America is Failing Egypt, the Arab World, and Itself (Jan 28 – 30)

Events over the last few days have made one thing clear: America, along with other non-Arab countries, is clueless in the Middle East. In what follows, I hope to make clear just how Obama and the American political system has failed the people of Tunisia, Egypt, and the rest of the Arab world. Incompetence in foreign relations, combined with extremely poor information systems, have only served to perpetuate human rights abuses. Instead of working toward a sympathetic relationship with Arabs, Washington has been working to appease dangerous leaders, and thus working toward further discord in the region.

Friday began with a flurry of activity that never ended. First article I read was from a blog at AlJazeera, titled “The Egypt I Never Knew Existed.” In it, Jamal Elshayyal recounts his arrival in Cairo after the start of the revolution. He made several comments that resonated throughout the day and the rest of the week:

The scenes I witnessed, violent, brave, barbaric, and above all revolutionary in nature, surpassed anything I had ever seen from the Egyptian people.

The taxi taking me from the airport was forced to stop about half a kilometre from our offices in central Cairo.

The road had been blocked by protesters, rubber tyres had been set alight, and chants of “down, down Hosni Mubarak” echoed like the call to prayer.

Within a minute of stepping out of the taxi, I was choking from the tear gas being fired by riot police towards the demonstrators.

But those on the street, mainly youth in their 20’s, were defiant.

Effectively, this was a battle for the streets of Cairo between the people, and the baton wielding, tear-gas spraying, rubber-coated-steel-bullet-firing strong arm of the government.

What many would describe as a game of cat and mouse.

The only difference though, was that some of the mice soon proved they had hearts of lions.

Outside the Ministry of Foreign affairs they gathered, “the people – demand – collapse of the regime,” they chanted, louder and louder.

The New York Times ran an article on the 26th that, among other things, echoed Elshayyal’s sentiments. The revolution, they both claimed, is a youth movement, not primarily a political or religious one, which casts doubt on President Mubarak’s claims that the Muslim Brotherhood is the impetus behind the revolution. They have been characterized as a terrorist group to a large extent, but getting good, hard information about the Muslim Brotherood is difficult because much of what the western world knows about them has come through Mubarak, and he is their direct political opponent.

This relationship is explained, along with the extent of the youth movement, in the above linked article from The New York Times:

[Mubarak] tolerated a tiny and toothless opposition of liberal intellectuals whose vain electoral campaigns created the facade of a democratic process. And he demonized the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood as a group of violent extremists who posed a threat that he used to justify his police state.

Mr. Mubarak’s government, though, is so far sticking to a familiar script. Against all evidence, his interior minister immediately laid blame for Wednesday’s unrest at the foot of the government’s age-old foe, the Muslim Brotherhood.

“The Brotherhood is no longer the most effective player in the political arena,” said Emad Shahin, an Egyptian scholar now at the University of Notre Dame. “If you look at the Tunisian uprising, it’s a youth uprising. It is the youth that knows how to use the media, Internet, Facebook, so there are other players now.”

Dr. ElBaradei, for his part, has struggled for nearly a year to unite the opposition under his umbrella group, the National Association for Change. But some have mocked him as a globe-trotting dilettante who spends much of his time abroad instead of on the barricades.

He has said in interviews that he never presented himself as a political savior, and that Egyptians would have to make their own revolution. Now, he said, the youth movement “will give them the self-confidence they needed, to know that the change will happen through you and not through one person — you are the driving force.”

And Dr. ElBaradei argued that by upsetting the old relationship between Mr. Mubarak and the Brotherhood, the youth movement posed a new challenge to United States policy makers as well.

“For years,” he said, “the West has bought Mr. Mubarak’s demonization of the Muslim Brotherhood lock, stock and barrel, the idea that the only alternative here are these demons called the Muslim Brotherhood who are the equivalent of Al Qaeda.”

He added: “I am pretty sure that any freely and fairly elected government in Egypt will be a moderate one, but America is really pushing Egypt and pushing the whole Arab world into radicalization with this inept policy of supporting repression.”

The roots of the uprising that filled Egypt’s streets this week arguably stretch back to before the Tunisian revolt, which many protesters cited as the catalyst. Almost three years ago, on April 6, 2008, the Egyptian government crushed a strike by a group of textile workers in the industrial city of Mahalla, and in response a group of young activists who connected through Facebook and other social networking Web sites formed the April 6th Youth Movement in solidarity with the strikers.

Friday evening, the theme of American coercion was strong on AlJazeera’s English television stream, which you can view by following this link. Commentator after commentator, including students, actors, lawyers, politicians, and citizens, repeated their disappointment that the American government failed to denounce Mubarak’s regime more strongly.

