The Egyptian Treadmill

Why Washington isn’t panicking about Egypt’s latest crisis.

Cairo is having yet another crisis. This week's dramatic storming of the Semiramis Hotel just off of Tahrir Square by unknown thugs, the massive unrest and bloodshed leading to the imposition of emergency law in the canal cities, and ongoing clashes in Tahrir Square are fueling a general sense of the collapse of public order. The immediate spark for the surge of violence was the verdict on last year's soccer mayhem, combined with the aftermath of the Jan. 25 anniversary protest. But really, it feels like it could have been anything.

The latest manifestation of Egypt's ongoing political and institutional crisis has many causes. The exceptionally clumsy leadership from the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohamed Morsy's repeated attempted power grabs. The opposition's rejection of the political transition but inability to offer any compelling alternative. The frustration of revolutionaries and the emergence of violent, anarchic trends on the streets. Intense social and political polarization that neither side seems capable of restraining. The economic crisis and security vacuum keeping everyone on edge. In this context, Defense Minister Gen. Abd el-Fattah el-Sissi's widely quoted comment that the ongoing crisis "may lead to the collapse of the state and threatens the future of the coming generations" sounds more like sober analysis than veiled coup threat.

The U.S. response thus far has been characteristically low-key. There's almost certainly a sort of crisis fatigue, a sense that the Egyptian political class has cried wolf about the sky falling a few too many times. Still, the White House and the State Department have condemned violence on all sides, and called for an inclusive dialogue to build a consensus that respects the rights of all citizens. As has been the case throughout the Arab Spring, the Obama administration has drawn a line at the use of violence. But it correctly continues to insist that the solution to the crisis must come from Egyptians.

For many Egyptians, and much of the Egypt policy community in the United States, this isn't enough. The United States should do more, do it differently, and do it more boldly (for examples, see this new collection of comments by top experts just released by the Project on Middle East Democracy [PDF]). Most of the critics agree that Washington should do more to support Egyptian democracy (not all, of course -- Mubarak nostalgia has made an ugly comeback, especially among those on the right who always despised the Muslim Brotherhood more than they cared for Arab democracy). This is a bit tricky, though, because the Muslim Brotherhood actually won reasonably free and fair democratic elections. Pushing to bring down this elected government in the name of democracy would ordinarily be viewed as a tough sell. 

The Obama administration believes that it is supporting democracy in Egypt, and it has a pretty good case to make. It isn't just its (still contested) role during the 18 days in helping to nudge Mubarak from power. The Obama team can also point to its quiet role in pushing the Egyptian military to commit to the transfer of power to an elected government, to live up to that commitment, and to not tip the presidential election to Ahmed Shafiq, a retired general and Mubarak loyalist. The administration consistently stuck to its position even when faced with a blizzard of panicked calls for postponement over violence, institutional chaos, legal shenanigans, or the stated or unstated recognition of imminent defeat (even I went wobbly once during intense clashes just before the parliamentary election, when it appeared that an election couldn't possibly be held amidst such chaos; I was wrong). Unlike the Bush administration, which gave up on Palestinian democracy when Hamas won elections, Obama did not back away when the Islamists won. The Obama administration has demonstrated in word and deed a commitment to supporting Egyptian democracy far beyond anything previously shown by an American government.

That does not mean that Obama wanted the Muslim Brotherhood to win the elections. It takes a pretty skewed view of American politics to see any advantage whatsoever for Obama in Islamist electoral wins. Nor does anyone in Washington have any illusions about the Muslim Brotherhood -- if there's anybody here who actually believes that the Brotherhood is made up of liberal, Israel-loving, free-market, evangelical democrats then I haven't met them. Most just don't think that's the point. The Muslim Brotherhood has performed abysmally in power, and has many unattractive qualities, but it won the elections.  Many of Egypt's problems are endemic to transitions from authoritarian regimes and almost every other player on the Egyptian political scene has contributed to the fiasco. Of course, Obama has worked with Morsy as the democratically elected president of Egypt. But that doesn't mean he "supports" or "backs" Morsy, any more than diplomatic relations with Britain means that Obama "backs" David Cameron.

