Adam Garfinkle ponders some continuities and discontinuities in Egypt's ongoing political crisis
A lot has happened since I posted “Abdel Fattah al-Sisi—Memorize That Name” on July 1. The scenario I posited has worked out so far in every respect save one, but it is an important one because it informs the not-at-all-trivial semantic argument over whether what has happened is or is not a coup.JW: A few points are worth adding here. First, I think Garfinkle is right to suggest that the military's first preference was not to depose Morsi with a straightforward coup, but instead to use the threat of a coup to force Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood into a power-sharing arrangement with the opposition. (Samuel Tadros offered a similar analysis on Tuesday, before the coup, and I think he was also right about this) But you don't always get your first choices in life. Once Morsi called the military's bluff by rejecting their ultimatum, they had to call Morsi's bluff or back down in a way that would have looked like a humiliating defeat. So they went ahead with their coup.
I assumed that the military would invite the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Freedom and Justice Party, into its planned transitional government arrangement. It did. But the MB, led in this case, I assume, by a decision taken together by Mohammed Morsi, Khaitar al-Shatar and Mohammed Badie, vehemently rejected that invitation and engaged instead in what one organizer of the Tamarod movement has termed “incitement to civil war.” Morsi’s 11th hour change of heart, where he seemed to offer a dollop of conciliation, struck al-Sisi as not just too little too late, but as the act of a desperate man—which, of course, is what it was, since by then Morsi’s entire cabinet had resigned and repudiated his rambling fulmination of the previous evening.
The MB’s rejection of the Army’s invitation was both unnecessary and very stupid, but Leninist-organized religious fanatics enthralled by conspiracy theories are prone to stupidity.
Second, the Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood may have miscalculated in their response to the army's pressure, and everything else that Garfinkle says about them here is correct, but their refusal to consider a power-sharing arrangement was neither odd nor self-evidently "unnecessary". They clearly saw themselves as engaged in an all-or-nothing power struggle, the latest stage in an effort to control and reshape Egyptian society pursued tenaciously over more than 8 decades. Morsi, their presidential candidate in the last election, had barely squeaked through to victory over a figure from the deeply discredited Mubarak regime. So they probably figured that their chances of winning again in early elections, under current circumstances, were unpromising—and that their chances of winning another election further down the line probably depended on consolidating control of the state apparatus first. They had been presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to consolidate control over that state apparatus, a process that would undoubtedly take at least the full duration of Morsi's allotted term, and they were not about to give up that opportunity. So their decision to reject the military's pressure for power-sharing should probably not have been surprising. It was, so to speak, overdetermined.
It is, nevertheless, poetic justice of a sort that Morsi has behaved in a politically incompetent way that has objectively aided the Army, since he was the benefactor of a prior year-long episode of incompetence perpetrated by Field Marshall Mohammed Hussein Tantawi that aided the Brotherhood.JW: This would have amounted to what is sometimes called a "soft coup".
So is this a coup? Well, if Morsi had decided to “come along quietly” and participate in an Army-directed recalibration of Egyptian politics on behalf of the MB, then no, it would not have so readily been called a coup—especially if Morsi had officially remained President for a little while in the transition to a transition. (Yes, in Egypt there are such things.)
But the way things turned out, it’s hard to call what has happened anything other than a coup, and this is unfortunate for two reasons.JW: What Garfinkle really means it that it would force the hand of the US government unless that dilemma gets evaded through a bit of creative diplomacy and linguistic hypocrisy. In reality, as Garfinkle goes on to explain, a suspension of US aid is very unlikely to happen. And yes, simply cutting off US aid to Egypt right now would be a bad idea.
It is unfortunate, first, because it forces Congress’ and the Administration’s hand to suspend aid to Egypt, and doing that right now, either to the military ($3.1 billion) or the paltry sum we give to the rest of the Egyptian government ($250 million), is a bad idea.
