Monday, August 12, 2013

No Third Way in Egypt

Suppose there's a car parked outside a house.  The owner has left the country for a week and is out of touch.  There is a dog inside the car.  It is ferociously hot; the car is locked.  Some favor breaking a window to get the dog out.  Some are opposed to this destruction of property.  You suggest writing the owner's uncle a letter; perhaps the uncle knows where the owner is staying.

You advocate a useless step whose consequences are all too clear.  You protest that you favor neither letting the dog die, nor destroying the owner's property.  But your middle way is no way at all.

When it comes to what can actually happen, your suggestion amounts to letting the dog die.  Your choice is not a real choice and your preference is not a real preference.  You are simply expressing your distaste for a hard choice that, in fact, you have already made.

So it is with those who insist they favor neither SCAF not the Muslim Brotherhood.  This expresses their tastes; it is not a political position.  It would be too generous even to call it a preference: you do not prefer to write the uncle any more than I prefer to get to work by soaring through the air.  There is no third way in Egypt.  It's SCAF or, at least initially, the Brotherhood.  To say this is not to 'tell Egyptians' anything.  The reasons are obvious and known to all.  To pretend otherwise is either a cynical pretense or the most vigorous self-delusion.

Here are some of the reasons.  They all point to the same thing:  that SCAF is much too powerful to be overcome by anything but an alliance in which the Brotherhood would, at least for a good while, dominate.

First, the Army (and through it the other 'security services') have an economic power hardly ever matched.  Its economic interests, described as 'vast' and 'sprawling', may perhaps be rivaled in Pakistan and China - but then no one expects the Chinese or Pakistani peoples to be able to overcome their militaries.  It is rare indeed that an army has such extensive roles in fundamental economic sectors such as manufacturing and construction.

This economic power translates into great political power backed, ultimately, by the gun.  Elsewhere even the most powerful militaries face considerable obstacles to the exercise of sovereignty.  In China, the army appears largely to be subordinate the the Communist Party, and in any case central authority is limited by the vastness and diversity of the country.  In Pakistan, the army has great difficulty dealing with numerous armed insurgencies, and must face a constant menace from India.  In Egypt, with the politically unimportant exception of the Sinai, the population is tightly packed into very small, very manageable areas.  The army enjoys excellent relations with Israel, so it faces no external threat.  No force, anywhere in the country except the Sinai, can prevent the army from doing exactly as it pleases.

The army is also immune from international pressure.  The US cannot afford to withdraw its extensive support, both because of the influence it would lose in the Middle East and because of the economic damage withdrawal would cause in the US economy.  But at least as important as all of this put together, the army is deeply loved by a very large segment of the population.

This love is not admiration for military prowess. It is faith in an institution that regularly intervenes in politics - when, that is, it is not openly running the country.  The military's 'justice' system, the murder and torture it practices, these are well known and accepted.  Since it is believed that the army acts in the best interests of the nation, there is no effective way to criticize this adulation.  After all, what the army does is in the army's interests, and what serves the army, serves Egypt.

I am not aware of any comparably strong military ousted by civilian opposition.  Even in Turkey, the army's episodic interventions and pervasive influence run up against civilian restraint:  the electorate has strongly rejected military-backed candidates.  Moreover, as the Kurdish insurgency demonstrates, the Turkish army has far less physical control.  On the international scene, it has no faithful patron like the US, eager to finance it and overlook its transgressions.  Most decisively, its enormous 15 billion dollar economic kingdom is dwarfed by the Egyptian army's 60 billion dollar economic empire, four times the size and as much as ten times the share of national GDP.  Since the 1980s Turkey's army has even lost support from big business.  Its fall from power followed an Islamist electoral win accepted as legal by the opposition, who allowed the Islamists to govern within a mutually accepted institutional framework.

All the evidence suggests that an army as strong and popular as Egypt's could never be overthrown by a secular opposition functioning within a largely Islamist population - unless those secularists allowed the Islamists to govern.  This conclusion is not just a matter of comparisons.  The secular opposition has never shown the tiniest ability to challenge the army; for the most part it hasn't even shown the inclination to do so.  The political factions that explicitly reject both the army and the Brotherhood appear as rounding errors in any political poll or electoral contest.  The coup has not grown their strength into anything perceptible and they have no powerful backers.  "No to the Brotherhood and military rule" expresses a desire, but you would have to be a fantasist to advance this in good faith as a genuine political agenda.

There is, then, no third way.  Given this reality, to oppose the Moslem Brotherhood is to support the army.  It does not matter how vociferously someone protests that they 'oppose' army rule as well, or that they also criticize SCAF.  That person is supporting the army, because weakening the Brotherhood inevitably, predictably, does exactly that - and accomplishes nothing else.

Genuine opposition to both the army and the Brotherhood would require 'allying' with the Brotherhood against the army.  With the army out of the way, secularists could work at out-organizing the Brotherhood, which is no stronger than its popular support.  With the Brotherhood out of the way, the army is more powerful than ever:  there can be no change.  If Egypt is to have a political future, the army has to go.

