The Duel of the Nile

Hundreds, perhaps thousands of people have been killed in Egypt as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian military continue to struggle for control of the country.  The Brotherhood is angry that America isn’t backing its ‘democratic rule’ while the military is probably angry at the unleashing of the Brotherhood in the first place. Disappointment abounds. “The US has lost the Islamists, Egyptian society and the military,” Geneive Abdo, a Stimson Center fellow who monitors Egypt says. That kind of makes you wonder who’s left on the American side.


But the Washington Post thinks the administration can win the Islamists back. Nothing is apparently beyond the ability of the Obama administration. Not even the ability to make enemies of everyone, a feat which formerly seemed beyond the capacity of any mortal man.  The WaPo warns in an editorial: “the further use of force against the Muslim Brotherhood will lead to the immediate suspension of U.S.-Egyptian military cooperation.” I predict that if Egypt complies and reinstates Morsi the next WaPo editorial will read,  “the further use of force by the Muslim Brotherhood against the military will lead to the immediate suspension of U.S.-Egyptian  cooperation.”

Never mind: the rules are apparently whatever happens it’s always America’s fault. Were it not for the gravity of the situation it would bring to mind those Three Stooges skits where Moe hits Larry and Larry hits … Curly.

The New York Times thinks the open violence between factions in Egypt “may be an ill-omen for the broader region.” It explains this amazing insight.

BEIRUT, Lebanon — In Libya, armed militias have filled a void left by a revolution that felled a dictator. In Syria, a popular uprising has morphed into a civil war that has left more than 100,000 dead and has provided a haven for radical jihadists. In Tunisia, increasingly bitter political divisions have delayed the drafting of a new constitution.

And now in Egypt, the epicenter of the Arab World, the army and security forces have toppled the elected Islamist president, killed hundreds of his supporters, declared a state of emergency and worsened a deep polarization.

It is clear that the region’s old status quo, dominated by imperious rulers who fixed elections, ruled by fiat and brutally quashed dissent, has been fundamentally damaged, if not overthrown, in the three years since the uprisings optimistically known as the Arab Spring. What is unclear, however, is the replacement model.


Unfortunately the replacement is model is probably imperious rulers who fix elections, rule by fiat and brutally quash dissent. The new boss is the same as the old boss. The Times quotes a local pundit who says “the old regional order has gone, the new regional order is being drawn in blood and it is going to take a long time.” That’s true insofar as it goes but the NYT analysis doesn’t go far enough. The problem is not  just that the national arrangements that are dissolving. The regional framework has melted too.

America has got out of the  hegemon business. This seems to be in part a conscious decision by the Obama administration. But they didn’t think it through enough.

What has replaced it is what was quaintly termed a power vacuum. There are still powers in the region to be sure. Russia, Iran, the Gulf States and the ghost of the old hegemon, the United States: when it isn’t worrying about gay marriage, global warming or feminist rights. But none of those powers is as yet able to fill the old position of dominance. Each has enough power to affect events but none is willing or able to determine their outcome. In other words the current actors have enough juice to cause problems but not enough to fix them.

The perils of power vacuum used to well known. They are like fires with nobody to put them out. Sixty years ago as a result of the traumatic experiences of combat, the US Navy concluded with  religious fervor that fire was your enemy and one never gave it the chance to get out of hand. At the first chance one flung down the fire curtains, cooled the hot spots, jettisoned the bombs, tossed the smoldering planes over the side. You did anything and everything possible to keep the conflagrations from joining up because once the flame ran together you were toast, both literally and figuratively.


This lesson was apparently forgotten by the administration. It’s first act was to transfer the bulk of its available forces to Afghanistan, which is landlocked. Fire brigade gone, check.

The second was to take the flames of Egypt’s Arab Spring and North Africa and fan them to white hot intensity in Libya, like a child fascinated by bright colors. It then blew on the coals in Syria until they leaped up into sparks. Spread democratization through the Arab world. Check.

Then to cool the flames burning in the Levant it asked Jordan to open its doors and Lebanon too. Not content with this ventilation, it asked Turkey to take a hand. Keep things under control. Check.

And so things spread. But to top everything off, it performed these tasks in the most opaque manner possible, under the cover of secrecy, night and disinformation, as exemplified by Benghazi. Put a blindfold on everybody. Check.

Nobody knows what’s going on. But never mind: trust Obama, trust Obama we are told. Why? because he grew up in Indonesia, because he’s a child of the world. Yet given what is known, why trust Obama again?

If Admiral Spruance had appointed Admiral Obama to command the carrier force, and Obama’s first instinct was to order every bomb hit immediately doused with aviation fuel, Spruance would have reassigned him to the golf course. But we don’t learn any more. It’s all spin all the time. The New York Times is right: the region is ill-omened. But the reasons for this reversal of fortune are no mystery.  Obama bet the farm and lost. And he bet it secretly too.


Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with you friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.

The War of the Words for $3.99, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
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