Members of the Republican Guards stand in line at a barricade blocking protesters supporting deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in Cairo July 9, 2013. (Reuters/Khaled Abdullah)
It’s not a good sign that the ruling military council in Egypt and its holdover judges are mooting the release of the imprisoned former president, Hosni Mubarak. Having crossed the line of no return, however, by killing as many as a thousand pro–Muslim Brotherhood protesters in a series of mass shootings, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi and his cohorts are all in. It’s almost inconceivable that the military will seek to reconcile with Egypt’s Islamists, nor is the Muslim Brotherhood likely to respond to any overtures from the army.
President Obama has criticized the military, halted the delivery of four F-16s, canceled US-Egyptian military exercises, and may cut back on economic aid. Given the situation, a complete halt to US military support to Egypt is called for—but it will be useless, and it will likely backfire as happened in Pakistan after Washington broke with Islamabad over Pakistan’s nukes. Egypt’s military seems to know what it wants, and it won’t be deterred.
There are scenarios aplenty: a spiraling descent into Syria- or Algeria-1990s-style civil war; a long-running standoff with sporadic violence between the ruling military and Islamist radicals; the return of a veneer of democracy, if the military can coopt some civilians into serving as the face of what will be an authoritarian, army-backed government. For the United States, however, there are no good choices, no good options and almost no useful leverage.
Egypt’s new military government will probably be in power for the long haul, and it’s very likely that the Muslim Brotherhood will be dissolved and banned, returning to the underground status it maintained from 1954 to 1970. Whether it can survive without a major foreign patron is a question, since during the 1954–70 period the Brothers had the backing of Saudi Arabia, which, like them, bitterly opposed the government of then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Now, Saudi Arabia—like Israel—is strongly backing the armed forces. As The Wall Street Journal reported:
In a comparatively rare public foreign-policy statement read Friday on Saudi television, King Abdullah declared that what was happening in Egypt was an Arab affair. “Let it be known to those who interfered in Egypt’s internal affairs that they themselves are fanning the fire of sedition and are promoting the terrorism which they call for fighting,” he declared, without mentioning any country by name.
That’s almost precisely the language that Saudi Arabia used when it accused the United States of interfering in Egypt’s “internal affairs” back in 2011, when Riyadh blamed Washington for supporting the fall of Mubarak.
Israel, too, is planning a global campaign to convince the United States and the West not to abandon Egypt’s generals. As The New York Times reports, quoting an Israeli official:
“We’re trying to talk to key actors, key countries, and share our view that you may not like what you see, but what’s the alternative?” the official explained. “If you insist on big principles, then you will miss the essential—the essential being putting Egypt back on track at whatever cost. First, save what you can, and then deal with democracy and freedom and so on.
“At this point,” the official added, “it’s army or anarchy.”
Indeed, it may now be exactly that: the army or anarchy. Or, it could be the army and anarchy.
It’s interesting, of course, that while Israel and its American allies, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, lobby Washington to maintain its support for the generals, key conservative hawks such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham—who were dispatched to Cairo last week in a failed effort to prevent the crisis that has emerged full-blown—have chosen to veer off from the AIPAC line and argue that the United States has no choice but to condemn the coup, halt American support for Egypt, and renew a push for a restored democratic government in Cairo.
But the McCain-Graham view won’t have the effect they want, and it’s likely that Israel has figured that out. The Israelis are concerned that an American break with Egypt now will simply mean that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates—possibly with a chagrined Qatar in tow—will replace US financial aid and that Egypt will drift toward Russia and China for arms and political support.
The startling inability of the United States to talk sense to Egypt’s generals was recounted in two very important pieces in The New York Times and The Washington Post over the weekend. Most startling of all is that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who had convinced himself that he had established a rapport of sorts with Sisi and the generals, made no less than seventeen phone calls to Sisi aimed at convincing him not to move violently against the Muslim Brotherhood encampments in Ciaro and elsewhere, and he was rebuffed. Not only that, but countless US officials called and met with Egyptian military officials and others—including Mohammed ElBaradei, the foiled civilian leader, who resigned after the massacre—to no avail. None. As the Post reported:
Two weeks before the bloody crackdown in Cairo, the Obama administration, working with European and Persian Gulf allies, believed it was close to a deal to have Islamist supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi disband street encampments in return for a pledge of nonviolence from Egypt’s interim authorities.
All of the efforts of the United States government, all the cajoling, the veiled threats, the high-level envoys from Washington and the 17 personal phone calls by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, failed to forestall the worst political bloodletting in modern Egyptian history. The generals in Cairo felt free to ignore the Americans first on the prisoner release and then on the statement, in a cold-eyed calculation that they would not pay a significant cost—a conclusion bolstered when President Obama responded by canceling a joint military exercise but not $1.5 billion in annual aid.
While the United States was working with the UAE in the two weeks before the massacre, it appears that the UAE—which is aligned with Saudi Arabia—simply double-crossed the United States, says the Times:
But while the Qataris and Emiratis talked about “reconciliation” in front of the Americans, Western diplomats here said they believed the Emiratis were privately urging the Egyptian security forces to crack down.
Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the Emirati foreign minister, went to Washington last month and urged the Americans not to cut off aid. The emirates, along with Saudi Arabia, had swiftly supported the military takeover with a pledge of billions of dollars, undermining Western threats to cut off critical loans or aid.
Hagel’s calls to Sisi were especially ineffective:
Mr. Hagel tried to forge a connection with General Sisi, the defense minister who has become the country’s de facto leader. Mr. Hagel, a 66-year-old decorated Vietnam War veteran, felt he and General Sisi, a 58-year-old graduate of the United States Army War College in Pennsylvania, “clicked right away” when they met in April, an American official said.
In a series of phone calls, Mr. Hagel pressed General Sisi for a transition back to civilian rule. They talked nearly every other day, usually for an hour or an hour and a half, lengthened by the use of interpreters. But General Sisi complained that the Obama administration did not fully appreciate that the Islamists posed a threat to Egypt and its army. The general asked Mr. Hagel to convey the danger to Mr. Obama, American officials said.
“Their whole sales pitch to us is that the Muslim Brotherhood is a group of terrorists,” said one American officer, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the dialogue.
Both the Post and Times articles ought to be read in their entirety, as evidence of America’s near-total lack of influence over the course of events in Egypt.