Voice

Is There Light At The End of Egypt's Tunnel?

Egypt is a mess right now, but if its Army can figure out how to give up power and set elections on course, there's still hope for a happy ending.

Egypt is a mess. This month, the country's interim military government, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), issued Decree 193, stipulating that the country's long-standing emergency law would be expanded to include such offenses as "infringing on others' right to work," "impeding the flow of traffic," and "spreading false information in the media." The SCAF had promised that the law would be repealed by September, before scheduled elections began; a few days ago, officials declared that it would be extended until June 2012. No one knows when a constitution will be drafted or presidential elections held, because the SCAF won't say so. Egypt's military rulers seem not so much determined as paralyzed.

Mess, of course, is inevitable; the question is whether Egypt's revolution is in danger, and if so, what it is in danger of. The fears being aired in the Egyptian media include that the SCAF won't leave, that Islamists will control the new government, and that the interim council's drift and opacity will deepen chaos to the point where whatever new government takes over, whenever it takes over, it will be overwhelmed with troubles -- a fate that the riots outside the Israeli Embassy on Sept. 8 may have been a deadly harbinger of. This last scenario seems the most probable, but any of them would call into question the success of the Arab Spring. The transition in Tunisia is looking less problematic than it is in Egypt; but Egypt is of course much bigger and much more important than Tunisia. If Egypt fails, so does the Arab Spring.

The underlying problem is that when a dictator is deposed, power must be vested in some entity until elections can be held. In Egypt, it was the Army that forced out the dictator, President Hosni Mubarak, and it was the Army, alone, that enjoyed sufficient national prestige to inherit his rule. (In Tunisia, with a much weaker army, power has passed to a civilian-led commission.) But elections cannot be held until new political parties can be formed, electoral institutions established, and, often, a new constitution drafted. And at present parties are still forming, merging and hunting for candidates, while drafters of a new constitution are too busy debating whether to include overarching principles to focus on constituent elements. This means that the interim government will serve for long enough that it must exercise power even if it is neither inclined nor competent enough to do so -- a description that seems to fit the SCAF quite well.

The SCAF appears both unwilling to govern and unwilling to let anyone else do so. When Prime Minister Essam Sharaf was appointed in March, he was widely seen as a tribune of Tahrir Square, a liberal democrat in the inner councils of state. But Sharaf and his cabinet have proved to be irrelevant. And the senior military officials who have inherited power are not, of course, democrats of any kind. They benefited from Mubarak's autocratic rule and shared his values. The council has refused to explain its decisions, refused to share power with civilians, and refused to tolerate media criticism of its own practices. The SCAF's intransigence has forced democracy activists to return again and again to Tahrir Square, because the new leaders seem to respond only to public pressure. As Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has written, Egypt "is teetering between authoritarianism and the diktats of the street." It's a dangerous moment.

Yet the danger Egypt faces is not perpetual military rule. The SCAF plainly wants to return to the barracks; a much more plausible worry is that the military, which has its fingerprints all over Egypt's economy, will insist not only on preserving its traditional privileges but on dominating a weak and divided civilian government from the shadows, as the military does in Pakistan. That's a long-term concern. The short-term concern is indecision and drift. Last week, a group of presidential candidates publicly demanded that presidential elections be held by June 2012. Right now, no one knows when they will be held. Parliamentary elections are scheduled to run from late November through March. A constituent assembly appointed by the parliament is to approve a constitution, though the timing is also unclear. And Egypt's electoral commission has not said whether presidential elections can be held before, during, or after the promulgation of a new constitution. A new president may not be chosen until mid-2013. Who would rule in the meantime? It's not clear.

Issandr El Amrani, an Egyptian who blogs at arabist.net, says that the rampant uncertainty "is really unnerving to the population; it's radicalizing the political class, because they're fighting over issues that should have been settled months ago; it's incapacitating Egypt's ability to answer its domestic problems; and it scares away foreign investors." Egypt's economic growth has slowed to a crawl, and teachers and other civil servants have been going out on strike. The emergency law is in part a response to rising social tensions. It's not hard to imagine a downward spiral of protest and crackdown virtually paralyzing daily life. Street protest maybe the only way to get the SCAF to shorten the electoral schedule, and thus its own hapless tenure.

