Way back when in Does Islam Need a Reformation? praktike asked what I thought of this article: Egyptian Intellectuals Vow To End Mubarak Presidency - and what the U.S. approach to this good news/bad news item ought to be:
"Some 689 people, ranging from Islamists to Communists and including 30 lawmakers, signed a petition Saturday in the name of The Popular Campaign for Reforms, an umbrella group formed last month to try to amend Egypt's constitution to limit a president to holding two terms only.
Among the signatories, including 26 human rights and civil society groups and opposition political parties, was the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest Islamic group, which has 17 members represented in the Egyptian parliament as independents."
I was hoping our Cairo correspondent Tarek Heggy might comment, but with everything going on that hasn't been possible. Nathan Hamm addressed similar issues in Central Asia very recently, and I thought I'd build on that to offer a full briefing on Egypt as I see it - the situation, the stakes, and my answer to praktike's question re: what the USA should do.
I'm going to start with the basics.
What do I think of the overall situation in Egypt?
I think Egypt (CIA Factbook entry) is a country whose cultural and political patterns, growing ecological deficits, and population growth make it a disaster waiting for a place to happen. The country's inefficiency and absurdly bureaucratic systems were used as a case study for 3rd World problems by Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto (though there is a reform project on the horizon), and our own Cairo correspondent Tarek Heggy minces few words in his diagnosis.
Unfortunately, the growing signs that Hosni Mubarak plans to implement dynastic authoritarian rule under a fig leaf of democratic elections are not comforting.
This approach is likely to entrench many existing pathologies, and make Egypt's situation worse in the long run. LGF among others have chronicled the frequent promotion of hate against Jews and the West by Egyptian state media and related organizations, a tide that efforts like Tarek Heggy's can do little to stem.
That kind of safety valve may benefit Egypt's rulers, but it most certainly does not benefit the USA. It will not disappear until Egyptian politics puts the country's own problems front and centre - and that won't happen under the current quasi-dictatorship.
As you can tell, I'm disturbed by the situation and the trends. I'm not as harsh as some of my fellow neo-conservatives, as I think the "cut 'em off" approach is a shortsighted course of action at the moment. Which leads us to...
Egypt may not be swimming in oil, but it's a very strategic country. It contains the Suez Canal, a key chokepoint of international trade for Asia as well as the Middle East. It has historically wielded significant influence within the Islamic world, though recent decades have seen it eclispsed by Saudi Arabia and Iran. In addition to its well known border with Israel, it also borders on Sudan and Libya, and has the potential to play a major role for good or ill in both of those countries' futures. See this U.S. State Dept. profile.
On the military front, Egypt currently has a large and well equipped army, thanks to over $38 billion of U.S. military aid it has received as a result of the 1978 Camp David Accord that brought peace with Israel and converted Egypt from a Soviet client state to a U.S. ally. This equipment includes locally-produced M-1 tanks, as well as F-16 fighter planes, Hawkeye AWACS radars, MLRS rocket launchers, Patriot and Stinger missiles, etc. French, British, Chinese, and even North Korean weapons can also be found in Egypt's armed forces.
How will that army and equipment be used in future? To enhance regional and global security, or to damage it? That depends in part on the wisdom of our choices.
With the USA stretched a bit thin right now and DeSotoite economic reforms on their way shortly, I would argue that now is not a good time to provoke a major showdown with Egypt. As Dean Esmay has noted with respect to other problem allies:
"...politics and diplomacy are arts of the possible, not the ideal. We are not in a position at the moment to force democracy on Saudi Arabia, and can only take a carrot-and-stick approach to them. Strategically, Pakistan is almost as difficult for we would have no easy way to continue our vital work in Afghanistan if Pakistan were to collapse into civil war. It is thus my sincere hope that the reforms in Iraq and Afghanistan (and maybe, just maybe, Palestine) will over the next generation make it easier for us to encourage other regimes in the region to follow suit--or, luckier still, that it might happen without any major intervention on our part at all."
Dangerous or pivotal enemies before minor enemies. Enemies or potential enemies before neutrals or allies. Less stable allies before more stable allies. Priorities, priorities, even as we multi-task whenever possible.
Hey, I want a nice-sized house with cutting-edge ecological and structural features, a healthy budget for travel and enriching experiences, a computer setup that rivals Bill Gates, and the right sweetie to share it with. Since I couldn't have it all, I've started with the right sweetie. The rest is going to have to come later, and perhaps incompletely.
Sigh. The real world is implacable that way.
In a similar vein, America would like a lot of things in the Middle East. Since it didn't do a World War 2 style mobilization after 9/11, it has to choose and to settle.
Right now, we have more immediate and serious strategic problems than Egypt. Iraq was a more immediate problem, and still is. Iran is another, the #1 backer of terrorism worldwide who is sheltering al-Qaeda personnel and developing nuclear weapons. Afghanistan matters more insofar as it flows into the issue of Pakistan's stability, otherwise it's going about as fast and as well as we can expect. Some might even consider the Palestinian issue a bigger deal than Egypt (I disagree - I think it's just a symptom, and won't vanish until the Arab rulers who can't afford to lose their distraction of choice vanish - but if you think it's central, then...). Priorities.
Having said that, a showdown with Egypt's rulers may well be necessary for all the reasons explained above - in due course, at a time and place of America's choosing.
No, I do not.
I agree that the United States does need to support liberty in the region. As noted above, that's a critical component of winning the War on Islamist Terror without a resorting to Total War. It's also critical if Egypt itself hopes to avoid becoming an Islamist powderkeg. Consider:
- Societal and cultural failures in an honour/shame society that remembers past glory days and is dismayed by their current reality.
