Political upheavals are reckoned by the currency of accelerated experience. Human beings perceive time in many ways (more on time in a future post), but three fill out the spectrum. There is geological time, measured in hundreds of thousands and millions of years. There is personal time, measured by the sentient moments afforded by our circadian rhythms. And then there is political time, which is pretty much everything in between. Political time, in turn, breaks down into the ordinary, those long skeins of years and decades in which nothing much seems to be changing even when it is, and the revolutionary, those impossibly concentrated hours and days in which everything seems to be changing even when it isn’t. Which brings us (back) to Egypt.
A lot has happened since I posted “Abdel Fattah al-Sisi—Memorize That Name” on July 1. The scenario I posited has worked out so far in every respect save one, but it is an important one because it informs the not-at-all-trivial semantic argument over whether what has happened is or is not a coup.
I assumed that the military would invite the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Freedom and Justice Party, into its planned transitional government arrangement. It did. But the MB, led in this case, I assume, by a decision taken together by Mohammed Morsi, Khaitar al-Shatar and Mohammed Badie, vehemently rejected that invitation and engaged instead in what one organizer of the Tamarod movement has termed “incitement to civil war.” Morsi’s 11th hour change of heart, where he seemed to offer a dollop of conciliation, struck al-Sisi as not just too little too late, but as the act of a desperate man—which, of course, is what it was, since by then Morsi’s entire cabinet had resigned and repudiated his rambling fulmination of the previous evening.
The MB’s rejection of the Army’s invitation was both unnecessary and very stupid, but Leninist-organized religious fanatics enthralled by conspiracy theories are prone to stupidity. It is, nevertheless, poetic justice of a sort that Morsi has behaved in a politically incompetent way that has objectively aided the Army, since he was the benefactor of a prior year-long episode of incompetence perpetrated by Field Marshall Mohammed Hussein Tantawi that aided the Brotherhood.
So is this a coup? Well, if Morsi had decided to “come along quietly” and participate in an Army-directed recalibration of Egyptian politics on behalf of the MB, then no, it would not have so readily been called a coup—especially if Morsi had officially remained President for a little while in the transition to a transition. (Yes, in Egypt there are such things.) But the way things turned out, it’s hard to call what has happened anything other than a coup, and this is unfortunate for two reasons.
It is unfortunate, first, because it forces Congress’ and the Administration’s hand to suspend aid to Egypt, and doing that right now, either to the military ($1.3 billion) or the paltry sum we give to the rest of the Egyptian government ($250 million), is a bad idea. The President has wisely avoided using the word “coup” is his very scanty public remarks, and so retains some flexibility to declare a national security exception to the law if he chooses to do so. He should, and aside from the obvious benefit of not forfeiting what little leverage we have left in Egypt, here is why.
It is unfortunate, second, because the language is so loaded that it obscures important distinctions. There are coups and there are coups, just as there are democracies and there are democracies. With any luck at all, and especially if the United States maintains and wisely uses its leverage (of which more below), what General al-Sisi has set in motion could in time be seen as a “corrective movement”, a very popular locution in Arab politics, instead of a coup. But for that to happen Egypt may need to be a Praetorian Democracy for a while—in other words, an under-institutionalized democracy whose incubation period is protected by the military. This is hardly a rare circumstance. It defines the relationship between the military and the political culture at large in Turkey for many years, in South Korea and Indonesia in different ways, and to a less successful extent in Pakistan, among many cases.
Could the Egyptian military play such a role in future, despite having never been so inclined in the past? It could, because, as I mentioned last time, there have been significant social changes in Egypt over the past generation or two that conduce to the birth of attitudes supporting genuine political pluralism. And while the Army has parochial interests aplenty, it also genuinely thinks of itself as a patriotic national institution that takes the best interests of the Egyptian people to heart. If the Egyptian people are developing a more sophisticated sense of their own public square, there is reason to believe that the Army will acknowledge and support that development in due course.
* * *
I realize that there are people out there who will immediately pronounce the concept of a Praetorian Democracy to be an oxymoron, but these are people who fail to appreciate the outsized role of irony in political life—God bless their pointy little heads. Like Walt Whitman, politics contains multitudes that are prone to mix and match in improbable ways.
That isn’t all that some people fail to appreciate. The American mainstream press over the past few days has come up with the usual multitude of predictable boners—misleading and sometimes flatly wrong statements about what is and has been going on in Egypt. These screw-ups have followed faithfully from the errors made originally, back in the spring of 2011—which I detailed at the time in this blog—of which three were key: (1) the ouster of Hosni Mubarak itself was not a revolution and it did not signify a regime change—it was an internal putsch within the military than ended a dynasty rather than a regime; because (2) Mubarak was not really a civilian President and the Army was not just one of an array of political actors—just because he wore no military uniform most of the time did not mean he wasn’t always and ever an Air Force general; and (3) the opposition at the time out in the street was demanding the fall of the dictator, which was the only thing it could agree on—it was not in the main a “pro-democracy movement” as we understand the term.
