cooperation between the groups [4].

16 February 2014

The Egypt Effect: Sharpened Tensions, Reshuffled Alliances

 FEBRUARY 13, 2014 


Throughout the Middle East, the overthrow of Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi has heightened Islamist-secularist tensions and pushed actors toward zero-sum politics.

The military coup that overthrew then Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi in early July 2013 and the new government’s ensuing crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood are having a dramatic impact on the politics, security, and rights environment in Egypt. But the effects of these events outside Egypt’s borders—in North Africa, the Levant, the Gulf, and Turkey—are also significant.

The Egypt effect has generally heightened Islamist-secularist tensions and pushed the region in the direction of zero-sum politics rather than consensus building. Islamist leaders and parties that behaved just a year ago as though their ascendance to power through elections was a historical inevitability are now on the defensive. At the same time, secularists—whether in opposition or in power—are more assertive and less ready to compromise. This dynamic has led some Islamists to become increasingly defiant in their isolation. In some cases, it has enlivened Islamist dissent in surprising ways.

Other Islamists have become more modest in their expectations as a result of these trends. In some countries—notably Tunisia—elected Islamists with much to lose have looked at their fellow Islamists’ fate and decided to compromise to avert all-out confrontation.

Meanwhile, the Egypt effect has not been limited to domestic politics, impacting foreign policies across the region as well. Following Morsi’s ouster, Egypt’s regional partnerships have been completely reordered. Egypt’s relations have deteriorated sharply with countries that were friendly to the Islamist government and have rebounded with those that opposed the Muslim Brotherhood. The coup has invigorated regional foreign policies of the Middle East’s more conservative powers—led by Saudi Arabia—while countries unhappy with events in Egypt, primarily Turkey, have been left on the sidelines to protest the actions of Egypt’s military-backed government.


Tunisians were “the only people who won something out of what happened in Egypt,” according to activist Amira Yahyaoui. The ripple effects of the Egyptian coup initially exacerbated tensions between Islamists and secularists in Tunisiabut then helped persuade Islamists to compromise to prevent the failure of the country’s democratic experiment.

Initially, Tunisia’s political transition following the 2011 ouster of then president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali was marked by increasing polarization between Islamists in the governing Ennahda party (affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood) and their secular opponents. The tensions heightened after the assassination of prominent leftist politician Chokri Belaid in February 2013.

5 February 2014

Where is Egypt going?

February 3, 2014

Now that three years have elapsed since the 2011 Revolution in Egypt, it is pertinent, nay, imperative, to ask the central question: Where is Egypt? Where is it going? On January 25, 2011 Egyptians shed fear of their repressive government that had deprived them of their human rights for decades and gathered in the world famous Tahrir Square to demand that President Hosni Mubarak resign. Mubarak, in office for thirty years, fell eighteen days later. Millions of Egyptians in Tahrir Square and elsewhere saw the exit of Mubarak as signaling the beginning of Egypt’s journey towards democracy. Three years later, it is painfully clear that Egypt has lost its way towards democracy; in fact, it is heading fast in the opposite direction. The police state under Mubarak is being restored; freedom of expression has been drastically abridged; dissent does provoke punishment; political prisoners total up to twenty one thousand; and political demonstrations need prior permission. Egypt is under military rule and a field marshal is soon going to be elected president.

The Egyptians who assembled, or more accurately, who were permitted to assemble, in Tahrir Square on January 2014 did not go there to celebrate the 2011 Revolution. They went there to bury that Revolution and to celebrate the 2003 coup. Many carried big photos of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and of Nasser, the most charismatic leader in the Arab world in our times. The obvious intention was to suggest that al-Sisi is the Nasser of the day, and the savior of Egypt. Some carried photographs of Mubarak, a clear indication that the Mubarak loyalists, known asfulul, are actively engaged in politics, supporting the regime in power. It was a state-funded and state-sponsored, superbly and expensively choreographed event. There was a state-of-the-art stage, a far cry from the rickety, shaky one in 2011 the same day. The lighting system was sophisticated and expensive. The crowd was there to cheer General al-Sisi. There were t-shirts and sweets displaying his image in galore. Predictably enough on January 27 the General was promoted Field Marshal and the SCAF(Supreme Council of Armed Forces) ‘approved’ his candidature at the Presidential election, dates for which are yet to be announced. Incidentally, the choreography is unerring. The interim President, Adly Mansour, appointed by al- Sisi, had earlier said that the election to the Parliament would take place before that of the President. Later, it was announced that there was flexibility, meaning the sequence could be reversed. The intention is to take advantage of the current high popularity of al-Sisi whom many women say on television that they want to marry.