The Obama administration would pretty clearly like nothing more than for the Muslim Brotherhood to get thrashed in an open election. Indeed, it's probably their strategic vision. What could be better for the long-term development of Arab political culture than Islamists entering into the democratic process and then, for the first time in their history, being called to account by voters for their mistakes and over-reach? Could anyone doubt the value of a genuine balance of power between opposing political trends in the presidency and the Parliament for the first time in Egypt's modern history? There's a reason outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized the crucial significance of the "second election" in democratic transitions.

It's not a terrible bet. The mountain of troubles produced by Brotherhood rule, the movement's relatively limited electoral base (probably around 25 percent, going by Morsy's share of the first round of the presidential election), and the high levels of mobilization against them during the constitutional crisis, should have put the Brotherhood in a world of political hurt. Indeed, the opposition to the Brotherhood could not possibly have been better teed up for electoral success this spring: economic catastrophe, security vacuum, governance failures, a hostile media, a mobilized population, the Salafis feuding with the Brotherhood, a skeptical international community, temporary unity around the common cause of beating the Brotherhood. 

Of course, for the Brotherhood to lose, somebody will need to beat them. And it would be difficult to express how fully, completely, absolutely baffled and depressed Washington is by the ineptitude of the Egyptian opposition. The opposition appears intent on blowing its chance. The National Salvation Front, the leading coalition of opposition figures, remains bedeviled by personality conflicts and individual ambitions, incoherent strategy, real programmatic differences (particularly over economic policy) and an evident unwillingness to get down to the dirty work of building a political machine and winning votes. Their cause is not helped by the ongoing temptation to boycott or the ever-deepening antagonism to the entire system among many of the most motivated youth activists.

Many of Obama's critics argue that democracy means more than elections and that Egypt falls far short of a democratic outcome despite its elections. This is almost certainly correct. A slim electoral majority does not give the Egyptian government carte blanche to impose a narrow Islamist agenda on an intensely divided population. The Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian democracy must be judged through a wider lens of pluralism, transparency, accountability, inclusion, and respect for minority rights. To the best of my knowledge, nobody in Washington disagrees about any of this. 

The disagreement is over how to best support such values. Most want the administration to speak out about these issues more often instead of just backing Morsy as an elected president. Presumably, they would like the administration to urge Morsy to "take steps at this historic time to advance national unity by reaching out to all parties and constituencies in consultations about the formation of a new government. We believe in the importance of the new Egyptian government upholding universal values, and respecting the rights of all Egyptian citizens -- including women and religious minorities such as Coptic Christians." (Oh wait, it did.) Maybe they wanted to hear Clinton say that Morsy should "pledge to serve all Egyptians, including women and minorities and to protect the rights of all Egyptians" because "real democracy means that no group or faction or leader can impose their will, their ideology, their religion, their desires on anyone else," and to forcefully state that "democracy is not just about reflecting the will of the majority; it is also about protecting the rights of the minority." (Oh, wait, that was July 14 and in Alexandria on July 15.) If only the White House understood that "the principle that democracy requires much more than simple majority rule. It requires protecting the rights and building the institutions that make democracy meaningful and durable." (Yup, Dec. 25.)

So yeah, the Obama administration has said virtually everything its critics want it to say, consistently, repeatedly, and at every appropriate occasion. But few Egyptians (or Washington policy analysts) seem impressed. It may be that virtually everything which the United States says or does gets rapidly spun and processed in the hyperactive Egyptian public sphere. It may be that Egyptians just don't want the United States involved in their affairs and have no interest in the leadership American pundits yearn to provide. It may be that they want to see deeds matching the words and simply don't believe what the United States says about such things. It may be that they are more interested in receiving support for their own agendas than they are in abstract statements of principle. Whatever the case, the American words are there, but they aren't having the intended impact. 

