In response to my most recent post, one of my loyal readers (my only loyal reader, for all I know) asked me to expound on the U.S. policy implications of what is going on in Egypt. I was going to do so in that earlier post, but I try to keep these things relatively short, as befits the genre of the blog. As you will soon see, discussing the policy implications is very hard to do in brief.But before we come to questions of policy, I think we need a brief update on what has gone on in Egypt over the past few days. The key fact is that the military, in the quaintly termed form of the SCAF (Supreme, or Higher, Council of the Armed Forces; المجلس الأعلى للقوات المسلحة, al-Majlis al-ʾAʿlā lil-Quwwāt al-Musallaḥah) has delayed announcing the winner of this past weekend’s presidential election. That announcement was supposed to have been made on Thursday, but the election commission, which is of course not really independent of the SCAF, claimed that there were too many polling irregularities to sort through to determine the winner on time. No doubt there were some irregularities, but that never stopped these guys before. No, something else explains the delay. We know this because as a British parliamentarian once said some years ago, you should never believe anything in political life until it has been officially denied. And the SCAF is denying all shenanigans left and right.The SCAF has already pointed the finger at presumed Muslim Brotherhood ballot box stuffing. Even worse, now both candidates are claiming victory, which means that when a winner is announced—assuming a winner is announced and the SCAF does not annul the ballot altogether—a lot of people are going to be extremely bent out of shape. All else equal (which in Egypt it never is), that means that the prospect of violence—not between the regime as such and protesters, but between opposing political camps, one of which is extremely close to but not exactly the same as the SCAF—goes up.Since this is such an obvious observation, it leads one to wonder whether the SCAF is doing this deliberately. Why would it do such a thing? The answer is so that, when it brings down the hammer, it can justify doing so as an act of restoring public order, not as a partisan political operation on behalf of Ahmed Shafik. This would be very popular among many strata of Egyptian society, which today is far more interested in order and economic salvation than in another, likely futile, bout of revolutionary intensity.Many people in Egypt are interpreting the delay in announcing the winner as a negotiating gambit initiated by the SCAF with the MB. The theory is that in negotiations that have taken place privately between the sides the SCAF has essentially offered a trade: The MB accepts the authority of the SCAF in dissolving the parliament and in diminishing the powers of the presidency (neither of which it had a legal right to do), and in return the SCAF lets the MB candidate, Mohammed Morsi, win the election.This puts the MB leadership in a really tough spot. I have no idea, assuming that this construction of motives is correct, what they will do. If they refuse the bargain, and Ahmed Shafik becomes president, they know that any violent reaction they direct will diminish whatever residual second-fiddle authority they may retain in Egypt. They could end up with nothing except a lot of their heads bashed in for their trouble. On Wednesday various news sources reported that the Army had brought lots of soldiers and tanks to be edges of Cairo on Wednesday, and it has to be assumed that the MB leadership, and practically everyone else in the country who has been paying attention, knows this. If the MB leadership does stimulate riots, or if it cannot control its rank-and-file and they stimulate riots, then that is likely to hurt them if and when subsequent parliamentary elections are held. While many Egyptians are deeply religious people and sympathize with the values of the Brotherhood, most are very much indisposed toward chaos. There is an old Muslim juridical maxim that every literate adult in Arab societies knows: “Sixty years of tyranny are better than one night of civil strife” (Ibn Tamiyyah, in Majmo` al-Fatawi and al-Siyasah al-Shar`iyah). Old as it is, it often proves true as an underlying bias; it is true today in Egypt, and in current circumstances it tends to play against the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood and into the hands of the SCAF.One final general comment, if I may, before turning to policy questions. What recent events in Egypt show, among other things, is the extremely frail institutionalization of the modern Egyptian state. The Egyptian state has all the trappings of modernity, and it has had them for many decades. It has courts, and it has a body of law that, whatever its eclectic sources, is fairly sophisticated. It has a legal profession that really is a profession. It has a parliament. It holds elections, and it has an election commission. Nevertheless, Egypt does not really have reliable rule of law, does not have actual separation of powers, and certainly does not have procedural popular sovereignty—at least as Westerners understand and have experienced those things. Egypt is a finely cloaked military-bureaucratic dictatorship and has been, without interruption, since roughly July 1952.Even more important (and this will give us an on-ramp to discuss