Tag: muslim brotherhood

How Political Repression Breeds Islamic Radicalism

Following the decision upholding numerous death penalties for Muslim Brotherhood members accused of a 2013 attack on a police station, Egypt has recently seen the conclusion of another sham trial, resulting in harsh sentences for three al-Jazeera journalists, accused of aiding terrorists.

While it is obvious that trials like these move Egypt further away from freedom, could they also be inadvertently helping Islamic radicals? My new development bulletin argues that political repression of the kind we are seeing in Egypt creates incentives for Islamists to use violence in order to attain their goals.

Iraq, where ISIS is making continual progress fighting the government of Nouri al-Maliki, is an extreme example of where things can end when political elites exclude a significant part of the population from democratic politics. Al-Maliki’s premiership has been marked by a strengthening of his own hold to power, progressively alienating the country’s Sunni population.

My paper argues that the electoral successes of Islamists in Arab Spring countries have relatively little to do with religion but rather with the organizational characteristics of Islamic political groups, which were typically active in the provision of local public goods and social services. Instead of seeing the rise of Islamic political organizations as a pathology that needs to be countered – possibly through repressive means – we should note that,

[I]n transitional environments, the electoral success of Islamists is a natural result of the political environment, which can be mitigated only by an increase in the credibility of alternative political groups. The electoral advantage enjoyed by Islamic parties can be expected to dissipate over time as competing political groups establish channels of communication, promise verification for their voters, and build reputation over time.

Furthermore,

There is no denying that religion and politics do not always mix well. However, the appropriate answer to the ugly side of religious politics is not political repression of the kind we are seeing in Egypt but rather open, competitive democratic politics.

Suspending Egypt’s Military Aid: Too Little, Too Late

Three months since the military coup in Egypt, U.S. military aid to the country is being reconsidered. It appears that the administration will

withhold the delivery of several big-ticket items, including Apache attack helicopters, Harpoon missiles, M1-A1 tank parts and F-16 warplanes, as well as $260 million for the general Egyptian budget.

The details of the freeze have not been disclosed. But after its refusal to call the events in Egypt a coup and a half-hearted cancellation of joint military exercises scheduled for September, this is certainly a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, it is too small and too equivocal as the administration is stressing that it wants to keep a door open to restore the aid in its entirety. More importantly, the announcement comes too late to make a meaningful difference to Egyptians.

Why all the reluctance? For years, Americans were told that aid to Egypt was a mechanism that gave the U.S. government leverage over developments in the most populous Arab country. The only sense in which that has worked is that aid has helped to deeply entrench authoritarian rule in the country. Egypt’s military has slowly built an opaque economic empire and a network of patronage with very little accountability. And even if one believes that a strong military and an autocratic secular state is what it takes to save Egypt from becoming a theocracy, there is nothing for Americans to gain from being complicit in the process and in everything that might possibly go wrong.

Indeed, many things have already gone wrong. The bloody aftermath of the coup might be just a foretaste of more violence looming on the horizon. Following the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt has seen a rise in Islamic radicalization, especially in the Sinai. In the meantime, the secular government has shown itself no more capable of tackling the country’s numerous economic challenges than the thoroughly inept cabinet of Hisham Qandil. And as American money keeps flowing in, ordinary Egyptians will keep blaming the United States for the rebirth of the militarized authoritarian state in their country and for its ugly repercussions.

The Ban on Muslim Brotherhood Will Backfire

With today’s ruling by the ‘Cairo Court for Urgent Matters’, banning the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood and ordering a confiscation of its assets by the government, the Egyptian regime is taking the crackdown against its political opponents to the next level. While it is unclear what the decision means for the future of the Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, the government has committed itself to disbanding an organization which counts between 300,000 and 1 million members and which has been in existence since 1928.