So what should the United States do? Here, we come to a core analytical difference about the nature of the problem facing Egypt. For one camp, the problem is the Muslim Brotherhood, which is entrenching its domination of state and societal institutions and revealing its true repressive face. The most popular solution based on this diagnosis would be to distance Washington from an inherently hostile Islamist government and do whatever possible to weaken its grip on power. Concretely, this might mean more support to liberal groups, though you have to wonder what form that might take, whether such groups really want the support and are willing to take it publicly, and how American backing would play in an intensely polarized and nationalistic Egyptian arena.  It might also be complicated by the open antipathy which many leading activists and liberals frequently express towards the administration. 

The other popular recommendation is the conditioning of bilateral and multilateral aid to force the Brotherhood to be more democratic and inclusive. That always sounds good, though just try telling a diplomat that it's easy to implement this kind of leverage. Conditionality is a blunt instrument, poorly suited to micromanaging political developments, and a wasting asset that loses value each time it is threatened. Nobody in Egypt should get a blank check, of course --not the Muslim Brotherhood, not the military, not a future democratically elected Parliament. But such a nuclear option needs to be reserved for the big things, such as canceling elections, large-scale violence, violation of universal rights, or the return of military rule. 

For the other camp, the core problem is the economic crisis and failure of governance that fuels social and political polarization. Rather than an ascendant Muslim Brotherhood relentlessly establishing its domination everywhere, this camp tends to see a weak, ineffective and paralyzed government that doesn't control the bureaucracy, can't appoint a new minister of the interior, can't enforce a curfew, can't police the streets, can't conclude a deal with the International Monetary Fund, can't take the military's support for granted, and can't get anyone to take its prime minister remotely seriously. For this diagnosis, this is hardly the time for lengthy conditionality talks.  They would argue that the best way to help Egyptian democracy is to stop the bleeding, stabilize the economy, restore order, and give normal politics a chance. Rather than a tough line in conditionality talks, they would likely prefer to get significant economic aid into the system as quickly as possible to staunch the crisis and calm things down before the country spirals into an irrevocable cycle of collapse.

Ideally, the IMF/World Bank and Egypt would quickly come to an agreement that includes commitments on governance and democracy. But since when has the ideal happened in Egypt? Given the need to make choices, I generally fall into the latter camp: Stop the crisis, fix the institutions, stabilize the economy. That does not mean backing away from democracy, though -- far from it. Morsy is not going to be able to overcome the recurrent crises without a more inclusive and real dialogue with the country's political forces, a less polarizing way of governing, and (probably) a more respected government. I'd demand that the Obama administration to push for all that, except of course that's exactly what it's already doing. The reality is that Morsy, like Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki before him, isn't going to become inclusive and accommodating because of American advice. He'll do it when he feels that he has no other choice and that inclusion best serves his interests --- a conclusion which should be hastened by this latest round of unrest. 

One of the Obama team's key insights about the Arab uprisings has been that the United States should as much as possible avoid playing an active role in the internal political affairs of Arab states. U.S. officials often say that Egyptian political solutions must come from Egyptians, and they're right. Washington should stand up for its values and for its very real interest in seeing Egypt make a transition to full democracy, but it should not be trying to micromanage Egyptian politics. Few Egyptians want it to try, and let's face it: We're bad at it.


Marc Lynch

America's Saudi Problem

Obama can't get it right on the Arab Spring unless he holds Saudi Arabia to account.

In Riyadh last week, where I was speaking to a small private workshop, Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former head of Saudi intelligence and ambassador to the United States, introduced me by reading several excerpts from my recent FP column: "Bahrain crushed its opposition with impunity," he read. And then: "Obama chose to rely on the Gulf monarchies against Iran, which made it exceptionally difficult for him to meaningfully pressure them to reform or to block their counterrevolutionary intervention in Bahrain." His polite but pointed comment: "These words are not accepted in the Gulf."