policy questions), Egyptian politics, as with politics in every Arab country to one degree or another, is highly personalistic. In Egypt, it is downright pharaonic. One can see this simply by noting the popular obsession with the fate of Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak is a dying, if not already dead, 84-year-old has-been. He doesn’t matter anymore in any practical sense. His colleagues threw him overboard to save their own skins. I doubt that even his two closest aides over the years, Omar Suleiman and Osama al-Baz, visit him in the hospital, which is not a very nice Muslim thing to do. I doubt that anyone is inviting the merely 71-year old Suzanne, Mubarak’s wife, to tea or dinner parties these days.Yet the country is truly obsessed with this man, Mubarak. It seems that until he actually dies, or is proven dead, the country cannot move on. It has a monarchical mentality. It is even possible, though I don’t have any evidence for this, that the SCAF is waiting for Mubarak to die before it anoints Shafik as the next Pharaoh. That would be the psychologically fitting, monarchical thing to do.This is neither the time nor the place to go into the deeper historical/anthropological reasons for the personalistic bias of Arab politics. Perhaps I will do that in some future post. Suffice it to say for now that this bias has been formed both by the strong patrimonial and tribal foundations of most Arab societies and by the deep narrative of Islam, which both emerged from pre-Islamic social realities and has in turn (along with other influences, of course) both changed and reinforced them over the past 1,400 years. Egyptian society is patrimonial, but it is far less tribal than many other Arab societies. As in many things, Egypt is sui generis among the Arab countries.***And so now to policy questions. The United States cannot change Egypt, except perhaps in the most distant and indirect ways. Even Napoleon, whose armies invaded Egypt and overthrew the old order, did not change Egypt in any deliberate way. Therefore, to think in policy terms about the future of Egypt and what it means to the United States and its friends and allies in the region, the beginning of wisdom should be to demote the question of democracy to its proper secondary or tertiary place. Egypt is not a democracy, it has not been a democracy since February 2011, and it is not going to be a democracy anytime soon. It is not possible to lose something that never existed in the first place.That said, the vast misunderstanding of what has been going on in Egypt over the past 18 months has led many people, including even some in Egypt, to think that democracy is what is really at stake. And the government of the United States is neither capable nor wise to ignore this sentiment. The President of the United States and his cabinet officers cannot speak publicly against the thriving of democracy anywhere. So we must pay lip service to the sadness that now pervades what many thought to be the unstoppable trend toward political liberalization in Egypt.At the same time, as the Obama Administration’s senior officials have understood from the beginning, the last thing we want is an Egyptian government actually dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood—and there is no viable third alternative. At the beginning of the Egyptian crucible (please forgive the mixed religious metaphor here) the Obama Administration clearly equivocated. Indeed, it changed its tune on a dime at one point, once it had concluded that Mubarak was toast, and poor Frank Wisner, who was in the air at the time heading to Cairo, did not get the message before apparently putting both feet into his mouth. That same equivocation has been present ever since: lip service to democratic progress, but the Administration has never broken ties with the Egyptian military, nor has it been stingy with the money we have grown used to paying each year since the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty of March 1979.Some may say that this is hypocritical. Some may say that it demonstrates double standards. Well, it is hypocritical, and it does demonstrate double standards, and that is what is so wonderful and right about it. Serviceable hypocrisy is indispensable to all shrewd diplomacy. And double standards, as well as triple and quadruple standards, as necessary, are indispensable too. Anyone who is uncomfortable with these realities should find another line of work.I doubt that any other American administration would have acted much differently than the Obama Administration has with respect to Egypt. The Obama group may have been a little slow on the uptake, and President’s early speeches may have placed the necessary hypocrisy in a somewhat awkward context, but these are mere details. The Obama Administration also realized, as would any U.S. administration I can imagine, that the United States doesn’t have much leverage. Some may think that all the money we give the military should provide a tremendous amount of influence, but actually it doesn’t. It is not possible to use money as a club when the recipient sees the circumstances as posing existential threats. So the leverage gets reversed, in effect: We need to keep giving them money so that we have some links to what they do with it. That is why a lot of the day-to-day back and forth between the United States government