Did US Choices Lead Egypt to its Current Situation?
We, as a country, need to remember that do not hold levers that allow us to move events this way or that
There are, in my estimation, a large number of problems with Mort Zuckerman’s US News column on Egypt (Barack Obama’s Middle East Miscalculation). Indeed, at first I did not know where to start but then it hit me that the key problem is the piece’s underlying predicate: that US foreign policy decisions were the fundamental drive behind key events:
The White House completely miscalculated in Egypt, as it did in Gaza. It seemed only to care for the mechanics of the electoral process rather than the meaning of the results. Washington vacillated on who its Egyptian allies really are. We had long shared with the Egyptian military understandings on national security, ours with an eye to maintaining peace in the region. That relationship is now pretty much lost.
Americans, in their perennial innocence, have demanded that the generals turn over power to the civilians whomever they may be, just as they did to the Persian shah, just as they did after Israel’s pullout from Gaza when they hadn’t a clue about the danger posed by Hamas.
The main error here is twofold: 1) that the US was the primary reason the Mubarak was ousted, and 2) that the ouster of Mubarak equaled the ouster of the military.
While I have no doubt that the call from the White House for Mubarak to step down helped hasten his exit, let’s not forget that the main motivating factor for his removal. The Egyptian government had to address rather effective street protests in Egypt that had created a situation in which the military had to make a choice: crack down or find some way of placating the mobs. It is clear that the state had decided that it could not afford (or simply did not want) a crackdown. As such, the chief bone that could be throw in the direction of Tahrir Square was Mubarak’s resignation. What that resignation meant, as I noted at the time, was that the military both a) suspended the constitution pending review, and b) remained in power (a fact that I re-iterated last June and last November). The military remain in power now. And, by the way, unless real constitutional reform is allowed to take place, they will remain in power even after the bizarre slow-motion parliamentary elections.
It strikes me as typical American hubris on Zukerman’s part to assume that the US was in control of the entire situation as if Mubarak would only have been ousted at the White House’s behest and that the consequent results of the events of last Spring are somehow in the US’ hands. Note to Zuckerman: the world is not a Choose Your Own Adventure novel* wherein the US chooses to turn to page 23 or 76.
As such, he actually misses the more important lesson of his own admonition:
The United States forgot the lessons of Iraq, namely, that it is easier to remove an Arab-state dictator by military means than it is to alter the internal balance of power and create a solid foundation for human rights.
I would point out before continuing that the ouster of Saddam and that of Mubarak are radically different events. One required a military invasion by a foreign power and the destruction of the Iraqi state. The other required the decision of the domestic military command and a plane ride to Sharm el-Sheikh* Say what else one may about Egypt, but the state remains intact. There is a difference between a military invasion of by a foreign power to remove a regime and bloodless military coup which leaves the major institutions of the state in place. Both do use “military” as an adjective, I will grant, but they are otherwise substantially different actions.
Beyond all of that, he is right in the following sense: it is difficult to predict the impact of major actions. Likewise, we cannot predict what might have happened had the military no chosen to toss Mubarak overboard.
And yes, by the way, Zuckerman identifies a number of troubling incidences in Egypt of late, but rather than being the direct result of Mubarak’s ouster, or Washington’s rhetoric, they are part of the ongoing social unrest that spontaneously started just under a year ago. The degree to which Mubarak’s ouster has fostered these actions is unclear.
Indeed, speaking of choosing our own adventures, let’s consider the options that were on the table last year:
A. Placate the protesters by promising deep constitutional reform leading to real regime change.
B. Placate the protesters by ousting Mubarak and promising constitutional reform and elections (all of which under the control of the military high command).
C. Crackdown on the protests
D. Maintain the status quo (i.e., no offers of reform, no ouster of Mubarak, no crackdown).
Option A never appeared to be a real option and we know that the military chose AB. They had already seemingly rejected C for whatever reason.
Now, “D” could have led to roughly three outcomes:
D1. The protests could have continued at the existing rates.
D2. The protests could have gotten worse.
D3. The protests could have died of inertia (call it the OWS option).
Now, it was likely that D1 was going to continue for a while (they had demonstrated their ability to continue for the foreseeable future, meaning D3 seemed unlikely in the short term). This was creating a substantial economic hardship, a fact that cannot be discounted. D2 was a real risk. D2 could have lead to violence and a less controlled situation for the state to manage. It could have led to bloodshed, like in Syria (i.e., forcing the state into option C, which, again, they had consciously eschewed), or to a less controlled regime change.
As such, it not only not a surprise that the military took route B, but it underscores that that decisions were driven far more by the internal logic of the situation rather than what the US President had to say. Were outside factors an issue (from what happened in Algeria, to what was happening at the time in other Arab Spring protests, to the disposition of DC)? Of course, but one had to consider the relative significant of the variables. Internal considerations in Egypt were, and remain, paramount to understanding outcomes.
To restate my fundamental objection to his reasoning: the US was never in charge of the events in Egypt. We, as a country, need to understand that while yes, the US is influential. We do not hold levers that allow us to move events this way or that (and yet, as the GOP debates underscore, we tend to persist in the fantasy that we do). Indeed, that should be the main lesson of Iraq: that despite immense power, our ability to simply make things happen is limited.
And, really, the column fits into a broader problem with most discussions of Egypt which treat the choices as if they were dichotomous: the Mubarak status quo or democracy of some sort, when, in fact the situation was substantially more complex than that.