That was putting it mildly. For much of the week, I heard sharp disagreements from Saudis on Bahrain, which they for the most part saw not as a peaceful uprising but as an Iranian-backed campaign of violent subversion that had to be put down to restore order. Perhaps a few agreed, at least privately, on the unjustifiable nature of the campaign of repression that followed -- even if the protesters had sympathies with Iran, could that justify their torture and indefinite detention? -- and the dim prospects for stability without a serious new political initiative. But that rarely extended to an acceptance of the authenticity or legitimacy of the Bahraini protest movement.

The yawning gap in our views of Bahrain reflected a more general disconnect between Washington and Riyadh on regional order. Saudi Arabia's hostility toward the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, and its coordinated efforts to block change in the Gulf and in allied monarchies across the region, works directly against the stated American goal of promoting reform. Its support for the crushing of the Bahraini protest movement and rehabilitation of an unrepentant regime left a gaping hole in American credibility. Saudi domestic policies, from women's rights to the treatment of its Shiite minority to the absence of democracy and repression of the public sphere, are manifestly incompatible with any liberal vision. And should the Obama administration attempt serious negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program, it will find a skeptical partner indeed in Riyadh.

The tension cuts to the heart of my vision for U.S. Middle East strategy of a "right-sized" military and political presence combined with stronger commitment to political reform and public engagement. Indeed, America's alliance with Saudi Arabia remains the greatest contradiction inherent in its attempt to align itself with popular aspirations for change in the region. A Saudi exception certainly makes things such as coordinating the containment of Iran easier for diplomats on a daily basis. But it sustains and perpetuates a regional order which over the long term is costly to sustain and clearly at odds with American normative preferences.

Some American analysts, notably Toby Jones, have therefore called repeatedly for a wholesale rethinking of the U.S.-Saudi alliance. He argues persuasively that "Washington's clear preference for the status quo in the Gulf has come at considerable cost to activists in the region. The U.S. has enabled the Gulf regimes to behave badly; the regimes, for their part, have exploited geopolitical rivalries to consolidate power at home." What would such a rethinking actually look like, though? We should recognize and attempt to break that vicious cycle. I don't think that the United States can or should abandon its strategic posture in the Gulf -- certainly not overnight. But it should be much more forthright in pushing for reforms and supporting universal human rights in all of its allies. This is the time for Washington to be actively thinking about how to use its very real strategic imperative of reducing its military commitments to the region as leverage over those allies to reform. Putting those together, along with sustained dialogue with Saudis from the royal family down through all sectors of the public, could help to create a greater coherence in America's regional strategy.

I don't believe that Saudi Arabia is poised for a revolution (though a lot of people in Riyadh wanted to know whether Bruce Riedel's views were widely shared in Washington). Even the most determined reformers with whom I spoke told me that they expected meaningful change in a longer time frame (some said three to five years, others five to 10 --- an eternity in American strategic practice). But "revolution" sets the bar too high. The changes that have already taken place -- from the furious protests in the Eastern Province to the renewed push for women's rights to a legal campaign for human rights to the dramatic opening of online public debate -- strike me as profoundly important. It simply does not seem plausible that a country with such a young and intensely wired population can maintain indefinitely a system which denies transparency, accountability, or equal citizenship.

Saudi Arabia has clearly been deeply affected by the Arab Spring, even if demands for political change have thus far been blocked through a mix of repression and co-optation. Recurrent economic and institutional problems, along with widely perceived corruption, generate significant distress among Saudis. Almost everyone I met, from Shiite activists in the Eastern Province to youth activists, women's rights campaigners, and human rights lawyers in Riyadh, identified Tunisia, Egypt, and the Arab Spring as the spark for a new form of domestic mobilization. The connection between Saudi Arabia's domestic crackdown and its regional policy seems clear. Riyadh's crackdown on its own reformists and massive domestic spending boom mirrored the support it offered for beleaguered monarchies in the Gulf, Jordan and Morocco.