and the Egyptian government has been handled by the Pentagon, not least by the Secretary of Defense. This looks a little awkward, and no doubt there are folks over at the State Department who are unhappy with this. But it makes sense under the circumstances.Beyond serviceable hypocrisy in the orchestration of words and deeds—which is as good a working definition of diplomacy as I can come up with—what should the foreign policy apparatus of the U.S. government be doing now? To some extent, this question summons a classical policy planning exercise. Since I hung around S/P for a few years (S/P=Secretary, Policy, or Policy Planning) in room 7311 of Main State at 22nd and C Streets, NW, Washington, DC, I have some idea of how this ought to work, including some idea of how the Interagency ought to be functioning, as well. Whether what ought to happen is actually what is happening, I cannot say. But in brief, here are some of the things that should be, and probably are, going on.Above all, somebody needs to be doing a net assessment of the reverberations Egyptian mayhem is causing and will be likely to cause. I’m sure many memos have already been drafted, and many more are in the works. Some of these memos must have to do with the impact of what is going on in Egypt on Israel. Egypt has mattered to the United States since the mid-1970s for many reasons, but not least of them has been the Egyptian connection to Israel. That connection destroyed the possibility of war on a scale of 1967 and 1973, and the related triggering of new convulsions in the international oil market (not that such convulsions could not, and did not, arise from other sources). That connection tore apart the shroud of psychological nihilism when it came to Arab-Israeli relations and in time allowed the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty and relative normalization of relations between Israel and scores of countries. To lose that connection, even in post-Cold War circumstances, is to lose a lot. To go back to a condition of active Israeli-Egyptian security belligerence in present military technological circumstances is a nightmare we definitely should want to avoid having.Secondarily in this regard, the instability in Egypt has roiled economic exchanges between Israel and Egypt that are part and parcel of their relationship. Not least this concerns gas deliveries from Egypt to Israel. The instability has also gone quite far in turning Sinai into a no man’s land beyond the control of Egyptian authorities. Hamas and other radical Islamist forces in Gaza, and possibly elsewhere, are already using Sinai, in league with some Bedouin tribes there, as a platform to launch attacks into Israel—and note that I said into Israel, not into the West Bank.From the American point of view, and also the Israeli point of view, the SCAF is far more likely to maintain the treaty—and in time to be able to reassert control over Sinai—than a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government. That’s not a preference; it’s a fact.But Israel isn’t the only point of contact for Egyptian reverberations. Saudi Arabia matters to the United States as well. The Saudi leadership, which has lately been shaken by several senior deaths and a looming succession crisis, was thoroughly discombobulated over the fall of Mubarak and especially the American handling of it. U.S.-Saudi relations deteriorated further over the upheavals in Bahrain. A U.S. policy that quietly supports the SCAF would help in mending relations with Saudi Arabia. That policy would also be interpreted in Riyadh as American support for the Sunni side of an increasingly fraught and bitter sectarian divide in the Middle East. And that, of course, brings us to Iran.Understanding what U.S. policy should be about with regard to Egypt presupposes, or ought to presuppose, a larger strategic understanding of how the region fits into U.S. interests broadly construed. The Iranian regime is and has been a thorough pain in the ass for the United States for more than forty years. The dangers that regime poses to regional peace and stability on account of its nuclear program ought to be obvious to everyone (though it does not follow that it is wise to speak in panic-stricken cadences about it). The broader dangers that a dramatic failure of the non-proliferation regime poses for the world as a whole are also worth considering. Egypt is a major ally in this regard, with respect to Iran, and so it is objectively allied with Israeli interests. Sentiment between Israel and Egypt ever since the peace treaty has been “cold”, it’s true; but serious people know how to look beyond sentiment.The question therefore arises: Who is likely a better ally of the United States against Iran for the long haul: a SCAF-run Egypt or an MB-run Egypt? The Muslim Brotherhood can summon limitless theological energy against the Shi’a heresy, it is true. But it cannot be expected to coordinate effectively or closely with regimes and governments it finds nearly as impious and problematical as that of Iran. And that includes the United States, Israel, Jordan, and a few others besides. And then there is its lack of experience with governing anything or with conducting a serious and professional diplomacy. No, in a pinch I would take the SCAF any day for this purpose; so, I think, would any sober U.S. administration. It’s not that hard. You just