Downfall in Cairo

Morsy is out. The military is in. But it doesn't look good for anyone.

Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's announcement of the removal of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, suspension of the Constitution, and early presidential elections has brought Egypt's latest political crisis to its endgame. The massive crowds in the street will welcome the military's intervention deliriously, while all will await the potential response of enraged Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

Nobody should celebrate a military coup against Egypt's first freely elected president, no matter how badly he failed or how badly they hate the Muslim Brotherhood. Turfing out Morsy will not come close to addressing the underlying failures that have plagued Egypt's catastrophic transition over the last two and a half years. The military's intervention is an admission of the failure of Egypt's entire political class, and those now celebrating already probably know that they could soon rue the coup.

This new uprising certainly upends what U.S. policymakers considered to be their best efforts to support a shaky democratic transition. Few in Washington are sorry to see Morsy go. But few believe that this process, a mass uprising culminating in a military coup, will restore stability or lead to a more democratic outcome. The Muslim Brotherhood performed atrociously in power, but the real problem was always the weakness and illegitimacy of the political institutions. If the coup and uprising solve the first at the expense of the second, then the political reset will fail.

One of the many ironies of recent days is that for all the anti-American anger among Egyptian protesters, their efforts seem set to empower the military. And of course it is the military, not the Muslim Brotherhood, that remains America's closest ally in Egypt. The United States has not publicly supported the coup, but the coup could ultimately provide Washington with more opportunities to effectively engage. But for that to help matters, Washington is going to have to do a much better job than it did in 2011 and 2012 in pushing the military toward respecting the rights of the popular forces that now embrace it and toward a rapid restoration of civilian rule and brokering of a meaningful political consensus.

American officials have over the last few years consistently, and correctly, focused on supporting a democratic process in Egypt without supporting any specific political force (including the Muslim Brotherhood, despite what too many Egyptians now believe). Barack Obama's administration wanted to see democratic institutions take hold, with the Muslim Brotherhood included in the political process, but ultimately not dominant. That's why so many American officials grew so deeply frustrated with the opposition for its seeming unwillingness or inability to organize for democratic politics, and with the Muslim Brotherhood for its unwillingness or inability to reach out to the opposition in order to build political consensus.

Success for the U.S. approach of supporting the democratic process would have meant seeing the Brotherhood punished at the ballot box for its political failures. Imagine if the forces that came out in the streets on June 30, in the demonstrations that precipitated Morsy's overthrow, had instead turned out in the same numbers to vote against the Brotherhood's parliamentary candidates. Such a parliament would have created the first genuine balance of power among elected institutions in Egyptian history and denied Morsy his recourse to exclusive electoral legitimacy. But an acceptable new election law bogged down between the Brotherhood's ham-handed ambition and Egypt's political dysfunction. Whether there could have been an electoral path toward checking Morsy's power this year has become one more counterfactual that will never be tested.

While its focus on supporting a democratic transition was correct and should be sustained, there's no doubt that the United States made many mistakes in Egypt over the last few years. One of the most frustrating was its failure to effectively communicate its policy or engage more broadly across Egyptian society. The wave of anti-American sentiments in the streets today, expressed most vividly in the posters denouncing Ambassador Anne Patterson, bear witness to those failures. True, it would never have been easy for Washington to defend its positions within Egypt's intensely polarized and hypercharged media environment. But the administration could have tried harder to listen to Egyptian voices and engage their concerns -- and to more consistently and publicly express its concerns about human rights, civil society, and tolerance.

The most prevalent, and damaging, myth enabled by this failure to communicate is that the Obama administration backed the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsy. That was never the case. It may not have been visible through the fog of Egypt's political polarization, but there was never a great relationship between Washington and the Brotherhood, and certainly no alliance. The United States accepted the Muslim Brotherhood's democratic participation and Morsy's electoral victory because it correctly viewed their inclusion in the political game as necessary to any meaningful Egyptian democracy. But accepting the Brotherhood's political participation was not one of America's mistakes in Egypt; indeed, that very participation will be essential in whatever new political leadership emerges -- and in making sure that Morsy resists the powerful pressures to seek revenge that could trigger Mubarak-era repression, political bans, or worse.

