The situation in Egypt is about to implode. A perfect storm is gathering in the horizon, set to start on the 30th of June, to throw the country into real and total chaos. Furthermore, it could be already late to do something about it. Yet, and because of the high stakes involved, trying to contain this extremely serious crisis should not be spared until the last possible moment.
In the following paragraphs I will explain two points. The first is the mistakes which littered the US administration handling of the continuous slide to the 30th of June. The second is what could be done in the remaining hours before such a storm hits Egypt and the Middle East, and some of the consequences if it does.
If we just examine the diplomatic moves of Ambassador Ann Paterson in Cairo in the countdown to June 30th, hopefully the errors that shaped the US approach from early on will be clearer.
Ambassador Paterson, who is a very able diplomat working in admittedly an exceptionally difficult and complex situation, went to Ibn Khaldoun Center in Cairo in June 18th and stated, in answering a question, the US situation in support for democracy, opposition to chaos, standing by the elected government and hinted to her disapproval of any intervention by the armed forces in the political life.
Word by word this is all fine. Except that in an extremely polarized situation on the verge of eruption, and with the highly charged situation, the context means a lot. The Ambassador’s statements were distended to offend someone. In this case, it offended every one.
The military appeared in the public eye as an entity that could receive “orders” not to interfere, which offended some in the armed forces. The “civilian” opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) president Mohammed Morsi took the statement as a signal that the US opposes a highly popular protest against the government. The Islamists were embarrassed, with some voices rejecting what Paterson said, as it showed them to be “protected” by the US.
What could have the Ambassador said right to please all instead? Nothing. In similar situations the context imposes one virtue: total silence and remaining as far as possible from the public arena, while continuing the impossible mission of trying to solve the crisis.
Obviously, there was an abundant supply of those who can pick on the words of the Ambassador and her ill-timed and ill-advised appearance in Ibn Khaldoun. The Ambassador was compared with Her Majesty’s envoy to Egypt during the British occupation. The role of the US was compared to that of the UK in the 40’s. Political parties and personalities were condemning the “US intervention” in Egypt’s internal affairs.
Two days later, that is on the 20th of June, the Ambassador held a closed meeting with the de-facto ruler of Egypt Khayrat Al Shatter (the deputy Morshed of the MB’s). The meeting took place in Al Shatter’s office in Cairo and continued behind closed doors for more than three hours.
The meeting was undoubtedly focused on ways to avert the expected eruption. But there was no need to hold it in front of a population so polarized and ready to interpret any move as a conspiracy. It was taken, as could be expected, as a sign of support to the MB not as a sign of an elected government as the US embassy tried to explain with little impact. The Ambassador met other representatives from different groups, but the campaign went on.
But once again, Ambassador Paterson faces a situation that defies sanity. As she is preparing to move back to Washington to possibly occupy the post of Assistant Secretary of State for Near East, the rumor in Cairo is that she is being summoned back to the US because of her heavy handed handling of the Egyptian situation. Unfortunately for the Ambassador, this rumor should not be denied in any manner, directly or indirectly, for it preserves the image of the US as a neutral power in the current bitter political fight in that country.
In such a volatile and intense situations, perceptions form very quickly, and often erroneously, around a gesture or a word. Stirring nationalist and anti- American sentiment among the Egyptian public is the last thing that should happen in this moment regardless of the validity of any argument defending the Ambassador’s moves and statements. Public statement and high visibility is a loose – loose choice.
The second point here will touch upon the first. What should happen to avoid a perfect storm explains in a way what did not already happen. And the major element of that is related to the Egyptian armed forces.
I will avoid here the temptation of going back to the near past, that is to the armed forces rule over the country during the transitional period that followed the 25th of January 2011 and ended a year ago. But it is enough to say that this period has cost the military dearly and eroded a good part of its image among the population. We witnessed during this decisive period of a little over a year the roots of a good chunk of the current problem.
The Egyptian military recovered almost all its losses since then. In fact, those who are aspiring to get rid of the MBs, which is to say a majority of the population now, are looking to the army to do the job.
But the army should not, for the time being, interfere in this political mess. Furthermore, I belong to those who believe that the MBs and Morsi should remain in power. This last conviction is not based on any ideological or idealist concepts. I am definitely not a supporter of the MBs and have never been, and I do not blindly contribute to the parroting repetition of the already known words about the ballot box and voting.
It is simply a question of getting Egypt through this difficult period without adding more permanent losses, or, to be precise, with the minimum additional scars. The Jama’a Islamyeh, a group that terrorized Egypt during the 90’s is threatening to revive its terrorist infrastructure if Morsi is toppled by another public revolt. This time, however, it will be a part of a coalition that includes a wing of the Salafis, the Jihad organization, possibly Al Qaeda with its new gained presence in North Sinai and potentially part of the MBs themselves.
In a critical juncture of this nature during which the security apparatus is in its worse shape in long decades, such a risk should not be taken. Morsi is helful, provided he maintains a minimum of a national unity. But how could this crisis be solved?
