Tilting at pyramids

Those who follow Egypt these days are discombobulated.  Its military-backed government is forging ahead to exclude the Muslim Brotherhood from existence, never mind political participation.  It wants to make all Islamist parties illegal.  The Brotherhood is uncompromising.  Former revolutionaries are touting what looked like a coup as “popular impeachment.” Secular democrats who don’t buy that are under increasing pressure.

The frequent answer to these developments is to cut off American military aid, sending a signal to the Egyptian military that the US will not tolerate its excesses and to the broader Islamic world that Washington is not willing to sacrifice democracy on the alter of security.  Many of my friends in Washington believe we should have done this long ago, though they fail to put forward a serious plan for what happens next.

The latest call for an aid cut-off is more nuanced, long-term and sophisticated.  Shadi Hamid and Peter Mandaville recognize that unilateral US action in the absence of a broader political and diplomatic strategy will not work.  They argue instead that the US should prioritize democracy rather than security:

Concrete and consistent support for democracy over a significant time period – reflecting the fundamental policy reorientation tha twe propose in these pages – will make the United States the kind of partner that more Egyptians would like to work with. This, in turn, will make other policy initiatives easier to pursue.

What of Washington’s other policy goals besides democracy?  Hamid and Mandaville are at pains to point out that Egypt’s support on security issues in general, and Arab/Israel issues in particular, is in Egypt’s interest and not a favor to the US.

They also examine in detail the issue of whether the US has leverage in Egypt, pointing out that the $1.3 billion in military assistance cannot be readily replaced by others because it goes mainly to buying American equipment, vital spare parts, training and other services that only US companies can provide (assuming the US government is not willing to license other non-American companies to do so).  US leverage comes also from its influence over loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Gulf money can substitute for these loans in the short-term, but Hamid and Mandaville argue that if so the US can and should pressure Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.  Here they are vague about precisely what Washington needs to do, ignoring the obvious point that US security assistance to the Gulf serves American national interests:

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have depended on America for decades for vital security provisions, which remain particularly important today in the face of security threats from Iran and Hizballah. Effectively, the United States provides the Gulf with a “security umbrella,” which no other power is in a position to offer.

But there is nothing vague about what Hamid and Mandaville want the US to do vis-a-vis Egypt.  They would like Washington to “reign in the Egyptian Army’s excesses” and encourage return to a nonviolent democratic transition:

This…requires the willingness in Washington to take concrete action on suspending military assistance and make clear that tangible consequences follow from the army’s decisions. The United States should also suspend export licenses for equipment used by Egypt’s internal security forces to commit acts of violence against its citizenry. If and when the army commits to an inclusive political process and ceases its campaign of repression against Morsi supporters (and, increasingly, secular critics of military rule), then the suspended aid can resume.

But that is just a start:

After the army takes these first steps, new economic assistance, including IMF support, should be made conditional on holding free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections in a timely fashion coupled with robust international monitoring to ensure that the legitimacy of results are broadly accepted. Critically, any elections must include the full range of political groups. All parties must be free to contest – and win – elections. It is not a democracy if the Muslim Brotherhood and otherIslamist groups are blocked from meaningful participation.

There is more detail, but the main point is this:  at every stage, the US should make assistance of all sorts and from all sources conditional on moving the country towards democracy.

I’d give this paper an A for consistency and good intentions, which personally I share.  But it lacks practicality.  I doubt the US is capable of such a shift in policy from prioritizing security to democracy, not least because it would mean a shift in leadership inside the US bureaucracy from the Defense Department to a State Department more comfortable in its role as handmaiden to the Pentagon queen. If that $1.3 billion in military aid could be turned magically into civilian assistance, things might be different.  But it just isn’t possible.

Nor will Washington want to challenge a military regime in Egypt that is more committed to the Camp David accords than its predecessor and hostile to Hamas, to the point of destroying the tunnels into Gaza.  With hostility towards Israel strong in Egyptian public opinion, neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor the secular democrats are a better bet for help with the Israel/Palestine negotiations than the Egyptian military.  If that is the Administration’s priority, triage demands democracy wait.

More important:  it is hard for foreigners to want democratic reform more than the locals.  Egypt is a very big country with a long history and colossal economic problems.  Its democrats made their first big mistake in February 2011 when they turned their revolution over to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.  They made a second big mistake when they voted for Mohammed Morsi, who won by a whisker over a “remnant” of the Mubarak regime who could not have been more than a transitional figure, one who would have been forced to compromise with a Brotherhood-controlled parliament and its then allies among the secular democrats.  My hat is off to those few who are protesting the current ill-treatment of the Muslim Brotherhood.  But they are nowhere near being able to change Egypt’s course anytime soon.

I’m afraid we are reduced in these circumstances to playing a long game in Egypt.  We should support its true democrats as best we can, even while we continue aid to the military.  The one sure legacy of the Arab uprisings of 2011 is that ordinary people now feel they can and should participate in politics.  But conditionality from abroad cannot create the critical mass of Egyptian citizens needed to resuscitate Egypt’s democratic spirit.  Tilting at pyramids would not be good policy.

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