Washington worked with the Muslim Brotherhood as an elected leadership and was right to do so, but that never translated into the kind of deeper alignment that many suspected. It's true that Morsy's help in securing a cease-fire during the short-lived Gaza conflict last November won some grudging respect in Washington, because it seemed to demonstrate that his pragmatism would outweigh his ideological preferences. But the enduring suspicion of the Muslim Brotherhood in Washington gained traction as Morsy and his party failed in power. And any goodwill that Morsy had won in Washington this past winter was quickly squandered by his constitutional power grab, reports of human rights abuses, and the law ruling against foreign NGOs. Meanwhile, in Cairo, Egyptian protesters were infuriated that Ambassador Patterson met with Brotherhood Deputy Supreme Guide Khairat El Shater for three hours on the eve of the crisis. But the real problem was not the meeting, but that she was unable to persuade Shater and the Brotherhood to make the real concessions that might have prevented this crisis.

What now? There remains a very real, urgent risk of major violence and further political or even state collapse, of course. But even if the worst is avoided, Egypt faces a real risk of becoming trapped in an endless loop of failed governments, military interventions, and popular uprisings. The very idea of democratic legitimacy has taken a severe beating, and the coming constitutional reforms and new elections will not pass easily. Building real consensus behind genuinely democratic institutions has to remain the guiding light for U.S. policy and the Egyptian political class, no matter how difficult this appears.

That means finally establishing political rules and institutions that can end the pervasive uncertainty and fear that have dominated the entire transition. Egypt's transition has been profoundly handicapped by the absence of any settled, legitimate rules of the game or institutional channels to settle political arguments. The procedural and substantive legitimacy of every step in the transition has been deeply contested, from the initial March 2011 constitutional referendum through the constitutional assembly and elections. The Supreme Constitutional Court's dissolution of parliament on the eve of the presidential election left the new government with no legitimate legislative branch other than the weak Shura Council for which few had bothered to vote.

Many in Washington (including me) had hoped that the passage of a constitution, however badly flawed, would finally end the pervasive uncertainty and allow the consolidation of normal politics and effective governance. Obviously, it didn't, in large part because of the Brotherhood's reckless power grab to force through a document that enjoyed no consensus. The primary focus now should be on finally finding such a consensus on the path forward, whether through constitutional amendments or a national "round table" of the major political forces and societal groups. Without such a consensus and a clear pathway toward new elections, the patterns of political dysfunction will just continue to replay endlessly even as the faces and positions change.

Can that be achieved? Certainly, recent experience is not promising. The Egyptian military has already proved its own inability to effectively run the country, and military coups are rarely a viable pathway toward democracy or stability. The opposition has proved its ability to mobilize the streets around big focal-point issues like deposing Morsy, but remains as deeply internally divided as ever and has no common policy agenda. The Muslim Brotherhood has lost a lot of support but still commands a significant base that will feel deeply aggrieved, disenchanted with formal politics, and fearful for its personal safety. Other Islamists are playing their cards close to the vest, likely hoping to benefit from the Brotherhood's failure, but have not likely abandoned their ideological goals. And the mobilization that led to June 30 has heightened polarization, mutual demonization, dehumanization, and fear.

Washington can't do much to shape Egyptian politics right now, even if it tried. I remain deeply skeptical that the military coup will be a pathway to democracy or that the Egyptian military will be able to navigate the political waters any better today than it did in 2011. But Washington should use what influence it has to find ways to ensure that the political reset does not just repeat and entrench the mistakes of the past two and a half years -- or make them worse.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Marc Lynch

Mysteries of the Emir

What do we really know about the transfer of power in Qatar and the plans of the country's young, new leader?

Who would have believed two years ago that Syria's Bashar al-Assad would outlast the emir of Qatar on the throne? Or that one of the wealthiest and most secure Arab leaders, facing no evident domestic challenges, would leave power virtually overnight? Or, for that matter, that any Arab leader would voluntarily give up power rather than clinging on to the bitter end? Or that it would all seem so … normal?

Over the last week, Qatar completed a virtually unprecedented and brilliantly stage-managed leadership transition from the 61-year-old Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani to his 33-year-old son, Tamim. In the process, Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani (perhaps better known in the West by his initials, HBJ) was also removed from his longtime perch as one of the region's most outspoken foreign ministers. The whole thing has been so carefully prepared and easily presented that it's easy to overlook the genuinely shocking nature of this transfer of power. Vanishingly few modern Arab leaders have ever voluntarily stepped down, even when terminally ill, incapacitated, or deeply unpopular (none of which apply to the outgoing emir).