Both John Kerry and Barack Obama spoke about events in Cairo on Friday evening, but their commentary merely toed the line between supporting peaceful demonstration and staying in Mubarak’s good graces. Newsweek suggests that at the heart of this response is anxiety over Egypt’s future post-Mubarak:

The complexities in the region, however, seem to complicate just how deeply the full U.S. government is willing to become involved. One of few U.S. allies in the Middle East part of the world, Egypt has traditionally been a source of stability in an otherwise volatile region. Since taking office Obama has publicly supported Mubarak but privately urged him to address the concerns of his people. While some protestors have sought intervention from the U.S. to help bring down Mubarak, it’s not clear who or what type of government would replace him.

Also at stake could be the $1.5 billion in foreign aid the U.S. transfers to Egypt each year. At a briefing on Friday, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that money was “under review,” but declined to speculate about when decisions would be made or announced. White House officials say that the outcome of that review will depend on what government emerges once the protests end.

Numerous other motivations have been been posited for Obama’s weak reaction (as well as Clinton’s and Kerry’s), including fears of a power vacuum in Egypt after Mubarak leaves. As someone pointed out to me, there are some similarities between events in Egypt and those Jimmy Carter faced in Iran. But,  there is little evidence to suggest that Egypt would transform into an extremist state were Mubarak to be deposed. CNN’s Tim Lister addressed this very point:

The most widespread opposition movement, through mosques, education and welfare programs, is the Muslim Brotherhood, which is officially banned but tolerated within strict limits. It is no surprise that leaders of the Brotherhood were among the first political figures to be detained.

But years of harassment and detention have hollowed out the Brotherhood as a political force. It has not been in the vanguard of these protests and the consensus among commentators is that the Egyptian military would not tolerate the Brotherhood in power.

In any event, says Barnett — formerly a professor at the U.S. Navy War College — events in Egypt and Tunisia show that the “Islamist narrative” to explain the woes of the Arab world is being challenged by a maturing and well-educated youth movement whose expectations of a better life have been dashed by economic stagnation and a stifling political atmosphere.

American failures in the Middle East extend far beyond current events, however. Mubarak’s attitudes toward political opposition, social reform, and free speech have long been known by American diplomats, as several new Wikileaks cables revealed.

I had the chance to review some of those cables and I think the following are worth sharing. Many of them are summary documents provided to American officials visiting Egypt. They will both familiarize the uninitiated with Egypt’s political climate and give some sense of America’s intelligence in that region.

I’ve linked to each cable individually, but you can check out all the Cairo Cables by visiting this link. I’ve also provided titles and excerpts for each cable in order to give you a sense of their contents:

Torture and police brutality in Egypt are endemic and widespread. The police use brutal methods mostly against common criminals to extract confessions, but also against demonstrators, certain political prisoners and unfortunate bystanders.

Contacts attribute police brutality to poor training, understaffing and official sanction. Human rights lawyer XXXXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXX speculated that officers routinely resort to brutality because of pressure from their superiors to solve crimes. He asserted that most officers think solving crimes justifies brutal interrogation methods, and that some policemen believe that Islamic law sanctions torture. XXXXXXXXXXXX commented that a culture of judicial impunity for police officers enables continued brutality. According to XXXXXXXXXXXX, “Police officers feel they are above the law and protected by the public prosecutor.”

The recent case in XXXXXXXXXXXXX (XXXXXXXXXXXX miles XXXXXXXXXXXX of Cairo) of XXXXXXXXXXXXX, a local government clerk arrested, convicted and jailed for writing unpublished poetry allegedly insulting to President Mubarak, illustrates how proactive security forces and courts can successfully move against a civilian defended by incompetent lawyers.

The MB website reported XXXXXXXXXXX that the GOE released XXXXXXXXXXXXX that day.  The three bloggers have criticized trials of MB members in military courts and have voiced support for MB detainees.  Our contacts have asserted that the GOE fears young, tech-savvy MB-affiliated bloggers because of their ability to generate mass support for the Brotherhood and organize rallies and other events via the internet.

Egypt’s State of Emergency, in effect almost continuously since 1967, allows for the application of the 1958 Emergency
Law, which grants the GOE broad powers to arrest individuals without charge and to detain them indefinitely.

Article 3 of the Emergency Law allows the president to order “placing restrictions on personal freedom of assembly, movement, residence, traffic in specific areas at specific times,” and “the arrest of suspects or individuals threatening public security and order,” and arrests and searches without implementation of the law of criminal procedures…”  In practice, the Interior Ministry carries out “the order” of the President either orally or in writing. Article 3 also authorizes surveillance of personal messages and confiscation of publications.

