The past several days have elapsed without my having made a comment here on matters Middle Eastern. That does not mean nothing has been going on, but nothing has happened of such a dramatic nature as to focus any extended comment. Reality does not always pour forth with punctuation marks, so that it seems to flow on with no particular shape. It is only after the fact that one can look back and see the significance of such events. All that said, let me offer some brief comments on recent developments.
As to Egypt, the past week has been portentous and relatively quiet all at the same time. Mohammed Morsi’s call for parliament to meet, despite its having been dissolved by the SCAF via its puppet, the constitutional court, surprised even his own colleagues in the Muslim Brotherhood. The MB is, if anything, a very disciplined organization in Egypt, and it typically operates through the Islamic principle of ijma—consensus. So it is hard to know, at least from this side of the ocean, what to make of Morsi’s suddenly Lone Ranger decision-making style. Stuck as he is in a likely protracted struggle with the military, he cannot afford to alienate his own colleagues—especially since everyone knows that he is a front man for the more charismatic MB leadership represented by Khairat al-Shatar.
In the event, the parliament did meet for about 15 minutes, and a fair number of pro-MB demonstrators hit the streets in Cairo in support. That is, in my way of thinking, significant. There were police at the doors of the parliament building, and had the SCAF so ordered, it could have prevented parliamentarians from entering the building and holding their brief session. They did not do so, despite having met in emergency session and presumably, therefore, having made an explicit decision not to provoke violence at this point.
It is true that the court immediately declared Morsi’s order to the parliament illegal. But he and the parliamentarians went ahead anyway. The MB lawyers, and other lawyers, were quick to point out that the SCAF lacked the legal right to shut down the parliament in the first place, just as it lacked any right to strip the President’s office of most of its powers in the days just before the election.
All of this gets back to a statement I made some weeks ago, which is that despite having the trappings of a modern state, Egypt is actually a very frail institutional imitation of a modern state. It does not have rule of law in the Western sense. It remains not a tribal but a strictly patrimonial, which is to say pre-modern, polity. Willful men dominate pliable and weak institutions. And the legal morass we have seen in recent days stands as irrefutable evidence of the fact. When various Egyptians claim that this or that act is illegal, and others claim the reverse, there is no reliable recourse to determine who is correct. Legal issues thus collapse down to raw politics, and raw politics in turn has a tendency to collapse down into might makes right.
It is possible to find many Egyptians, including those who do not support either the military or the Muslim Brotherhood, who are not aware of or will not accept this judgment. Egyptians are a proud people, and they have been taught over many decades to think of themselves as the most modern and progressive of all of the Arabic speaking countries. That was part of the Nasserist narrative, and it stuck hard through the educational system and the government-controlled media. There were times, moreover, when it appeared that the Egyptian judiciary had acquired a semblance of genuine independence. But in recent years that independence has been a rapidly wasting asset.
There are still many observers who believe that, in the fullness of time, the generals will step aside willingly. All they need, say these optimists, is an assurance that they will remain indemnified against legal challenges pertaining to their behavior in office and some assurance through the writing of a constitution that the Egyptian state will remain a secular state—and one that allows the military, pre-AKP Turkish-style, to intervene in politics in extremis to keep it that way. This point of view was expressed in a very peculiar article, to my way of thinking, on the July 4 front page of the New York Times. In the article by David Kirkpatrick, called “Judge Helped Egypt’s Military to Cement Power”, the judge in question, one Tahani al-Gebali, who is Deputy President of the Supreme Constitutional Court, claims that she advised the generals not to cede authority to civilians until the Constitution was written. In other words, she claims to have been a key player in what many Egyptians have since referred to as a para-judicial coup.
I say the article is peculiar because Kirkpatrick seems to take al-Gebali more or less at her word, but her word fashions an extremely self-flattering image, one in which she sets herself up as both wise and powerful. In her account, it is the generals who saw the light through her wisdom; they are the students, she the teacher. You will pardon my skepticism, but I have a hard time believing this. And you will please pardon my trespass on the edges of political correctness, but Egyptians (and, of course, not only Egyptians) have been known on occasion to tell very tall tales posing as fact-in-being in which they are the stars. Humility and fantasy dance a dialectic in Arab culture in ways that Westerners often have a difficult time understanding, and, having already gotten myself in trouble just for saying that, I am sure, I will say no more about it except this: It is, anyway, mostly to those who have experienced this first-hand that I am speaking.
