The news from the region over the past few days constitutes, as always, more of the same and yet something new. Let me take you on a selective tour, ending with the most attention-arresting story of our time—Syria.
Of all the developments in the Arab world, none come close to being as important as those in Egypt. Egypt is by far the largest Arab country and the most broadly consequential in strategic terms. Yet the American media, while not exactly losing interest in Egypt, seems to have developed a kind of complication fatigue with respect to the country. Ever since the heady days of revolution in Tahrir Square, the actual situation in Egypt has become almost indecipherably complicated for those who never knew much about the country in the first place. (To be fair, it has also become mildly indecipherable even for those who do know something about the country.)
The best the press has been able to do in recent days is to discuss the issue of what sick bed Hosni Mubarak should occupy: either that of the prison where he is now, or a military hospital. The gist of the debate is not about one sick 84 year old. Rather, it is about Ahmed Shafik. The basic idea is that if one prefers the much nicer military hospital, then one prefers Air Marshal Shafik to be Egypt’s next President. If one favors the prison, then by default, if not through enthusiasm at the prospect, one prefers Mohammed Morsi. The timing matters here, because the second round of the presidential election is scheduled to take place this Saturday. And so we have one ostensibly simple matter standing in for far more fraught political matters. So it goes in politics, and doubly so in Egyptian politics.
It has been many months since I wrote in this space about Egypt, but the last time I did I made clear my skepticism that the Egyptian military would ever really turn over power to civilians. I have not changed my mind. Over the past several months the military, guided by Mubarak associate Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, has repeatedly twisted and tweaked an unsettled political environment to guarantee that the outcome of an ostensibly constitutional process would leave military authority and power largely unaffected, even though the appearance of its dominance might be altered. It has done this by shortening the time period for preparing the initial round of parliamentary elections, so that no party other than the Muslim Brotherhood could prevail. It has done this by torquing the makeup and timetable of the constitutional assembly. It has done this by disqualifying several candidates for president, carefully orchestrating the election set-up in such a way that either a Mubarak-regime affiliate wins, or that a pliable MB candidate wins. Where did it get the authority to do all this? It never relinquished that authority in the first place, all the frothy hubbub surrounding Mubarak’s deposition notwithstanding.
What do I mean by a “pliable” MB candidate? The Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood have been circling and sparring with each other for a long, long time. They are old and sophisticated antagonists, to the point where each has learned to recognize certain prudent limits in the relationship. Some decades ago, when the Brotherhood breeched these limits, the military responded by pounding the organization into bloody submission. At the same time, the military knows it can never expunge the Brotherhood from Egyptian society and politics, because it represents the weight of traditional social authority that the Egyptian state has never been able to absorb. This creates the makings of a deal, and in the past that deal has consisted of the following: the Muslim Brotherhood grants the military the position of primus inter pares when it comes to the affairs of state, and the economic penetration of the country as well, and the military grants the Brotherhood the right to Islamicize society insofar as it is able—just so long as it stops short of seeking political power.
This deal has never been completely stable because neither side really trusts the other. This is despite the fact that many members of the Egyptian military are religious people and sympathize broadly with the Brotherhood’s values, and many rank-and-file members of the Brotherhood thus respect the military—and besides, since July 1952 they have known no alternative to it. The two tacit partners have also been pushed together by their mutual loathing of the secularist, Nasserite elements in Egyptian society and politics. That leftwing spectre has been and remains anathema to the military, and hardly less so to the Brotherhood.
Hence, the most likely outcome of Saturday’s election will be the eventual re-institutionalization under new circumstances of that same old deal. If Mohammed Morsi wins, he and his colleagues will probably understand that their formal power must not stretch beyond certain limits. They will let the military go on doing pretty much what it has been doing, while they serve as political façade for it. If Shafik wins, the Muslim Brotherhood, understanding that as the main political opposition it will have new opportunities denied other Egyptian political forces, will probably realize that promoting new mass protests, riots and violence will not be in its interests. And again, that things have reached the current circumstance is a deliberate result of the military’s skillful manipulations over the past year.
