Egypt: Moving Slowing, but With Purpose

To state that the recent two plus years have been tumultuous in Egypt would be an understatement. Part of this stems from an American “foreign policy” that seems adrift at best, non-existent and worst, and definitely reactionary. Much of what is happening in Egypt in particular and the Middle East in general can be traced to the so-called Arab Spring. If one goes back even further to that Obama speech in Cairo, he espoused a somewhat naive belief in the spread of democracy in that area through popular uprising. When people rose up in the streets of Tehran, Iran, Obama sat back and did nothing. This was a signal of the foreign policy he was going to employ- lip service and maybe some foreign aid. Of course, this is understandable given the fact that Obama’s main claim to fame was speech-giving and lip service.

Egypt was a major ally of the United States in the region. They helped in the battle against terrorism and held the peace with Israel. Russian influence was purged from the country as Egypt under Sadat and Mubarak looked to the west, especially the United States. Like any other country in the region except Israel, however, at the end of the day Egypt was ruled by a dictatorial regime backed by the military. One can look at any other country in that region and see the same thing. The only time there is a change at the top, it is because someone dies or simply decides to hand over the reigns of power, or they lose the support of their military. What should have been a popular uprising in Syria is simply now a civil war because Assad has not lost the support of his military, nor did Saleh in Yemen. Mubarak did lose support of his military and reasons are complicated, but something the United States should have foresaw given our close military and intelligence relationship.

The man at the center of all this today is the head of the military- Abdel Fatah el-Sisi. He was, in the Mubarak administration, a military attache to Saudi Arabia and trained in British and American war colleges. El-Sisi orginally, like others, were reading the tea leaves in Egypt and realized that Mubarak was slowly losing control. Mainly instigated by the Muslim Brotherhood, massive protests began in January, 2011 which the United States read as yet another Arab country experiencing the pangs of democracy. Less than three weeks after the first protests, the Egyptian military withdrew support for Mubarak and he resigned. Again, lose the support of your military and you are as good as a lame duck.

In 2012, parliamentary elections were held where the Muslim Brotherhood garnered 47% of the seats and an even more conservative party gained 24%. At this point, many Arab countries were fretting over the demise of Mubarak and, more importantly, the fact that the United States failed to back up a reliable ally. If anyone was in their situation, you would too. After all, Mubarak was brought down by a “popular uprising” (considered “democracy” by the Obama administration) instigated by a terrorist organization turned political party- the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, the Brotherhood originally stated they would not field a candidate in the presidential election to succeed Mubarak, but soon went back on that word when they nominated Morsi, who was a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood.

The story begins to get muddled here as Morsi won that presidential election. Giving the Brotherhood the benefit of the doubt in that they are primarily a political party now, one of their main tenets remains that the Quran should be the guide for life and politics, especially in a Muslim country. This became even more apparent during the drafting of a new constitution when the more liberal, secular elements resigned rather than sign on to a document that was looking more like Sharia law. Women and religious minorities, especially Coptic Christians, were certainly getting the short end of the deal.

However, there is more troubling information dribbling about about the “election” of Morsi in the first place. According to a former minister in the Israeli government, Yossi Beilin, who is still active in regional politics, it was the military that rigged the election of MOrsi in June 2012 fearing widespread protests if his main opponent, a former Mubarak aid, had won. This may explain why el-Sisi jumped two ranks to assume control of the military. Whether he was an active participant in the rigged election is unknown at this point. But, his name has come up in another context. It is suspected that he “leaked” information to the protesters demanding the ouster of Mubarak that the former leader was going to disperse the crowd with the infamous “camel brigade.” The main fear of a Shafiq presidential victory- Morsi’s opponent- was that law and order would break down and that the Muslim Brotherhood would take to the streets, just as they are doing now.

