July 3, 2013 11:53AM

Egypt’s Transition: The Generals Take Over

Following its 48-hour ultimatum, it is expected that the Egyptian military will proceed any moment with its plan to suspend the constitution, dissolve the parliament, and put in place an interim caretaker government. The reported travel ban imposed on President Mohamed Morsi and other Muslim Brotherhood officials seems only a first step.

President Morsi has been a bad leader and it will be heartening to see him go. Still, even if the transfer of power is peaceful, the military solution is a bad one. One hopes that the events lead U.S. policymakers to reconsider their commitment to Egypt’s military--after all,  American military aid, currently amounting to about $1.3 billion annually, has propped-up the growth of Egypt’s bloated military complex, which might currently control up to 40 percent of the country’s economy.

Most importantly, the military acting as a deus ex machina whenever things take a bad turn sets a terrible precedent for the future of the Egyptian democracy. To whom will the future democratically elected leaders of the country be accountable--voters or the generals?

And even if it is only temporary, a rule by the military--or rule by an interim caretaking government--will inexorably lead to reform paralysis. For months after February 2011, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was effectively running the country, without any remotely impressive results. The country is in a dire economic situation, requiring an urgent fiscal adjustment and deep structural reforms. Neither the military nor the interim government will have the mandate to pursue such reforms. Even if adopted, economic measures introduced without a popular mandate will be easily reversible.

While unsavory and inept, the presidency of Mr. Morsi and the government of Prime Minister Hisham Qandil had at least some claim to democratic legitimacy. An overhaul of the country’s constitutional order--which is what the military is effectively doing--means a return to the situation two years ago. A continuation of the constitutional status quo, however unsatisfying but perfectible through the democratic process, is almost certainly preferable to yet another convoluted discussion about the country’s constitution under the auspices of an opaque military.

A general lesson from post-communist transitions is that countries in which the political elites were able to make credible commitments to pro-market reforms and limited government early-on fared much better than those that became trapped in protracted power struggles. Egypt now risks ending up in the latter category.

It is a disappointment that Egypt’s political crisis is unlikely to result in a cross-party agreement to shorten Mr. Morsi's mandate, bring forward the presidential and Shura elections, and set a firm date for the election to the Lower House. A second big-bang political and constitutional change since 2011, overseen by the SCAF, heralds prolonged instability and government dysfunction. It is unlikely that the Egyptians can afford it.

July 1, 2013 11:26AM

Whither Egypt?

On Sunday, one year since President Morsi’s arrival in office, Egypt saw what might have been the largest protests in the history of the country. The anti-Morsi ‘Rebel’ campaign claims they have collected over 22 million signatures asking for his departure, and they are asking the Egyptian head of state to resign by 5 p.m. tomorrow.

The current events were predictable. There was a long build-up of popular dissatisfaction with the direction Mr. Morsi and his Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) had taken the country. Little has been done to reduce the deficit, restore robust growth and tackle the country’s debilitating subsidy problem. To the extent to which the events of the Arab Spring were driven by people’s desire to access economic opportunity, Mr. Morsi’s presidency has been a lost year.

Politically, Mr. Morsi’s presidency has been marked with a disdain for civil society, and few signs of a genuine commitment to limited, constitutional, and democratic political order. So is it time for Mr. Morsi to go, as many in Egypt seem to believe?

Though we may agree that Mr. Morsi is an inept leader, what are the alternatives to the continuation of his presidency? Given the severity of the country’s economic problems, and the existing political uncertainty, a protracted transition – with a likely involvement of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces – might be even worse than the status quo. The journalist Farah H. Hope, who runs the blog Rebel Economy, says:

While politically his exit may be required by the millions who want him out, economically, the last thing Egypt needs is another period of chaos, uncertainty and confusion. Investors and Egyptians alike are looking for rule of law and order, not another limbo period.