While great pains will be taken to emphasize the difference between the emir's abdication and the regimes overthrown during by the Arab uprisings, the fact remains that the emir has become the fifth Arab head of state to leave office since January 2011. Certainly, an orderly transition to the emir's son does not look much like the popular uprisings that claimed the regimes of Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi. No protests forced the emir and HBJ from the palace, no military eased them out the back door, no United Nations resolutions or furious Western heads of state demanded his departure, no humiliating trials await. In reality, however, the emir's decision is as shocking in its own way as were the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings.

The rollout of the emir's decision was carefully prepared and executed to make the unthinkable seem retrospectively inevitable. Reports of the impending transition had been circulating for over a month, from well-placed sources as well as from the hyperactive rumor mill, normalizing the idea and softening some of its sting. But that communications campaign didn't make the event any less surprising. I know that I'm not the only one who heard the rumor but just didn't believe it. Frankly, even after the last few years, it just didn't seem to be in the DNA of Arab leaders -- especially monarchs -- to voluntarily surrender power. Indeed, last week I joked about the emir's rumored departure as a decision to pursue his unicorn farming dreams; I guess now we'll find out whether he can make money off them. More seriously, the story sounded too much like the periodic rumors of a military coup against the Al Thanis circulated by Syrian, Egyptian, and Saudi critics of Qatar. And while the outgoing emir has significant health problems, that didn't stop King Fahd from ruling Saudi Arabia for a decade as a vegetable.

Those crafting the official version of the handover have therefore been exceedingly keen to present it as a historic but normal move, one that might even be emulated by other Arab monarchs -- were they as bold and farsighted as the departing Sheikh Hamad. Bahrain would be the most obviously well served by following Qatar's lead and transferring power to the crown prince. But neither the Khalifas nor their other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) friends are likely to do so. Indeed, Arab monarchs are more likely to quietly cheer the departure of a leader they have viewed as an unpredictable irritant and an undependable member of the GCC club. "What happened … in Qatar will most likely stay in Qatar," remarked the Emirati political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla.

But even when Arab monarchs fail to be inspired to hand over their power, the example of another potential road to leadership change in the Persian Gulf might have effects beyond the palaces simply by reintroducing the possibility of change that was dimmed by Syria's horrors and Egypt's chaos. Leaders may have survived for now, but the Gulf has been profoundly affected by the Arab uprisings: Kuwait passing through perhaps the most serious political crisis of its modern history; Saudi Arabia primed for generational challenges from a wired and frustrated population; and Bahrain is unlikely to recover anytime soon from its catastrophic sectarian repression. Great wealth, international backing, well-honed internal divide-and-rule strategies, and effective cross-national cooperation have helped the regimes resist those pressures. But the intense crackdowns across the Gulf over the last few years on human rights activists, political protests, Shiite citizens, the Muslim Brotherhood, and even online "insults" to the leadership show just how insecure and paranoid these regimes have become.

Some have portrayed Sheikh Hamad's move as a prophylactic against the coming wave of challenges to the rulers of the Gulf, getting ahead of the curve with a transition before the storm. But few saw tiny, inordinately wealthy Qatar as a remotely likely candidate for such uprisings, even compared with the other Gulf states. Ironically, Sheikh Hamad's decision to transfer power to an untested young successor -- and during such testing times -- may be a sign of how relatively secure that regime is relative to its Arab counterparts. And of course there is nothing revolutionary about the handover whatsoever: Qatar remains an absolutist regime, ruled by the same family through the same institutions, with no sign of the once-promised electoral democracy, with much more enthusiasm for press freedom abroad than at home, and with limited tolerance for even mild forms of dissent.

Qatari domestic politics have rarely been of much interest to the outside world, though. What most non-Qataris really want to know is what this change means for Qatari foreign policy. Allow me to summarize in two words the thousand articles already written on the subject: Nobody knows. Qatar's regime has always enjoyed exceptional autonomy from both domestic and international pressures in its foreign policymaking. Decisions on this front have been highly centralized and personalized, with leaders facing very few domestic political constraints. That means that the young, little-known Emir Tamim has perhaps more freedom than any other leader in the world to take whatever path he prefers.