Still, come what may, there will be a civilian government on the other side. And though it may have a strong Islamic cast, it won't actually be Islamic. As the sole politically organized force in the country, the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to win a plurality of votes in the parliament, though no one has the faintest idea how large that plurality will be. Michele Dunne, who heads the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, estimates that the Brotherhood will win between 15 and 40 percent of the seats allocated to political parties -- itself an unclear fraction of the whole -- with the rest divided among a wide range of groups and blocs: members of the former ruling party, the largely secular liberals who manned Tahrir Square, Islamic reformers who split off from the Brotherhood, and the Salafists, who follow a rigidly orthodox brand of Islam. The Brotherhood, catering to fears that it could dominate the new government, is not running a candidate for president, though it certainly could furnish the new prime minister. Without a constitution, it's impossible to know what the distribution of powers between those two offices will be.

The most hopeful scenario is that Egypt will have a very rough patch to negotiate but will come out more or less OK on the other side. El Amrani says that he is much more worried about the short term than the long term -- a refrain one often hears. Democratic transitions by their very nature are rocky and demand a great deal of patience from the activists who have sacrificed to make them possible. It will be harder in Egypt than in Tunisia because its politics are more divisive; but in Egypt, as in Tunisia, millions of people have been mobilized in the name of change and will not easily allow their revolution to be stolen.

I hope that's the case. New democracies usually have a grace period of several years to prove that they can deliver the basics of a good life more effectively than the autocracies they replaced. Egypt may need that time, and more. An inexperienced and internally divided government may find itself unable to deal effectively with immense social tensions and economic problems, not to mention an overweening military. Democracies fail all the time: Look at Venezuela or Ukraine. Establishing a democracy isn't hard; preserving it is.

What can Americans do to help? Not very much, it seems. Egypt is in a deeply nationalistic phase. Last month, the country turned down a $3 billion International Monetary Fund loan, apparently in a burst of anti-Americanism. The riot that engulfed the Israeli Embassy in Cairo this month shows how popular fury, long suppressed under Mubarak, has now been unleashed. That anger will only grow if the United States is compelled to veto Palestine's bid for statehood at the U.N. Security Council. Washington was the chief ally of Mubarak, as it is of Israel. Even U.S. military aid to Egypt matters much less than it used to, as Egypt's economy and defense budget have grown. Washington will have to be patient, accepting that though the revolution may be harmful to American interests in the short run -- and certainly harmful to Israel's -- in the end it will produce a more stable and more peaceful Middle East.

MOHAMED HOSSAM/AFP/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

Punitive Measures

The coming Palestinian statehood push at the United Nations is a train wreck. But with the U.S. Congress promising punishment for this effrontery, it's not just Palestinians who will come away grievously injured.

With barely a week to go before the Palestinian Authority (PA) seeks a vote on statehood at the United Nations, members of U.S. Congress have begun to stage a lively competition for the most elaborately punitive legislative response. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has prepared a bill that would withhold funds "from any UN agency or program that upgrades the status of the PLO/Palestinian observer mission," a measure that cleverly kills two abhorred birds -- the United Nations and the Palestinians -- with one stone. Rep. Steve Israel, a New York Democrat, did her one better with a measure that would eliminate bilateral military assistance for any country that voted for statehood, thus punishing dozens of America's allies for expressing a difference of opinion. But Rep. Joe Walsh, a right-wing Republican from Illinois, took the cake with a resolution endorsing Israel's right to annex the West Bank should the PA go ahead with the vote, thus putting an end to a two-state solution. Walsh has proudly noted that he is copying a radical right-wing bill introduced into the Knesset.

This cynical bidding war demonstrates that blind partnership for Israel crosses both partisan and confessional lines: Anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists should note that Christians, not Jews, have sponsored much of this legislative blackmail. Fortunately, none of it has a chance of becoming law; the Senate is unlikely even to take up any of these measures. But there is one bill that sounds just sane enough to pose a genuine threat: a House subcommittee has inserted language into an appropriations bill that would cut U.S. budgetary support to the PA should the Palestinians go ahead with the U.N. vote. Compared with all the loony bills, says Jeremy Ben-Ami, head of J Street, the liberal Israel lobbying group, "only cutting Palestinian aid begins to look like a compromise position."

Some compromise. Right now, the United States provides slightly more than $500 million a year to the Palestinian Authority. Of that, $200 million goes straight into the Palestinian budget. It is these "Economic Support Funds" that the House measure targets. That's only about 15 percent of the PA's $1.3 billion budget; but the Palestinians already have a $600 million deficit and stopped paying public salaries last month. Unless the Saudis or other Gulf Arabs make up the difference -- and it's their failure to make promised payments that has created the shortfall -- the enormous progress that the PA has made in building a state could grind to a halt. It's possible, though unlikely, that an additional $200 million shortfall could lead the PA to collapse. But it's nearly certain that the government's legitimacy will suffer -- and that United States will be blamed.

Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat and the ranking member on the House committee overseeing foreign aid, has been a leading supporter of the move to threaten the cut in funding. Unlike Walsh, who has said, "There is no such thing as a two-state solution" and believes that peace will come through "Israel having sovereignty over the whole land," Lowey has been a strong supporter of the PA's state-building process and the U.S. funding that has helped make it possible. I asked why she was prepared to put all that in jeopardy to punish the Palestinians for seeking a vote on statehood. "There has to be a line in the sand," she said. The unilateral bid for statehood undermines the peace process. "The Palestinians," Lowey said, "will have to deal with the consequences."

But it's not just the Palestinians who will bear the consequences. Anything that jeopardizes the authority of the PA -- and by extension the moderate Fatah faction -- opens the door to its rival, Hamas, which of course would truly bring the peace process to a halt. And anger over an American decision to not only obstruct the Palestinian bid for statehood but punish its citizens will prove costly for the United States in a new Middle East where public opinion -- and people power -- increasingly matters.

I asked Lowey whether she worried about these consequences. "I worry," she said, "about the Palestinian Authority going to the U.N." She wasn't thinking about the consequences; that was the Palestinians' job. At moments like this, I can't help feeling that Congress should not be allowed to make foreign policy.

Lowey said that she still hoped that the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would sheer off before she and her colleagues had to deploy their doomsday device. "I am an optimist," she kept repeating, pointing to the U.S. team, led by White House official Dennis Ross, that has been dispatched to the Middle East to gain Israeli and Palestinian agreement on a new framework of negotiations to be held under the aegis of the so-called Quartet, thus derailing the bid for statehood. But these discussions are in fact a shadow play; it is widely understood that Abbas cannot afford to abort the effort unless Israel makes the kind of concessions that it plainly is not prepared to make. Indeed, Abbas just delivered a speech rejecting the diplomatic bid and vowing to seek statehood at the U.N. Security Council.

Lowey and her colleagues are threatening the Palestinians with doom for refusing to engage with a peace process that is self-evidently dead. Palestinian leaders have been quite open about the fact that they chose the U.N. path only after they concluded that Washington could not or would not push Israel into making meaningful concessions. "We know there is no escape from negotiations," a Palestinian official is quoted as saying in a recent report by the International Crisis Group. "We have no options because the process' sponsor has checked out." The U.N. statehood bid, then, is more a gesture of despair than an act of calculated diplomacy.

Kay Granger, chairman of Lowey's subcommittee and author of the legislative language terminating aid, recently described the upcoming vote as a "train wreck" -- which it may well be. Granger was of course blaming the Palestinians, who are driving the train. But this looming calamity has less to do with Palestinian stubbornness than with Israeli intransigence and American paralysis, both conditioned in part by the pro-Israel (right or wrong) crowd in Congress. In their despair, the Palestinians really may do something genuinely self-destructive. Abbas is fully aware that the United States would veto an attempt to gain statehood in the Security Council. That would be a train wreck, bringing terrible harm both to U.S. standing in the Arab world and to the Palestinians' standing in the United States. It's the one thing that might make Senate action on an aid cutoff unavoidable, thus turning Granger's metaphor into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

President Barack Obama's administration is now trying to line up enough votes at the Security Council to make a veto unnecessary and then persuade the Palestinians to go instead to the General Assembly, which could not grant statehood but could upgrade their status to that of "nonmember observer state," like the Vatican. Of course, the United States would oppose this too; and the Obama administration is hoping to reduce the Palestinians' expected margin of victory in the General Assembly by peeling off key European allies. That, according to a senior congressional aide, a U.S. diplomat, and an expert in the region, is the real purpose of the administration's eleventh-hour dash to the Middle East: to devise language sufficiently acceptable to EU countries that they would agree to vote against the Palestinians in the Security Council or the General Assembly.

This is what U.S. diplomacy on the Middle East has come to. It didn't have to be this way. Perhaps if Obama didn't have to worry about the political consequences, he would be trying to find the least confrontational way of giving the Palestinians the dignity of enhanced status at the United Nations. Perhaps administration officials would now be trying to draft a General Assembly resolution that the Palestinians could accept, and that Israel could almost live with.

But they're not; in fact, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice recently felt compelled to squash rumors that the United States was doing any such thing, lest the Obama administration be accused of accepting an unacceptable reality. Instead, the United States will stand fast with its great friends in the Marshall Islands, and perhaps some EU members, in opposing an upgrade in Palestinian status at the United Nations. Then Congress may punish the Palestinians for their effrontery. And the Palestinians may react badly. And then the Israelis may react badly. And then the Arab street may react badly.

Welcome to the train wreck.

HAZEM BADER/AFP/Getty Images