However that may be, Mr. Morsi’s political mandate is tenuous. If he goes, it is imperative that the transition is orderly and planned. Setting a firm early date of the parliamentary election – which has already been postponed – would be a good place to start, accompanied by a broad agreement to shorten Mr. Morsi’s presidency and convene an early presidential election.

Although it looks like Egypt is quickly running out of good options, it may well be that the current unrest is exactly the impetus needed for political elites to start addressing the country’s economic problems. The sooner we see credible reformers fixing the country’s public finance problem and removing barriers to trade, entrepreneurship and innovation, the better.

December 10, 2012 3:23PM

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.

September 12, 2012 1:51PM

The Deadly Violence, Protests in Libya, Egypt

Virulent identity politics are swirling across post-revolutionary North Africa, as seen on full display in Libya and Egypt. Some reports now point to a pro-al Qaeda group or other extremist elements as responsible for the attack in Libya, planned in advance and unrelated to the anti-Islam video. The protestors in Libya may have been acting separately. There are still many unknown details.

But the idea that a derogatory and clownish internet video justifies mob violence or murder can only be described as barbaric.

The U.S. government should make crystal clear to its Libyan and Egyptian counterparts that if they wish to have any relationship, let alone a functional relationship, with the United States in the future, we expect the perpetrators of these acts to be brought to justice swiftly and for sufficient measures to be undertaken to ensure they cannot be repeated. Apologies are not enough.

For its part, the United States needs to figure out what went wrong in terms of operational security, and how the U.S. ambassador to Libya was killed and the Cairo embassy overrun. The past 10 years have blurred the line between warfighters and diplomats, but this experience is a reminder that the two are still distinct.

Finally, although their rights to free speech are sacrosanct and must be defended by all means possible, the filmmakers ought to consider the dangerous game that they are playing. The filmmaker's statement to the Wall Street Journal that he raised $5 million from 100 Jewish donors to make the film threatens to fuel hatred, and a consultant to the film's admission that "we went into this knowing this was probably going to happen" are both cold comfort to the deceased's families and reminders that possession of a right is not an argument for the prudence of every possible exercise of that right.

The United States is a free society in which free speech is respected, but not every American enjoys every exercise of that right. The work of Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe infuriated and offended millions of Americans, but the right to free speech was protected and survived. One hopes that this standard can be reached by the citizens and governments of Libya and Egypt soon.

June 20, 2012 2:45PM

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.

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February 2, 2012 3:55PM

Egypt’s Arab Spring, One Year Later

As many expected, Islamist parties will form a dominant majority in Egypt’s first freely elected parliament. The Islamists are here to stay and fear-mongering over their rise is unproductive, since Egyptians will judge for themselves whether Islamists are delivering on their promises. Moreover, understanding the dynamics that brought religious parties to power should be the real goal, and will ultimately prove more useful to those engaging this nascent democracy.

The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of Egypt’s underground religious fraternity, the Muslim Brotherhood, won almost half the seats in parliament. The al-Nour Party and the Islamist Alliance, a coalition of puritanical Salafist parties more conservative than the Brotherhood, came in second with 25 percent of the vote. Combined, Islamists have taken about two-thirds of the seats in the new assembly. If placed on a generic right-left political spectrum, Salafis and other arch-conservatives would be on the far right, socialists and non-Islamists would be on the far left, and the liberal and moderate nationalist parties like al-Wafd would fall somewhere in the middle alongside the right-of-center Muslim Brotherhood. The movement advocates the system of a ceremonial president overseeing foreign policy and a prime minister in control of domestic affairs. It decided not to field a candidate for the presidency.