It is time to look analytically and critically at the political developments in Egypt since the exit of Mubarak in February 2011. Otherwise it will not be possible to understand what is now happening. The first and foremost point to note is that it was a flawed and incomplete revolution: Mubarak fell, but the ‘the Deep State’ that supported and enabled him to sustain his dictatorship did not fall. The concept of the Deep State was originally applied to Ottoman Turkey and its republican successor founded by Ataturk. It basically meant secret sources of political power. Currently, in Egypt’s case, it means the triumvirate of the Army, the Higher Judiciary, and the Intelligence agencies, generally known as the Mukhabarat in the Arab world. Out of the three the Army is the leader and others are ‘attendant lords’.

The second point to underline is that the Deep State did not want Egypt to be a democracy as it had everything to lose if that were to happen. The SCAF grabbed power when Mubarak fell; Egyptians hold the Army in high esteem and when the Army announced that it would arrange for election in six months time and hand over power to a democratically elected government most Egyptians believed it. However, the Army was in no hurry to hand over power. It delayed the election, finally held and completed in eleven months. Here it is important to look at the collaboration between the Army and the Higher Judiciary. Judge Tahani el Gebali, Deputy President of the Supreme Constitutional Court, was the friend, philosopher, and guide to SCAF in legal matters. She advised the postponement of the election to the parliament pointing out the risk of the Muslim Brotherhood’s victory. When the results came with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists winning a 70% majority, SCAF regretted the holding of election and told her that she was right.

15 September 2013

The Christian Exodus

The Disastrous Campaign to Rid the Middle East of Christianity

September 13, 2013

A Coptic Christian holds up a cross in Cairo, Egypt (Courtesy Reuters)

As I write, the city of Maaloula in Syria has become a ghost town after being briefly occupied by members of the al Qaeda–linked jihadist group al-Nusra Front. Conflicting reports claim that al-Nusra fighters have desecrated churches and statues in what may be one of the oldest Christian cities in the world, a place where residents still speak Aramaic, the language presumably spoken by Jesus.

Sadly, the experience of Maaloula’s residents is becoming all too common in the Middle East, where examples of brutality against Christians have been mounting in recent weeks. In Egypt, the coup against President Mohamed Morsi was followed by a wave of Islamist pogroms against Christians in which 42 churches were attacked, 37 were burned or looted, and an untold number of Christians were assaulted or killed.

As tempting as it may be to attribute these events to the atmosphere of post-insurrectionary anarchy in Egypt and Syria, that is not the best vantage point from which to view the problem. Take a step back, and it becomes clear that the recent assaults are part of a bigger offensive against Middle Eastern Christians, one that can be traced back to decades-long developments in regional politics and Islamic society. The Arab Spring may be the proximate cause of some of the worst violence, but its roots run much deeper -- and the stakes are much higher than one might think. What we are witnessing is nothing less than a regional religious cleansing that will soon prove to be a historic disaster for Christians and Muslims alike.

At the start of World War I, the Christian population of the Middle East may have been as high as 20 percent. Today, it is roughly four percent. Although it is difficult to be exact, there are perhaps 13 million Christians left in the region, and that number has likely fallen further, given the continued destabilization of Syria and Egypt, two nations with historically large Christian populations. At the present rate of decline, there may very well be no significant Christian presence in the Middle East in another generation or two. 

This would be a profoundly important loss. Christianity was born in the Middle East and had a deep, penetrating presence in the region for hundreds of years before the rise of Islam. In the fourth and fifth centuries, when tens of thousands of heterodox Christians were forced to flee a Roman Empire that considered them heretics, the lands of the Middle East and North Africa became a haven for them. In the years thereafter, the region became the epicenter of Christian theology. In the Arabian peninsula, a large, thriving Christian population played a pivotal role in influencing the early theological and political development of Islam. During the Inquisition (the twelfth to fourteenth centuries), Christian sectarians found refuge under Islamic rule, which classed all Christians, regardless of their doctrinal differences, as “people of the Book” and accorded them protected, albeit inferior, societal status.

