The situation in Egypt is about to
implode. A perfect storm is gathering in the horizon, set to start on the 30th
of June, to throw the country into real and total chaos. Furthermore, it could
be already late to do something about it. Yet, and because of the high stakes
involved, trying to contain this extremely serious crisis should not be spared
until the last possible moment.
In the following paragraphs I will
explain two points. The first is the mistakes which littered the US
administration handling of the continuous slide to the 30th of June.
The second is what could be done in the remaining hours before such a storm
hits Egypt and the Middle East, and some of the consequences if it does.
If we just examine the diplomatic moves
of Ambassador Ann Paterson in Cairo in the countdown to June 30th,
hopefully the errors that shaped the US approach from early on will be clearer.
Ambassador Paterson, who is a very able
diplomat working in admittedly an exceptionally difficult and complex
situation, went to Ibn Khaldoun Center in Cairo in June 18th and
stated, in answering a question, the US situation in support for democracy,
opposition to chaos, standing by the elected government and hinted to her
disapproval of any intervention by the armed forces in the political life.
Word by word this is all fine. Except
that in an extremely polarized situation on the verge of eruption, and with the
highly charged situation, the context means a lot. The Ambassador’s statements
were distended to offend someone. In this case, it offended every one.
The military appeared in the public eye
as an entity that could receive “orders” not to interfere, which offended some
in the armed forces. The “civilian” opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB)
president Mohammed Morsi took the statement as a signal that the US opposes a
highly popular protest against the government. The Islamists were embarrassed,
with some voices rejecting what Paterson said, as it showed them to be
“protected” by the US.
What could have the Ambassador said
right to please all instead? Nothing. In similar situations the context imposes
one virtue: total silence and remaining as far as possible from the public
arena, while continuing the impossible mission of trying to solve the crisis.
Obviously, there was an abundant supply
of those who can pick on the words of the Ambassador and her ill-timed and
ill-advised appearance in Ibn Khaldoun. The Ambassador was compared with Her
Majesty’s envoy to Egypt during the British occupation. The role of the US was
compared to that of the UK in the 40’s. Political parties and personalities
were condemning the “US intervention” in Egypt’s internal affairs.
Two days later, that is on the 20th of
June, the Ambassador held a closed meeting with the de-facto ruler of Egypt
Khayrat Al Shatter (the deputy Morshed of the MB’s). The meeting took place in
Al Shatter’s office in Cairo and continued behind closed doors for more than
The meeting was undoubtedly focused on
ways to avert the expected eruption. But there was no need to hold it in front
of a population so polarized and ready to interpret any move as a conspiracy.
It was taken, as could be expected, as a sign of support to the MB not as a
sign of an elected government as the US embassy tried to explain with little
impact. The Ambassador met other representatives from different groups, but the
campaign went on.
But once again, Ambassador Paterson
faces a situation that defies sanity. As she is preparing to move back to
Washington to possibly occupy the post of Assistant Secretary of State for Near
East, the rumor in Cairo is that she is being summoned back to the US because
of her heavy handed handling of the Egyptian situation. Unfortunately for the
Ambassador, this rumor should not be denied in any manner, directly or indirectly,
for it preserves the image of the US as a neutral power in the current bitter
political fight in that country.
In such a volatile and intense
situations, perceptions form very quickly, and often erroneously, around a
gesture or a word. Stirring nationalist and anti- American sentiment among the
Egyptian public is the last thing that should happen in this moment regardless
of the validity of any argument defending the Ambassador’s moves and
statements. Public statement and high visibility is a loose – loose choice.
The second point here will touch upon
the first. What should happen to avoid a perfect storm explains in a way what
did not already happen. And the major element of that is related to the
Egyptian armed forces.
I will avoid here the temptation of
going back to the near past, that is to the armed forces rule over the country
during the transitional period that followed the 25th of January
2011 and ended a year ago. But it is enough to say that this period has cost
the military dearly and eroded a good part of its image among the population.
We witnessed during this decisive period of a little over a year the roots of a
good chunk of the current problem.
The Egyptian military recovered almost
all its losses since then. In fact, those who are aspiring to get rid of the
MBs, which is to say a majority of the population now, are looking to the army
to do the job.
