A Crisis in Competence

The overthrow of Morsi in Egypt is bad news for the Muslim Brotherhood. But is it good news for anyone? Austin Bay notes that the Egyptian military is now obviously on top. But he is unsure whether it will revert to its old Nasserite ways or become more inclusive. David Goldman (Spengler) endorses Austin's view that the army is back in the cards and adds that some Islamists will come up on top  to displace the Muslim Brotherhood, whom the Saudis despised.

The reason the Saudi-backed boys will get a seat at the table is simple. Only the kingdom has the money to save Egypt from imminent starvation. The Egyptian military can hardly turn to Obama. Spengler notes, "Obama is all talk and no money ... the administration cannot squeeze meaningful sums out of Congress for Egyptian aid. The only prospective rescuer with deep enough pockets to keep Egypt from disintegrating is Saudi Arabia."

He's all turban and no camels. Spengler writes of the military:

There is only one reason the military might do a better job than the Muslim Brotherhood or the liberal opposition, and that is because Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states (besides tiny Qatar) might decide to provide funding for a military regime that suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Saudi regime rightly fears as a competitor to its medieval form of monarchy. That is why Saudi aid to Egypt has been insignificant, while tiny Qatar has committed $5 billion–nearly a fifth of its total foreign exchange reserves–to keep Egypt afloat during the past year.

Egypt needs about $20 billion a year in external subsidies; a smaller amount would forestall the worst effects of the economic crisis. With $630 billion in foreign exchange reserves, Saudi Arabia is the only Arab country with the resources to give Egypt help on the scale it requires. But the Saudis will not subsidize their own prospective executioners. The Muslim Brotherhood is a modern totalitarian political party; next to the Saudi royal family, it looks like a meritocracy. For ambitious Saudis not born into the ruling family, it offers an attractive alternative.

Lee Smith of Tablet magazine examines the chances that the new Egyptian leaders will try to divert popular discontent by making war on Israel. But he rightly notes that the Egyptian army knows it will get its ass kicked.  Its chances at returning to economic power after such a defeat are diminished, and therefore a diversionary war with Israel, while possible, is probably irrational. The only thing keeping such a lunatic option on the table is the situation itself is irrational.

The big international losers in recent events are probably Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Obama administration. The big winners are the Egyptian army, Saudi Arabia, and, possibly, al-Qaeda. In a much re-Tweeted post, Kirsten Powers wrote, "Obama on the wrong side of history twice in Egypt." Kori Schake at Foreign Policy writes, "U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has achieved the hat trick of alienating all factions in Egypt."

Perhaps the most scathing critique comes from Josh Rogin and Eli Lake at the Daily Beast. "Obama Offers a Revisionist History of His Administration’s Approach to Egypt." In other words, having lost in history's accounting, Obama is now resorting to the pathetic exercise of trying to rewrite it.

But the most cruel cut of all comes from the New York Times, which notes that while Shi'a fought against Sunni, Syria exploded into flames, Egypt was riven by discord, and Lebanon was wracked by near civil war, the administration focused its efforts on things like stopping apartment construction in Israel:

The new secretary of state’s exertions — reminiscent of predecessors like Henry A. Kissinger and James A. Baker III — have been met with the usual mix of hope and skepticism. But with so much of the Middle East still convulsing from the effects of the Arab Spring, Mr. Kerry’s efforts raise questions about the Obama administration’s priorities at a time of renewed regional unrest.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, once a stark symbol and source of grievance in the Arab world, is now almost a sideshow in a Middle East consumed by sectarian strife, economic misery and, in Egypt, a democratically elected leader fighting for legitimacy with many of his people.

“The moment for this kind of diplomacy has passed,” said Robert Blecher, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Program of the International Crisis Group. “He’s working with actors who have acted in this movie before, and the script is built around the same elements. But the theater is new; the region is a completely different place today.”

Administration officials no longer argue, as they did early in President Obama’s first term, that ending the Israeli occupation and creating a Palestinian state is the key to improving the standing of the United States in the Middle East. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is now just one headache among a multitude.

In his obsession with trivia, as exemplified by the arrest of a Los Angeles filmmaker in the aftermath of the attack in Benghazi or the focus on gay marriage in a domestic political landscape littered with the ruins of his healthcare and economic policies, President Obama resembles nothing so much as the fictional Captain Queeg. Queeg, clicking his ball-bearings while hunting down crewmen with their shirttails out and looking for missing punnets of strawberries while the ship narrowly escapes danger after danger and nearly founders in a typhoon, has come to typify the leader who, the crew belatedly realize, is out of his depth.  The Egyptians came to the same conclusion about Morsi. And the NYT is very near to reaching the same realization about you know who. Indeed the main difference between Obama and Morsi may be that Obama hasn't run out of money yet.

One group of people who have probably run out of luck are the Egyptian Copts. The start of their persecution in recent times dates from the advent of Nasserism and increased with the accession of the Muslim Brotherhood which Obama so heartily endorsed. Now, with the return of the army and the increased influence of Saudi Arabia, Obama's influence may have diminished but the Copts can hardly hope for better. As Peter Day writes in his chapter in Free the Copts!, the Copts actually had a "special place" in pre-Nasser Egypt. The advent of Nasserism was marked by the same strident media fanfare and mass demonstrations that we have become familiar with. But mass upheavals do not always bring good news.

Harvard scholar Leila Ahmed remembers the drumbeat of the government-controlled media -- "We are Arabs! We are Arabs!"--  in Nasser's day. She noted that the Copts were Copts "precisely because they had refused to convert to the religion of the Arabs and had refused, unlike us Muslims, to intermarry with the Arabs." They were, if you like, the Native Americans of Egypt. And at a stroke Nasser redefined the nation by their exclusion.

But as the New York Times belatedly realized, the real story of the modern Middle East is exactly that: the tale of minorities struggling against authoritarian majoritarianism, a story in which the saga of the Jews plays only a small part. It is the Copts, Kurds, Druze, Maronites, Allwaites, Sunni and Shi'a (and perhaps even the secularitists) -- all in their way struggling to survive against the tyranny of the majority -- who provide the majority of the dramatis personae.

Not that many in academia would notice. The obsession of Western intellectuals with the outdated tropes of the 1960s, as faded and curled at the edges as the halftone portraits of Yasser Arafat and Edward Said, speaks volumes about what Josh Kraushaar of the National Journal called Obama's Crisis of Competence. "The White House seems more comfortable stage-managing the news than dealing with the uncomfortable crises that inevitably crop up." And since its only competence is at making speeches on a stage, you may not notice that the speech is not only out of date, but from the last century altogether:

President Obama returned last night from a weeklong trip to Africa, seeking to position himself as part of ailing Nelson Mandela's legacy and generating strategic photo-ops. On the other side of the continent, Egypt is awash in revolution, with hundreds of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square railing against the American-backed president, with some chanting slogans against the American passivity in the face of crisis. The Washington Post editorialized Tuesday: "For months, as the Morsi government has taken steps to consolidate power, quash critics and marginalize independent civil society groups, President Obama and his top aides have been largely silent in public. No effort was made to use the leverage of U.S. aid to compel a change of policy."

I have an idea. Find another video on YouTube to blame.

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