The President has wisely avoided using the word “coup” in his very scanty public remarks, and so retains some flexibility to declare a national security exception to the law if he chooses to do so. He should, and aside from the obvious benefit of not forfeiting what little leverage we have left in Egypt, here is why.JW: "Less successful" is a rather euphemistic way to describe the case of Pakistan, to put it mildly, and it's not clear how well the examples of South Korea and Indonesia really fit into Garfinkle's argument, either. In fact, the whole scenario that Garfinkle sketches out here sounds extremely optimistic—which is ironic, since he wants to contrast his own clear-eyed realism with the muddled and starry-eyed naivete of other commentators.
It is unfortunate, second, because the language is so loaded that it obscures important distinctions. There are coups and there are coups, just as there are democracies and there are democracies. With any luck at all, and especially if the United States maintains and wisely uses its leverage (of which more below), what General al-Sisi has set in motion could in time be seen as a “corrective movement”, a very popular locution in Arab politics, instead of a coup. But for that to happen Egypt may need to be a Praetorian Democracy for a while—in other words, an under-institutionalized democracy whose incubation period is protected by the military. This is hardly a rare circumstance. It defines the relationship between the military and the political culture at large in Turkey for many years, in South Korea and Indonesia in different ways, and to a less successful extent in Pakistan, among many cases.
Could the Egyptian military play such a role in future, despite having never been so inclined in the past? It could, because, as I mentioned last time, there have been significant social changes in Egypt over the past generation or two that conduce to the birth of attitudes supporting genuine political pluralism. And while the Army has parochial interests aplenty, it also genuinely thinks of itself as a patriotic national institution that takes the best interests of the Egyptian people to heart. If the Egyptian people are developing a more sophisticated sense of their own public square, there is reason to believe that the Army will acknowledge and support that development in due course. [....]
But the Turkish model does raise some interesting issues—and not only because that analogy is undoubtedly in the minds of the Egyptian military. From the 1920s through the present, how many military strongmen in Muslim countries have dreamed of emulating the modernizing role of Ataturk! (The last two Shahs of Iran were among them.) In most cases, sad to say, these experiments have ended in disaster. And experiences with "Praetorian Democracy" elsewhere in the world (e.g., Latin America) are mostly not encouraging.
But then there is Turkey. The extent to which one thinks that the Kemalist republic provides a good model for a long-term transition to stable democracy by way of extended quasi-authoritarian tutelage, with the military serving the role of a 'moderating power', will depend in part on how successful one feels that long-term process has been for Turkey ... and about that, to paraphrase a remark about the French revolution once attributed to Chou En-Lai, it may still be too early to tell. And then there's the further question of how well what worked (more or less) in 20th-century Turkey will work in 21st-century Egypt.
Still, one reason to consider this suggestion seriously is that most of the available alternatives don't look very promising, either. Maintaining the autonomous power of the military in Egypt's political system is obviously a bad idea for all sorts of reasons, both direct and indirect. Even when the military aren't actively shooting people or putting them in jail, a political role for the military always has corrupting effects on a country's political culture. But there's always that question of alternatives—not ideally desirable alternatives, but realistically available alternatives. One could legitimately ask whether, given the realities of Egypt's current situation, prematurely eliminating the military's autonomous role might not lead to even worse consequences.
=> But now we come back from from future-oriented speculations to recent and present realities.
The American mainstream press over the past few days has come up with the usual multitude of predictable boners—misleading and sometimes flatly wrong statements about what is and has been going on in Egypt. These screw-ups have followed faithfully from the errors made originally, back in the spring of 2011—which I detailed at the time in this blog—of which three were key:JW: What Garfinkle goes on to list are not the pundit's errors but the important facts that, in his opinion, the pundits have missed or misunderstood. His judgments here seem largely on-target.