That is unlikely to work. The Brotherhood was banned during Nasser’s presidency. In Syria, Brotherhood membership was a capital offence between 1980 and 2011. If anything, these and similar bans strengthened the organization’s narrative of victimhood and enabled it to reemerge strengthened and relying on broader popular support. In a recent paper, I show that the electoral success of the Muslim Brotherhood in the aftermath of Arab Spring was foreseeable and resulted from the fact that the group had been actively involved in the provision of social services, particularly to poorer segments of the Egyptian population, and possessed a well-recognized brand name. Over time, this electoral advantage would have dissipated, particularly as the Brethren proved to be rather inept policymakers.

Alas, with the crackdown on the organization, the current leadership of the country seems to be determined to drive the organization underground and to radicalize it. At this moment, Alan Krueger’s characterization of terrorism sounds as an ominous warning of what is to come unless the Egyptian military relinquishes its grip to power:

[t]errorists and their organizations seek to make a political statement; terrorists arise when there are severe political grievances with no alternatives for pursing those grievances.

Egypt’s Fall Down the Dark Hole

The ongoing events in Egypt are an unspeakable human tragedy. With yesterday’s death toll of 525 and rising violence in major Egyptian cities, the chances of a return towards anything resembling normalcy are very slim. The Muslim Brotherhood deserves a significant portion of the blame-–mostly for its complete failure in governing the country prior to the coup and also because their willful effort to be seen as martyrs in the aftermath of the military takeover. However, it is the military junta running the country that is now the single biggest factor driving the country towards a catastrophe.

The fact that the military has shut down the normal political process and proceeded with an extensive crackdown both against the leadership of the Brotherhood and its supporters, has created incentives for the rise in politically motivated violence and, potentially, terrorism. Princeton University economist Alan Krueger–author of What Makes A Terrorist, a book investigating the factors fostering political violence and terrorism–argued that

[t]errorists and their organisations seek to make a political statement; terrorists arise when there are severe political grievances with no alternatives for pursing those grievances.

This account describes perfectly the escalation of violence in Egypt after the military coup. Unfortunately, it is not clear that there is an easy way back. Ideally, one would hope that the Egyptian secular liberals engage with the Brotherhood, that the military relinquish its hold to power, lift the curfew, and renounce further repression, and that the Brotherhood and its various factions steer away from violence. Yet the probability of the simultaneous occurrence of all these events is rather small.

It is important to stress that the West has been complicit in the build-up of the current situation. Without a continual inflow of US military assistance (roughly $70 billion since the country’s independence), the Egyptian military would have hardly grown to be the unaccountable and opaque organization it is, controlling a large part of the Egyptian economy and effectively calling the shots in Egypt’s politics.

Alas, the behavior of Western policymakers in the aftermath of the coup has been equally embarrassing – notwithstanding the cancellation of joint military exercises with Egypt that President Obama announced today. Douglas Carswell, a member of the UK’s House of Commons, wrote an excellent blog post on the subject yesterday. He concludes by saying that

[b]y equivocating about the overthrow of Morsi (the US State Department won’t even call it a coup), Western governments seem to be doing all they can to validate the Brotherhood’s script. The more that we buddy up to the generals in Cairo, the further we legitimise the world view of people like Morsi.

Where is the principled opposition to military takeovers in London and Washington? Where is the condemnation of the treatment of Egypt’s democratically elected leader?  Where is the loud, and uncompromising condemnation of this morning’s killings?

Perhaps this is what happens when we leave it to career diplomats to determine foreign policy.  Equivocation and drift.  It does not do us – or Egypt – any favours.

Is Egypt Molded in Pakistan’s Image?

Last year, in a piece for AOL News titled “Will Egypt Follow Pakistan’s Troubled Path?” I warned that U.S. policymakers must be careful of whatever government follows ousted Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak by not repeating the mistake of giving lavish material support to a distasteful regime, as America did with Pakistan’s General-President, Pervez Musharraf. I had argued that the ample generosity of American taxpayers—in the form of lavish military and economic aid—to a foreign dictator’s all-powerful military hardly produces the desired outcomes, and results in a military that is further entrenched and able to ignore the popular demands of its people.

