November 21, 2013

Peak Middle East?

Featuring Richard Weitz

Secretary of State John Kerry can't seem to find enough ways these days to express his acceptance of Egypt's military coup regime. In a visit to Cairo, he waved away the hard-fought suspension of some U.S. aid as "not a punishment" and declined to raise the issue of the trial of former President Mohamed Morsy. He seems keen to pretend that Egypt is on the road to democracy, and even appears to believe that the fiercely anti-democratic United Arab Emirates is going to support a democratic transition. Most recently, he endorsed the regime's narrative by claiming that the Muslim Brotherhood "stole" the revolution -- by winning free and fair elections, which Washington strongly supported.

Why is Kerry making such a production of supporting Egypt's military regime? Most likely, President Barack Obama's administration simply has much bigger regional issues with which to grapple, and has decided that it can accomplish little in a hopelessly fractured Egypt. It (correctly) calculates that there is little it can do to influence the course of events in Cairo due to the pervasive hostility to Washington across the Egyptian political spectrum and the willingness of Gulf states to offset any American attempts to exercise leverage.

It may be galling to many Egypt watchers and Egyptians who consider Cairo the center of the Middle East universe, but right now events there are barely a sideshow for Washington. Cairo has made it quite clear that it has little interest in American advice, and Washington has far more important issues on its plate.

Both Iran's nuclear program and the horrific war in Syria continue to take priority over Egypt on America's regional agenda. Closing a deal with Iran would arguably be the single most impressive and important geostrategic accomplishment in the Middle East since the Camp David Accords. Meanwhile, Syria's civil war continues to inflict crushing human costs and has reverberated around the region, and few of the external players are keen on U.S.-orchestrated attempts to organize a peace conference.

Given those momentous challenges, the Obama administration is likely calculating that if happy talk on Egypt can slightly appease America's anxious Gulf allies as Washington pushes policies in Iran and Syria that they dislike, then so be it.

That may be dispiriting, but at least it makes sense -- as long as nobody is really fooled that Egypt is actually on a path toward a democratic future. But I doubt anyone in the administration is buying their own rhetoric. It may seem strange now, but there was once a controversy over whether Egypt's July 3 coup should be called a coup. Even though it met the textbook definition of a coup -- the military stepping in, suspending the constitution, and arresting the elected political leadership -- many Egyptians protested that the masses in the streets demanding change and the perfidy of the Brotherhood leadership made it something different. It didn't, of course.

Lest we forget, everything that has happened since July 3, without exception, has confirmed the coupness of Egypt's coup. Army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's military regime has done everything by the book -- rounding up and brutalizing supporters of the old regime, cultivating a cult of personality around the coup leader, tightly controlling the media, stage-managing a constitutional process designed to protect the military's power and privileges, and even promising an eventual return to democracy.

The more obvious the nature of Egypt's coup has become, the faster Washington has tried to run away from the legal and political implications of acknowledging it. Kerry may choose to suck it up and pretend to believe that Egypt's future is looking up, but I think this administration understands the reality is that the coup broke the country's politics for the foreseeable future. The State Department certainly has no illusions that Egypt's military regime has any answers for the country's staggering economy, shattered political consensus, or crumbling institutions.

Typically, this would be the time to call for new elections and a return to civilian rule, but at this point Egyptian politics is so badly broken that such a "road map" will lead nowhere. The current constitutional process and planned elections are only designed to rebuild a civilian façade over a populist military regime. Sisi's new constitution will likely pass by acclamation, whatever its contents, and his supporters will sweep parliamentary elections -- not a difficult task when their main opponents are dead or in jail. If the army chief does decide to run for president, as seems increasingly likely, he may even form a new umbrella party that is dubbed "national" and "democratic," just like Hosni Mubarak did before him.

The United States will likely deem this hyper-caffeinated neo-Mubarakism good enough to justify restoring more openly cordial ties with Cairo. But Egypt's problems aren't going away: The next president will have to face the same political, economic, and cultural challenges that eventually brought down both Mubarak and Morsy. Fanning the flames of hatred for the Muslim Brothers, building a personality cult around Sisi, and shoveling Gulf cash into a furnace all buy time -- but have little lasting effect. Ultimately, instability and popular protest will return.

The generals and their Gulf backers just aren't going to be able to turn the clock back to 2010, in Egypt or in the region. Cairo has already witnessed a limited return of public discontent with this week's protests and clashes near Tahrir Square. The demonstrations were held to commemorate the November 2011 clashes  on Mohammed Mahmoud St., a nihilistic spasm of utterly pointless violence that demonstrated the popular movement's political failure. Their efforts, no less than the Muslim Brotherhood's majoritarianism, helped to discredit the very idea of democracy. In other words, the restless, relentless energy of the disenchanted may prove more than enough to repeatedly disrupt a regime incapable of responding to their most basic demands -- but doesn't yet offer any alternative political trajectory.

I don't think that anyone in Washington really believes, then, that Egypt is on any sort of path toward democracy or stability. Kerry, at least, appears to have concluded that Cairo can be put on the back burner for now in favor of issues where American diplomacy really can make a difference. If genuflecting toward Sisi placates Riyadh and Abu Dhabi and helps secure a deal on Iran or Syria, then Kerry's cringe-inducing comments will be a price worth paying. The illusions of Egypt's democratic progress will vanish quickly enough when the next crisis inevitably hits Cairo.


  • Richard Weitz