So one might say that the fix is in. The problem is that everyone in Egypt knows this, including those who made the Tahrir Square revolution happen. Over the past many months the Muslim Brotherhood and other factions of the opposition have done a very delicate dance around each other. For a long while the Muslim Brotherhood was reluctant to take the political lead, partly because they did not want to galvanize opposition to it among the revolutionary factions, and also because it wanted not to burn bridges with the military. Thanks to the enthusiasm of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rank-and-file, however, the MB leadership very nearly lost control over its own prerogatives. If revolutionary fervor and upheaval breaks out in Egypt after Saturday’s election, it may foil the fix and scuttle the deal—or not. Nobody really knows. But we will soon find out.
My hunch is that when all is said and done, post-revolutionary Egypt will function a whole lot like pre-revolutionary Egypt. It may look a little or a lot different, depending on the density of the constitutional veil now being manufactured, but it won’t really be different. It is as I have said: more of the same, and yet still something new.
The news from Libya is, as usual, not good—but it is new. Elections that were supposed to happen this month have been postponed until next month because of logistical problems. But there’s a good chance that next month they will be further postponed because the scale of the logistical problems involved are not soluble in just three weeks because, in point of fact, they are not really logistical at all but fundamentally political. Officials are trying to lustrate deeply, getting rid of all old regime elements. But as I have pointed out before, aside from old regime elements few if any people in Libya have any idea how to govern or run anything at all—except guns. So this is a problem.
In the meantime, Libyan officials essentially have taken hostage some members of an International Criminal Court team who came to Libya to speak with Saif al-Islam Qaddafi in his jail cell. The transitional Libyan government has refused demands for their release. Its refusal was more than direct; it was downright brusque.
And if that were not all, the discombobulation of the Libyan administration, thanks to the war we and NATO started, has included the suspension of regular locust prevention measures, raising the specter of a plague throughout the Western Sahel. Ah, Libya—the gift that keeps on giving.
There is also some pretty dramatic news from Yemen. It seems that the government has driven rebels from two towns in the south of the country. These rebels are said to be closely associated with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In one of these towns, Jaar, salafi forces had set up a mini-state ruled by strict sharia law. This would not matter much to us if the same forces had not shown a proclivity to want to blow commercial airliners out of the sky. Alas, they do show such a proclivity.
The chances that the Yemeni government can genuinely suppress radical activity on its national territory run from improbable to absolute zero, for the government is weak and Islamic radicalism is threaded through the tribal structure and religious traditions of the southern part of Yemen. So there will be more news, bringing word of more of the same—back and forth and back and forth we are destined to go.
We probably should also mention Iraq, even though most Americans probably want to forget all about the place (certainly the Obama Administration does). My colleague Walter Russell Mead recently pointed out Iraq as a bright spot in an otherwise mottled region. Of course the place could be doing a lot worse, and it could be causing a lot more trouble than it is were Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath Party still in power—so to that extent Walter is perfectly correct.
But “bright spot” is a relative term. How bright could a place be where a Prime Minister of one sectarian affiliation accuses his Vice President of another sectarian affiliation of being a terrorist and tries to hunt him down like a dog, and that Vice President takes refuge in another part of the country (where the Prime Minister’s writ does not extend) where ethnic division rather than sectarian divide defines the key cleavage? The country may be pumping a lot more oil these days, but it still has not managed to pass an oil law delineating the distribution of revenues. That is because passing such a law presumes having worked out a new modus vivendi acceptable to Shi’a, Sunnis and Kurds. No such thing is anywhere in sight. Without a dictator’s controlling hand, Iraq is a deeply perforated polity. It is, in short, a collapsed-state-in-waiting. Some bright spot.
What do the situations in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Iraq—and Syria, which we will come to in a moment—have in common? Obviously, though these are all Arab countries they are very different in nearly every respect. Yet they do have one thing in common: a weak state.