In practice, after 30 days in prison,detainees can demand court hearings to challenge detention orders. Detainees can re-submit demands for hearings every 30 days; however, a judge can uphold a detention order indefinitely. The Emergency Law does not mandate a maximum detention period, and therefore allows the government, subject to the
approval of a State Security court and the president, to detain individuals indefinitely without charge.

While Tehran’s nuclear threat is also a cause for concern, Mubarak is more urgently seized with what he sees as the rise of Iranian surrogates (Hamas and Hezbollah) and Iranian attempts to dominate the Middle East.

Many of the Egyptian government’s far-reaching powers in the realm of counter-terrorism come from a broad-reaching Emergency Law, which has been in force almost continuously since 1967 (ref A).  The government has committed to lifting the State of Emergency and replacing it with a counterterrorism law.  Disagreements over the law between the Interior Ministry and other agencies have focused on the MOI’s interest in long pre-trial detention, and progress on the law has  stalled.  It will be useful to stress the USG’s interest in GOE passage of a counterterrorism law that will
protect civil liberties.

The GOE remains skeptical of our role in democracy promotion, complaining that any efforts to open up will result in
empowering the Muslim Brotherhood, which currently holds 86 seats — as independents — in Egypt’s 454-seat parliament.

Since late 2007, courts have sentenced approximately 18 police officers to prison terms for torture and killings.  The GOE has not yet made a serious effort to transform the police from an instrument of regime power into a public service institution, but there are indications that the government is allowing the courts increased independence to adjudicate some police brutality cases.  Credible human rights lawyers believe the GOE is adapting to increased media and blogger scrutiny of torture cases by intimidating victims into dropping cases against the Interior Ministry (ref C).

A/S Posner asked why the GOE has detained blogger Hany Nazir under the Emergency Law without charge since October 2008.  (Note: per ref B, Nazir, a Coptic Christian, was detained following blog posts deemed offensive to Islam and Christianity.  End note.) General Rahman responded that Nazir’s posts criticizing Islam were inflammatory, and in the context of Upper Egyptian sectarian tensions could have caused Muslims to attack him.

He said that detainees under the Emergency Law can receive lawyers and other visitors, and can appeal their detention.  (Note:  In detention cases under both the Emergency Law and the penal code, such as the detained bloggers per ref B, the government has prevented lawyers from visiting their clients.  End note.)

XXXXXXXXXXX was pessimistic that the GOE would pass significant political legislation, other than the human trafficking law, before the 2011 presidential elections.  GOE discussions about lifting the State of Emergency and passing a counterterrorism law “are just a distraction,” he maintained.  XXXXXXXXXXX asserted that MFA and NDP officials, as well as some journalists in the pro-government press, are embarrassed over the extensive use of torture, and want to see improvements.  He believed that a discreet order from the Interior Ministry to stop torture would have a powerful effect, and would be more effective than the passage of legislation expanding the definition of torture and increasing penalties, which the quasi-government National Council for Human Rights and independent NGOs have urged.

XXXXXXXXXXX said human rights lawyers and XXXXXXXXXXXX have told him that to conduct murder
investigations, police will round up 40 to 50 suspects from a neighborhood and hang them by their arms from the ceiling for weeks until someone confesses.

If the public’s fear of the police waned, he noted, citizens would not be as afraid to enter police stations to report
crimes, tell the police about their neighborhoods, or procure voter registration cards for the coming elections.  He said the current pervasive nature of torture began in the 1990’s when the security forces were fighting Islamic extremists, and would be possible to reverse.

Another valuable document is 09CAIRO874 – SUBJECT: SCENESETTER:  PRESIDENT MUBARAK’S VISIT TO WASHINGTON. Unfortunately, I’ve had trouble accessing that file in the last half hour or so. I can’t be sure why, so I’ve downloaded an entire copy of it. I will upload it if necessary, but as of right now it provides an excellent sketch of President Mubarak, the government’s perception of him, and Egypt’s place in the Middle East:

Egyptians view President Mubarak’s upcoming meeting with the President as a new beginning to the U.S.-Egyptian relationship that will restore a sense of mutual respect that they believe diminished in recent years.

No issue demonstrates Mubarak,s worldview more than his reaction to demands that he open Egypt to genuine
political competition and loosen the pervasive control of the security services.  Certainly the public “name and shame”
approach in recent years strengthened his determination not to accommodate our views.  However, even though he will be more willing to consider ideas and steps he might take pursuant to a less public dialogue, his basic understanding of his country and the region predisposes him toward extreme caution.  We have heard him lament the results of earlier U.S. efforts to encourage reform in the Islamic world.