But the army should not, for the time
being, interfere in this political mess. Furthermore, I belong to those who
believe that the MBs and Morsi should remain in power. This last conviction is
not based on any ideological or idealist concepts. I am definitely not a
supporter of the MBs and have never been, and I do not blindly contribute to
the parroting repetition of the already known words about the ballot box and
It is simply a question of getting
Egypt through this difficult period without adding more permanent losses, or,
to be precise, with the minimum additional scars. The Jama’a Islamyeh, a group
that terrorized Egypt during the 90’s is threatening to revive its terrorist
infrastructure if Morsi is toppled by another public revolt. This time,
however, it will be a part of a coalition that includes a wing of the Salafis,
the Jihad organization, possibly Al Qaeda with its new gained presence in North
Sinai and potentially part of the MBs themselves.
In a critical juncture of this nature
during which the security apparatus is in its worse shape in long decades, such
a risk should not be taken. Morsi is helful, provided he maintains a minimum of
a national unity. But how could this
crisis be solved?
It was obvious since last fall that the
MBs will play their role heavy handedly and even stupidly. But what kind of
leverage was used to get them to a more balanced and responsible governance?
Let us just look at the last few weeks
that marked the countdown to June 30th. The message from the US to
the Egyptian armed forces was “back off” no interference in the political
arena, that is while there was big popular pressure on the army to end the MBs
stupide governance and mishandling of the administration.
Not to interfere was in fact what the
US should have said to the armed forces. It was nor right nor helpful to push
the army to enter the ring. It still is not. However, the moment the MBs got
the word directly from Washington and in a meeting between Morsi and the
minister of defense Abdul Fatah Al Sisi during which the general assured the
president that he has no intentions to interfere, there was no more chances to
get them to compromise.
If the solution to the crisis should be
based on a political deal between the MBs and their opponents, there should be
a way to pressure the two sides into the required deal. But when the MBs were
assured that the army is on the side line, they appointed 17 Islamist governors
of a total of 27 in the country in a very provocative way to the opposition,
and just 3 weeks before June 30th.
There was no more stick. And as for the
carrot, Secretary Kerry knows better. When he visited Egypt in March and April,
he explained to the president the importance of reaching a deal between Egypt
and the IMF. The proposed loan was estimated at about 4,8 billion Dollars but
it was a condition for many countries to offer Egypt financial assistance.
The MBs took Sec Kerry’s pressure as a
sign of underestimating the popular complaints of the dire economic situation,
or worse as a push to help erode further any left popularity of the president.
The MBs rushed to Qatar, explained their difficulty, and got 5 billion Dollars
instead of the promised IMF 4,8.
Now, the stick of the army was
neutralized by Washington in the eyes of the MBs. The carrot was rendered
useless. What was left is a tongue stretching out to the US Sec of State.
It could have been way better to keep
the MBs in the dark in relation to what the army intends to do and use that as
a leverage to close the gap between the various political forces in order to
form a national unity government able to get Egypt to cross this dire strait.
It was also going to be helpful to tell the Qataris to cool down their game
that uses the MBs to counter Saudi Arabia and gain unproportional influence in
As for the pressure on the opposition,
it was going to be helpful to use the leverage of the army in the opposite
direction. That is to inform the opposition that the army will not interfere
under any circumstances to end a deadly confrontation with the Islamists. But
such a message should have been delivered before – not after – the buildup of
such a huge momentum like the one we see in Egypt now.
Currently, the opposition hardened its
position. The MBs did the same.
It may be the case on June 30th
that the army will be obliged to interfere to stop the slide to complete chaos.
It all depends on what will actually happen. If the intensity of the protests
reached a high level and sustained to a long period of time, and if it involved
violent and potentially armed confrontations between the Islamists and their
opponents, the army will come under pressure to interfere. A reluctant
leadership will encounter difficulties within the ranks of its own institution.
This leadership may even receive the green light from Washington. But that
opens scenarios that are unpleasant at best.
The armed forces leadership will face a
difficult situation. But the degree of its difficulty will be proportional to
the intensity of the popular protest. The holly month of Ramadan starts on July
10th. This may offer a way out though some people in Egypt believe
it will invite further escalation.
As for the reason of what seems to be
reckless behavior from the MBs, I should simply say that no issue has been
discussed more. It was obvious that the MBs are listening to a different drum
other than what Washington assumed. Khayrat Al Shatter seems to believe that
sooner or later, in anyway, a confrontation was going to happen with the
secular forces. He seems to believe as well that the “higher objective”, that
of regaining the glorious past of the Islamic rule requires it to be really
Islamic, not the “exchange of power” or the parliamentarian games. For the rule
to be Islamic it should start with the Islamization of the state without delay.