swallow once or twice, whistle a happy tune, and get on with it.Finally, for now, as far as strategic nodal points are concerned (one could go on, and on and on with this—that’s how complicated and fascinating it is—but I won’t), there is a more general issue, or what one might call an atmospheric issue. The entire region is kicking up tons of dust. We see that most vividly in Syria, with serious implications for Lebanon and Turkey and even Iraq. But dust is also rising still in Bahrain, in Sudan, in Libya, across North Africa and into the entire Western Sahel. It is really quite a time. Egypt remains in many respects the heart of the Middle East, so the longer instability and anxiety hover over Egypt, the more it will contribute to general instability in the region.Now, some may think that such instability over such a wide swath of countries is actually constructive in the long run. Don’t these mostly autocratic and dysfunctional polities need to be shaken up before anything positive can develop? Well, yes, it could be. But this poses the classical dilemma: How do you know if the bulwark you see in the distance is a bridge to the future, or just a pier you can walk off the edge of and drown in the river?Optimists and idealists see bridges everywhere. But an optimist is, as Archie once said through the pen of Don Marquis, “a guy without much experience.” People who are still optimistic about the course of the so-called Arab Spring after these past 18 months are very special people. I am not one of them.Now, I am fully mindful that short-term thinking has become the bane of American culture over the past few decades. In many ways the short-term mindset is destroying institution after institution. But when it comes to statecraft and diplomacy (not the same things), you don’t get to the long run unless you survive the short run.In a way, this is really an easy call, since, as I mentioned, the U.S. government doesn’t really have a lot of choices or much leverage over the outcome. We can’t decide who will be the next president of Egypt, and we shouldn’t want to. We can’t control the Egyptian military, no matter how much money we give them or threaten to withhold. We certainly can’t control the Muslim Brotherhood, nor can any of our regional allies hope to do so. Our intelligence apparatus needs to be learning about the key individuals on both sides (really all sides) of the Egyptian political struggle, and a little bird tells me we are way, way behind in that assignment. In a personalistic political culture, knowing persons is really important in the long run.Otherwise, until it becomes clearer what is really happening in Cairo between the SCAF and the MB, we would be wise to keep our mouths shut, or at the very least speak only in platitudinous generalities. We should not talk ourselves into a corner against an uncertain future. Once things firm up politically, however, we need to privately and carefully lay out our red lines to the Egyptian powers-that-be. So, right now, we need to be thinking about what those red lines should be. And we need to convey them in a way that is neither counterproductive nor apt to be misunderstood.Again, several of these red lines will have to do with Egypt’s relationship with Israel, but some will also have to do with other countries in the region. Last as well as least, in my view, some red lines may have to do with domestic matters within Egypt that impinge on what are generically called human and civil rights.My view here is liable to be unpopular, but I really do believe that how Egyptians organize their own political circumstances is, if not quite none, then very little of our business. We have an investment in the small number of precious genuine Egyptian democrats, and we cannot afford to talk as though they don’t matter to us. The future stretches out far ahead of us, and one day we may need those Egyptian democrats more than they need us now. This, however, hardly means putting human rights concerns on the same level as U.S. strategic interests, which, as I have been at pains to point out, are not trivial.When Egyptian authorities in recent months characterized U.S.-government funded pro-democracy NGOs as constituting illegitimate interference into Egyptian internal affairs, I agreed with them; that is exactly what it is. (However, that’s not what it is if private U.S. organizations do it on their own dime.) And if we’re going to do that sort of thing as a government, we should be willing to admit it for what it is. There is a case for such interference. Honest people can differ over this question. But I don’t see how honest people in the United States can disagree about what it actually is when U.S. taxpayer money is paying for it.My main point, however, is that this and all emotional democracy-related debate really is—or should be very close to being—beside the point when it comes to deciding policy questions concerning Egypt. Strategic interests should be trump. I am not privy to what goes on inside the Obama Administration on this or really any other issue these days, but from the outside it looks to me like these guys have this about as right as one could expect from any Democratic administration. Serviceable hypocrisy looks to be firmly in the saddle. So far, so okay.
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Published on: June 22, 2012Three Cheers for Serviceable Hypocrisy