Sunday, August 18, 2013
The US fiddles as Rome burns: the need for radical action in Egypt
US policy makers need to realize that the Middle East is at a crossroads, much like 1978-79 when the Shah's regime was overthrown and replaced by the despotic Islamic Republic of Iran. Sectarianism is spreading throughout the region, fueled by an increasingly bitter cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Qatar is using its vast financial resources to fund radical forces in Syria while the Turkish government looks the other way as radical Islamists cross its borders daily to join the struggle against Bashar al-Asad's Ba'thist regime.
Yemen, one of the poorest states in the Middle East, is facing a resurgence of al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Penisula (AQAP). In Libya, the central government is that in name only as a myriad of militias refuse to submit to its authority. In neighboring Tunisia, secularists and leftists are the targets of assassinations by radical Salafis who are unwilling to share power with the country's large secular populace. Across North Africa, al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM) lies in wait, fed by a continuous flow of weapons from Libya and ready to exploit whatever discontent it can. In Iraq and Lebanon, the spillover from the Syrian civil war threatens to pull both countries more deeply into that conflict while intensifying domestic sectarian divisions as well. The dispatch of more Hizballah forces and Iraqi Shiite militiamen to Syria is on the increase.
Turkey, supposedly the model of a new democratic Islamism, just completed a highly flawed trial of ex-generals, journalists and academics designed to intimidate and suppress secular dissent of the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) increasingly authoritarian policies. Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Ergogan, is now showing his true colors as he attempts to Islamicize Turkey against the wishes of its largely secular citizenry, restrict press freedoms (Turkey has one of the highest number of imprisoned journalists awaiting trial of any country in the world), and jails opponents without due process.
In this context, the lack of action by the Obama administration to what is taking place in Egypt constitutes a recipe for a foreign policy disaster. What occurred in Egypt on June 30th should be called what it was - a coup d'etat - and military aid should be cut off immediately. That Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will make up the loss of $1.3 billion in aid should not become an excuse for the US to tacitly support the bloodshed in Egypt, especially when the violence that is being perpetrated is with the use of American weapons. While we may jeopardize in the short term our close ties with Egypt's military which provides the US with important intelligence and overflight rights through Egyptian airspace, Egypt needs the US far more than the US needs Egypt.
One reason that the Obama administration doesn't want to end the $1.3 billion in military aid is because most of the funds provided to Egypt end up in the pockets of American arms manufacturers. Given the present circumstances, the US should eschew short term profits from the Egyptian arms market and give greater consideration to Egypt's domestic crisis and the broader regional picture. If the US does provide aid to Egypt, it should be only civilian aid with strict conditions attached to its use, e.g., paying for medical care for those injured in the ongoing violence. The last thing the Egyptian military needs at this point is more fighter aircraft and tanks.
Cutting off US military aid to Egypt will not push Egypt into the hands of the Russians as some analysts have suggested. The Egyptian army's weaponry is almost totally of American origin and thus Egypt is dependent on the US for spare parts and training. The Sadat regime expelled 20,000 Soviet military advisers in 1972 and the military junta is not about to reestablish military relations with a country whose weaponry is inferior to that of the United States. Further, the Egyptian economy is closely intertwined with US, not Russian commercial and financial interests.
The US should not pressure Egypt on its own but rather through a multifaceted and internationally based strategy. First, it should push back against Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states' support for the military's violence (reminding the Saudis and the Arab Gulf monarchies that, as The Economist pointed out in its Aug 3rd article, "Yesterday's Fuel," the global oil market has reached its peak and soon will enter a decline, signaling the decline of Arab oil states' influence as well). Numerous reports indicate that the Saudis and their Gulf allies have encouraged the military to use force against the Muslim Brotherhood, rather than seek a peaceful resolution to the current political crisis.
Second, US should inform Israel that advocating support for Egypt's military is not in its long-term interests. An unstable Egypt on Israel's borders - a definite result if the brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood continues - will increase instability in the eastern Mediterranean basin And the Egyptian military will continue its pursuit of radical elements in the Sinai whether the US cuts off military aid or not.
Third, the US should introduce a resolution in the UN Security Council condemning the killing of unarmed civilians by the Egyptian security forces and military. As part of that resolution, it should also demand that Egypt allow UN observers to enter the country to monitor a reduction in government-sponsored violence.
Fourth, the US,UN, and EU should demand that the military junta set a timetable for writing a new constitution that will include all of Egypt's political forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood. This constitution should not be written hastily (as was the last interim constitution) but over a period of a year so that the document provides a solid foundation for new, free and fair elections. Completing the constitution and holding elections should be organized according to a very specific time table so there is no doubt that Egypt's process towards democratization will continue.
Fifth, the US should notify Gen. Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi and his military junta that the US will work to block US investments in Egypt and refuse to support any loan requests that Egypt submits to international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. The Obama administration should also notify Egypt that, if the military regime continues its massive human rights violations, the US will freeze Egypt's assets in American banks.
Sixth, the US should indicate that it is gathering information on the attacks on unarmed civilians with an aim to turning this information over to the International Criminal Court. If the Egyptian military persists in its violent policies, the US will then press the international community to bring a case of massive human rights violations against the generals in the ICC.
Seventh, President Obama should make a high profile speech to the Congress outlining the rationale for these actions in an effort to gain Republican as well as Democratic support. He should point to the destructive civil war in Algeria between 1991 and 2000 in which as many as 200,000 Algerians may have been killed as the result of military intervention in 1991 to prevent an Islamist victory in then scheduled municipal elections.
President Obama should make clear that, by supporting the military's brutal crackdown on Egypt's civilian population, the US is encouraging Islamists within the Muslim Brotherhood to turn away from the democratic process and take up arms instead against the government. This development would threaten Egypt's stability, provide new openings for al-Qa'ida, and perhaps even lead to attacks on shipping in the Suez Canal, a vital international waterway. Further, military action will increase resentment against Egypt's Coptic Christian minority, which has already seen dozens of its churches burned throughout the country, as radical Islamists try to exploit the crisis by associating the Christian community with support for the military's brutality.
Worst of all, the many Egyptian youth who yearn for democracy - whether secular or Islamist - will now feel that democratic processes are no longer viable in Egypt. They will either withdraw from politics, seek to leave the country (accelerating Egypt's brain drain) or turn to violence. The spread of extensive urban violence throughout the country would be impossible for Egypt's security forces to contain.
Let me be very clear. I make no brief for the Muslim Brotherhood. Muhammad Morsi may have been an excellent professor of materials sciences when he taught at California State University at Northridge. However, he was not qualified to rule Egypt given his lack of political experience. His heavy handed attempts to Islamicize the country, his exclusion of all those who opposed his policies, and his failure to address Egypt's pressing economic policies can be described in one word - disastrous. Nevertheless, Morsi's policies do not provide justification for the killings of Egyptian civilians.
Between 20 and 25% of the Egyptian electorate supports the Muslim Brotherhood. Many young members of the organization are much more open to democratic processes than the Western press would allow. Egypt's military cannot "kill its way" out of the current political state of affairs. Only good faith negotiations can lead to a resolution of the current crisis.
The so-called "Realists" in US foreign policy circles who argue for unconditional support for Gen. Sisi and his junta need to realize that the time for supporting brutal dictatorships in the Middle East not only has come to an end but undermines US foreign policy in the Middle East. The time for President Obama to show decisive presidential leadership is here. Continued inaction of the type we have seen this past week will have negative consequences that will haunt the US and the international community for decades to come.