By my count, I would say score one for Morsi over the SCAF. Certainly, those who see the military as eventually backing down in the current struggle, sometimes frenetic and sometimes slow-motion, will interpret what has happened as evidence for their view. I am not so sure. The SCAF still has its hands firmly on the courts, the administration, the money and probably a solid majority of Egyptians—and that is not to speak of the soldiers and the guns. It may be that Field Marshal Tantawi and his colleagues are leery about the prospect of presiding over an Egypt whose economy is tanking and whose general social situation is deteriorating. There are those who believe that the SCAF is perfectly happy to allow Morsi and the MB to take the blame for failing to deal with an impossible situation. Maybe so for the time being, and maybe the failure of the Islamist civilian phalanx will provide the perfect pretext for the military’s recent assertion of supreme authority. But none of this means, in my view, that they have any intention of relinquishing actual authority to civilians, especially Islamist-dominated ones. Why should they? Who’s going to make them?
This slow-motion struggle punctuated by occasional frenetic activity poses real difficulties for U.S. policy. Apparently, our Secretary of State is headed to Cairo this weekend. I don’t know what for; I can’t imagine a more awkward situation to stick oneself in. I suppose that Secretary Clinton will be speaking out of one side of the American “mouth”, the public side that extols the promise of democracy. I suppose, too, that the Secretary of Defense will be operating the other half of our mouth, privately keeping contact clean and clear with the military. This is the way one needs to operate with what I have called a serviceable hypocrisy, which is the only imaginable prudent thing to do in such circumstances. The United States can neither get rid of Islamist populism in Egypt nor ensure the establishment of a mature democracy. It is a time to recall Talleyrand’s famous advice that diplomacy is the art of foreseeing the inevitable and expediting its occurrence to one’s advantage. The problem here is that we don’t know what the inevitable looks like yet, so it’s very hard to expedite it. Well, that’s why Secretaries of State get paid the big bucks.
The upshot of all this is that a house divided between an Islamist-inclined population and a military-bureaucratic regime cannot stand for very long. The question, however is what does “very long” actually mean? In Cairo there is a vast cemetery called the City of the Dead in which a great number of poor people actually live. When I first saw this many years ago I could barely believe my eyes. It is the sort of thing that leads a typical Westerner to say to himself, “This cannot go on”—or words to that effect. But it does go on, and on. There is a different sense of time in the Middle East than there is in the West. The current Egyptian political cohabitation could last for years, changing shape irregularly; or it could come crashing down next week. We just don’t know. I don’t think anybody in Egypt knows either.
What we do know are three things. First, at its heart Egypt has become a deeply Islamist society. To the conservative side of the Muslim Brotherhood are very healthy Salafi movements. There will be competition amongst merely radical Islamists and radically radical Islamists coursing through Egypt’s future. This competition is likely to make more difference in the long run than anything Egypt‘s relatively small number of democrats and liberals do. The thinking displayed by these Islamists does not bode well for the development of liberal institutions of any kind, at least as the term liberal is understood in the West. Despite efforts by some in the West—and amazingly even by some in the American intelligence community—to characterize the Muslim Brotherhood as a secular democratic organization, President Morsi apparently believes that 9/11 was not the work of Arab terrorists, that neither a woman nor a non-Muslim should ever be President of Egypt, and that the laws of men can never supersede the laws of God. Some secular democrat.
Second, we know that as long as Egypt stands in political limbo its economy will suffer. The longer this limbo persists, the more desperate the situation will get for many people, especially those living in urban areas. As Egypt’s population continues to increase at a rapid clip, the country falls farther and farther behind. Should the Islamist and Salafi elements prevail, it is quite likely that constraints on investment from abroad and modern banking will only make the situation worse.
