Day: June 29, 2012

Keep quiet and send money

Yesterday’s discussion of Egypt moderated by Freedom House’s Charles Dunne and sponsored by the Middle East Institute at the Carnegie Endowment was way more optimistic than many, but not convincingly so.

Hafez al Mirazi of the American University in Cairo was the most upbeat.  He is pleased that the revolution’s secularists joined forces with now President-elect Morsi in a civilian front intending to oust the military from power.  This alliance will continue until the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) hands over power.  Morsi, two of whose children are American citizens, is intending to bring a broad spectrum of people into his government.  SCAF will have little influence, beyond the power to declare war.  But then a few minutes later he admitted that the SCAF and the “deep state” (not further defined) will be a corrupting influence.  There is a lot to be done to ensure accountability, including investigation of the secret police and publication of archives.

Khaled Elgindy of Brookings was less upbeat.  The liberal consituency that brought about the revolution is now fragmented.  None of its components seems to be capable of a good “ground game”  among the Egyptian people.  Morsi will try to maintain good communication with Egypt’s Christians, but he needs to go beyond tokenism if he is going to win them over.  There is a real need to strengthen the judiciary and rule of law, including transitional justice.  But it is unclear how strong the commitment to accountability of the old regime is.  There is a palpable reluctance to dig up the past.  Economic development and security may take priority.  The “deep state” will persist, opening up to newcomers and trying to preserve its privileged hold on economic resources.

Nathan Brown of George Washington University was somewhere in the middle.  The West has gotten used to the idea of Morsi as Egypt’s president and support has been more forthcoming than anticipated.  The Americans have gotten the reassurance they need on Israel; the Europeans have gotten what they need on human rights.  The problem for Morsi is lack of resources.  The naming of a Christian vice president will be seen as a big and controversial step by the Muslim Brotherhood, but it won’t count for a lot with the Christians if it is tokenism.  Morsi’s primary concerns will be security and the economy.  The stock market rose 15% on his win, but he will have to sort out priorities among the Brotherhood’s economic directions:  social justice, sharia compliant finance and liberal “Washington consensus” policies.  The courts, which have played a major role in the transition so far, will now have to tussle with a democratically legitimated president.  SCAF influence in the courts remains substantial, with individual Supreme Constitutional and administrative judges beholden to the army.

Tellingly, the three presenters gave different answers to the question whether Egypt was really in a democratic transition, or not.  Hafez al Mirazi said yes, of course.  Morsi represents the revolution, which is now beyond the violent stage.  Khaled Elgindy said no, it has not yet really started.  Only now with Ahmed Shafiq’s concession of defeat can a real transition begin.  Nathan Brown thought there had certainly been a move towards democracy after the fall of Mubarak, but the process is unclear and losing momentum.

On the U.S. role, the advice was the same as I used to give alumni when I was an undergraduate:  keep quiet and send money.  That’s going to be hard to sustain unless there is clearer evidence that Egypt is moving in a direction the West finds acceptable.  Morsi’s vow today to seek freedom for Omar Abdel-Rahman, who is serving life in prison for conspiracy to blow up the World Trade Center eight years before 9/11, is not going to endear him to Americans.

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Putin was right

Russia’s President said earlier this week:

It is better to involve Iran in the settlement (of the Syrian crisis)…The more Syria’s neighbors are involved in the settlement process the better. Ignoring these possibilities, these interests would be counterproductive, as diplomats say. It is better to secure its support. In any case it would complicate the process (if Iran is ignored).

Putin is right.  UN/Arab League Special Envoy Kofi Annan is too:  he also wanted Iran at Saturday’s meeting in Geneva, which is scheduled to include the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Turkey as well as Arab Leaguers Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar.

The Americans have been blocking Iran from attending, on grounds that Tehran is providing support–including lethal assistance–to the Assad regime.  That is true.  It is also the reason they should be there.  So long as they meet the Americans’ red line–that attendees should accept that the purpose of the meeting is to begin a transition away from the Assad regime–it is far better to have them peeing from inside the tent out than from outside the tent in.  No negotiated transition away from the Assad regime is going to get far if the Iranians are dead set against it.

If they agree to attend, it will cause serious problems inside Tehran with the Quds Force, the part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard responsible for helping Bashar al Assad conduct the war he declared yesterday on his own people.  Discomforting the Iranians should be welcome in Washington.  If Iran had refused the invitation, which was likely, it would have been far easier to drive a wedge between them and the Russians, who are at least saying that they are not trying to protect Bashar al Assad’s hold on power.

Of course if they were to attend the Iranians would have raised issues that make Washington and some of its Arab friends uncomfortable.  Most obvious is Saudi and Qatari arms shipments to the Syrian rebel forces, who this week attacked a television station, killing at least some civilians.  But that issue will be raised in any event by the Russians, whether the Iranians are there or not.

The Iranians would likely also raise Bahrain, where a Sunni royal monarch rules over a largely Shia population.  The repression there has been far less violent and abusive than what Alawite Bashar al Assad is doing in Sunni-majority Syria, but the Iranians will argue that if transition to majority rule is good for the one it is also good for the other.  Does it have to get bloodier before the international community takes up the cause of the Bahraini Shia?  This argument will get some sympathetic noises from Iraq, which is majority Shia, but not from Sunni Qatar, UAE or Kuwait.

Turkey, meanwhile, has downplayed the  Syrian attacks on its fighter jets, which I am assured by a Turkish diplomat were in fact on reconnaissance, not training missions, as Ankara publicly claimed.  The reconnaissance flights routinely cross momentarily into Syrian airspace because it is impossible to fly strictly along the irregular border between the two countries.  Damascus shot down one, probably as a warning to its own pilots not to try to abscond, as one did last week.  Israeli jets also routinely violate Syrian airspace, but it is a long time since Syria took a shot at one of them.

The Turks seem to have gotten what little moral support they wanted out of consultations on the Syrian attacks at NATO  earlier this week.  Ankara has decided to low key the affair, thus avoiding further frictions with Syria, which can respond to any Turkish moves by allowing Kurdish guerrillas to step up their cross-border attacks into Turkey.

This is a complicated part of the world, where there are wheels within wheels.  Much as I dislike saying it, Putin was right to try to get all the main players in the room, lest some of those wheels continue to spin out of control if their masters haven’t been involved in the decisionmaking.  But that isn’t likely to change anyone’s mind in Washington, where electoral pressures preclude inviting Iran to a meeting on Syria.  Let’s hope that the meeting is nevertheless successful and that the plan it produces can be sold after the fact to Tehran, which otherwise may prove a spoiler.

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