As mentioned earlier, the Muslim Brotherhood prospers in Egypt because the modern Egyptian state has not been able to fully assume the mantle of the country’s culture and history. And if Egypt, one of the truly ancient and reasonably coherent states in the region, suffers from such a weakness, what is one to assume about artificial entities like Libya and socially fractured countries like Yemen? In Egypt, state weakness manifests itself in cascades of rentier behavior. The state is unable to actually solve problems at national scale, and the military–bureaucratic regime lacks any semblance of just and legitimate authority, which circles back and contributes to the fact that the state cannot solve problems.
In Libya, Yemen and Iraq the weakness of the state manifests itself against the backdrop of the perduring power of tribalism and, in the Iraqi case, sectarianism. Where society is strong—in this case in the form of tribalism—the state tends to be weak. (Of course, this is true not just of many Arab countries but also of countries like Afghanistan, Somalia, Congo and many others.) And where the state is strong, parochial attachments tend to be weak politically.
The most common manifestation of weak states is their inability to control their own national territory. States that are ethnically heterogeneous or heterogeneous in terms of sectarian affiliation often find that their heterogeneity assumes a definite spatial form. Thus while the Egyptian government controls its national territory but cannot manage the functions of a normal modern government, the Libyan, Yemeni, Iraqi and most recently Syrian governments do not control their own national territory—just some of it—and what they do control tends to fluctuate with circumstances. One way to think of this, if you like a metaphor, is that the sovereignty of a weak state resembles a colander rather than a pot with an impermeable bottom. It may hold the bulk of what falls into it, but rather a lot slips through the slots.
And then there is Syria. The common knowledge as of today is that Syria is on the verge of full-scale civil war, by which I think people mean a fully militarized politics. The evidence of this is supposedly the use of Russian-supplied helicopter gunships that the regime has now used against civilian populations. Neither one of these developments is new as such. Syria has been on the verge for some months now, really ever since the Saudis, Qataris and others made efforts to level the playing field by supplying weapons to the opposition. And the helicopters are not newly delivered; they’ve been there a long time. So for the Secretary of State to talk like the use of the helicopters is a novel Russian-caused innovation in the conflict is nonsense. The Russians have been supplying the Assad regime with weapons for use against civilian populations for many months, and until yesterday she said nothing about it.
Speaking of nonsense from the Secretary of State, the entire policy that she has been advocating amounts to nonsense. As of yesterday, at least, Mrs. Clinton still believes in the possibility of a managed transition in Syria, one in which Assad would step down at Russian behest but the administrative core of the regime would remain. She apparently believes as well that if such a managed transition could be arranged that the violence in the country would stop. That might’ve been the case two or three months ago, but it is the case no longer. It is nonsense, based on ignorance, to believe that the Syrian regime could long persist in any form without the Assad clan. Is nonsense to believe that, after all of the massacres and the mutual arming of the sides, that a political announcement is going to stop the fighting. And it is beyond nonsense, all the way to surreal, for the Secretary of State to depend on Russia to save the situation in a way that directly opposes Russia’s own manifest interests, on the one hand, while berating the Russians for supplying arms to Assad on the other. That’s like depending on the services of Monica Lewinski as a marriage counselor.
One at least has to acknowledge continuity here. Just a few years ago, in the Bush Administration, some senior officials apparently believed that it was okay to beseech the Russians to help us in Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere while feeling no compunction against publicly kicking them in the teeth at the very same time over a range of other issues, not to exclude human rights concerns in their own country. Now we’re doing it again, only this time what we want from Russia and what we condemn it for are conjoined in the very same issue: Syria. This is not progress. It is diplomatic malpractice. And it is embarrassing.
It would of course be unfair to blame the Secretary of State for all this. The Secretary of State serves at the pleasure of the President, and as anyone who’s ever worked in the upper reaches of the Executive Branch knows, it is the President’s policy because he is the one who got elected in our democracy. Therefore, ultimately, screwups like this are the President’s responsibility. So why has Barack Obama fathered such surreality and nonsense concerning Syria?