My favorite recent MSM screw-up so far—but there are so many!—follows directly from these old misunderstandings. It is David D. Kirkpatrick and Ben Hubbard’s front-page piece from yesterday’s New York Times. Three sentences in a row qualify as a version of Higher Disney political fiction.
First we have this whopper: “The standoff threatened to roll back the clock to the day two years ago when the generals first seized power from Hosni Mubarak. . .” As if Mubarak was not also a general? How could the military “seize power” from itself? You see the problem here. Yes, of course, there has been a civilian façade around military rule in Egypt going back nearly all the way to July 1952—first for Nasser, then Sadat and then Mubarak. But only the terminally naïve ever mistook appearances for reality, and that includes the American MSM until recently. As James Thurber wrote obliquely back in 1927 about a certain children’s tale, “A wolf doesn’t look anymore like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like Calvin Coolidge.” Good grief.
Then, second: “The military’s vow to intervene raised questions about whether Egypt’s revolution would fulfill its promise to build a new democracy at the heart of the Arab world.” This is wild. The revolution—which became real, as actual regime change, only when, thanks to Field Marshal Tantawi’s ineptitude, the Muslim Brotherhood seized control of the government—never had any democratic promise. That became unmistakably clear when, last November, Morsi declared himself above the courts and rammed through a constitutional order on the narrowest of political grounds. The MB’s mistake was to rush much too fast to consolidate its authoritarian, if not totalitarian, schemes. Since Morsi became President in June 2012 by having won office with an onion-skin thin margin, and that in an election marred by so many pre-polling irregularities that it could only be considered free and fair by very forgiving standards, what has been going on is the undermining of any chance for genuine democracy to form.
And finally for Kirkpatrick and Hubbard, “And the defiance of Mr. Morsi and his Brotherhood allies raised the specter of the bloody years of the 1990s when fringe Islamist groups used violence in an effort to overthrow the military government.” If you did not know better, you would take from this statement an equilibration of the Muslim Brotherhood with the Islamist terrorists of an earlier era. This, too, is completely wild.
The Muslim Brotherhood is at the same time a radical group but not a revolutionary one. One has to be very careful with how one uses English words when talking about Egypt, because its political and social physiognomy is not the same as ours. As I explained in one of my 2011 posts, the Army and the Brotherhood were long-time political contestants, so long that both sides grew to guardedly respect each other in the midst of their tussles so long as certain red lines were respected on both sides. The MB was technically illegal but tolerated so long as it foreswore violence, and the Army let the MB proselytize and provide some social services the regular bureaucracy could not ever seem to manage. That arrangement was encouraged by the fact that, by Sadat’s time, both the Army and the Brotherhood had common enemies: unreconstructed Nassarite leftists and Communists to the one side, and truly revolutionary salafi Islamists to the other. In this light, then, conflating the MB with a group like al-Gamaa al-Islamiya is deeply, profoundly ignorant.
Of course, that established if fragile equipoise, which had to have been a major factor leading Tantawi to think he could control Morsi, has now gone by boards. But anyone who imagines that the Egyptian MB can turn itself into a revolutionary insurgent force that stands any chance against the Army just doesn’t know what he’s talking about. One fellow I know on the scene saw from his apartment window a bunch of MB types running “training” laps around a city square while chanting some lamely dramatic slogan, with some clutching tree branches for would-be weapons. If there’s anything funny about what’s going on in Egypt right now, this has to be it. Senior MB leaders are not going to start a civil war. They may be stupid, but they are not suicidal.
At the same time, it is true that if the Army tries to completely exclude the MB from the nation’s future political configuration, it is bound to sire a new generation of Islamist terrorists. Nothing about General al-Sisi suggests he is that foolish, however. So in a sense the limits of action within the ambit of Army-MB relations remain intact, at least in some form. But who knows? Making big mistakes is the one hallmark that, whatever their other differences, unifies recent Egyptian leaders.
* * *
Speaking of mistakes, let me conclude for now with a word about U.S. policy. One reader took exception to my contention last time that, in fact, the U.S. Government did not sin by betraying an ally—arguing that we should have waited seven months for the election Mubarak had called, and that would have prevented the Brotherhood from taking power. I took exception to his taking exception. The original instinct was indeed to stick by Mubarak, and when special emissary Frank Wisner boarded his plane to Cairo his instructions mirrored that instinct. By the time he had landed, however, the sense was that seven months had come to look like seven years—things could not hold for that long. The problem was not shoving Mubarak aside for Omar Suleiman, or, as it turned out, for Field Marshall Tantawi—that would have worked to preserve U.S. interests and maybe to have satisfied the crowds with Mubarak’s “sacrifice.” The problem was that Tantawi then proceeded to screw the pooch, opening the tent flap for Morsi, and we did nothing to stop him.