Sadly, that scenario is playing out in Egypt. An editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal picks up on my point from last year, stating, “the result may be a state that is less an Islamist-tinged democracy a la Turkey and more a military-Islamist condominium akin to unstable Pakistan.”

Indeed. The political turmoil in Egypt took yet another disappointing turn yesterday when its Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, decreed that the military will assume responsibility for security during the country’s constitutional referendum, to take place on December 15. Amid protests against the referendum on a constitution hurried through an Islamist-dominated assembly, Morsi made his decrees immune from judicial review and gave the military the power to arrest civilians. As the Journal explains, the Egyptian military is the most powerful institution in the country and has its own reasons—such as maintaining de facto control over much of the economy—for keeping the status quo.

As for America’s role in this unfolding controversy, the Washington Post’s David Ignatius writes today:

The [Obama] administration’s rejoinder is that this isn’t about America. Egyptians and other Arabs are writing their history now, and they will have to live with the consequences…[B]ut it’s crazy for Washington to appear to take sides against those who want a liberal, tolerant Egypt and for those who favor sharia. Somehow, that’s where the administration has ended up.

Oddly enough, as Ignatius suggests, claiming that “this isn’t about America” is disingenuous. After all, America’s Egypt policy continues to tip the scale on both sides: it backs Egypt’s liberal protesters and the authoritarian government that oppresses them. The world is standing witness to a head-on collision between the Bush freedom agenda and the Cold War relic of U.S. grand strategy in the Middle East, as foreign policy planners in Washington pay lip service to principles of self-determination and political emancipation while simultaneously assisting authoritarian leaders who suppress the popular demands of their people.

In the end, while what is happening in Egypt is unfortunate, come what may. The best way to discredit Islamists is to let their record speak for itself. Egypt’s new Muslim Brotherhood President should be allowed to fail on his own terms. The Egyptian people voted to bring Islamists to power and it was their prerogative to do so. If Washington truly wants to leave Cairo’s future “to the Egyptian people,” then it should do so by phasing out aid to Egypt completely.

Whither the Assad Regime?

The bombing of Syria’s national security headquarters, which killed key figures in the government, is evidence of expanding instability, but not of a regime on the verge of collapse. The attack and others like it have not significantly altered the Syrian uprising’s most enduring challenge: the inability of its fragmented opposition to congeal. This challenge, coupled with the rebellion’s lack of an inclusive vision for Syria’s minorities, and the troubling developments today, should give proponents of intervention pause.

America, Russia, Turkey, and the Gulf Arab states have all called on Syria’s fractured opposition to unify. A commitment to inclusion today could break down tomorrow, and such divisions could set the stage for an even bloodier ethno-sectarian civil war in a post-Assad Syria. Discord persists despite rebel attacks on regime officials and security forces. In fact, conflicting reports about the most recent bombing in Damascus—whether it was carried out by the Free Syrian Army, which claimed responsibility, or a cabinet member’s personal bodyguard—points to the difficulty of discerning the exact nature of the opposition.

Islamists, for instance, seem intent on hijacking the struggle for a democratic Syria. In May, the Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung and Liz Sly reported that despite U.S. hopes that minorities would unite under the Sunni-led Syrian National Congress, Syria’s Christians, Kurds, Druze, and Alawite sect, “All have resisted what they say is the group’s domination by the Muslim Brotherhood.”

That same month, Pentagon spokesperson Navy Captain John Kirby told reporters that defense officials believe “al-Qaida has some presence inside Syria and interest in fomenting violence in Syria.” He added, “We do not believe they share the goals of the Syrian opposition or that they are even embraced by the opposition … The sense that we get is that it is primarily members of [al-Qaida in Iraq] that are migrating into Syria.”