He also seems to believe that first the MBs are right and others are wrong, and
second that they are in power by popular support. The current decline in their
popularity is understood to be temporary and due to economic hardship. For
them, the decisive battle was imposed on them, at least in timing, and that
they must come wining.
It is said that he gave the example of
Mubarak. He said something to the effect that Mubarak gave concessions in the
last moment but this could not save him anyway; it just raised the demands of
his opponents further. Therefore, he concluded, if it is a fight they will
fight. Loss does not mean to the group more than losing a half Islamic (which
is therefore not Islamic) rule and getting back to fight for the real thing.
I am not sure that this is the correct
characterization of what the leadership of the MBs think. In one incident, they
retreated after issuing a decree that had the power of a constitution last year But so far, there must be a valid explanation
to all what seem to us as missteps and what maybe conceived by the MBS as
precisely the proper steps.
How can Egypt get through this very
difficult situation then?. It is indeed frustrating. It should come out
relatively safe. But I am not sure, at this late hour,
that it could.
However, as I mentioned previously, the
maximum pressure that the US can exert on the MBs and its opponents should be
exercised without delay. I do not know what happened in the closed meeting
between Ambassador Paterson and Khayrat in Cairo, but I hope a tough message
was delivered in order to get a political deal.
The Islamists are calling now for
Jihad, the communists for the dictatorship of the proletariat, the liberals for
a space without the MBs and the seculars for an Egypt without Islamists. This
is a prescription for a civil war.
The US government, the neocon searchers for “good” Islamists, and the R2P crowd will be responsible for that civil war if it comes. pl
Again hoping NSC staff read this blog post and PL’s comment!
Thank you very much for this analysis of misunderstanding all around.
Pat, isn’t it possible that even with optimum U.S. diplomacy, in this case, public silence and private pressure/carrots/sticks, would still leave Morsi free to think as limned above. that is, to discount army intervention and just plunge ahead with the over-reaching “higher objective” one election one time campaign leading to dictatorship or civil war in any event?
All bungling aside, did the U.S. really have as much influential diplomacy as the Qataris do cash?
This administration’s characteristic is to arrogantly challenge other parties to say “no” to our dictates. That strategy works fine, as long as no one says “no”. I’m not sure if it is in their DNA to understand that silence is often the most powerful weapon one has. The Chinese certainly understand it.
This is an interesting analysis. My only problem with it is that it is written from an American point of view and not an Egyptian one. It is as if written from an American trying to analyze the faults of the American policy regarding Egypt. The Colonel repeatedly – on this blog – criticized the American policy in depending on the MB & the Islamists in Egypt and elsewhere in the ME, but it appears that no one in the administration listened or read his repeated warnings. Not surprisingly then that one reaps what one sows.
I totally disagree with the position of the writer that:” I belong to those who believe that the MB and Morsi should remain in power.” My rejection to that position is based on the same reason that the writer uses for supporting his position i.e. “ It is simply a question of getting Egypt through this difficult period without adding more permanent losses, or to be precise, with the minimum additional scars.” If the MB remained in power for any longer, this will only endanger the security and stability of Egypt and if one wishes to see Egypt stable, then the MB should leave power the sooner the better.
Yusuf is a Sunni Egyptian who is a recovering idealist. pl
Thank you. I tried to look for any information in previous posts but my eyes did not catch any. Because almost all Egyptian Muslims are Sunnis this distinction is not important to us. On the other hand few Egyptians would be more interested to know if one is Muslim or Coptic Christian. Personally I prefer Egyptian only and this is more than enough. Thank you again for the good analysis.
“On the other hand few Egyptians would be more interested to know if one is Muslim or Coptic Christian.” that may seem true from an Egyptian Muslim POV. Ask the Copts if they agree. pl
You are absolutely right. Apparently this attitude is prevalent or almost exclusive to the Egyptian Muslims. As the MB tighten their grip on power in Egypt, we are witnessing this attitude deepening. This is one other reason why removing the MB from power the sooner the better. There are high hopes among Egyptians that June 30 could be a turning point and as your guest has described, a perfect storm is approaching. In short, for you and for followers of this valuable blog, keep an eye on Egypt beginning from Friday June 28 through to the big day Sunday June 30 and the following few days.
I will not presume to advise the people and army of Egypt. pl