- The promotion of hate & conspiracy theories through government-controlled media channels as a safety valve.
- Deepening problems on multiple fronts.
- Dwindling hopes for addressing them through the political system.
Neoconservative root-cause analysis holds that this is a classic recipe for breeding Islamist terrorism. I agree. I also believe that some efforts to promote sustainable liberty in Egypt can and should begin right now.
Acknowledging this imperative doesn't mean the USA needs to forget the lessons of recent history, however - or allow itself be played like a fiddle by the Islamonazis (literally) of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose motto is:
"Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. Qur'an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope"
This is not an organization committed to anything resembling democracy or liberty, nor are their fellow participants the Communists. If the history of the Cold War featured frequent support for tyrants against forces calling for greater freedom in their countries, it also featured even more frequent episodes whereby movements that claimed the mantle of freedom were usurped by Marxists and kleptocrat thugs. Those that won, by bullet and ballot, generally delivered nothing more than an exchange of one servitude for a more malevolent, efficient and bloody helping of the same.
Supporting such movements is not in anybody's interest, least of all the people in the countries involved.
Were I the USA, I would work quietly through the back-channels in Egypt, and make a key principle extremely clear to genuinely democratic forces there:
Disqualification. The participation of anti-freedom organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Communist Party in political umbrella groups or initiatives will be a death-blow to any hopes of U.S. support whenever it is present.
There's no question in my mind that Egypt's political stagnation needs to be loosened. Nevertheless, supporting greater freedom in Egypt does not require the acceptance of totalitarian "Trojan Horses" into Egypt's democratic movement. The USA is interested in genuine liberty, something these organizations are fundamentally opposed to. They also have a history of taking over legitimate democratic movements. Therefore, the USA should lend zero legitimacy to organizations and efforts associate with these bad actors, and oppose efforts by tainted movements or initiatives to garner support from other foreign powers.
Finally, the intellectuals' proposed solution strikes me as an ineffective approach. It isn't intrinsically obvious to me that term limits are necessarily the best solution to Egypt's issues - after all, they remain a source of legitimate debate and controversy in the USA itself. Even if term limits were passed, the probable result in Egypt would be the substitution of an organized oligarchy with rotating terms in place of the current family dynasty setup.
That kind of outcome isn't going to help anybody.
The West's long-term objective in Egypt should clear: support freedom and liberty generally. The question, of course, is by doing what, and when, and how. We need to succeed without creating tensions in Egypt that lead to a crisis the Egyptian government can't manage, and the USA won't be able to step into.
The USA and other Western countries should lend support to educational and communications initiatives, therefore, as well as general concepts of liberty and very carefully-chosen political programs. We should also assist dissidents who are genuine supporters of liberty, via legal aid and diplomatic advocacy.
As the USA's hand in the region strengthens, some of the current constraints will fall away and pressure can be ramped up accordingly if required. Hopefully, by that time progress can move forward on the quiet foundations that more immediate Western efforts helped to lay down in advance. Efforts such as:
- Helping the coming economic reforms in every possible way via educational materials, subsidized Arabic translations of DeSoto's works, related joint aid projects, electronic infrastructure to share leading practices and successes, etc. would be the most important thing we could do for Egypt from both a geopolitical and a social justice perspective.
Delivering this assistance via non-standard NGOs would also be a capability-building plus - most existing NGOs will be hostile toward any approach involving property, even if the poor are suddenly made wealthier by owning their own land for the first time. If nation-building and narrowing the development gap a la The Pentagon's New Map are really part of the USA's future strategy, it will have to build an effective channel for these efforts. I hate to say it, but this sort of thing seems tailor-made for George Soros...
Then make sure the external political incentives align. Should Egypt meet certain economic reform goals and reach certain determined milestones, there should be a commitment to pursue trade legislation that would improve Egypt's access to certain markets.
- Translate key documents of liberty and western ideas into Arabic, pair them with Arab/Islamic scholars et. al. who have made eloquent arguments for economic and political freedom, and make these materials available cheaply and in various formats, Egypt and beyond. This can be private or public, but it needs to BE as in yesterday. I do not understand why that wasn't a substantial project by October of 2001. If The Bush Doctrine means anything, it should be.
Having parts of this project based in Egypt and Iraq, and having the materials published out of Cairo and Baghdad, would play nicely into echoes of past glory and dreams of renewed intellectual influence. It would also send an important signal about growing local "ownership" of these ideas.
- Promotion of new media alternatives like blogging across the Middle east, working with and through efforts like Spirit of America's "Viral Freedom Project". Big Pharaoh needs an army!
- Pressuring Egypt when it imprisons dissidents who are genuine fighters for liberty.
- Pressuring Egypt to steadily reduce the amount of hate it allows in its government media, on pain of facing penalties in military aid, and/or other sticks and carrots as might be effective. As it makes progress, Egypt has to be pushed to abandon the crutch of hate, thus forcing additional moves toward progress because its traditional safety valve options and excuses that permit failure are slowly being turned off.
- Promoting regional economic ties, including Egypt/Israel, Egypt/Libya, and even Egypt/Iraq if useful. This is already underway.
- I'm sure you can think of other ideas. If you'd like to critique, improve on, or add to the ideas above, the comments section is open.
The bottom line is simple: Egypt has to change. We have to promote effective pathways to liberty, using pressure and/or confrontation on our own timetable, all the while strengthening the real champions of liberty and weakening the poseurs and the malevolent.
It's a tall order. It won't always be satisfying. And it may take time. Fortunately, time is an option we can afford in Egypt. The only thing we can't afford, is failure.