The Obama Administration never had the kind of leverage in Egypt that could have propped Mubarak up for another seven months, and it never had the ability to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from outmaneuvering the aging, doddering post-Mubarak generals. The claim that President Obama actually wanted the Brotherhood to come to power—because, you know, he’s really a secret Muslim and he wasn’t born in the United States and is thus an illegitimate, lying President and all the rest of it—represents the American version of a crazy conspiracy theory, so the Egyptians (and Iranians, and Pakistanis, etc., etc.,) are not entirely alone in playing this desultory sport. The worst that can be said about the President’s conduct in this case is that he hasn’t been paying any attention to Egypt for the past two years, because there’s no domestic political payoff in it.
As for what’s been said over the past few days, well, it could have been worse. As already noted, the President has avoided the “c” word. His admonition to Morsi not to get violent was embarrassingly behind the curve, since by then Morsi had no guns to aim toward the seething street. But the defense of the democratic process stuff we’ve heard in recent days is standard issue; that’s what all U.S. administrations say at times like these. The fact that Egypt’s putative democratic processes is rather complex does not change the perceived need to say such things. It’s our secular religion in this nation with the soul of a church (said Chesterton); it’s just what we do, whether it makes case-specific analytical sense or not.
Anyway, it’s what we’re saying to al-Sisi and his associates in private that really matters, and I’m not privy to those communications. I know what we should be saying and doing, however. We should be thanking them for their restraint, and praising their professional competence. (It has been impressive.) We should be assuring them that we’re trying to put together an economic bailout to feed the people and help them put folks back to work. We should be urging them to build a big tent for the process of political reconstruction, but we should not be trying to use our aid money to twist their arms. That would be counterproductive. And we should smile a lot, because these are the guys we now have to work with.
Which brings me to Anne Patterson. Ambassador Patterson maybe said a few things in public lately that she should not have said. Averring that she was “deeply skeptical” that street protests could produce better outcomes than elections was speech language better left on the cutting-room floor. But the accusation that she has been positively disposed toward the Muslim Brotherhood government, or that she should have been more voluble last autumn when Morsi was literally trying to steal the (government) show, displays ignorance of what her job entails. As we will do now as a government—try to deal with the powers that be—she was doing until a few days ago—trying to deal with the powers that were. If she failed to object more to the MB’s creeping (sometimes galloping) authoritarianism during the past year, it’s most likely because no one seemed to have her back either in Foggy Bottom or in the White House—besides which the Pentagon often takes the lead role in private relations with Egypt because that’s where our main influence and budget-punch is. She is not an entirely free agent over there.
I am not defending everything Ambassador Patterson has done. And just by the way, I do not know her hardly at all, and so have no personal stake in this. I am just trying to point out that hers is a difficult and stressful job that is hard to do flawlessly under any circumstances, and particularly under circumstances where your bosses could seem to care less about your portfolio. The fact that she is reviled by anti-MB voices in Egypt now really only proves two things: There’s no pleasing these people, who are used to having scapegoats to blame for their own unacknowledged shortcomings (and so it’s only a matter of time before they figure a way to blame the Jews); and she’s the model for effigy burning because her superiors are nowhere to be found, too busy are they laboring away at the core diplomatic-national security agenda of 1975—U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control and the Arab-Israeli conflict. (Secretary Kerry’s role in the past few days has been appropriately comical: He eventually got around to calling the Egyptian Foreign Minister only to learn that he had just resigned.)
We have made some mistakes, botched up our signaling, too—no doubt about it. By living in the hell of half measures, by trying to split every difference we could identify, we are now in a situation where no side in the Egyptian political struggle trusts us—which is much, much worse than having neither side like us. But the buck for that outcome doesn’t stop with Anne Patterson. It stops on the desk that Harry Truman once indicated as being “here”, in the Oval Office.
Besides, it’s not the end of the world. This outcome is reversible if we start doing the right things. But we should realize that neither America as a nation nor the U.S. government specifically can “fix” Egypt, whatever that is supposed to mean. We never could. We did not cause their problems and we cannot solve them. We cannot turn Egypt into our kind or any kind of democracy, and we can only help Egyptians who want to travel that road if they ask us—not the other way around.
More to present needs, however, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is neither devil nor savior, neither destroyer of democracy nor the man-on-white-horse answer to Egypt’s suffering. He can’t change the past or control the future, but he needs help where he can find it in the still parlous present. We have a somewhat awkward and unglamorous interest in providing some of that help, if only because doing so can restore some of the leverage we have lost in recent years. As far as policy is concerned, this is not a time to bathe our conscience in abstractions; it’s a time to get down to work.