Third, we know that as long as Egypt’s political convulsions persist, Egypt will be inward looking. The traditional major role Egypt has played in the region will be in eclipse, creating a vacuum into which others will try to move. This will create full employment for diplomats and strategists, but it will create headaches for everyone else.
There isn’t too much to say about Syria: another day, another defection from the Assad camp. Most recently this has been the Syrian Ambassador to Iraq, another Sunni who used to ride high in the Alawi-dominated Syrian regime and Baath Party. Nawaz Fares declared to reporters from Al Jazeera and Reuters that he had decided to leave because “the regime has turned [the Syrian Baath Party] into an instrument to kill people and their aspiration to freedom.”
I am not aware of a comparable word in Levantine Arabic to the Hebrew-Yiddish locution “hutzpah.” But if there is such a word Ambassador Fares’s remarks occasion a time to use it. Did it just occur to him that the regime is killing its own people? Did it just occur to him that the Syrian Baath Party is no friend of freedom? Has it not occurred to his new friends that one does not rise so high in the ranks of a criminal regime without having either committed or being complicit in its crimes? Here in Washington we have a superabundance of acronyms and initials. One very useful example is CYA, usually used as an adjective. For those who do not know, CYA means “cover your ass.” It is a ubiquitous maneuver in politics and bureaucracies, and those who do it skillfully are admired from within as often as they are excoriated. I wonder what the Levantine Arabic phrase is for “cover your ass”, because that is exactly what Ambassador Fares is trying to do.
His predecessor as Sunni defector, Manaf Tlass, has so far been smarter than Fares. Not only has he not said anything; no one seems to know where he is. He might still be in Turkey, or he might be in Paris where his father and sister live, or he might be in Dubai where his brother lives. No one knows. When I commented on his exit from Syria last week, I never said a word about his having joined the revolutionary opposition, which struck me as so unlikely that I never bothered even to comment on it. I did say that, given his record of betrayal to the Sunni community, he would have to watch his back lest revenge be taken against him. Now today comes a very peculiar, once again, New York Times article called “Syria General’s Absence Raises Doubts on Defection.” As I understand the English language, one can defect from a place or a regime without necessarily joining up with its opposition. When a high-ranking general leaves his post and leaves the country, that is a defection—period and full stop. The assumption in this weird man-bites-dog story is that, of course, someone like Tlass would join the opposition, so it is news fit to print when, gosh oh gee, things appear to turn out otherwise. Well, no, that’s only news to the completely clueless, who don’t seem to realize that the Tlass family has no natural or safe home anymore in Syria. What are these people thinking? Wait, let me rephrase that: Are these people thinking?
The other news about Syria concerns the indefatigable, and equally hapless, Kofi Annan. Annan wants more pressure from the Security Council on Syria. He knows he’s not going to get it, but he asks anyway. He now goes so far as to suggest that his mission be redefined as an Article VII-backed mission, one that would justify the use of force. This is absurd: If the Russians took pains to block a lesser empowered mission, they are certainly going to block an escalation to Article VII—and it took about twenty minutes for the Russian representative to say so in so many words. And now flip to the back of the front section in the Washington Post and there we find David Ignatius saying, among other things, that “it’s depressing how little headway Annan has made, despite broad international agreement that Assad should go to Damascus.” (Big sic here: Ignatius could not possibly have meant “go to Damascus”; he must have meant “go from Damascus.”)
This is really unfair, and quite possibly dishonest. Ignatius seems to be blaming Annan for the absence of progress. He seemed to be implying, too, that Annan has had all the international support he needed to get things done. The technical term for such an assertion is “pure crap.” The truth of the matter was stated clearly in a Washington Post editorial on July 7, written after last weekend’s Paris meeting on Syria, I am pretty sure by Jackson Diehl (though of course editorials of this sort are not signed). Under the title, “A Scapegoat fore Syria?”, the editorial states that the Obama Administration, and specifically the Secretary of State, is blaming Russia for a failure whose real source is the fecklessness of the Obama Administration. The editorial concludes: “So which government is preventing effective action on Syria, and which will pay the price? Ms. Clinton’s attempt to pin the blame on Russia looks like a diversion.”