The situation for Middle Eastern Christians changed dramatically in the colonial era. Because the colonial experiment was also an unapologetically Christianizing mission, one that overtly privileged indigenous Christians over Muslims and framed Islam as a backward culture in need of civilization, political tensions between the two communities erupted throughout the Middle East. Muslims tended to view their Christian neighbors as complicit in colonial oppression; indigenous Christians became the target of anticolonial backlash.

26 August 2013

Democracy in Peril: Geopolitical Manifestations of Egyptian Turmoil

By Viswesh Rammohan and Nabeel A. Mancheri
August 23, 2013

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who was overthrown in a military coup d’etat on July 3, 2013 (Khaled Desouki / AFP)

The 30th of June 2013 was to be an important day in Egypt’s long history as it was getting ready for the first time to celebrate the anniversary of a democratically elected president. Instead, a large protest broke out on the same day, demanding the immediate resignation of the President Mohamed Morsi.

Taking over from the leads started in Tunisia in late 2010, Egypt was the second country to follow in what is now termed as the ‘Arab Spring’. The recent protests however, were very different from the 2011 protests which had seen Egypt overthrow the dictator Husni Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt for almost thirty years. Mubarak was always seen as an authoritarian ruler who was an ally of the West. The same, however, could not be said of Morsi. He was democratically elected (the first in Egypt’s long History) after the 2011 Egyptian Spring.

The biggest calls for the removal of Morsi seem to stem from the fact that he refused to share power with other stakeholders in Egyptian politics. Morsi has also been seen as pushing for an Islamic-slanted constitution, which to most people in Egypt is seen as autocratic. Other complaints against Morsi were that the economy has deteriorated even further since he took over. Rates of price inflation have soared to unimaginable levels, and more than 25 percent of Egyptian youths are unemployed. The Egyptian pound has depreciated by 12% since the December 2012.

Almost 500,000 people queued up in Tahrir square, the situation complicated further by the presence of the Army. The Army does not seem to really favor a democratically elected leader, particularly representing an organization outlawed in the Mubarak era. Instead of protecting civilian life, the army has yet again chosen to interfere in the politics of Egypt. It is very evident that the army of Egypt, which is the remains of the Mubarak regime, has political ambitions of its own as it supported the protesters and finally removed the president.

To complicate matters further, Egypt’s largest Salafist party, the ultra-orthodox political party al-Nour, has endorsed the military coup. Al-Nour, which was a key ally in Morsi’s government, seems to have now taken a complete U-turn. Al-Nour is now emerging as an important player in the politics of Egypt and it is possible that it will be the key player for the army to decide on Egypt’s immediate future. This sort of alignment between a highly conservative party and the army may lead to a very conservative regime, and this in turn may have adverse effects on the region, particularly Israel.

The US stance on the current situation in Egypt has been rather ‘cautious’. The US seems to be treading on a tightrope and does not want to be seen as taking sides. Obama has said that the U.S acknowledged the legitimate grievances of the people of Egypt but also maintained that Morsi was a democratically elected leader. This stance of the U.S seems to raise a lot of questions considering that the events are happening in a politically fragile area. The feeling is that the U.S is happy maintaining a status quo position in the Middle East with not too much change in too short a time.

Israel, however, is highly concerned about the U.S hesitancy in being vocal about the Egypt situation. Israel has pointed out that the U.S in the past has not been able to identify Middle East processes properly and has often failed to distinguish between friend and foe, and this has actually lead to further damage in the Middle East. Israel has welcomed Morsi’s ouster and takeover of power by generals.

Foreign Policy by Whisper and Nudge

August 24, 2013

IF you follow the commentary on American foreign policy toward Egypt and the broader Middle East today, several themes stand out: People in the region argue: “Whatever went wrong, the United States is to blame.” Foreign policy experts argue: “Whatever President Obama did, he got it wrong.” And the American public is saying: “We’re totally fed up with that part of the world and can’t wait for the start of the N.F.L. season. How do you like those 49ers?”

There is actually a logic to all three positions.

It starts with the huge difference between cold-war and post-cold-war foreign policy. During the cold war, American foreign policy “was all about how we affect the external behavior of states,” said Michael Mandelbaum, the Johns Hopkins University foreign affairs expert. We were ready to overlook the internal behavior of states, both because we needed them as allies in the cold war and because, with the Russians poised on the other side, any intervention could escalate into a superpower confrontation.

