Monday, August 12, 2013

No Third Way in Egypt

Suppose there's a car parked outside a house.  The owner has left the country for a week and is out of touch.  There is a dog inside the car.  It is ferociously hot; the car is locked.  Some favor breaking a window to get the dog out.  Some are opposed to this destruction of property.  You suggest writing the owner's uncle a letter; perhaps the uncle knows where the owner is staying.

You advocate a useless step whose consequences are all too clear.  You protest that you favor neither letting the dog die, nor destroying the owner's property.  But your middle way is no way at all.

When it comes to what can actually happen, your suggestion amounts to letting the dog die.  Your choice is not a real choice and your preference is not a real preference.  You are simply expressing your distaste for a hard choice that, in fact, you have already made.

So it is with those who insist they favor neither SCAF not the Muslim Brotherhood.  This expresses their tastes; it is not a political position.  It would be too generous even to call it a preference: you do not prefer to write the uncle any more than I prefer to get to work by soaring through the air.  There is no third way in Egypt.  It's SCAF or, at least initially, the Brotherhood.  To say this is not to 'tell Egyptians' anything.  The reasons are obvious and known to all.  To pretend otherwise is either a cynical pretense or the most vigorous self-delusion.

Here are some of the reasons.  They all point to the same thing:  that SCAF is much too powerful to be overcome by anything but an alliance in which the Brotherhood would, at least for a good while, dominate.

First, the Army (and through it the other 'security services') have an economic power hardly ever matched.  Its economic interests, described as 'vast' and 'sprawling', may perhaps be rivaled in Pakistan and China - but then no one expects the Chinese or Pakistani peoples to be able to overcome their militaries.  It is rare indeed that an army has such extensive roles in fundamental economic sectors such as manufacturing and construction.

This economic power translates into great political power backed, ultimately, by the gun.  Elsewhere even the most powerful militaries face considerable obstacles to the exercise of sovereignty.  In China, the army appears largely to be subordinate the the Communist Party, and in any case central authority is limited by the vastness and diversity of the country.  In Pakistan, the army has great difficulty dealing with numerous armed insurgencies, and must face a constant menace from India.  In Egypt, with the politically unimportant exception of the Sinai, the population is tightly packed into very small, very manageable areas.  The army enjoys excellent relations with Israel, so it faces no external threat.  No force, anywhere in the country except the Sinai, can prevent the army from doing exactly as it pleases.

The army is also immune from international pressure.  The US cannot afford to withdraw its extensive support, both because of the influence it would lose in the Middle East and because of the economic damage withdrawal would cause in the US economy.  But at least as important as all of this put together, the army is deeply loved by a very large segment of the population.

This love is not admiration for military prowess. It is faith in an institution that regularly intervenes in politics - when, that is, it is not openly running the country.  The military's 'justice' system, the murder and torture it practices, these are well known and accepted.  Since it is believed that the army acts in the best interests of the nation, there is no effective way to criticize this adulation.  After all, what the army does is in the army's interests, and what serves the army, serves Egypt.

I am not aware of any comparably strong military ousted by civilian opposition.  Even in Turkey, the army's episodic interventions and pervasive influence run up against civilian restraint:  the electorate has strongly rejected military-backed candidates.  Moreover, as the Kurdish insurgency demonstrates, the Turkish army has far less physical control.  On the international scene, it has no faithful patron like the US, eager to finance it and overlook its transgressions.  Most decisively, its enormous 15 billion dollar economic kingdom is dwarfed by the Egyptian army's 60 billion dollar economic empire, four times the size and as much as ten times the share of national GDP.  Since the 1980s Turkey's army has even lost support from big business.  Its fall from power followed an Islamist electoral win accepted as legal by the opposition, who allowed the Islamists to govern within a mutually accepted institutional framework.

All the evidence suggests that an army as strong and popular as Egypt's could never be overthrown by a secular opposition functioning within a largely Islamist population - unless those secularists allowed the Islamists to govern.  This conclusion is not just a matter of comparisons.  The secular opposition has never shown the tiniest ability to challenge the army; for the most part it hasn't even shown the inclination to do so.  The political factions that explicitly reject both the army and the Brotherhood appear as rounding errors in any political poll or electoral contest.  The coup has not grown their strength into anything perceptible and they have no powerful backers.  "No to the Brotherhood and military rule" expresses a desire, but you would have to be a fantasist to advance this in good faith as a genuine political agenda.

There is, then, no third way.  Given this reality, to oppose the Moslem Brotherhood is to support the army.  It does not matter how vociferously someone protests that they 'oppose' army rule as well, or that they also criticize SCAF.  That person is supporting the army, because weakening the Brotherhood inevitably, predictably, does exactly that - and accomplishes nothing else.

Genuine opposition to both the army and the Brotherhood would require 'allying' with the Brotherhood against the army.  With the army out of the way, secularists could work at out-organizing the Brotherhood, which is no stronger than its popular support.  With the Brotherhood out of the way, the army is more powerful than ever:  there can be no change.  If Egypt is to have a political future, the army has to go.

In this context the term 'alliance' can mislead.  An alliance does not mean buying into an Islamist agenda.  It means two things: supporting the Brotherhood whenever the Brotherhood moves against the army, and accepting the Brotherhood's attempts to replace the old 'deep state' with its own administration.  Otherwise, any push against the army is bound to fail.

Is such an alliance impossible, now that the entire secular opposition has in fact supported the armed forces?  Not quite.  It's possible if the entire secular leadership, which had discredited itself beyond redemption, is replaced.  That is unlikely, but it is the only way forward.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Or how about another way forward. The Islamist government learns from their mistakes and decides to create a society which the secularists want to live in. Maybe they learn that the alternative to 1/2 a loaf is none of the loaf.

    From there they setup something very much like what the Puritans did in the United States and the system that lasted even after independence with dry counties and wet counties. Laws aren't uniform across the entire society but very local. They might want to look to places like colonial New Hampshire which was able to broker between Puritans with much the same attitudes as their fellows in colonial Massachusetts and much less religious people.

    Massachusetts worked because there were places like Rhode Island and Pennsylvania which allowed for freedom. Rhode Island where religious freedom was observed while being culturally conservative (i.e. something like what the Copts would probably go for) offer a way out.

    The USA is one of the most religious countries on the planet. We have cities like Salt Lake where many in government don't know what coffee tastes like and right after High School went on their missions and as soon as they got back were married. We have cities like San Francisco where we have an annual BDSM parade with wide public participation and support.

    It can be done.