What happened in Egypt yesterday and is continuing to happen today is sad, disheartening and about as completely unsurprising as any such event can be. In Tuesday’s short post I referred in passing to “the impending street clashes in Cairo.” In my August 2 post I specified the epicenter of the violence to come, the Rabaa al-Adaweya mosque compound, and explained why it was coming:
The Egyptian military knows what it’s doing, or at least it thinks it does. It thinks that by showing strength at this early stage in what is bound to be a protracted conflict within Egyptian society, it reduces the likelihood of a civil war and massive domestic violence. Al-Sisi and company believe that if they seem weak now in the face of protests, it will encourage the Brotherhood and the Al-Nour Party salafis to take the next steps and organize for an insurgency.
In others words, al-Sisi and associates believe in the “strong horse” theory of political legitimacy, and they are now in the process of applying that theory to Egyptian realities. Might doesn’t necessarily make right—that’s not at all how Islamic jurisprudence on such matters reads—but it’s good enough for government work failing other, gentler institutional alternatives. The Middle East lacks the warm, fuzzy affection for the underdog that many Americans take to be second nature. The dominant view of what is still a patriarchal, hierarchical and still clingingly pre-modern set of Muslim Middle Eastern societies is that the weak deserve whatever depredations they suffer. It’s a kind of ur-Social Darwinism that has been at work for many centuries before Darwin himself ever saw light of day.
As I also said before, I think Egypt’s military leaders are right about this. And I suspect they recognized that the longer they waited to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood encampments the better prepared the MB would be to resist. And they have resisted, and are still doing so. Several score policemen are dead among the many hundreds of MB protestors in Cairo and around the country. So are hundreds of mostly innocent Copts, who have no recourse but to be on the wrong side of the Brotherhood’s murderous intolerance. Indeed, spending energy and resources to kill Coptic civilians and burn down their churches while Muslim police are bearing down on you with shotguns furnishes about the best example there can be of how MB fanaticism completely swamps its capacity for rational planning of any kind.
But I also said (in my July 4 post, just after the coup) 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.
Thus the question of the moment: Is al-Sisi now proving that he is “that foolish”?
Not necessarily. I still think that what we are seeing in Egypt is a kind of deck-clearing phase. I still think a new political modus vivendi between the military and Egypt’s variety of Islamists is possible and likely, once certain red lines are re-established. And I even still think the Egyptian military can and ultimately will play the role of Praetorian guard over the emergence of a more vital civil society, political pluralism and maybe, one day still far off, even something we in the West recognize as democracy—and I think that because of the significant liberalizing social changes in Egypt over the past generation or two that are deep, real and irreversible. But first the generals have to make the MB and the salafis to their “right” (these European terms limp badly applied to Egypt, admittedly) say “uncle.” That may take a few weeks, or months, it now seems—and of course all this is happening in the broader context of a near completely collapsed economy. But the odds are that the military will have its way; the MB will say “uncle.”
That said, if General al-Sisi and company insist on making huge, generative mistakes, if they overdo it so much as to pull down the tent on themselves as well as their enemies, all bets are off. Things are not yet out of hand, but they could be.
Consider that the development of liberal democracy in the West and elsewhere has been a complex, long-running and varied phenomenon. As my TAI colleague Frank Fukuyama has explained, it involves creating a competent post-patrimonial state (which Egypt lacks), genuine rule of law (which Egypt also lacks) and either procedural or substantive accountability (both of which Egypt now lacks…..so much, then, for those who were so quick to pronounce Egypt not only ready for democracy but actually a democracy just a few short years ago).
We can see in past developments leading to liberal democracy the dialectical relationships among technological changes, social mobilization, economic specialization and the sometimes derivative, sometimes independent power of political ideas. But what we also see in more cases than not is the outsized and unpredictable role of both happenstance and exotic personalities. Some places become democratic that shouldn’t, according to the lights of social science, and some don’t that should. At times like these analysts can therefore know oodles of history and social science and have ample reservoirs of area- and country expertise and still end up totally wrong because some jerk simply screws up. We’ll know pretty soon if al-Sisi deserves the description. The technical term for this is the “monkey-in-the-machine-room corollary” of political development.
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Speaking of screwing up (or not), the New York Times continues its fall out of love with Barack Obama’s foreign and national security policies. The powers-that-be at the Gray Lady are evidently not thrilled with the President’s recent full-throated and quite artful defense of several NSA programs, and the way they describe the President today suggests an animus that has by now sunk down well below the waist. Get a load of this from Mark Landler and the usually even-tempered Michael Gordon:
Secretary of State John Kerry said the violence in Cairo was “deplorable” and “ran counter to Egyptian aspirations for peace, inclusion and genuine democracy”. . . . But Mr. Kerry announced no punitive measures, while President Obama, vacationing here on Martha’s Vineyard, had no public reaction. . . . On Wednesday morning, Mr. Obama was briefed on the situation by his national security adviser, Susan E. Rice. But he appeared determined not to allow events in Egypt to interrupt a day that, besides golf, included cocktails at the home of a major political donor, Brian Roberts.
Wow. Maybe Barack Obama really is Dwight David Eisenhower after all!
But I beg to differ with the Times’ insinuations—or at least one of them. The President is right not to allow himself and U.S. foreign policy to be, in effect, taken hostage by events over which we have little to no hope of control. Running one’s diplomatic mouth from the Oval Office (or Martha’s Vineyard…..whatever) while otherwise frozen in place is generally not a good idea. While Secretary Kerry is wringing his hands in Washington, al-Sisi is wringing necks in Egypt, and no amount of the former is going to stop the latter when existential issues are deemed to be at stake. So we are told, too, that Chuck Hagel, also on vacation, has spoken to al-Sisi more than a dozen times in private telephone conversations since July 3. That’s nice. (Besides, as Kerry and Hagel have to know, the Saudis, Qataris and other Gulf regimes are paying the Egyptian generals a lot more money to do what they are doing than the United States is sort of half-credibly threatening to withhold if they don’t.)
There is, however, one speck of plain truth in the Times’ account. The day some weeks ago when the AP and IRS scandals were front-page news, the President made brief comments to the White House press corps about them before helicoptering off to—where?—a major fundraiser on Wall Street. And here we go again: Egypt bleeds and POTUS cares more about straightening out his nine-iron shots and having cocktails with Brian Roberts, the very wealthy CEO of Comcast. Hey, I never said the President was doing the right thing for the right reasons.
But unlike the Times, I don’t trivialize the President’s priorities. His legacy, in his own words, is to win the House for the Democrats in the coming mid-term election. That’s what he cares about. He’s told us as much, and by now we had best be believing it. You may like it or not, but at least the man can do something about achieving that goal. There is very little he can do about the present state of political play in Egypt—very little indeed.