(1) the ouster of Hosni Mubarak itself was not a revolution and it did not signify a regime change—it was an internal putsch within the military than ended a dynasty rather than a regime;JW: Certainly that's what the military, and the rest of the Mubarak-era power structure, wanted. They may have set forces in motion that were more powerful and transformative than they bargained for.
because (2) Mubarak was not really a civilian President and the Army was not just one of an array of political actors—just because he wore no military uniform most of the time did not mean he wasn’t always and ever an Air Force general; and (3) the opposition at the time out in the street was demanding the fall of the dictator, which was the only thing it could agree on—it was not in the main a “pro-democracy movement” as we understand the term. [...]That last point broadens the focus from the military-dominated power structure that has ruled Egypt since the 1950s to include the larger range of politically mobilized forces in the society. Unfortunately, one of those political forces greatly outweighs all the rest in terms of coherence, effectiveness, and disciplined organization—i.e., the Muslim Brotherhood. Many of Egypt's political dynamics since the fall of Mubarak have been shaped by the interplay between these two quite different authoritarian forces (and their satellite elements), the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. As Garfinkle emphasizes, it's important not to misunderstand or oversimplify that relationship.
The Muslim Brotherhood is at the same time a radical group but not a revolutionary one. One has to be very careful with how one uses English words when talking about Egypt, because its political and social physiognomy is not the same as ours. As I explained in one of my 2011 posts, the Army and the Brotherhood were long-time political contestants, so long that both sides grew to guardedly respect each other in the midst of their tussles so long as certain red lines were respected on both sides. The MB was technically illegal but tolerated so long as it foreswore violence, and the Army let the MB proselytize and provide some social services the regular bureaucracy could not ever seem to manage. That arrangement was encouraged by the fact that, by Sadat’s time, both the Army and the Brotherhood had common enemies: unreconstructed Nassarite leftists and Communists to the one side, and truly revolutionary salafi Islamists to the other. In this light, then, conflating the MB with a group like al-Gamaa al-Islamiya is deeply, profoundly ignorant.Too true.
Of course, that established if fragile equipoise, which had to have been a major factor leading Tantawi to think he could control Morsi, has now gone by boards. But anyone who imagines that the Egyptian MB can turn itself into a revolutionary insurgent force that stands any chance against the Army just doesn’t know what he’s talking about. One fellow I know on the scene saw from his apartment window a bunch of MB types running “training” laps around a city square while chanting some lamely dramatic slogan, with some clutching tree branches for would-be weapons. If there’s anything funny about what’s going on in Egypt right now, this has to be it. Senior MB leaders are not going to start a civil war. They may be stupid, but they are not suicidal.
At the same time, it is true that if the Army tries to completely exclude the MB from the nation’s future political configuration, it is bound to sire a new generation of Islamist terrorists. Nothing about General al-Sisi suggests he is that foolish, however. So in a sense the limits of action within the ambit of Army-MB relations remain intact, at least in some form. But who knows? Making big mistakes is the one hallmark that, whatever their other differences, unifies recent Egyptian leaders.
=> In thinking about the dilemmas involved here, and the potential disasters that might lie ahead, at least two worrisome analogies come to mind.
One of those possible analogies, which no one in the Middle East can forget, is Algeria in the 1990s. In late 1991 the Algerian regime, which had been tentatively experimenting with an electoral opening, cancelled the national elections to forestall an expected victory by the main Islamist Party. This provoked an armed insurrection by more radical Islamists, which in turn escalated into a horrifyingly brutal and murderous civil war that lasted more than a decade and killed more than 100,000 Algerians before the rebels were eventually crushed. Right now there is no reason to expect an Egyptian re-run of Algeria's civil war, at least on the same scale. But the Egyptian regime has been involved in violent conflicts with radical jihadists on several occasions over the past several decades, accompanied by plenty of atrocities on both sides, so a new round of that can't be ruled out—and one never knows where these things lead.
Another possible analogy that has occurred to me (more distant, possibly even far-fetched) involves Argentina's political experience after Juan Perón was overthrown by a military coup in 1955. For the next two decades the political class tried to run a regime of parliamentary representative government, elections and all, while excluding the Peronists—who did indeed pose a threat to political liberty (as well as to the social and economic interests of the oligarchic elites), but who also happened to have extensive and solidly enduring popular support. That experiment did not work very well, and ended disastrously.