Post-cold-war foreign policy today is largely about “affecting the internal composition and governance of states,” added Mandelbaum, many of which in the Middle East are failing and threaten us more by their collapse into ungoverned regions — not by their strength or ability to project power.

But what we’ve learned in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Egypt and Syria is that it is very hard to change another country’s internal behavior — especially at a cost and in a time frame that the American public will tolerate — because it requires changing a country’s political culture and getting age-old adversaries to reconcile.

The primary foreign policy tools that served us so well in the cold war, said Mandelbaum, “guns, money, and rhetoric — simply don’t work for these new tasks. It is like trying to open a can with a sponge.”

To help another country change internally requires a mix of refereeing, policing, coaching, incentivizing, arm-twisting and modeling — but even all of that cannot accomplish the task and make a country’s transformation self-sustaining, unless the people themselves want to take charge of the process.

In Iraq, George W. Bush removed Saddam Hussein, who had been governing that country vertically, from the top-down, with an iron fist. Bush tried to create the conditions through which Iraqis could govern themselves horizontally, by having the different communities write their own social contract on how to live together. It worked, albeit imperfectly, as long as U.S. troops were there to referee. But once we left, no coterie of Iraqi leaders emerged to assume ownership of that process in an inclusive manner and thereby make it self-sustaining.

Ditto Libya, where President Obama removed Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s top-down, iron-fisted regime, but he declined to put U.S. troops on the ground to midwife a new social contract. The result: Libya today is no more stable, or self-sustainingly democratic, than Iraq. It just cost us less to fail there. In both cases, we created an opening for change, but the local peoples have not made it sustainable.

23 August 2013

Never Say Never: What if Egypt Did Close the Suez Canal?

By James R. Holmes
August 21, 2013.

Carrier Harry S. Truman and its escorts made their way through the Suez Canal on Monday, a reminder that 35-45 Atlantic-based U.S. Navy ships traverse this artificial waterway each year. T

The transit came as commentators speculated that the unrest convulsing Egypt might interrupt shipping through the canal. How? The military regime might close it — or threaten to do so — in an effort to wring more aid out of Western countries. Or, supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi might launch some type of assault. Should the Muslim Brotherhood protests metastasize into an insurgency, attacks on infrastructure could become part of its repertoire. How better to discredit the army's capacity to maintain order, elicit a self-defeating overreaction, or both, than by choking off a precious source of revenue?

That any such action will take place is doubtful … but never say never. Suppose, perchance, that the Suez were closed or disabled for some significant interval. The economic and military effects would reverberate throughout Asia and the Atlantic world. Such a debacle would lock eyes on maps, for one thing.

The Mediterranean Sea is a true middle sea, ringed almost entirely by solid landmasses. Its only natural entryways are at Gibraltar to the west and the Dardanelles and Bosporus — outlets into the Black Sea, another inland sea — to the east. Shutting the Suez, then, would temporarily erase the closest sea route connecting Europe and the North American east coast with the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf energy resources. Shipping would be forced to detour around the Cape of Good Hope, adding thousands of miles to voyages. Shipping firms and navies would incur extra fuel costs, and extra wear-and-tear on crews and hulls. Weeping would ensue. Teeth would be gnashed.

There is historical precedent for rearranging the map of Egypt, and the sea lanes with it. St. Petersburg dispatched its Baltic Fleet to the Far East during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Japan's ally Great Britain refused the tsar's fleet passage through the canal, which London controlled at the time. Circumstances thus compelled Russian mariners to undertake the debilitating journey around Africa, through the Indian Ocean, and into the China seas to do battle with the Imperial Japanese Navy. Small wonder wreckage from the fleet soon lay strewn across the floor of the Tsushima Strait, the scene of combat.

Nor have time and technology negated the canal's importance. The Axis closed the Mediterranean to Allied shipping for a time during World War II, burdening communications with South Asia. And in 1956, Britain, France, and Israel attacked Egypt to wrest back control of the canal after President Gamal Abdel Nasser's government nationalized it. It took U.S., Soviet, and UN diplomatic intervention to dislodge the invading forces.