So what turned the military against Morsi? Originally, they believed that Morsi, an inexperienced leader, would turn to the military for help thus increasing their power and prestige. Instead, Morsi turned to his allies in the Brotherhood who were pushing a highly Islamic constitution and mode of governing. According to this same Beilin report, el-Sisi’s generals tried to oust Morsi earlier, but el-Sisi wanted to give Morsi more time. But as bread lines grew and limited freedoms Egyptians had become accustomed to under Mubarak were slowly eroded, it became obvious that people would again take to the streets. That was the excuse el-Sisi would use to oust Morsi.

What does this mean for US policy in the area? Obviously, the Obama administration totally misread the situation in Egypt leading up to the ouster of Mubarak. They then doubled-down on that mistake by accepting Morsi as president and proposing a massive foreign aid package that many Republicans in the Senate tried to stop. Official biographies of Morsi on the Internet portray Morsi as “the first democratically elected president of Egypt,” which may be short of the truth. If Beilin’s account has any shred of accuracy, the real military coup occurred in June 2012 when Morsi was “elected” president.

El-Sisi did miscalculate the ouster of Morsi believing that there would be no casualties. He did not count on the Muslim Brotherhood protesting and instigating public disorder- the very thing they felt would happen if Morsi was not named president. In effect, they may have delayed the protests, disorder and deaths by a year. As for el-Sisi himself, there is good, and some potential negatives in his resume. On the negative side, while attending the Army War College, he wrote a 17-page thesis that seemed to favor Islamic law and religion as important ingredients for governing in any Muslim country. A truly secular leader, he argued, would lack legitimacy with the people. There are also those whispers that is was he who alerted the anti-Mubarak protesters of crackdowns, and his miscalculations regarding the eventual ouster of Morsi.

On the plus side, Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, recently met with el-Sisi and allegedly provided information and documents proving that Hamas was behind recent attacks on Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai. Supposedly, the information was shared with western intelligence services also. Hamas-sponsored and instigated violence and terrorism against Israel is a well-known fact, but if they were involved in violence against a fellow Arab country like Egypt, that would likely affect the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority and create rifts within their ranks. Hamas is claiming that they are being framed and they are not involved in the Sinai attacks. Although certainly a self-serving move by Abbas, it nevertheless has apparently ruffled the feathers of the Egyptian military, and el-Sisi, being the consummate Egyptian military man, would likely side against any group, including the Muslim Brotherhood which has deep ties to Hamas if Hamas was involved in these attacks. In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood created the Islamic Resistance Movement, more commonly known as Hamas, in the Palestinian territories. Dealing with the Brotherhood has been a source of disagreement in the US intelligence community since the Clinton administration with that community split between engagement, or branding them terrorists. It is kind of ironic that of all the Islamic groups the United States recognizes as terrorist organizations, we list Hamas, but not the Muslim Brotherhood.

So, should the United States support the ouster of Morsi? Right now, no matter the excuses or the explanations, the military is in control of Egypt and this is, no matter how one looks at it, a military coup. Of course, that phrase has serious negative connotations in the Arab world. However, one needs to consider the alternatives. A return to power of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose true colors were shown once they gained power in Egypt despite their “rebranding,” would only set back human rights in that country, except this time in the name of Allah. At some point, the United States has got to take a stand and pick sides. Even under Morsi’s new constitution, the military was granted greater autonomy than under Mubarak. In reality, the Egyptian military is the closest thing to a secular power structure in that country. In the end, the goals of the Muslim Brotherhood have not changed much since their founding in the early part of the 20th century. They still pine for the days of the 8th century caliphate where infidels and non-believers are punished, expelled, or harassed into submission. Support of the Brotherhood- or demanding of those in control in Egypt right now that they include the Brotherhood in a new government- would be counterproductive. The Muslim Brotherhood may have laid down the sword and ceased the assassinations (or got better at hiding their tracks)- that is, reduced violent terrorism- but they remain a political terrorist organization working within governments to establish Islamic law. Is that what we want for Egypt? Are we willing to allow another Iran right on Israel’s eastern border?