February 04, 2011

Egypt: The Blame Game Begins. Sigh.

Well, this is depressing, but I guess it was inevitable that in Washington, people would start asking "Who Lost Egypt?" before it was even clear what, exactly, is happening there.*

As I have tried to make clear, I am not an expert on Egypt. (Though not having expertise has hardly kept anyone from going on television and radio to talk about Egypt this week!) I served, though, on the Levant and Egypt team during the 2008-2009 CENTCOM Assessment Team. And looking back on that experience today, one of the things that has struck me is how long ago the U.S. government had identified the fall or death of Hosni Mubarak as a likely contingency to plan toward. Everyone knew this was going to happen eventually. So I think the blame being heaped on the intelligence community here is a little silly. Intelligence cannot predict the future, though it can assist policy-makers in gaming out possible contingencies, and I think our intelligence services did that here. It's hardly the fault of our nation's intelligence agencies that successive U.S. administrations from both parties decided it made more sense to continue backing a strongman than to prod Egypt's ruling party toward real and accountable democratic processes -- even though we all knew Mubarak would not be around forever. Even when administrations have decided to pressure Mubarak, by the way, they have found that the ~$1.5b we give Egypt annually has been a largely ineffective source of leverage. (Though it has, I would argue, helped foster now-invaluable connections with Egypt's military. Those last two sentences should serve as a warning for any legislators out there threatening to cut our aid.)

*If you are one of those people who think debates in Washington are a bit silly and are instead curious about what is actually taking place in Egypt, you could do worse than to follow the reporting of Charles Levinson of the Wall Street Journal, who in my mind has been the outstanding print reporter of these events. (And there have been many, many candidates for that title, from Graeme Wood of the Atlantic to Anthony Shadid of the New York Times.) Charles and I met in Cairo in 2005 and have been friends since, so I am a little biased toward the guy, but ask any journalist on the ground in Cairo which westerner speaks the best Arabic (Egyptian Arabic, no less) and knows Cairo the best, and they'll give you the name of Charles Levinson. Read this report from Tahrir Square that ran in today's Journal and tell me it's not absolutely first-rate journalism, taking you inside the anti-government protesters in a way I have not seen elsewhere. In related news, I passed by the office television a few hours back. The anchors at CNN were chuckling about a turkey attacking a mail truck. And you wonder why Americans are so poorly informed about the world?