OK, this analogy is far from perfect, but perhaps it works well enough to be usefully thought-provoking. The Muslim Brotherhood's role in Egyptian society and politics poses genuine, and genuinely difficult, dilemmas for the prospects of an Egyptian "transition" to a stable and successful democratic regime. On the one hand, as I just suggested, if the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters are simply excluded or suppressed, then a significant portion of Egyptian society will regard the pretense of democratic politics as a sham. And I can imagine scenarios where the Muslim Brotherhood could play a tolerably unthreatening role in democratic politics in Egypt, if a system of democratic politics does begin to emerge, and perhaps even a constructive role in the long term—but only under two conditions. First, this would only work if the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies do not get unchallenged control of political power, which will be hard to prevent as long as they don't face effective political competition (and/or they're not held in check by the autonomous power of the military, which poses its own problems). Second, in the long run the Muslim Brotherhood would have to undergo a profound internal transformation, leading to a genuine and principled acceptance of democracy and of social and political pluralism. (Willingness to use elections to gain power isn't enough, by itself, to meet those criteria.) That sort of long-term ideological evolution can't necessarily be ruled out as impossible. (After all, even some of the most rigidly Stalinoid Communist Parties in western Europe evolved in the direction of Euro-Communism ... before sliding into the dustbin of history.) But contrary to some naive or apologetic commentary on the subject, right now the Muslim Brotherhood is far away from getting to that point (if it ever does).
And, of course, the prospects for a successful Egyptian "transition" to democracy in the near future are complicated a lot of other factors, too ...
=> Garfinkle concludes:
[W]e should realize that neither America as a nation nor the U.S. government specifically can “fix” Egypt, whatever that is supposed to mean. We never could. We did not cause their problems and we cannot solve them. We cannot turn Egypt into our kind or any kind of democracy, and we can only help Egyptians who want to travel that road if they ask us—not the other way around.=> But it would be wrong to close by focusing so exclusively on the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood (and US foreign policy). As Trudy Rubin correctly pointed out on Thursday, if there's going to be any chance for the successful emergence of democracy in Egypt, what will be even more crucial is the role of the political opposition,
More to present needs, however, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is neither devil nor savior, neither destroyer of democracy nor the man-on-white-horse answer to Egypt’s suffering. He can’t change the past or control the future, but he needs help where he can find it in the still parlous present. We have a somewhat awkward and unglamorous interest in providing some of that help, if only because doing so can restore some of the leverage we have lost in recent years. [....]
which also bears a large share of blame for Egypt's troubles. The youth leaders who organized both Tahrir Square revolts have proven their talent at rallying millions. But they have been unable, or unwilling, to create a coherent political movement out of an opposition that includes liberals, leftists, former regime supporters, and some moderate and Salafi Islamist groups.Hoping for the best,
These disparate groups had little in common other than their opposition to Morsi. They undercut efforts by the Morsi government to reform the collapsing economy, while proposing no workable plan of their own.
Had the opposition united behind one candidate or political program, it might have defeated Morsi in presidential elections; it also might have bested Brotherhood candidates in parliamentary elections that Morsi had promised for this fall. Instead, if new parliamentary elections were held tomorrow and the military allowed Islamist candidates to run, they might win again, because only they are politically organized.
The splintered opposition has perfected the art of street politics, but hasn't shown it can govern. Nor is there any sign that the opposition contains leaders who could unite the country or fix its economy. [....]
Now that Morsi is gone, opposition groups can no longer hide behind anti-Islamism. They will have to up their game and prove that they have leaders with the ability to govern.
Those leaders will have to reach out to include Islamists in the political system, or risk bloody violence if they are excluded. Polls show that the non-Islamist opposition and Islamist parties each command around 30 percent of the electorate (while 40 percent are fed up with both sides).
And opposition activists will have to move beyond the politics of Tahrir Square and street protests, which won't save Egypt from collapsing. Otherwise, demonstrators may be soon be demanding that they, too, leave the political scene.