Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Few Silver Linings in Egypt for the United States...or China

Recent events in Egypt provide significant food for thought for China policy idealists and realists.

The liberal West’s chosen panacea for China—millions of young people taking to the streets and voicing democratic slogans—produced an embarrassing military coup and an appalling massacre in Egypt.

If news reports can be trusted, there is a distinct lack of high-minded reflection and remorse, let alone anguished liberal handwringing, among the opponents of the Morsi/MB regime in the wake of the massacres that claimed over 600 lives:

"They deserved it. They wanted to destroy the country, so that's why the military had to step in," Salah Amin, a 17-year-old student from Sharqiya, said on Friday as fresh violence erupted in Cairo. "I'm with the army and the police against the Muslim Brotherhood, who want to ruin Egypt and run it the way they want."

"We agree with what happened at Rabaa and at Nahda," said Mohamed Khamis, a spokesman for the Tamarod (Rebellion) campaign, which mobilised public opinion against the democratically-elected but deeply unpopular Morsi. "We don't like what the Brotherhood did."

The ferocious illiberal pogrom against the MB condoned by Egypt’s liberals has provoked extreme intellectual contortions attempting to reconcile the ideal of Arab Spring democratic nobility with the 2013 reality of massacre, suppression, and slander.

If, on the other hand, the perspective is shifted away from “Egypt broke my heart” liberal solipsism, the Egyptian coup has some important and unfavorable implications for America’s standing in the Middle East.

The most important lesson of the Egyptian coup, for Americans at least, is its demonstration of the increasing marginalization of the US political and diplomatic presence in the Middle East as Saudi Arabia engineers its own aggressive response to the challenge of the Arab Spring.  (And Asianists should take note that Japan is poising itself to take on a similar role in its neck of the woods.  But that’s another story.)

Both Morsi and the United States were apparently oblivious to the Egyptian government’s deteriorating life expectancy, since they were operating on the theory that the military's deeply-felt detestation of the Muslim Brotherhood would be held in check thanks to the value it attached to its alliance with the United States and the billion-plus dollars of aid that came with it.

For the United States, the Muslim Brotherhood was regarded as “the Islamists we can do business with”, a political movement with a Leninist/modernist perspective on government and nation-building that was infinitely preferable to tussling with the obscurantist Wahabbi/Salafi/jihadi brand of Islam associated with Saudi Arabia that spawned al Qaeda and fueled anti-US struggles in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

The United States not only favored the MB in Egypt; it favored the MB faction that dominated the overseas Syrian opposition in its early days, and supported MB-heavy governments in Tunisia and Libya.  For a while, it looked like the MB—with enthusiastic backing from Qatar and its al Jazeera media operation—had run the table, and would serve as an acceptable intermediary for the United States in its dealing with the Arab world, and with the inchoate democratic movements that were destabilizing governments across the region.

Qatar supported Morsi and the MB in Egypt in a big way, as Mike Giglio reported for the Daily Beast in April:

Qatar had already promised Egypt financial aid totaling $5 billion, on top of plans to invest another $18 billion in the country over the next five years. Then, on Wednesday, it sent yet another lifeline, pledging to boost the struggling economy by buying up $3 billion in government bonds. (It also offered to send gas to stave off expected summer blackouts, which will give Morsi some much-needed political relief.)

There was one problem, however.

Saudi Arabia, pretty much the poster child for sclerotic, obscurantist autocracy, hates the Arab Spring.  It also hates the Muslim Brotherhood, whose religious and social agenda is predicated upon the achievement of political power, and had demonstrated a considerable ability to piggyback its political fortunes on the Arab Spring uprisings.

The Saudi government also decided, for whatever reason (but probably related at least in part to the Obama administration’s stated desire to pivot away from the Middle East and into Asia), to take matters into its own hands and do something about it.

So, in addition to the highly publicized agenda for anti-Shi’ite rollback which included targeting Iran and Syria, the brutal suppression of Shi’ites in Bahrain, and, possibly, sub rosa support for the increasingly bloody Sunni insurrection  against the Maliki government in Iraq, Saudi Arabia took aim at its leading competitor for influence in the Sunni world—Qatar—and Qatar’s chosen solution for riding out the storms of the Arab Spring—the Muslim Brotherhood.

I will confess to the sin of pride in that I was probably one of the first English-language observers to point out the Qatar-Saudi split, on the subject of Syria, when Saudi Arabia boycotted a meeting that was intended to reboot the MB-led and US-backed overseas opposition. 

Now, with plausible if MB-friendly reports of active Saudi participation in coup planning and orchestration of the military’s abandonment of Morsi, the Saudi-Qatar split is pretty much out in the open.