So the Secretary of State blames the Russians, and now along comes David Ignatius and blames Kofi Annan. What a farce, what a sad, sad farce. Many, many weeks ago I called attention to the Obama Administration’s supine attitude toward Syria, though Jackson Diehl does not need my help in coming to such conclusions. More recently I have tried to put a better face on a policy whose difficulties have been legion from the beginning, supposing that a confluence of U.S. and Russian interests might arise in future at the moment of the Assad regime’s endgame. But while I have disparaged the Annan mission all along, suggesting that it was liable to be counterproductive, I never blamed Annan himself for any failure or malfeasance.
While almost no one was looking, Libya finally managed to pull off its delayed election. Islamists did not win, leading to a chorus of optimism about the never-ending hope the so-called Arab Spring. There was a good deal of pre-election violence, emanating mainly from the eastern part of the country (Cyrenaica), whose people feared (another) power grab from the west (Tripolitania). But election day itself was not so bad as all that, and the turnout was not so bad either.
But it’s a little too early to celebrate the result. Islamism did not win, true; tribalism won instead, and that does not bode well for the continued unity of the country. Mahmoud Jibril is from the Warfalla tribe, Libya’s largest. I have not done a detailed analysis region by region of the election results, and I have no intention of doing one, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the vote broke down vividly by region and tribe. Libya is one of the most tribal of all the Arab countries, and it is not clear that the habits of national unity, in development only since 1951, are strong enough to overcome tribal fissures that go back many centuries.
In that regard it is well worth quoting an amazing—and almost certainly partly mistranslated—remark that appeared in David Kirkpatrick’s July 6 dispatch from Libya, “Before Vote, Old Rivalries Threatened Fresh Start in Libya”:
. . . several admitted an intention to vote for a candidate who belonged to his tribe or family. “We are racist and each will vote for his own tribe—and not only his own tribe, but the family within the tribe closest to his,” said Abdel Salem Ijfara, 57, a member of the Warfalla tribe from Bani Walid.
In some respects the choices in Libya are fairly stark: either a unified country under Islamist control, or a fractured one under disparate, highly decentralized tribal control. This situation is not surprising, for Islam in its very origins demonstrated a capability for unifying otherwise fractious tribal elements; that was Muhammad’s signal achievement.
From the American point of view this is not a very propitious predicament. We either get a unified anti-Western and illiberal government, or we get a failed or failing state that could furnish gray zones for all sorts of nefarious types. I therefore continue to insist that the NATO operation that got rid of the Qaddafi regime constituted an act of poor judgment, and I am not even factoring in the tragic recent destruction of many beautiful ancient shrines in Mali, where the mayhem is a spillover effect from the Libya campaign.
Finally for now, let me note briefly that possibly the most important recent development in the region seems not even to have made the American elite press at all—at least not yet. In Israel a committee, the Levy Committee, has recommended that all of the non-authorized settlements and outposts in the West Bank be retroactively made licit. The Knesset has not accepted this report, yet, but given its makeup it is quite likely to do so unless someone makes a fuss to prevent it. In many ways the settlements have worked to subtly undermine the rule of law in Israel over the years, but this represents a whole new level of damage.
The argument made by the committee seems to be that high authorities actually knew what was going on, and made no effort to stop these unauthorized settlements and outposts from being set up and very little effort to dismantle them after the fact, despite promises to do so—so that in its view that is tantamount to authorization. This is going to create a real problem, however. The Israeli government, or rather successive Israeli governments, have occasionally made a big deal out of illegal housing construction by Arabs in Jerusalem and the greater Jerusalem area. Why shouldn’t the same argument apply to this “illegal” construction: High Israeli political and administrative authorities knew what was going on all along, but decided for various reasons to generally ignore it. Following its own logic, all this construction should now be retroactively legal. But of course the Levy Committee would never reach such a conclusion. All of this stinks out loud.