In Arab Spring, Foreign Militaries Make Unreliable Partners

U.S. News & World Report 2011-9-14 Earlier this month in The Nation, blogger Robert Dreyfuss contributed to the magazine's superb meditation on the Arab Awakening with a look at how the Obama White House responded to the popular revolt against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. As opposition to Mubarak reached its crescendo in February, according to Dreyfuss, senior White House aides frantically urged military leaders in Cairo to relieve themselves of him.

Read the entire post on the U.S. News & World Report website.

Brothers Unburdened

As paranoics inside Washington’s Beltway agonize over the prospects of a strong showing by Islamists in Egypt’s upcoming elections, a very different reality is cohering on the streets of Cairo: the Muslim Brotherhood - historically the country’s most powerful and disciplined Islamist movement - appears to be breaking up. The Brotherhood’s youth league has launched its own party with a progressive charter that is less about religious outreach and devotion than it is about social justice. A senior leader of the Ikhwan, as the Brotherhood is known in Arabic, who has long endorsed engagement with Egypt’s secular and non-Muslim constituencies, is running for president without the group’s official blessing. A debate within the Ikhwan about its core identity, muffled for survival’s sake under despots who suppressed free thinking of any kind, is ventilating subversively in the oxygen-rich air of the post-Mubarak era.

I was recently given an insightful tour through the Brotherhood’s molten political terrain by Mohammed Al Gebba, a young Ikhwanist who joined the group two decades ago as a high school student. A native of the coastal city of Damietta but for years an urbane Cairene, Al Gabba has evolved from ardent fundamentalist to Islamist humanist. It is a not uncommon journey in a political movement that, like its secular rivals, is scrambling to find its place in Egypt’s second republic.

“Politics and outreach are not reconcilable,” Al Gabba told me in Café Cilantro, a secularists enclave just off Tharir Square, the epicenter of the revolution that consumed the world for eighteen days ending February 11. “One compromises the other. What is needed is dialogue, and there is no dialogue in the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The Ikhwan is balkanized, according to Al Gabba, along ideological as well as demographic lines. Though he sympathizes with its youthful renegades, he chose to remain in the Brotherhood as a cadre to its relatively liberal wing despite the leadership’s rightward lurch in elections last year. It is the former, rather than the latter, he says, that is most faithful to the vision of Hasan Al Banna, the revivalist imam who founded the Ikhwan in 1926. “Our principals were his principals,” he said. “They are values of tolerance and dialogue.”

Al Gabba was deeply involved in the clashes between the confederation of secularists and Islamists, Christians and Muslims, and Communists and Capitalists against repeated onslaughts by regime loyalists to clear Tharir square. Having outlasted Mubarak and his hangers on, the revolution is now under threat by the proxies of foreign powers - not Israel and America, the usual suspects trotted out by demagogues of the ancién regime - but Iran and Saudi Arabia, tactical allies against the Arab world’s liberal awakening. “This is the one thing they can agree on,” says Al Gabba. “Their objective is to create chaos, to provoke the Egyptian army into oppression, to destroy the revolution.”

Conspiracy theories are as intrinsic to Egyptian politics as parsley is to Tabouleh, if for no other reason that so many of them have turned out to be more truth that fantasy. As proof of Saudi-Iranian perfidy, Al Gabba cites a seminar, to be held on July 1, on the salience and inevitability of sharia law in Egypt. A prominent Salafi sheik, he says, has declared the event to be the inspiration of Saudi Wahhabists working in tandem with remnants of Mubarak’s security apparatus.

If such intrigues do exist, according to Al Gabba, they will backfire. After nearly six decades of authoritarian rule, he told me, Egyptians will settle for nothing less than a secular republic. Candidates fielded by the Muslim Brotherhood in the coming election may do well, he allowed, but they are unlikely to capture more than a quarter of parliamentary seats. He predicts that in the next national ballot five years from now, Ikhwan members will campaign as independents whose loyalty to the state and devotion to faith are secularly distinct from each other.

Otherwise, he said, “the Brotherhood will bring itself down. It will ease to exist as we know it.”


Let their joy be our joy

Thus the prophet Mohammed, having encountered Jews fasting to commemorate the Israelites’ escape from Egypt, marked what would be the Day of Ashura on the Muslim calendar. The liberation of modern Egypt from thirty years of despotism is its own Exodus, the power and significance of which will not be fully appreciated for a generation. Nor is it at all clear where the journey will take a people who have known nothing but the whip hand of pharaohs, caliphs, kings, imperial occupiers and, most recently, a secular tyrant. One thing is obvious, however, though it has been drowned out by the euphoric din that radiates from Tharir Square across the Arab world: the manner, as much as the fact, of Hosni Mubarak’s departure will hasten the long recessional of American influence and authority, particularly in the Middle East. The by-now irredeemable gap between the reality of the region and the one concocted in Washington leaves little room for imagination and daring, as revealed by the cautious and equivocating way in which President Obama handled his end of the crisis. By conflating the Muslim Brotherhood with Al Qaeda, for example, America has all but relieved itself of any credibility it may have once enjoyed among the Arabs. Brandishing the Zionist cudgel, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, this week urged “the unequivocal rejection of any involvement by the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremists” in the transfer of power in post-Mubarak Egypt.

Fortunately, the capacity of Ros-Lehtinen to shape Middle Eastern affairs is as limited as her comprehension of them. But she and functionaries like her can frustrate US attempts to engage the Middle East on its own terms, a radical approach suited to revolutionary times. Appealing for a transition gradual enough to allow secular political groups to compete with the more muscular Muslim Brotherhood, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared as parochial political elites throwing rocks at a passing train.