In order to keep the doors open in Cairo, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE have pledged $12 billion to support the new military-backed government.  Qatar—which has handsomely promised to deliver a scheduled shipment of free gas to the new regime—faces an uphill battle to exert influence in Egypt now that the MB has been deposed and suppressed and may shortly face an outright ban.

As for the United States, Americans are beginning to realize, $1.2 billion in U.S. military aid doesn’t buy a lot of influence in Egypt when put up against the kinds of numbers the the Middle Eastern states are throwing around to bankroll the regime’s fiscal and economic survival.  Now, it looks like the United States might need Egypt more than Egypt needs the U.S., which is not the bargaining situation one likes to be in.  

When, on top of that, one adds the fact that the U.S. threw another flip-flop into the gears by ditching the whole democracy-love thing and withdrawing its support for Morsi once the determination of the military to mount a coup was apparent, the U.S. appears markedly deficient both in moral cred and political clout in Egypt.

More fundamentally, U.S. obliviousness to the upcoming coup implies that Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, in a de facto alliance with Israel, have decided to lead on security policy in the Middle East, and it’s pretty much up to the U.S. to follow or get out of the way.

The other power dismayed by the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is Recip Erdogan’s Turkey.

Prime Minister Erdogan’s vision for the Middle East involves leadership by cautious elected Islamists wearing suits, and he was undoubtedly dismayed that the elected, suit-wearing MB regime in Egypt could be overthrown by the military (Erdogan’s bete noire in Turkey), and to thunderous popular acclaim.

Erdogan provided some inadvertent amusement by declaring that he saw the black hand of Bernard Henri-Levy—the showboating French intellectual who served as cheerleader for French intervention in Libya, an operation that Erdogan enthusiastically endorsed—in the Egyptian fracas.

Haaretz unpacked Erdogan’s remarks:

“Who is behind [the coup]? There is Israel,” Erdoğan told a meeting of party leaders. “We have document in our hands,” he said, citing an open session between a Jewish intellectual from France and an Israeli justice minister before the first free elections in Egypt held in March 2011.

As he was delivering multilayered messages concerning both foreign and domestic policy at the meeting, Erdoğan furthermore maintained that those who have been accusing the government of autocratic governance in Turkey should actually look at Egypt, where the coup rulers have been acting dictatorially. “If you want to see a dictator, go ahead, go to Egypt,” he said.

In an apparent reference to moves to topple his government at the time, Erdoğan recalled that Turkey had experienced coup attempts and undemocratic practices. “Here, at this moment, there are those who want to float again the West’s understanding which says ‘Democracy is not the ballot box,’ or ‘Democracy is not only the ballot box.’ But we say that democracy’s path passes through the ballot box and the ballot box itself is the people’s will. At the moment, this is what is being implemented in Egypt.”

“What do they say in Egypt? They say that ‘Democracy is not the ballot box.’”

A source later told the Associated Press that the evidence on Israel that Erdoğan was referring to was a video “available on the Internet” of a press conference by Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and French philosopher and author Bernard-Henri Levy.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that as far as he knew, that was the only evidence of the claim. A video of the two, dating back to 2011, shows Levy saying: “If the Muslim Brotherhood arrives in Egypt, I will not say democracy wants it, so let democracy progress. Democracy is not only elections, it is also values.”

Pressed further as to whether he would urge Egypt’s military to intervene against the Muslim Brotherhood, Levy said: “I will urge the prevention of them coming to power, but by all sorts of means.”

I should say that Levy, with the idea that national destiny should be guided a Hegelian democracy-geist channeled by infallible values-helmsman Bernard Henri-Levy, instead of that stupid ballot box, is…creepy.

Erdogan, on the other hand, is not racking up the points for democratically-elected Islamist-tinged governments.  In response to his unpleasant experience with values-democracy—the demonstrations in Gezi Square—it’s all payback all the time, as Emre  Kizilkaya reports in his invaluable Istanbulian blog:

[P]lease check the latest news:
  • And you don't need to be a celebrity or a large institution to get punished, even if you had passively supported the Gezi Park protests. Just two examples: 1) At least 19 people, including an 86 years old woman from Antalya, were fined 5,000 dollars because they supported the protests by banging pots and pans. 2) A driver in Hatay was fined 50 dollars because he supported the protests by honking.

There is a distinct shortage of silver linings in this situation, even for Saudi Arabia which, I imagine itself, is bracing itself for a existential struggle with MB-inspired Islamists who have abandoned any expectation of political accommodation.

As for the PRC, even if it is reveling in another mass democracy-fueled debacle in the Middle East, I think it will draw the unwelcome lesson that its preferred interlocutor, the United States, is increasingly unable to control its allies—either in the Middle East or Asia.  No silver linings there, either.

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