Similarly, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned earlier this year that al Qaeda-aligned forces coming from neighboring Iraq—a country that the United States occupied for nearly a decade—had carried out explosions in Damascus:

The two bombings in Damascus in December … and then the two additional bombings in Aleppo, both of which were targeted against security and intelligence buildings … had all the earmarks of an al Qaeda-like attack.  So we believe that al Qaeda in Iraq is extending its reach into Syria.

Rather than exercise restraint, the rise of Syria’s Islamists has encouraged Washington to intervene. Last month, the New York Times reported that U.S. officials had ordered a small number of C.I.A. officers to help funnel “automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some antitank weapons,” across the Turkish border through intermediaries in Syria who include the Muslim Brotherhood, all paid for by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The justification was to keep weapons out of the hands of al Qaeda-allied groups, which is not reassuring. The most infamous instance of planners in Washington assisting the arming of rebels was in the 1980s in Afghanistan—a country that years later turned into an al Qaeda sanctuary.

The Syrian opposition’s failure to unite, combined with the ascendance of Islamists and al Qaeda-linked jihadists, complicates, among other things, the Western response to the Assad regime’s continued massacre of its people. For now, these divisions will prove more damaging to the Syrian uprising than the uprising’s attacks on the regime’s iron-fist.

Egyptian Elections: Is the Revolution Over?

Before the news of Hosni Mubarak’s impending death dominated the news cycle, the real issue on Egypt was what happened in the past week. On Thursday, Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court effectively dissolved parliament. On Sunday, Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces issued a supplementary constitutional declaration that stripped the presidency of most of its power and gave itself temporary legislative authority and a strong hand in writing the country’s new constitution. Egypt’s democracy now hangs by a thread after what amounts to a de facto coup. U.S. policymakers ought to reassess Washington’s aims with Cairo and weigh the supposed value of American military and economic aid against the outcomes actually reached. Evidence suggests that U.S. aid can and should be phased out, providing Egypt the domestic political shake-up its young democracy desperately needs.

U.S. officials must consider the precise purpose of military aid programs, particularly their usefulness with respect to Egyptian-Israeli peace. Proponents of aid stand the region’s geopolitics on its head, arguing that aid dissuades Egypt’s military from initiating war against Israel. Little to no attention is paid to the fact that Washington advances interests that Egypt already has, as war with Israel would be disastrous for Egypt, aid or no.

Throughout the Cold War, Egypt and Israel fought a war nearly every decade: 1948-49, 1956, 1967, 1969, and 1973. Egypt’s military realized long ago—and more importantly, on its own accord—the hazards of its perpetual confrontation with Israel. Its adherence to the U.S.-brokered Camp David Peace Agreement of September 1978 was the culmination of lessons learned from its devastating military defeats.

Egyptian-Israeli peace is assured not by Washington’s largesse to Cairo, but by the memory of its humiliating military losses and the desperate economic conditions in Egypt. Nevertheless, Cairo continues to wage covert measures against Israel—again, despite receiving U.S. assistance. Earlier this year, pro-military fliers distributed in Egyptian taxis blamed the United States, Israel, and other foreign powers for causing the country’s crisis. In addition, under Mubarak, Israeli authorities complained that Egypt was failing to effectively control the smuggling of arms and explosives in tunnels under Egypt’s Rafah border crossing with Gaza. Other material was also being transferred by sea and above ground by smugglers with the complicity of Egyptian soldiers and officers. Israeli Security Agency director Yuval Diskin believed that Egyptian leaders lacked the will to crack down on these weapons networks because they viewed Israel as a safety valve that channeled extremists away from Egypt.