And nobody really knows what he prefers. Thus the rampant speculation about his alleged social conservatism, domestic orientation, competition with HBJ, views about Hamas, relationship with Saudis, and more. Perhaps Emir Tamim shares the same beliefs as his parents and will continue in their path. Perhaps he will leave the ambitious social programs of his mother, Sheikha Moza, untouched but steer Doha toward enjoying its wealth without all the messy complications of an activist foreign policy. Perhaps he identifies with the Muslim Brotherhood and will support it even more than before, or perhaps he prefers to patch up relations with Saudis and Emiratis who despise the group.

The point is that nobody really knows, perhaps not even the new emir himself, and there are few domestic or international constraints on his ability to act. There is no social base in Qatar demanding the foreign policies associated with HBJ and the retired emir. Those leaders just chose to pursue an interventionist and pan-Arabist regional policy, including support for Muslim Brotherhood movements, strong pushes for regime change in Libya and Syria, massive economic assistance to Egypt's new government, and the funding of Al Jazeera's international empire. Even if there were strong Qatari domestic support for such policies -- or their opposite, for that matter -- the public has no way to effectively press them on the emir.

Qatar does face somewhat greater international constraints, given its tiny size and challenging neighbors, but it is protected from the worst of them by its unfathomable wealth and the protection of a U.S. military base. There are limits: The U.S. base and Saudi presence probably keep it from becoming a full-blown ally of Iran, if ever it wanted to do such a thing, for some reason. But those constraints are only at the extremes. The absence of meaningful systemic constraints means that it can choose to pursue its trademark policies -- but nothing in the system forces it to do so.

Despite the seemingly wild contingency that this introduces, most analysts are predicting continuity in Qatari foreign policy, if perhaps in a slightly less confrontational manner and perhaps more in line with Qatar's GCC allies. Few seem to expect significant changes in Qatar's support for the Syrian opposition or in Qatar's other major regional policies. This is probably right in the short term, as the new leadership settles into place and seeks to reassure domestic and foreign audiences. The new emir signaled continuity in his first speech, stressing that he would stick to the path laid down by his father. But those early moves tell us little actually about where he will take the country once he settles into power.

I was struck by a few notes within the limited signals we've thus far had from Emir Tamim. One was his comment that he "rejects divisions in Arab societies on sectarian lines." Could this be taken as an implicit rebuke of the GCC's cynical anti-Shiite line of the last years, including Al Jazeera's strongly sectarian coverage of Syria and the Doha-based Islamist figure Yusuf al-Qaradawi's hard-line turn toward sectarianism? Also, was Emir Tamim's emphasis on Qatar's independent foreign policy in his inaugural speech meant as an implicit distancing from past controversial policies or as a warning that he would not be any more subordinate to Saudi preferences than was his father?

I was also struck by the departure of the director-general of Al Jazeera, who stepped down to join the new cabinet after less than two undistinguished years. Will his replacement take steps to restore the reputation of the flagship Arabic station, which has lost a great deal of credibility over the last two years due to its coverage of Syria and Egypt? Will the new leadership continue Al Jazeera's dizzying global expansion strategy, including the launch of Al Jazeera America, scheduled for this fall? And then, of course, what will become of Hamad bin Jassim, the driving force and ubiquitous face of Qatari foreign policy for many years? Despite his rapid removal, he seems unlikely to quietly retire to the life of a banker. Could he become a rallying point for those disgruntled with any new direction taken by the new emir?

If this were a Foreign Policy column, I might be tempted to offer up a fun Qatari Game of Thrones analogy, with the Al Thanis cast in the roles of the Lannisters. It's easy to imagine Emir Tamim as the young, enigmatic, and impetuous Joffrey; Sheikha Moza as Cersei, the mother who finds her maternal influence waning as the temptations of royal power become manifest; the outgoing emir as Tywin, the patriarch determined to keep the affairs of state on track; HBJ as Jaime, the once shining light of the family now facing radically changed circumstances. (I could take nominations for the role of Tyrion.) But I'll let those analogies go unfinished, much like George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones books.

More important is the reminder of the constant potential for sudden, unexpected change in the region -- and the many forms that such change might take. What happened in Doha was far from a revolution, but it was a major surprise. I, for one, don't believe we yet know the whole story behind the emir's decision or the intentions of the new leadership. And in at least one crucial way, what happened in Doha most certainly will not stay in Doha. Given Qatar's active role in virtually every one of the region's interlocking problems, from Egypt to Syria to Libya to Yemen to Palestine, the new emir's choices will matter in ways far less predictable then many seem to believe.