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.
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.
Officials in London are looking everywhere but the mirror for places to affix blame for the recent riots. Beyond the immediate‐term answer, individual rioters themselves, the target of choice seems to be “social media.” Prime Minister David Cameron is considering banning Facebook, Twitter, and Blackberry Messenger to disable people from organizing themselves or reporting the locations and activity of the police.
Nevermind substantive grievance. Nevermind speech rights. We’ve got scapegoats to find!
[Events like this are nothing but a vessel into which analysts pour their ideological preconceptions, so here’s a sip of mine: Just like a spoiled child doesn’t grow up to be a gracious and kind adult, a population sugar‐fed on entitlements doesn’t become a meek and thankful underclass. Also: people don’t like it when the police kill unarmed citizens. Which brings us to some domestic U.S. ineptitude…]
Two‐and‐a‐half years ago, a (San Francisco) Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer shot and killed an unarmed man on a station platform in full view of a train full of riders (video). Sentenced to just two years for involuntary manslaughter, he was paroled in June. This week, upon learning of planned protests of the killing that may have disrupted service, BART officials cut off cell phone service in select stations, hoping to thwart the demonstrators.
[Update: A correspondent notes that the BART protest was in relation to another, more recent killing.]
The Electronic Frontier Foundation rightly criticized the tactic in a post called “BART Pulls a Mubarak in San Francisco.” It’s the same technique that deposed Eqyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak used to try to prevent the uprising that toppled him.
What’s true in Egypt is true in the U.K. is true in the United States. People will use the new communications infrastructures—cell phone networks, social media platforms, and such—to express grievance and to organize.
Western government officials may think that our lands are an idyll compared to the exotic savagery of the Middle East. In fact, we have people being killed by inept law enforcement in the U.S. and the U.K. just like they have people being killed by government thugs in the Middle East. What seems like a difference in kind is a difference in degree—and it’s no difference at all to the dead.
Among the prescriptions that flow from the London riots and BART’s communications censorship are the intense need for greater professionalism and reform of police practices. Wrongful killings precipitate (rightful) protest and (wrongful) violence and looting. Public policies in the area of entitlements and immigration that deny people a stake in their societies need a serious reassessment.
But we also need to keep in mind the propensity of government officials—in all governments—to seek control of communications infrastructure when it serves their goals. From the perspective of the free‐speaking citizen, centralization of communications infrastructure is a key weakness. It gives fearful government authorities a place to go when they want to attack the public’s ability to organize and speak.
The Internet itself is a distributed, packet‐switched network that generally resists censorship and manipulation. Internet service, however, is relatively centralized, with a small number of providers giving most Americans the bulk of their access. In the name of “net neutrality,” the U.S. government is working to bring Internet service providers under a regulatory umbrella that it could later use for censorship or protest suppression. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter are also relatively centralized. It is an important security to have many of them, and to have them insulated from government control. The best insulation is full decentralization, which is why I’m interested in the work of the Freedom Box Foundation and open source social networks like Diaspora.
The history of communications freedom is still being written. Here’s to hoping that “a Mubarak” is always a failure to control people through their access to media.
Hosni Mubarak’s decision to step down as president of Egypt is welcome news. He could have taken a cue from Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, resigning quickly in the face of overwhelming popular opposition. Such a move on Mubarak’s part would have avoided much of the confusion that has gripped Egypt for more than two weeks. At least 300 people have been killed during the protests, but thankfully Mubarak’s exit was achieved without even more bloodshed.
These protests were driven by popular discontent with Mubarak, rising food prices, rampant corruption, and limited political and economic opportunity. The Obama administration generally resisted calls to place the United States in the middle of what was a purely internal matter.
Those who called for a heavy‐handed U.S. role in this whole affair—many of them the same people who have called for U.S. intervention in dozens of other places over the the past few decades—have been proven wrong once again. While the ideas of liberty are universal, the spark for change, and the energy that carries it forward, must come from within. The Egyptian people started this, and the Egyptian people should finish it.
Today POLITICO Arena asks:
At his press conference this afternoon, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs distanced the Obama administration from former Egypt envoy Frank Wisner’s suggestion over the weekend that Hosni Mubarak should stay in power as Egypt transitions to a new government. Was Wisner, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt, right about that and about the potential for a power vacuum?