Economic reform momentum has slowed and high GDP growth rates of recent years have failed to lift Egypt’s lower classes out of poverty.  High inflation, coupled with the impact of the global recession, has resulted in an increase in extreme poverty, job losses, a growing budget deficit and projected 2009 GDP growth of 3.5% – half last year’s rate.

Peace with Israel has cemented Egypt’s moderate role in Middle East peace efforts and provided a political basis for continued U.S. military and economic assistance ($1.3 billion and $250 million, respectively). However, broader elements of peace with Israel, e.g. economic and cultural exchange, remain essentially undeveloped.

That 1.3 billion dollars was the focus for many news agencies through the weekend. Chris Good identified a number of the lobbyists who benefit from this relation and made it clear just how America’s money gets wrapped up in Egypt. As Good points out, lobbyists working with American allies isn’t anything new, but if the American government is aware of Mubarak’s human rights violations I’m left to wonder why their financial transactions don’t receive more scrutiny.

A frustrating element of this story is just how little of our intelligence is put to use, and not just in the case of lobbying and finance. I’m certain many Americans would be angry if they knew our money supported the torture of innocent civilians and civil rights activists, and I’m certain they’d be outraged to discover a policy of silence and noninterference in the same matters.

Yet, that’s been a big part of America’s strategy in Egypt since Obama took office.

Foreign Policy’s Tom Malinowski, in his article, “Whispering at Autocrats,” posits the theory that Wikileaks has done more for human rights in the Arab world than the American government ever has. If politicians in Washington weren’t going to take the necessary steps to initiate positive civil rights reform in places like Tunisia and Egypt, then residents in those countries, armed with the right information, would:

The candid appraisal of Ben Ali by U.S. diplomats showed Tunisians that the rottenness of the regime was obvious not just to them but to the whole world — and that it was a source of shame for Tunisia on an international stage. The cables also contradicted the prevailing view among Tunisians that Washington would back Ben Ali to the bloody end, giving them added impetus to take to the streets. They further delegitimized the Tunisian leader and boosted the morale of his opponents at a pivotal moment in the drama that unfolded over the last few weeks.

This point might not be worth dwelling on, except that it suggests something interesting about how the United States, and the State Department in particular, approaches the challenge of promoting human rights and democracy in countries like Tunisia. Consider the following proposition: None of the decent, principled, conscientious, but behind the scenes efforts the State Department made in recent years to persuade the Tunisian government to relax its authoritarian grip — mostly through diplomatic démarches and meetings with top Tunisian officials — had any significant impact on the Ben Ali regime’s behavior or increased the likelihood of democratic change. Nor did the many quiet U.S. programs of outreach to Tunisian society, cultural exchanges and the like, even if Tunisians appreciated them and they will bear fruit as the country democratizes.

Instead, the one thing that did seem to have some impact was a public statement exposing what the United States really thought about the Ben Ali regime: a statement that was vivid, honest, raw, undiplomatic, extremely well-timed — and completely inadvertent.

Most State Department professionals have long believed that explicit public criticism of repressive governments does little more than make the critic feel good. They argue that real progress toward ending human rights abuses or corruption in countries with which the United States has important relationships, like Egypt or Pakistan or Indonesia, is more likely to come when such problems are raised behind closed doors.

Indeed, one of the most delightful ironies of the leaked Tunisia cables is that they make precisely this argument. One missive — after laying out more juicy details about how and why Ben Ali had “lost touch with the Tunisian people” (the very commentary that, when publicly revealed, actually seemed to affect the situation on the ground) — concluded that the U.S. should “dial back the public criticism” and replace it with “frequent high-level private candor.”

Perhaps strategic gaffes of this sort could be forgiven were they rarer, but this inaction in the Middle East has consistently defined American foreign relations in that region, and we’re seeing it exemplified in Obama’s measured remarks and cautious reproaches.

Reasons for such timid posturing abound, but the most obvious has been pointed out by Malinowski and others: securing American interests.

Our failures overseas, at least in part, stem from a misplaced emphasis on our own concerns. We can’t expect to create sympathy and mutual trust in the Middle East by insisting that our needs be put before the needs of the people in that region , even if doing so puts our influence at risk.

Selfishness does not inspire confidence in allies, and it is the people in these countries with whom we want to be friends the most. After all, we need the Arab world and its people to know we honestly want what’s best for them. Doing so not only promotes human rights, but it demonstrates our commitment to civil rights and it secures our interests against terrorist organizations.

It might even help prove that we see the Arab people as our equals.