The case for cutting off aid to Egypt

August 22, 2013

A suspension of U.S. military assistance isn't likely to alter the Egyptian generals' behavior, but it might prevent terrorist blowback. 

Posters in Cairo show Egypt's army chief General Abdel Fattah Sisi, left, and President Obama with a beard and bearing a slogan referring to the belief by some Egyptians that the U.S. supports the Muslim Brotherhood and the country's ousted president Mohamed Morsi. 

Prominent commentators, including Leslie Gelb, John Bolton and Bret Stephens, are counseling the Obama administration to swallow its qualms about the military coup in Cairo and embrace the generals as the best alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood. This is what might be called the "son of a bitch" theory of international relations, after the apocryphal comment supposedly made by President Franklin D. Roosevelt about Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza: "He may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch."

This argument has some plausibility. There is no doubt that the United States derives strategic benefits from our alliance with Egypt's generals — namely the upholding of the Camp David accords, transit rights in the Suez Canal and other forms of military and intelligence cooperation in the war on terrorism. But the question is whether these strategic benefits are worth the cost in lost American standing from being associated with a government that is gunning down unarmed demonstrators in the streets — and even, reportedly, shooting helpless prisoners in its custody under the guise of thwarting a jailbreak.

Those costs should be brought home by the Somoza analogy: Years of support for Somoza's tyranny resulted in a 1979 revolution led by the anti-American Sandinistas. There is good cause to fear similar blowback in Egypt. Even if the military succeeds in consolidating power and temporarily crushing the Brotherhood, as it is likely to do in the short term, it is sowing long-term seeds of hatred.

17 August 2013

The battle for Egypt

The generals’ killing spree is a reckless denial of the lessons from the Arab spring

Aug 17th 2013

BARELY a month and a half into a government dominated by a general who had displaced a Muslim Brother in a coup that was cheered on by most of the people, Egypt is once again plunged into violence. On August 14th armed police, backed by helicopters in the skies and bulldozers on the streets, stormed thousands of the Brothers’ supporters encamped beside a mosque and a university in Cairo. Hundreds were killed and nearly 3,000 injured and the violence spread to other cities, including Alexandria and Suez (see article). A score of churches were burned by angry Islamists. The government declared a curfew in some provinces and a month-long state of emergency across the country. The last time that happened, when Hosni Mubarak took over as president after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, the state of emergency remained in force for 30 years.

The government has pleaded that it used “the utmost degree of self-restraint” this week. In fact, its choice to unleash deadly force against its own people was brutal and reckless. Far from marking the closing chapter in a popular coup, the killing threatens a period of strife that could drag the country towards civil war. At worst, the spectre of Algeria looms: the army there prevented Islamists from taking office after they won the first round of an election in 1991, and as many as 200,000 died in the decade-long bloodbath that ensued.

Thankfully Egypt still has a long way to go before that fate befalls it. But its 85m people are as deeply divided today as at any time since Egypt became a republic in 1953. The question is whether suppression really is now the way to deal with the Muslim Brothers, or whether it simply adds to the mayhem.

Death on the Nile

One view holds that the Muslim Brothers never intended to share power or to relinquish it in an election. There is no doubt that Muhammad Morsi’s performance as president was a disaster. He won about a quarter of the eligible vote and proceeded to flout every sort of democratic norm. His government packed a constitutional committee with Islamists, rushing through electoral and other laws without due consent. It let sectarian hatred against Muslim minorities and Egypt’s 8m-odd Christians rise unchecked. Combined with sheer incompetence in its stewardship of the economy, this destroyed the standing of Mr Morsi among ordinary Egyptians. More than 20m people—half the adult population—were said to have signed a petition for a referendum on his presidency.

In Egypt Crisis, Russia Sees Opportunity

By Zachary Keck

August 16, 2013

Vladimir Putin appears to be seizing on the Egyptian crisis and the U.S. response to it to expand Russia’s influence in the Arab world’s most populous country.

On Thursday afternoon President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would be cancelling a joint military exercise with the Egyptian Army over its violent crackdown on supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Shortly afterwards, Egypt Independent reported that Putin had called an extraordinary session in the Kremlin to put “all Russian military facilities ‘at the Egyptian military's disposal.’" The report, which cited several sources without providing any further details about them, also said that “Putin will discuss Russian arrangements for joint-military exercises with the Egyptian army.”