Recent tensions in the Sinai could have serious implications. As Amman-based journalist Osama Al Sharif writes:

Sinai will remain a critical point of friction between Israel and Egypt. Since the collapse of the Libyan regime, huge caches of weapons have found their way from Libya into the Sinai Peninsula. For Israel, the fact that Hamas has now access to new armaments represents a huge security challenge. It is a situation that neither Israel nor Egypt can control. The former may decide to carry out a preemptive strike against Hamas and loyal cells deep within Sinai. Such unilateral action could easily develop into a regional conflict. [Emphasis added]

Even if structural factors between Israel and Egypt do not change, and Israel retains its overwhelming military superiority, the potential for overreaction or miscalculation could spiral into conflict. Such a scenario would put U.S. officials in an embarrassing position, having supplied massive amounts of military hardware and economic assistance to both belligerents for over three decades.

Presently, Washington supports a regime in Cairo that continues to view Israel as an enemy and entrenches its power through brutality and political repression. Until recently, Cairo’s Islamist government was intent on incorporating Sharia law and cooperating (for more U.S. aid) with America. Moreover, many Egyptians—angered by lack of progress on Palestinian self-determination through the creation of an autonomous Palestinian state—are increasingly frustrated with an America that sends massive military and financial assistance to their regime (over $60 billion in military grants and economic assistance since 1975).

Decades of U.S. aid has done nothing to turn Egypt into a democracy or a market economy. Unfortunately, as made clear by the transfer of power in February 2011 from former president, Hosni Mubarak, to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Egypt has not undergone a revolution, but rather a thinly veiled attempt by the armed forces to perpetuate their six decades in power.

Months ago, the Obama administration resumed funding to Egypt, even though Congress restricted military aid until and unless the State Department could certify that Egypt progressed toward democracy, basic freedoms, and human rights. A senior Obama administration official said at the time that there would be no way to certify that all conditions were being met. Today, however, with thousands of activists being detained and tried in military courts, overwhelming evidence shows that Egypt’s military junta has not met any of the aforementioned obligations. The military, which commands an array of commercial enterprises in industries such as water, olive oil, cement, construction, hospitality, and gasoline, limited democracy to advance their narrow self-interests.

In Cairo, a freely elected civilian government will always be powerless against a deeply entrenched military. The flourishing of a secular-minded liberal democracy would of course be ideal, but guided by the belief that picking sides in the Arab world advances U.S. strategic interests, senior officials endorse a policy that in the short-term could stymie Islamists, but in the long-run discredit reformers and increase the credibility of extremist hardliners. That central paradox plagued America’s counterterrorism policy under Mubarak. As an unclassified U.S. Department of Defense report from 2004 acknowledged:

If it is one overarching goal they [Muslims] share, it is the overthrow of what Islamists call ‘apostate’ regimes: the tyrannies of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Jordan and the Gulf States…Without the U.S. these regimes could not survive. [Emphasis added]

Here, however, a caveat is needed. The Muslim world is expansive, and radicals are only a small part. As Thomas H. Kean, chair of the 9/11 Commission, said in July 2004 before the U.S. Subcommittee on National Security:

The small number of Muslims who are committed to Osama bin Laden’s version of Islam, we can’t dissuade them. We’ve got to jail them or we’ve got to kill them. That’s the bottom line. But, the large majority of Arabs and Muslims are opposed to violence, and with those people, we must encourage reform, freedom, democracy and perhaps, above everything else, opportunity. [Emphasis added]

Even as many in Washington—including this author—strongly reject the Islamists who rose to power in Cairo, it is well past time for us to step back and allow Egyptians to shape their own destiny. Egypt is deterred from attacking Israel not because of U.S. aid or love of the Jewish state, but rather because it has little prospect of gain and much to lose. If tensions erupt in the Sinai and spiral into war, that development would perhaps serve as the greatest indictment against the assumption that decades of U.S. assistance produced a sustainable peace.

Egyptians must judge for themselves whether Islamists or the military can deliver on promises of economic and political reform, especially after decades of substantial U.S. assistance has failed to live up to its aims. Sadly, it seems that given the conventional wisdom in Washington, phasing out U.S. aid to Egypt might be more difficult than phasing out Egypt’s old dictator.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.