Lessons From Cairo

We can at least learn from the mess that is Egypt

1. With some allowances for effective campaigning and demagoguery, democracy results in a governemnt which reflects the wishes of a majority of the people. There is no reason to think that would reflect the values or policies of Brussels or Washington D.C. or the interests of minority voter groups. The Egyptian street wanted Morsi, knowing full well who he was, even if the New York Times and Le Monde were deliberately ignorant.

2. It does not take tribal or sectarian differences to divide a nation. Egypt is unified ethnically with a unified history of thousands of years. There are no Shia. Some 10% of Egyptians are Coptic Christian who are on the side of the more secular establishment, but this chaos is not about the Copts. Syria and Iraq are much more difficult – Egypt should have been relatively easy.

3. To exert influence – in personal, business, political, or international relationships – requires ongoing engagement and consistent demonstration of concern for mutual benefit – some carrot; some stick. Respect helps. It is not enough to bring gobs of cash or military power at times of crisis – particularly if others do not know what you will or won’t do and they cannot rely on your word. By choice or by incompetence the Obama administration (including Hillary) has ceded all influence in the Muslim world: we supported Zine Ben Ali in Tunisia untiil we didn’t; we supported Hosni Mubarak in Egypt until we didn’t; we demanded that Assad would go in Syria until he didn’t; we support Karzai in Afghanistan until we won’t; we will hold people accountable for killing our diplomats unti we don’t. (Among our allies and adversaries Hillary’s “What does it matter?” has real meaning as a reflection of US attitudes.)

4. Egypt matters a great deal to the Sunni Arab world. With 84 million people it is the most populous Arab country. It is a long-standing nation, not an artificial creation of the colonial era. Al Azhar University in Cairo – whose leadership is appointed by the Egyptian president –  is the preeminent source of theological training and doctrine for the Sunni world. The leaders of Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and other relative moderates cannot allow radical Islamists to control Al Azhar.

5. Personal relationships matter. Our ambassador, Anne Patterson, tried to make things work with Morsi and has since been bypassed. John Kerry, as the new Secretary of State, has not been a player. Chuck Hagel, the sidelined Nebraska senator who has been given the task of downsizing the US military, has been the main contact with no past personal relationship and a resume not designed to impress professional military leaders. John McCain and Lindsay Graham’s efforts to browbeat General al-Sisi were counter-productive. (Although Graham  may have played well in South Carolina where he is facing a possible primary challenge.) President Obama, given a stiff arm by Russia’s Putin, does not want to pick up the phone again.

6. The generals have crossed the Rubicon. They have seen the trial of Mubarak by the Morsi government. They have seen the trial of the generals in Turkey by the Erdogan government. Al-Sisi is the visable face, but there is an entire officer class that has cast their lot and understands the personal price of failure. Likewise the management class which bore the brunt when the socialist Nasser confiscated much private wealth in 1956 and has spent a half century rebuilding under Sadat and Mubarak. Likewise the Copts who promise to fare poorly under the Muslim Brotherhood.

From an American perspective, the Egyptians are experiencing the result of the unarticulated Obama doctrine: it is an unfair world which will do best without American involvement.  That policy is likely to be the global reality for the next three and a half years. Even the New York Times calls Egypt President Obama’s greatest failure, and acknoledges that the end result of his policies is that we have no leverage. Maybe the Egyptians can figure something out, but we are deliberately irrelevant. One can only hope that the next (Republican)  president at least sees the US as a positive factor in the world and can reestablish a set of credible principles for engagement.


This week’s bonus video is a series of quips by Ronald Reagan. The striking contrast with President Obama is not so much the speaking ability as the understanding of what Americans would find funny.