Hours later Egypt Independent took down the report, although Google is still returning searches for it. A number of websites and forums had already republished the article in full before it was removed.

The Diplomat could not confirm the veracity of the report, and it’s unclear what to make of Egypt Independent’s decision to take down the article. Egypt Independent is a highly respected, privately owned English-language counterpart to the popular Arabic daily, Al-Masry Al-Youm. (see The Columbia Journalism Review’s recent profile of Egypt Independent here). It established a strong reputation for challenging Hosni Mubarak’s rule long before that became fashionable. It also won praise for its coverage of the 2011 uprising against Mubarak, and faced intense pressure from the Muslim Brotherhood for its unfavorable coverage of former President Mohamed Morsi.

At the same time, it has a history of caving to pressure from the Egyptian military, raising the possibility that the article on Russia’s offer of military support might have been removed at the Egyptian military’s request.

In any case, Russia was deeply involved in the crisis in Egypt on Thursday. ITAR-TASS, a Russian newswire, reported that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke by phone with his Egyptian counterpart Nabil Fahmy.Another ITAR-TASS story on Thursday said that Egypt’s embassy in Moscow had appealed to Russia to continue to provide support to Cairo during these “extremely hard times… just as it used to do in the past.”

31 July 2013

Death Spiral

In trying to save Egypt, the military and the Brotherhood may end up destroying it.

CAIRO — Abdel Hamid Madi lies in a bed in the al-Tamin al-Sahy Hospital, close to the Islamist sit-in at the Rabaa al-Adaweya mosque, where thousands of Egyptians have staged a month-long protest against the military ouster of President Mohamed Morsy.

Madi's voice is hoarse. He had joined Morsy supporters marching along Nasr Street, just outside the Rabaa al-Adaweya sit-in early Saturday morning when police, accompanied by 300 men in regular clothing and flanked by 20 armored vehicles, fired tear gas and then shot at the protesters in a battle that lasted from 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. The assault would cost at least 80 Muslim Brothers their lives -- most of the dead were killed by bullet wounds to the head, throat, and chest.

Madi and others lobbed stones at their opponents, whom they feared would storm the sit-in. Meanwhile, anti-Morsy snipers fired from atop the al-Azhar University buildings flanking the street, mowing down protesters. A sniper bullet tore through Madi's right chest -- a doctor told him it punctured his right lung. 

At the hospital, a middle-aged female cousin in a black abaya and headdress sat silently among the visitors, but no one in the room even looked at her, save for her husband -- Madi's cousin -- and another Brotherhood supporter. She seemed to be wishing herself away. "We are democrats. Otherwise, I might kill her," his cousin joked in an effort to deflate the tension.

The scene seemed to be a perfect microcosm of Egypt's complicated dynamics. The abaya-clad woman had supported the pro-army rallies last Friday, while her husband and Madi protested what they saw as a military coup that overthrew Egypt's first democratically elected president. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the army chief and defense minister, called for Friday's rallies so that the people could give him the mandate to "crush terrorism," as he put it. The call amounted to tacit orders to break up the pro-Morsy sit-ins.

Here in this hospital room, the two sides met in stony silence. Madi felt betrayed by the friends who had protested with him in Tahrir Square against Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, and later during the 16 months of military rule. He rejoiced at the election of Morsy; they grew to hate the Brotherhood over the one year of Islamist rule. Madi expected they would not care he had been shot, or care about the others who had been killed. They would say the bloodshed was justified. "By siding with the military, my friends are responsible for the killing in recent weeks," Madi said.

He despaired that Egyptians are reversing all of the gains they made after shocking the world by bringing down Mubarak in 2011. After Saturday's massacre, Madi acknowledged that the Brotherhood is outnumbered, and that popular sentiment is on the side of the generals. He sees Egypt re-embracing its authoritarian past and the security state it had rejected. "Those on the side of the truth are always a minority compared to the majority who don't understand, or don't have conviction to fight for the truth," he said, in admission of his side's weakness. "This is a fact of history." 

Many Egyptians now head to Tahrir Square, once the site of rallies against security forces' brutality, to celebrate the army and police, blithely waving posters bearing Sisi's image. Supporters of Morsy's ouster argued it was not a coup, but their position is looking increasing indefensible as the ascendency of the security apparatus becomes increasingly visible. On Saturday, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim announced he was reviving the hated state police departments that monitored political and religious groups before Mubarak's fall. In response, the interim government's liberal and secular participants -- who themselves once railed against Mubarak's oppressive state -- were conspicuously silent.