In this context the term 'alliance' can mislead.  An alliance does not mean buying into an Islamist agenda.  It means two things: supporting the Brotherhood whenever the Brotherhood moves against the army, and accepting the Brotherhood's attempts to replace the old 'deep state' with its own administration.  Otherwise, any push against the army is bound to fail.

Is such an alliance impossible, now that the entire secular opposition has in fact supported the armed forces?  Not quite.  It's possible if the entire secular leadership, which had discredited itself beyond redemption, is replaced.  That is unlikely, but it is the only way forward.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Morayef, Morsi, and alliances in Egypt

Sounding quite put-upon, Heba Morayef (Human Rights Watch's Egypt director, Middle East and North Africa division) announces on twitter that she is
Getting v tired of all this “return of the police state” narrative. Police state was alive and kicking with Morsy’s blessing throughout.
...not just with Morsi's blessing, it seems.  Morsi was an ally:
In conclusion: Morsy chose to ally himself with the police as opposed to "pro-rev" forces calling for accountability & police reform.
Between the announcement and the 'conclusion' comes what I take to be the evidence.  It's odd.  An ally is normally one who helps you do things.  But Morsi is accused almost entirely of verbal crimes, if that:  some incidents are reported where no connection between Morsi and the incident is even alleged.  This apart, there is a failure to publicize a report on abuses, which of course hardly facilitated the abuses - nor has any report by anyone even slowed them down.  Mostly it's about 'endorsement'.  Morsi said this nice thing about the police! he said that nice thing! Well, I endorse the FSA in Syria; that hardly makes me an ally.  Not once is it even alleged that Morsi, as an ally might, made any substantive contribution to police abuse.

Sure, when a president endorses something, that's supposed to be different.  It puts the might of the state behind the thing endorsed.  Oh wait.  It was the might of the state that Morsi was supposed to be endorsing.  What could this mean?

For one thing, it means that Morsi stood at some distance from the power of the state.  The army and police were doing - and not doing - what they pleased.  It's quite a feat of self-deception, in the face of this virtually uncontested fact, to suppose that Morsi could have had any substantial responsibility for the conduct of the security forces, merely through statements and reports.

For another, to hold up Morsi's verbal activities with great indignation is at best posturing, at worst childish.  Adults know that when people say nice things, they sometimes don't mean it.  They realize this applies to politics as well.  Morsi had no power.  He was hoping to acquire some.  Meanwhile, he paid a high price to avoid confrontation with the police and army.  Why?  Because, to repeat what his critics studiously ignore, he had no power.*  He would have lost.

Has anyone in the know confirmed this diagnosis? Yes, very much so - the army and the police.  Not being children, they did not actually believe that Morsi thought them heroes of the revolution.  They did not believe he was sincere in his professed desire to get along with them.  They did not think that he bottled up criticism of them because he was on their side.  In fact, that's why they overthrew him.  They knew him for what he was, a man just out of their prisons, who was unlikely to look on them with deepest love.  They knew he belonged to a movement long dedicated to destroying their privileges and their sovereignty.  Though it is the security forces who most obviously qualify for the epithet Orwellian, Orwellian too is the cynical corruption of mind that manages to blind itself to such glaring realities.

One wonders what political effect Morayef can possibly expect her diatribe to have.

The army and police, after all, are genuine allies.  No doubt diligent research could discover nice things they had said about one another, but here there are more than verbal ties.  The police benefit the army by murdering and torturing people the army dislikes.   The army does some of the same for the police, but also lends its immense domestic prestige to their activities - not to mention the ever-present menace of massive armed force should anyone seriously challenge the alliance.  The army and police now enjoy almost hysterical popular support.  Foreign powers are spineless in their reaction to the coup.  Yet human rights advocacy didn't give SCAF so much as a flea-bite even before they reached this pinnacle of power.  So Morayef would have to be an almost pathological fantasist if she expected her words to help SCAF's victims.  It would be almost as crazy to suppose Morsi's words could have made any difference.

But words do, of course, at times matter.  Morayef is almost venerated in the West. (In 2013 she was nominated for Time's 100 most influential people in the world.)  Her words may be pointlessly ineffectual, but if they're not, they can only discredit Morsi in Western eyes.  So if the West ever does contemplate acquiring a spine, Morayef may play some small part in weakening international support for Morsi.  Weakening Morsi strengthens SCAF.  So the likeliest political effect of Morayef's words is to support the very murderers and torturers she contrives to smear Morsi with.

Words which help SCAF do not, of course, make for an alliance.  But if Morayef wanted to wax indignant about SCAF's allies, she might have let loose against real allies of SCAF, Respected Sirs such as El Baradei and Egypt's coup-sanctioned prime minister, Hazem Al Beblawi.  He played a major role in bringing hundreds of thousands to the army and police sponsored love-in that - again predictably - resulted in the army coup and the murder of many innocent people.   But El Baradei and Beblawi, who bring with them substantial support for the regime, don't attract Morayef's ire as much as a jailed president and his bloodied movement.


*  This is why it's so wrong-headed to speak of police abuse persisting 'under' Morsi.   It's a bit like saying that British police continued to abuse suspects 'under' Queen Elizabeth.