Saudi Arabia today actually reminds me vividly of Egypt circa 2004, with a rapidly transforming public sphere and rising citizen demands finding little opportunity for expression in the formal political realm. While such comparisons are fraught with problems, I could not avoid the echoes. Almost everyone I met pointed to Twitter as a dramatic new Saudi public sphere in a country that never used to have a meaningful public sphere at all. I'm primed to be skeptical about such claims, but they ring true in a country with exceptionally tight control over all other media and exceptionally high levels of social media use (among the highest per capita in the world for YouTube and by far the most Twitter users in the Middle East). The willingness to openly discuss the most sensitive and contentious issues and the role of social media in widening the zone of open debate was there, as was deep frustration with formal politics and the inability to sketch out a clear path to political change. It isn't just the famous @mujtahhid spilling royal family secrets. It is the ferocious, no-holds-barred online discussion of virtually everything -- and the open mocking of those royals brave enough to join the discussion. One prominent journalist told me that officials had recently allowed a slightly more independent political talk show onto the airwaves primarily because they were all too aware of the far more critical discourse routinely circulating on Twitter.

Thus far, the virtual protests have not been able to move into the streets in force, except in the east, which has experienced a sustained, serious challenge to the systematic discrimination against Shiite citizens. Activists from Qatif with whom I met while visiting the Eastern Province gave a consistent account of pervasive, systematic discrimination and a dangerous cycle of violence. They rejected the common claim that they had been inspired by Bahrain or by Iran -- they claimed inspiration from Tunisia and Egypt, and made constitutional and citizenship rather than sectarian demands. But while those protests have not spread to the Sunni majority areas of Saudi Arabia, in part due to the active promotion of sectarian discourse at home and abroad by the regime, the crackdown against reformers pushing for legal accountability, the release of political prisoners, and constitutional change strikes me as a sign of regime weakness, not strength. The imprisonment of the liberal writer Turki al-Hamed over his tweets, or the throwing of youth into prison without charges over their Facebook posts, suggests a regime uncertain about itself and over how to manage the sudden transformation of the public debate.

What should the United States do about this changing Saudi Arabia? Its real dependence on Saudi oil, Riyadh's key role in the current security architecture, and the transition costs of a new strategy can't be wished away. Allies should be engaged with a presumption of partnership, not one-sided lectures or sudden, erratic policy shifts. But America cannot continue to ignore the increasingly clear tension between its stated policy goals. It should at least avoid accepting or endorsing the status quo, and should do far more to nurture the emerging new Saudi public sphere. For instance, the symbolism of President Obama's unusual meeting with new Saudi Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, which looked to many Saudis like an endorsement of someone they identify with the most repressive and anti-democratic trends in the kingdom, was unfortunate.

Does Washington have any leverage? Maybe. The day after his lengthy interrogation over various ill-defined charges, the impressive human rights campaigner Mohammed Fahad al-Qahtani told me that the United States urgently needed to do more to support these emerging voices. Qahtani, like others, thinks that Obama could significantly help this emerging new reformist discourse -- and that engaging with them would ultimately be decisively in the interests of both Washington and Saudi Arabia itself.  While many were dismissive of the 30 women appointed by King Abdullah to the Shura Council, for instance, one women's rights activist with whom I spoke argued strongly for its significance. Their presence, she insisted, was symbolically important and would make it far easier for them to get women's issues onto the Shura Council's (admittedly lean) agenda. If this were simply a public relations move to appease the United States ("the Hillary Clinton Council," as several Saudis called it), she argued, then it should be taken as a positive example of how American pressure could help. Change will not come quickly, but Obama should speak out against the prosecution of such liberal reformists and apply the same standards on the right to free expression in Saudi Arabia that he does elsewhere in the region.

In his inaugural address, Obama declared again, "We will support democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom." If the president is serious about this, and genuinely hopes to shape a regional order based on more democratic and open allies, then he will not be able to avoid the Saudi exception indefinitely. It will not be welcome, but he should support the demands of all Arab citizens for transparency, accountability and pluralism -- even in hard cases like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Pete Souza/The White House