The above linked AlJazeera article, “President Obama say the ‘D-Word’,” emphasizes this point:

The most depressing and even frightening part of the tepid US response to the protests across the region is the lack of appreciation of what kind of gift the US, and West more broadly, are being handed by these movements. Their very existence is bringing unprecedented levels of hope and productive activism to a region and as such constitutes a direct rebuttal to the power and prestige of al-Qaeda.

Instead of embracing the push for real democratic change, however, surface reforms that would preserve the system intact are all that’s recommended. Instead of declaring loud and clear a support for a real democracy agenda, the president speaks only of “disrupting plots and securing our cities and skies” and “tak[ing] the fight to al-Qaeda and their allies”, as he declared in his State of the Union address.

Obama doesn’t seem to understand that the US doesn’t need to “take the fight” to al-Qaeda, or even fire a single shot, to score its greatest victory in the “war on terror”. Supporting real democratisation will do more to downgrade al-Qaeda’s capabilities than any number of military attacks.

As Malinowski puts it, “Authoritarian rulers do not ease repression or agree to checks on their powers because foreign officials convince them it is a good idea in a private meeting. Such rulers make political concessions when it is necessary to retain the support of key actors in their societies — from the general population to the security services to economic and political elites.” Perhaps speaking plainly is exactly what the US needs to do. In telling the truth, we’re more likely to find others who sympathize, and the collateral consequence would be an alliance forged upon honest exchanges, not the private concerns of lobbyists.

Of course, I wouldn’t argue America should abandon its interests anywhere in the world. Instead, it should seek them via different avenues and through different channels. Finding those avenues and channels could prove difficult, however, especially since the political machine depends on predictability, statistics, and money. Malinowski is again helpful:

If you were a State Department official, and Hillary Clinton asked you every day: “What will the weather be like tomorrow?” and gave you points that you could cash in for career advancement every time you got the answer right, the safest strategy would be to answer that the weather tomorrow will be the same as the weather today. Likewise, on any given Sunday, the safest approach to engaging most of the world’s dictatorships is to assume that they will be governed in exactly the same way on Monday, and base policy on that assumption. Why risk diplomatic relationships — and one’s own reputation as a prognosticator — on strategies for promoting change that are not likely to work before you move on to your next diplomatic post?

If we bet on the stability of authoritarian states, we will be right most of the time, but wrong at the crucial time.

The people of Tunisia shouldn’t have had to wait for Wikileaks to learn that the U.S. saw their country just as they did. It’s time that the gulf between what American diplomats know and what they say got smaller.

In Egypt, it isn’t America that matters most. It is Egypt.

While Obama and the rest of the international community balk over what to do with their investments, real change is taking place. The opinion is increasingly building that, once all is said and done, history will remember the United States as an impotent bystander in the Arab revolution. I have to believe that is how Arabs will remember us, too.

Amaney Jamal, Ellen Lust, Tarek Masoud, also with Foreign Policy, share this view:

When the history of the Middle East’s winter revolutions is written, and scholars try to explain why those remarkable events ushered in an era of region-wide hostility toward and non-cooperation with the United States, they will point to Vice President Biden’s refusal to call Mubarak a dictator, or Hilary Clinton’s urging Egypt’s brave pro-democracy activists to calm down, or President Obama’s blithe announcement that the protests indicated that “now would be a good time to start some reform.”

Of course, the administration’s position stems not from a lack of vision, but rather from a surfeit of fear. For almost 50 years, we have performed a delicate balancing act in the Middle East, declaring our commitment to liberty while at the same time endorsing autocrats like Mr. Mubarak who, we were led to believe, stood guard against a rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism and anti-Americanism. The bitter irony of this strategy is that it helped produce and nurture precisely those things that we dreaded. Islamists thrived on pointing out to their people America’s alleged double standards, arguing that we want democracy only for ourselves and not for the oppressed of the world.

It is far too early, of course, to tell whether what is happening in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and elsewhere will result in regime change, leadership change, true democracy, or something else. But what is clear is that certain old truths about the Middle East, truths that were the basis of our old policies toward that world, no longer stand.

It is tempting to think that American politicians have sided with the likes of Mubarak because they have so much in common. That is a temptation that, for the present, I would like to resist. Washington’s failure to address these revolutions properly is probably more symptomatic of stupidity and a bloated bureaucracy than of class or power struggle. Seeing how clumsily they handle sharing information, I find it hard to believe their policy is much more sophisticated than “don’t rock the boat.”

But that’s just what needs to happen. On the 30th, as jets flew low over Cairo and protesters faced increased intimidation and further violence, what the people of Egypt needed more than anything was someone to cry out with them. America’s mumbling doesn’t suffice.

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