I continue to believe that narrow political considerations are at work here: No dust must fly before November. But, to be fair, Syria is a difficult problem, especially when it is complicated by misconceptions about Iran. The Administration has managed to persuade itself that a deal with Iran that would essentially solve the problem of Iranian nuclear ambitions is possible. It thinks sanctions have softened Iranian resolve. In my view, this is wishful thinking. The Iranian regime is no more likely to trade away what it thinks of as a strategic trump-in-the-hole than the North Korean regime ever was—and it never was. But if you allow wishful thinking to colonize policy, then it stands to reason that a bold approach toward Syria is ruled out: One should not expect Iran to make concessions on its nuclear program while the United States and its allies are actively taking down its only state ally. So it is, possibly, the illusion of a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran that partly explains the Administration’s passivity throughout the Syria crisis. At the very least, this is an illusion that has reinforced a reluctance that stands on other grounds.
This way of thinking, of course, has had it exactly backwards. If the United States could have helped engineer the fall of the Assad regime, that success could have been deployed against Iran to good purpose. I don’t think it would have produced Iranian surrender, as it were, on the nuclear issue. But it certainly would have made a diplomatically useful impression.
Finally for now, what should we do about Syria? Some months ago, I believe, it was still possible to short-circuit what was even then looking like the on-ramp to a civil war. Dramatic pressure in the form of an ever so slightly disguised Turkish intervention backed by the United States and NATO could have triggered the necessary coup. Now, as I have noted in previous posts, it is too late. Syrian politics are fully militarized, and the mutual fear and hatred of the various communities has taken on a hideous life of its own. The longer this has gone on the more radicalized all sides have become, making it inevitable that atrocities will occur on all sides (if they have not already), and that shaping and controlling any desirable outcome from afar will be well nigh impossible.
What we should do, therefore, is to think through the implications of a full-scale and protracted civil war in Syria. It will affect Lebanon. It will affect Palestinians in Syria and hence Palestinians elsewhere. It will therefore affect Israel and Jordan. It may affect Kurdish radicalism. It may afford a new staging ground for jihadi terrorism. It will probably inflame sectarian conflict in the region, and it will make the Iranian regime even more unpopular among Sunni Arabs than it already is. It will do nothing for Russia’s reputation in the region, and China’s as well. We need to be in broad damage limitation mode, anticipating negative fallout and acting preemptorily with allies and friends to stanch it. That will be a tall order for the next few months, even if revolution 2.0 does not break out next week in Egypt. Which it might.
Update: After finishing this post at around 5 p.m., June 13, I knew that the morning papers would provide more of the same but also something new. I was not disappointed. Today’s New York Times headline confirms my contention above that the helicopters the Syrian regime has been using in recent days are not newly delivered Russian platforms. So say Department of Defense spokesmen.
More important, today’s papers carry news of a new decree issued yesterday by the Egyptian Justice Ministry giving military police and intelligence officers the right to detain civilians without charge on a range of behavior. The regime is preparing for post-election rioting. The Washington Post’s headline, however, is deeply oblivious to Egyptian realities. It reads, “Egypt’s military is given power to detain civilians.” Notice the passive voice construction, indicative, as usual, of either logical fraud or thorough confusion. No one gave the Egyptian military anything. The Egyptian military controls the Justice Ministry—there is no independent judiciary in Egypt. The Justice Ministry in Egypt is the Charlie McCarthy to the military government’s Edgar Bergen.
The meaning of this edict, coming not long after the formal lifting of Egypt’s notorious emergency law, is the selective reinstitution of that law. The parliament can complain all it wants; there is nothing it can do about it. The military is preparing the country, step by step, for the return of pre-Tahrir Square Egypt. If Shafik does not actually win the election on Saturday, I would not put it past the regime to steal the election for him, and if the MB dares take umbrage, to break some Islamist bones to show who is boss. In due course, Shafik will be welcome to visit Washington.