Egyptians in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular prefer stability and economic growth to waging jihad. On the one hand the Brotherhood vows to never recognize Israel, on the other its deputy chairman recently claimed, “We have announced clearly that we as Egyptians will abide by the commitments made by the Egyptian government…They are all linked to institutions and not individuals.” On war, renowned French social scientist Olivier Roy explains that Egypt’s religious parties are constrained by democratic mechanisms that hold the people’s legitimacy:

The “Islamic” electorate in Egypt today is not revolutionary; it is conservative. It wants order. It wants leaders who will kick-start the economy and affirm conventional religious values, but it is not ready for the great adventure of a caliphate or an Islamic republic. And the Muslim Brotherhood knows this.

Elements of the 1978 Camp David Accords are in dispute, but such changes will not lead ineluctably to war. The more interesting questions about the rise of Egypt’s Islamists lie in the domestic arena: Will the Brotherhood make good pluralists? Will religious liberty be deemed apostasy or an individual human right? Will a body of Islamic scholars be established to arbitrate Sharia law? Part of the problem is that the Brotherhood members talk a good game about the principles of “liberty and equalityand economic freedom, but they are also smooth political operators. They have repeatedly down-played their popularity to avoid frightening Egypt’s liberals and foreign observers. In fact, knowing that Turkey—not Iran—is the republican system that many in Egypt want to emulate, the Brotherhood ran a campaign claiming that their party was the Turkish model. It’s not. Al-Wasat, a Turkish-style Brotherhood-offshoot, is “the most moderate on the Islamist spectrum,” observes my friend and former colleague Omar Hossino, who studies Egypt and hails from Syria.  Al-Wasat got 2% (9 seats) of the vote.

So, what’s next?

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October 31, 2011 4:07PM

Of Qaddafi and Kim Kardashian

Last week on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, President Obama discussed the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, the 2012 Republican presidential field, and ubiquitous Hollywood socialite, Kim Kardashian. But the conversation got really interesting when it veered to the recent intervention in Libya.

Obama said that with the arrival of the Arab Spring, the late Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi had an opportunity “to finally loosen his grip on power and peacefully transition to democracy. We gave him ample opportunity and he wouldn’t do it.” On the former leader’s killing, Obama said, “There’s a reason after [Osama] bin Laden was killed, for example, we didn’t release the photograph. I think that there’s a certain decorum with which you treat the dead even if it’s somebody who’s done terrible things.”

Hmmm, decorum. To some in the Beltway it may seem tired and trite to hear that U.S. foreign policy is flagrantly hypocritical when it comes to the subject of human rights. But it’s nonetheless noteworthy to hear prominent American leaders openly advocate intervening abroad in places like Libya in advance of the universal human aspiration to be free while continuing to support Middle East client states that repress their own people. Sadly, President Obama and other American leaders, especially in the wake of the momentous Arab Spring, are often perceived as liberty’s worst emissaries.

For numerous strategic and historical reasons, no American government has intervened militarily in countries such as Algeria, Jordan, or Yemen in defense of human rights. In Saudi Arabia, a long-time U.S. partner, homosexuals, apostates, and drug smugglers can be sentenced to execution, sometimes by beheading. In extreme cases, the convict’s body is crucified in public. And yet, the same U.S. government that offers unflinching support to the Saudi Kingdom led from behind for an intervention in Libya to stop an alleged massacre in Benghazi. In neighboring Egypt, meanwhile, for 29 years the U.S. government showered former President Hosni Mubarak with praise, despite his widespread use of torture and systematic repression of political prisoners. Washington also continues to support and arm the regime in Bahrain, which deliberately kills unarmed protesters and oppresses its people.

To promote human rights in Libya while supporting some of the world’s most heinous tyrannies may reflect America’s geopolitical preferences, but it makes a mockery of human rights and reveals an enormous discrepancy between what America claims to be doing and what it actually does. As much as Obama and his defenders want to strut around and promote their triumph over Moammar Qaddafi, people in the Middle East and around the world are well aware of this discrepancy. Such policies are not only abhorrent but also detrimental to America’s long-term interests. Advancing liberty is a painful and arduous process, but it can be done, and often independent of U.S. government efforts.

Cross-Posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.