29 July 2013

Egypt's Death Toll Skyrockets

Posted By David Kenner 
July 27, 2013

On Friday, protesters filled Tahrir Square in response to Army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's call for a popular mandate to "confront terrorism." And in the early hours of Saturday, Egyptian security forces showed exactly what that meant: They opened fire on Islamist protesters, killing at least 65 people.

The attack marked the worst loss of life under Egypt's new interim government, and seemed to highlight the military's determination to break up the pro-Morsy demonstrations in Cairo through brute force. It has been a violent month: Egypt is currently witnessing the worst bloodshed since the 18 days of protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak.

Since the June 30 demonstrations against Mohamed Morsy, at least 265 people have lost their lives to political violence. That total includes both pro- and anti-Morsy protesters, security forces, Copts killed in sectarian violence, and police and civilians killed in attacks in the restive Sinai Peninsula. The true death toll is probably higher. This count relies on media reports and Health Ministry statements, which may not provide a complete accounting of the dead. Furthermore, doctors at the pro-Morsy sit-in say 127 people were killed in last night's clashes, so the official count from that attack could still rise significantly.

This means an average of 9.5 people have lost their lives every day since the June 30 protests. And beyond the staggering totals, it illustrates Egypt's persistent instability: The country has not witnessed two days in a row when nobody was killed, and has suffered through three days when over 40 people lost their lives.

Egypt's Perfect Storm

A power-hungry general, defiant Islamists, and massive protests have set the stage for a showdown in Cairo.

CAIRO, Egypt — As the sun rose over Rabaa al-Adaweya Mosque early Friday morning, the thousands of residents of the pro-Morsy tent city there prepared for their most direct confrontation yet with Egypt's military rulers. As mothers combed the hair of their young daughters and men read the morning newspaper, teenage boys lined up in military-like formation, chanting in unison that they would defy army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the new political order.
In Sisi's televised address on Wednesday, July 24, following another deadly bombing that targeted police, the general who orchestrated the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsy urged the Egyptian masses to "prove their will" and give security forces a "mandate to confront possible violence and terrorism." His remarks -- and the subsequent popular mobilization by both pro- and anti-Morsy groups -- have led to fears that Egypt is on the cusp of further bloodshed.

But many Egyptians at Rabaa said they are unfairly being labeled as terrorists, just because they oppose Sisi and his government takeover. "Sisi says he is against terrorism," said Khaled, a middle-aged manwho traveled to Cairo from Upper Egypt to join the Islamist protest. "But are we all terrorists? He's the minister of defense, but he's not defending us. He wants to murder us."

Mae, a young woman from Cairo, said Sisi's speech proved he had no intention of allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to have a place in the new Egypt -- instead, he was trying to "terrify the people."

Just over six miles away from the Islamist camp, Tahrir Square swelled with Sisi supporters in a protest that was a mirror image to the one at Rabaa al-Adaweya. While a line of tanks topped with smiling soldiers greeted protesters at Tahrir's main entrance, the military was absent from the vicinity of Rabaa al-Adaweya during the day. Protesters said the numbers today in Tahrir and outside the presidential palace represented a mandate to tackle violence they say has been incited repeatedly by the Muslim Brotherhood. Signs dotted the mass demonstration reading: "We authorize you Sisi to confront terrorists."

Just who are these "terrorists" that Sisi said he needed a popular mandate to confront, anyway? Protesters in Tahrir said they were mainly the Egyptians camped out at Rabaa Mosque and in Sinai, where jihadists have unleashed a constant stream of terror attacks on security forces following Morsy's arrest. Several Tahrir protesters even compared the Muslim Brotherhood's actions to the 9/11 attacks, a sentiment that is building traction. "To America & the west," Ahmed Said, head of the Free Egyptians Party, wrote on Twitter today. "Egypt is fighting an ideology that put you thru a nightmare in 9/11."

Many Egyptians in Tahrir, who say they have repeatedly been betrayed by their government, view Sisi and the army as the answer to Egypt's political strife. "I came here today to support Sisi," said one protester, who gave his name as Mohammed. "To tell the world that the Egyptian army is everything. It's power."