The failure of Washington to anticipate Egypt’s upheaval is symptomatic of its gradual estrangement from the world it presumes to lead. So as not to antagonize Mubarak, the State Department after 9/11 segregated its diplomats from opposition groups, in particular the well-connected Brotherhood, effectively neutralizing its eyes and ears. The Pentagon, which enjoys strong ties to its Egyptian counterpart through officer-exchange programs that date back three decades, apparently produced little in the way of useful information about a looming succession crisis. Nor, for that matter, did the CIA.

Here was an intelligence shortage of epic proportions. For years, Egypt’s opposition leaders, intellectuals, and journalists had been warning anyone who would listen about the mortal absurdity of Mubarak’s vow to die in office even as he was grooming his son to succeed him, a prospect emphatically rejected by both the military and civil society. What did reach Washington, according to the trove of US diplomatic cables released in January by Wikileaks, was the message that the military would willingly guarantee a dynastic transfer of power. A July 2009 cable, based on an interview with an Egyptian politician, assures Foggy Bottom that a smooth transition is likely. “There would be some violence around the upcoming 2010 parliamentary and 2011 presidential elections,”according to the cable, “but…security forces would be able to keep it under control.”

The cable continues: “Widespread politically-motivated unrest was not likely because it was not part of the ’Egyptian mentality’. Threats to daily survival, not politics, were the only thing to bring Egyptians to the streets en masse.”

By ruling out relations with legitimate political movements abroad in reaction to political pressure at home, America denies itself the reference points needed to navigate competently through an unpredictable and often hazardous world. Rather than light a candle to illuminate the path before it, Washington curses the darkness of inconvenient facts. So when the dawn rose over Egypt to reveal a new age, America was nowhere to be found.

Egypt for the Egyptians

The ebullience of a near-emancipated Egypt stands in revealing contrast to the hand-wringing in Washington over its implications. Only now, as it becomes not only possible but highly probable that President Hosni Mubarak may soon be exiled to his own Elba, are America’s diplomatic and security apparatchiks allowing for a Middle East without their most dependable Arab autocrat. How, they wonder aloud, will the US impose its authority on the region if its fighter and refueling jets are barred from Egyptian airspace and its warships are prohibited from entering the Suez Canal? What chances are there for Middle East peace should a new regime open its border with Gaza? What if the Muslim Brotherhood turns the Arab world’s most vital nation into an Islamic republic? “This is a big deal with huge potential consequences for U.S. strategic interests in a vital region,” Martin S. Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, breathlessly told The New York Times. “We’re in completely uncharted territory.” True enough for the Yanks, though for previous imperial powers this is all well-worn terrain. In the early 1950s, the British and French were caught flat-footed by a barracks coup against their own Egyptian proxy, the voraciously corrupt, incompetent and rotund King Farouk. When Gamal Abdel Nasser, the leader of the so-called “Free Officers” who brought down Farouk, emerged as president, among his first acts was to nationalize the Franco-British controlled Suez Canal. In response, London and Paris, with Israeli help, maneuvered to undermine Nassar and restore their authority by invading the canal zone. The 1956 Suez Crisis ended in ignominy for the conspirators when US President Dwight D. Eisenhower all but ordered them to withdraw, while Nasser’s credibility soared throughout the non-aligned world.

Just as London and Paris cursed Egyptian resistance to their hegemony – British Prime Minister Anthony Eden likened Nasser to Hitler, while British radio called him a “barking dictator” – American policymakers now dread the prospect of challenges to their own. Unlike Eden, however, who did little to hide his contempt for Third World upstarts, US leaders are now caught in the rip-tides of their own hypocrisy. Nowhere has America’s public embrace of human rights and self-determinism clashed as discordantly as they have in its quiet support for Hosni Mubarak, who famously cowed US officials into line with ominous talk of an Islamist revolution should he yield to any form of dissent. In late 2005, when Mubarak finally relented to President George W. Bush’s pressure for national elections, which despite gross occasions of fraud and voter intimidation resulted in a resounding triumph for the Muslim Brotherhood, Bush backed away from his “freedom agenda.” Since then, Mubarak’s despotism has only intensified.

For anyone who has followed Egypt’s political paroxysms over the last decade, the current reckoning comes as no surprise. While reporting in Egypt two years ago, opposition leaders assured me they would not tolerate another term of dictatorship. Analyst Osama Harb was most prescient. In the end, he said, Mubarak would be undone by his own legacy of corruption, malfeasance and the “miserable condition” of average Egyptians. There would be “general chaos,” he said, and “tanks in the streets.”

Predictably, such warnings were lost on the New Rome, where the imperial warrant is held in higher regard than the foreign unfortunates who stagger beneath it. Empire is the highest, and thus most pernicious, expression of militarization, and in Hosni Mubarak Washington enjoyed a most agreeable host. Like most of America’s post-Cold War partnerships, the relationship between the two parties had become an end in itself, a diplomatic compact Malthusian in its rate of diminishing returns. From a depleted US treasury, Cairo is showered with billions of dollars in subsidies to preserve its peace treaty with Israel, support of which is as much a strategic liability for America as it is for Egypt; it must concede its air and sea lanes to the Pentagon in Levantine wars of ruinous consequence; sustain an Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” that achieves a mirage of deliberation but nothing of substance; and suppress the Muslim Brotherhood, the only Egyptian political party whose leaders regularly submit their authority to scheduled, transparent and democratic referendums.

If ever there was an unholy alliance in need of exorcism, this is it. Tonight, I hoist a glass given to me years ago by a waiter at Cairo Station’s main cafe (an art-deco jewel), in tribute to the legions of Egyptians who bravely reject the post-Ottoman Middle East and the western powers that usurped it.

Egypt for the Egyptians.