How to deal with Egypt

Some nine months ago, I wrote how the January 25 uprising in Tahrir Square that ousted erstwhile Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak was not really a velvet, but a negotiated- or calibrated- revolution. Although there was spontaneous mobilization of people power on the ground, what really ocured was not a People Power transition but a coup d’etat. The people’s uprising was hi-jacked by the military clique, which had long been disenchanted with Mubarak, to finally launch their own coup against the dictator who had been trying to create a dynasty at the expense of the interests of the military.

This reality is now obvious to the world: As expected, the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces (SCAF), which took over from Mubarak, maneuvered to protect its turf in Egyptian politics and stalled the democratic transition. Indeed, although parliamentary elections are scheduled this week, until now it is not clear when the Council would hand power over to a civilian Executive. As a result, massive protests broke out, followed by the transition’s civilian leadership’s offer to resign their post in solidarity with the protests. The SCAF responded to these mass actions with crackdowns reminiscent of Mubarak’s methods, which only emboldened the protesters. “It’s January 25 all over again,” screamed one of the 20,000 people that filled Tahrir Square last Saturday. “They are back and we are not leaving. Down with military rule!”

In the ensuing chaos, twenty-four have been killed and hundreds of others injured, a toll higher than that of the uprising that ousted Mubarak. The anarchy has also encouraged attacks on Coptic Christians, suggesting a lingering danger that the violence may veer towards religious conflict. In response,  American President Barack Obama’s bi-partisan advisory panel in Washington, called the Working Group on Egypt, came out with a strong condemnation of the SCAF for its use of violence and its inability to smoothly facilitate a genuine democratic transition, even as the President himself is reluctant to criticize the Egyptian generals as strongly as he criticizes, say, the ruling regime in Syria.

Obviously, Egypt is of great strategic importance to the United States as its peace with Israel and its anti-extremist leanings are stabilizing factors in the Middle East. Conversely, the United States has great leverage over Egypt and its generals, who rely greatly on Washington’s aid.

And the Obama administration has to be very calibrated and calculating in utilizing that leverage.

During the height of the anti-Mubarak protests, I wrote that the White House’s approach to Egypt should be a balance between, on one hand, not being seen as being “on the wrong side of history,” and, on the other hand, ensuring that the political re-alignment in Egypt would not be detrimental to the security of Israel and to American interests in the Middle East. This balancing act meant that America would have to do away with Mubarak and support the council of generals that succeeded him. Now that the protests are targeted against those ruling generals, however, a balancing act to achieve both democracy and stability may prove to be very elusive. The Americans might have to choose only one of the two.

The biggest reason why this is so is because Egypt’s democracy movement continues to be leaderless, and this makes political unity, and therefore the ability to strategically maneuver against the junta, impossible.  The myriad spectrum of the movement, coupled with big egos that encourage crab mentality among potential leaders, is creating recurring deadlocks that prevents the forging of coalitions. This is the reason why parliamentary elections could be meaningless. Indeed, this makes the ruling generals’ reluctance to hand power to a civilian leadership quite justifiable. And this becomes more pronounced when you consider that the Muslim Brotherhood and their bands of extremists continue to lurk in the shadow, ready to exploit any situation that resembles anarchy.

Therefore, unlike the situation in January, the dilemma that President Obama faces now can’t be solved simply by supporting those who call for the military’s abdication of power.

Unless Egypt’s democratic forces get their acts together and ensure that they can provide a steady hand for Egypt, the United States should not dump the Egyptian generals and risk destabilizing the country. In my opinion, the best course of action for Washington is to continue propping up the generals, maybe quietly prod them to institute some liberal reforms, and hope that the protests would lose their steam. Unless President Obama would want to be known as the President that lost Egypt.

A working democracy is desirable for Egypt, of course. But between that and stability, I think the latter is of greater pragmatic importance.

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