It was obvious since last fall that the MBs will play their role heavy handedly and even stupidly. But what kind of leverage was used to get them to a more balanced and responsible governance? Almost none.
Let us just look at the last few weeks that marked the countdown to June 30th. The message from the US to the Egyptian armed forces was “back off” no interference in the political arena, that is while there was big popular pressure on the army to end the MBs stupide governance and mishandling of the administration.
Not to interfere was in fact what the US should have said to the armed forces. It was nor right nor helpful to push the army to enter the ring. It still is not. However, the moment the MBs got the word directly from Washington and in a meeting between Morsi and the minister of defense Abdul Fatah Al Sisi during which the general assured the president that he has no intentions to interfere, there was no more chances to get them to compromise.
If the solution to the crisis should be based on a political deal between the MBs and their opponents, there should be a way to pressure the two sides into the required deal. But when the MBs were assured that the army is on the side line, they appointed 17 Islamist governors of a total of 27 in the country in a very provocative way to the opposition, and just 3 weeks before June 30th.
There was no more stick. And as for the carrot, Secretary Kerry knows better. When he visited Egypt in March and April, he explained to the president the importance of reaching a deal between Egypt and the IMF. The proposed loan was estimated at about 4,8 billion Dollars but it was a condition for many countries to offer Egypt financial assistance.
The MBs took Sec Kerry’s pressure as a sign of underestimating the popular complaints of the dire economic situation, or worse as a push to help erode further any left popularity of the president. The MBs rushed to Qatar, explained their difficulty, and got 5 billion Dollars instead of the promised IMF 4,8.
Now, the stick of the army was neutralized by Washington in the eyes of the MBs. The carrot was rendered useless. What was left is a tongue stretching out to the US Sec of State.
It could have been way better to keep the MBs in the dark in relation to what the army intends to do and use that as a leverage to close the gap between the various political forces in order to form a national unity government able to get Egypt to cross this dire strait. It was also going to be helpful to tell the Qataris to cool down their game that uses the MBs to counter Saudi Arabia and gain unproportional influence in the region.
As for the pressure on the opposition, it was going to be helpful to use the leverage of the army in the opposite direction. That is to inform the opposition that the army will not interfere under any circumstances to end a deadly confrontation with the Islamists. But such a message should have been delivered before – not after – the buildup of such a huge momentum like the one we see in Egypt now.
Currently, the opposition hardened its position. The MBs did the same.
It may be the case on June 30th that the army will be obliged to interfere to stop the slide to complete chaos. It all depends on what will actually happen. If the intensity of the protests reached a high level and sustained to a long period of time, and if it involved violent and potentially armed confrontations between the Islamists and their opponents, the army will come under pressure to interfere. A reluctant leadership will encounter difficulties within the ranks of its own institution. This leadership may even receive the green light from Washington. But that opens scenarios that are unpleasant at best.
The armed forces leadership will face a difficult situation. But the degree of its difficulty will be proportional to the intensity of the popular protest. The holly month of Ramadan starts on July 10th. This may offer a way out though some people in Egypt believe it will invite further escalation.
As for the reason of what seems to be reckless behavior from the MBs, I should simply say that no issue has been discussed more. It was obvious that the MBs are listening to a different drum other than what Washington assumed. Khayrat Al Shatter seems to believe that sooner or later, in anyway, a confrontation was going to happen with the secular forces. He seems to believe as well that the “higher objective”, that of regaining the glorious past of the Islamic rule requires it to be really Islamic, not the “exchange of power” or the parliamentarian games. For the rule to be Islamic it should start with the Islamization of the state without delay. He also seems to believe that first the MBs are right and others are wrong, and second that they are in power by popular support. The current decline in their popularity is understood to be temporary and due to economic hardship. For them, the decisive battle was imposed on them, at least in timing, and that they must come wining.
It is said that he gave the example of Mubarak. He said something to the effect that Mubarak gave concessions in the last moment but this could not save him anyway; it just raised the demands of his opponents further. Therefore, he concluded, if it is a fight they will fight. Loss does not mean to the group more than losing a half Islamic (which is therefore not Islamic) rule and getting back to fight for the real thing.
I am not sure that this is the correct characterization of what the leadership of the MBs think. In one incident, they retreated after issuing a decree that had the power of a constitution last year But so far, there must be a valid explanation to all what seem to us as missteps and what maybe conceived by the MBS as precisely the proper steps.
However, as I mentioned previously, the maximum pressure that the US can exert on the MBs and its opponents should be exercised without delay. I do not know what happened in the closed meeting between Ambassador Paterson and Khayrat in Cairo, but I hope a tough message was delivered in order to get a political deal.
The Islamists are calling now for Jihad, the communists for the dictatorship of the proletariat, the liberals for a space without the MBs and the seculars for an Egypt without Islamists. This is a prescription for a civil war.