Here, General Sisi has assumed a god-like, celebrity status. Vendors sell t-shirts, kites, and masks plastered with his face. Meanwhile, the military has channeled nationalistic zeal for its own political ends: Army helicopters circled Tahrir all day, buzzing as close as 50 feet above protesters' heads, and dropping Egyptian flags on the cheering crowd. Their sheer force of the rotors kicked up swirling clouds of dust, completely coating everyone below. But even in the baking sun, complete strangers wiped off the grime from each other's faces and smiled, chanting Sisi's name.

Anti-American sentiment in both camps has surged here following the military takeover. At checkpoints leading into Tahrir, civilians told some American reporters that they were forbidden from entering, while pro-Morsy protesters at Rabaa al-Adaweya angrily denounced what they called a love affair between U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson and the Egyptian Army. Washington has treaded cautiously: On Wednesday, the Pentagon announced that it was delaying the delivery of F-16 fighter jets to Egypt, but the State Department said on Friday that it would not label Morsy's ouster a coup.

28 July 2013

Can Salafists Save Egypt?

Posted By David Kenner 
July 26, 2013 

I had a question for Nader Bakkar, the spokesman and co-founder of the Salafist Nour Party: How can Egypt avoid more of the bloodshed that has brought it to a crisis point since the military deposed Mohammed Morsy? There was a long silence.

"It's a very difficult question," he said eventually. "We understand that nobody can attack the military and they will stand without any reaction. But we don't want excessive reaction -- you should have the necessary emotional stability in front of civilians...At the same time, for the civilians who want to struggle against the military, we are trying to convince them that this will not lead to anything but more blood."

The message sums up the balancing act the Nour Party, the second-largest political movement only to the Brotherhood, is trying to achieve: It signed on to the "roadmap" that ousted Morsy, providing valuable Islamist cover for the coup, but has since been at odds with the new government and critical of the military crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood. They have taken the lead in pushing for a reconciliation with the Brotherhood -- but could gain the most if the Islamist movement is excluded from the political process.

With protests swelling in Egypt again today in response to army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sissi's call for demonstrations in favor of "confronting" the Brotherhood, Bakkar's job is about to get a lot tougher. The Nour Party rejected Sissi's call for protests, saying that popular mobilization on both sides "foreshadows civil war."

For the Muslim Brotherhood, the Nour Party's actions amount to a historic betrayal -- an abandonment of Egypt's first Islamist government for short-term political gain. "They are very naïve, they don't have much experience playing politics," said senior Brotherhood official Amr Darrag. "Politically, they are our main opponents. So they thought this was a good time to put us aside, or weaken our position, or get rid of us, so that they can take charge as the leading party in the political life."

Bakkar, on the other hand, paints a picture of how the Morsy administration ignored the Nour Party's advice to defuse the political crisis for half a year, systematically antagonizing every Egyptian political player. "Facts are facts: The military decided to be with the people, so it was a matter of deciding whether to lose everything for the Islamic stream, or to keep a share in the next round," he said. "Especially when we are not convinced in [the Brotherhood's] way of governing, especially when we can see that normal people are against them."

During Hosni Mubarak's reign, the ultra-conservative Salafists, who strive to emulate the practices of the earliest Muslims, were the boogeymen of Egyptian politics. They did not form political parties, some supported the violent overthrow of the state, and their beliefs were seen as irreconcilable with democracy - a contrast to the Brotherhood's "moderate" Islamist views. But today the tables have turned: It is the Nour Party that cut a deal with the military and is calling for inclusive governance, while the Brotherhood remains outside the political game.

Some have argued that the Salafists were always better suited than the Brotherhood to Egyptian politics. Yasmine Moataz Ahmed, a PhD candidate in social anthropology at Cambridge University who conducted field research in Egypt's rural areas, found that many of her interview subjects views the Salafists as "religiously less strict" than the Brotherhood. The problem was the Brotherhood's top-down structure: While Brothers in every corner of Egypt had to respond to the dictates of their hierarchy, Salafists had no such structure and could more freely adapt to the circumstances of their area. "[M]any of those who voted for Salafis did so not out of religious adherence to the Salafi orthodoxy, but because they did not want to support the [Brotherhood]," Ahmed wrote.