Belmont Club

Is Denial a River in Egypt?

The Christian Science Monitor asks whether an Islamist coup has just taken place in Egypt. “Have President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood swept away Hosni Mubarak’s old guard and set the stage for a rapid Islamization of the Egyptian government?” The newspaper concludes: ‘hardly’.  But the Monitor doesn’t even sound like it has itself convinced.

Almost certainly not. President Morsi’s moves yesterday, taken in consultation with the Islamist movement that vaulted him to the presidency, were a bold reworking of the rules of the Egyptian transitional game. He sacked Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and the heads of the air force, army, and navy, appointed a respected judge as his vice president, and with the stroke of a pen undid a set of restrictions that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had imposed on Egypt’s political transition.

By any measure, he and his movement are in a much stronger position than they were Saturday. But how long that position of strength will last, and how much Morsi will be able to accomplish, given the country’s perilous financial position and tremendous political polarization, are far from clear. The military’s still substantial influence, Morsi’s need for foreign cash and support, and the fears of a sizable minority of Egyptians about the Brotherhood’s goals have littered the political landscape with minefields.

“It’s just a flesh wound”. Sure it is. A friend of mine with extensive and current contacts in Egypt wrote last night to say that that the Obama administration has been putting out the word that there’s nothing to worry about in Egypt; that the gyrations we are now witnessing are just a curious local custom. It happens all the time.  He wrote almost incredulously about the the lack of a reaction in Washington.

According to David Ignatius in today’s WaPo, US officials ‘weren’t ringing alarm bells Sunday night, cautioning that this is in part a generational change, replacing figures who had become increasingly unpopular and isolated in post-revolutionary Egypt.’

And that’s indeed what Ignatius says. “The US officials ‘specifically discounted rumors that were circulating late Sunday that Sissi [the new army boss, full name Abdel Fattah al-Sisi] is an Islamist with secret connections to the Muslim Brotherhood. To the contrary, officials say, Sissi is well known to the U.S. military after spending a year of professional training in the United States and was regarded as a generally effective head of military intelligence.’”

But as my friend points out “this ‘new generation’ army man in Cairo is actually the same guy who hit the headlines last year when he came out and defended those brutal ‘virginity tests’ conducted by the army on women they rounded up in Tahrir Square.”

The appointment of this particular fellow is of strategic interest in that it seems almost calculated to galvanise all the different active opponents of the MB in Egypt — women especially, but Copts and ‘liberals’ generally — into protest. This comes on top of the blame heaped on the MB last week in the streets for the deaths of 16 or so Egyptian soldiers at the hands of ‘Bedouin’ in the Sinai. In other words, the MB’s campaign to subdue its non-Islamist opponents has a little way to run yet – but the MB are now effectively saying, ‘bring it on’. And why not?

It seems the most decisive factor single factor in determining this MB strategy and its likely outcome is Washington itself – most notably the fulsome support given to the MB by Hillary Clinton in her recent visit to Cairo. As in Iran, the MB opponents are being left orphaned in the streets — and, effectively, in western public opinion – by the US. This is in some ways worse however: given the terrible economic outlook in Egypt, and its abysmal levels of social development (with 40 per cent illiteracy , there is fear among non-Islamists in Cairo that the country may soon be more like Afghanistan than Iran.

If there are any prominent liberals at all left in the US who are prepared to publicly stand up to the Obama administration in the name of preserving some minimal decency in the ‘new Egypt’ now emerging, let alone human rights, right now would be a good time for them to speak up. But I guess no-one’s holding their breath.

Nope, you’d only get yourself blue in the face. But if it’s any consolation, David Ignatius has his doubts about the administration’s reassuring line. He points out that it looks like a coup so maybe it is a coup.

What’s indisputable is that the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Morsi is a longtime member, has now tightened its grip on Egypt, controlling the military as well as the presidency and the parliament. That’s either an example of democracy in action and civilian control of the military, or a Muslim Brotherhood putsch, depending on your viewpoint. It probably has elements of both.

The only concerns of unnamed US officials Ignatius cites concerns the independence of the Egyptian courts. It brings to mind the reactions of those old couples, who confronted with the burning of their house react in their shock by rescuing the the most insignificant belongings in view.

The U.S. view is that the replacement of aging top military leaders, in itself, isn’t worrying. But they would be concerned if Morsi moved to make changes in Egypt’s judiciary, which has been an important independent center of power since the Tahrir Square revolution that deposed Mubarak in February 2011. Worries about the judiciary were prompted by another Morsi move Sunday — to appoint senior judge Mahmoud Mekki as vice president. The fear is that Mekki, as a former jurist, might reject rulings by the courts.

Caroline Glick, writing from Jerusalem quotes reports saying the IDF was completely surprised but argues they should not have been.

Clearly our esteemed generals believed reassurances they received from their Egyptian military counterparts that Israel had no reason to be concerned with the election of Hamas’s big brother to Egypt’s presidency.

This reminds me of what former chief of the IDF’s General Staff Gabi Ashkenazi said at the Jerusalem Post’s conference in New York on April 29. In his remarks Ashkenazi said that no one in the IDF foresaw Mubarak’s overthrow during the anti-regime protests in Tahrir Square. I began my remarks by mentioning that I had foreseen his overthrow and replacement by the Muslim Brotherhood already back in 2004. And like me, everyone paying attention to the internal make-up of Egyptian society — rather than to the empty promises of generals with no popular support — recognized that Israel’s peace with Egypt was not long for this world. …

I am not saying this to rub Ashkenazi’s nose in his massive errors. I mention it because the same general staff that failed to foresee what was going to happen in Egypt, and fails to this day to understand the strategic implications of the Muslim Brotherhood takeover for the IDF, is the IDF that insists today that Israel can trust Obama to take care of Iran for us.

One thing’s for sure. If the IDF was surprised then it sure wasn’t the routine “generational change” that happens routinely in that neck of the woods. Their lack of surprise suggests that either they were completely blindsided or that the IDF had already got the word that Washington would not be surprised by the sackings at all.

So maybe someone has been sold out, but just who is still unclear. Is it Iran with US objections to striking their weapons removed in exchange for a nolo contendere in Egypt? Is it American public interest, proving once and for all that Andy McCarthy was right to warn that the Muslim Brotherhood had the ear of Clinton? Was it Israel itself which is now left holding the bag? In any case, the Copts were sold down the river last night.  For it is hard to imagine they will like what happens next.

The best case for the administration reaction to Egypt it that it is whistling past the graveyard of its own policies. The worst case is that we are witnessing the ridiculous ‘success’ of its policies.

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