Wisner was half right, but on the Mubarak half he was almost certainly wrong. Transitions are messy — at best. Ask the French about theirs two centuries and more ago. Occasionally they’re done pursuant to existing constitutions. Ours from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution wasn’t, despite which it wasn’t all that messy. We were lucky. We had a relatively healthy culture and strong leaders, even if the early years were often touch and go, as we sometimes forget.
It appears, from press accounts, that the current Egyptian constitution does not provide for the kind of transition that many would like to see. If so, then extra‐constitutional measures will need to be taken, including perhaps the drafting and ratification of a new or at least an interim constitution, or more likely some less formal arrangement through which interim authority can be brought into being with a semblance of legitimacy about it — whether a new government or a new constitution and ratification process. A simple call for elections is too simple: by whom, under what procedures, to fill what offices, in what institutions?
All of this is where politics in its most elemental form comes to the fore, for better or worse, as the French saw to their horror. It’s the ultimate test of a culture. So Wisner was right about “the potential for a power vacuum” — although in Egypt the army is likely to fill that vacuum — and in recognizing that a vacuum should be avoided, if possible. But he was likely wrong to suggest that Mubarak should fill that vacuum or serve as a transitional figure since it appears that he no longer has the credibility to do so. Ideally, leaders with credibility need to emerge, and soon.
The turmoil in Egypt, specifically in Cairo, turned violent in the past 36 hours as anti‐government protesters clashed with pro‐Mubarak groups. During this period, and specifically today, the government crackdown widened to targeting foreign media. Journalists and their crews were arrested, prevented from reporting, and beaten. The anti‐government protesters are pointing to Friday as a possible climax in what they are calling the “Friday of departure.”
President Mubarak, in an interview with ABC, said he would like to relinquish power now, but claims chaos will erupt if he did. If he were to step down, or if he follows through on his promise not to run in the presidential election, the million dollar question in Washington becomes: who would the United States like to see as the new leader of Egypt? And should Washington act to influence the outcome?
Over at The Skeptics, I address this by asking: Might it be better if the United States were to avoid micromanaging Egyptian politics altogether? Whenever a crisis erupts in the world, policymakers usually approach the problem with the premise that Washington has to “do something.” But must that include anointing another leader?
…Washington’s “do something” impulse seems to be overpowering common sense. Having backed the wrong person for too long, there is now a countervailing urge to correct our past error by backing the “right” person this time around.
I have a different idea. We should step back and consider that our close relationship with Mubarak over the years created a vicious cycle, one that inclined us to cling tighter and tighter to him as opposition to him grew. And as the relationship deepened, U.S. policy seems to have become nearly paralyzed by the fear that the building anger at Mubarak’s regime would inevitably be directed at us.
We can’t undo our past policies of cozying up to foreign autocrats (the problem extends well beyond Egypt) over the years. And we won’t make things right by simply shifting — or doubling or tripling — U.S. foreign aid to a new leader. We should instead be open to the idea that an arms‐length relationship might be the best one of all.
Click here to read the entire post.
Overall, President Obama was right to applaud the Egyptian military for defending (at least for now) rather than killing Egyptian civilians, potentially avoiding the Arab world’s Tienanmen Square. Whether Obama’s rhetoric could have been more supportive, as we saw with Tunisia, is up for debate. But it appears that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s attempt to shape an orderly transition is running into trouble.
The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer reports that Mubarak’s recently appointed Vice President, Omar Suleiman, was “the C.I.A.’s point man in Egypt for renditions—the covert program in which the C.I.A. snatched terror suspects from around the world and returned them to Egypt and elsewhere for interrogation, often under brutal circumstances.” Suleiman used to be head of the Intelligence Services (al‐mukhabarat).
According to U.C.S.B. Professor Paul Amar, the mukhabarat, which detains and tortures foreigners more than Egyptians, is less hated than the Interior Ministry’s State Security Investigations (SSI) (mabahith amn al‐dawla), and different than the Central Security Services (Amn al‐Markazi), “the black uniformed, helmeted men that the media refer to as ‘the police.’” Mayer reports that Suleiman Suleiman was also the C.I.A.’s liaison for the rendition of al Qaeda suspect Ibn Sheikh al‐Libi. “The Libi case,” Mayer reports, “is particularly controversial, in large part because it played a role in the building of the case for the American invasion of Iraq.”
How ironic that America’s attempt to export democracy to Iraq was aided by a repressive government like Egypt’s.