More bloodshed in Egypt is inevitable as President Mohamed Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood fail to reach an agreement with opposition groups and the country lacks real leadership or direction, said Aaron David Miller, a former top U.S. Middle East official.
“There’s going to be some violence,” Miller said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend. The result will be continued instability in the region’s largest, most powerful state as the military doesn’t want to govern and the opposition is too disorganized to lead, he said.
“You have a Muslim Brotherhood presidency that is going to cling to power,” Miller, a former negotiator on Middle East peace under President Bill Clinton, said in Washington.
The result will be that “the dysfunction and despair and incompetence that characterizes so much of Arab governance in the Arab Spring is sadly going to continue,” Miller, currently a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said in advance of a military-imposed deadline today that called for Mursi to establish order.
Just before the deadline, Mursi called today for a coalition government that would keep him in office, signaling a renewed rejection of protesters’ calls to step down.
The showdown pits Egypt’s first democratically elected president against opponents who say he’s sold out the goals of the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak to advance Islamist interests. With hundreds of thousands of Mursi’s opponents and supporters massing in the streets, clashes left at least 18 dead and 619 wounded over the past 24 hours, said Ahmed El-Ansari, deputy head of the national ambulance service.
The U.S. faces a range of challenges across the Middle East, chief among them two situations that pose potential threats to Israel, the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. aid, receiving $118 billion since World War II, according to the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan arm of Congress.
Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel is a linchpin of U.S. security policy in the region. The civil war in Syria, now in its third year, threatens to spill over the border with Israel.
Miller praised President Barack Obama’s caution on Syria. The U.S. has provided almost $510 million in humanitarian aid, according to the State Department, and more recently has begun to provide limited lethal assistance to vetted rebel groups.
Obama has “wisely” avoided “intervention in a situation in which he doesn’t want to get stuck with the check,” Miller said. The crucial question, learned from U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, Miller said, is how using American military force would affect the end game.
“How does militarizing the American role, how is that going to contribute to a stable, prosperous, secure, pro-Western Syria under these circumstances?” Miller asked.
So far, Obama has resisted sending larger arms, such as anti-aircraft or anti-tank missiles, that rebel leaders and some members of Congress have pushed the administration to provide to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s foes.
“Sooner or later, you end up with a situation where an Israeli airliner, an American airliner is shot down as a consequence of weapons that are loose or used by other groups that aren’t carefully vetted,” Miller said.
Miller doesn’t envision Obama changing his mind on the issue. “The red lines the president has drawn for himself to contain American intervention in Syria I think are pretty thick,” he said. “I don’t think they’re going to be crossed.”
Miller also said he sees Assad in power for longer than “anybody would have expected.”
Assad has the support of Iran, Russia and the terrorist group Hezbollah, along with control over 100,000 to 150,000 Syrian forces, chemical weapons and the instruments of state repression. The opposition seeking his ouster has been troubled by weakness, infighting and dysfunction.
“He can maintain himself in power for some time to come,” Miller said. “We may have to get used to the fact that even” if there is a political settlement, “he is going to be in Syria longer than he deserves to be.”
The U.S. inability to move Assad out of power, after months of saying he “must go,” harms America’s standing in the region, Miller said, and sends “a very bad signal.”
U.S. credibility is already at an all-time low as a consequence of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Miller said, because the standard for victory “was never could we win, but when could we leave?”
Credibility is “the real problem,” Miller said. “We are not succeeding in the Middle East because everybody, almost without exception, finds it easy, simple and cost-free to say no to America.” Listing the leaders of Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Miller said, “Karzai says no. Maliki says no. Netanyahu says no. Abbas says no. Everybody says no to the United States.”
Iran, Miller said, envisions itself as a great power, a driving factor in its pursuit of nuclear technology. While Iran insists the program is for civilian purposes, the U.S. and its allies charge the Persian nation is seeking to acquire a nuclear-weapons capability. “I think they want the capacity to develop a nuclear weapon,” Miller said. “Whether they actually weaponize and go to weaponization is another matter.”
Regardless, the U.S. can do little to stop that march, he said. “We couldn’t stop the North Koreans,” Miller said. “We couldn’t stop the Indians. We couldn’t stop the Pakistanis. The Israelis developed weapons in part with our acquiescence. If a power decides that it wants a weapon, has the scientific technology and the money and the determination, it can produce.”
Secretary of State John Kerry, who met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas three times each in recent weeks, has been trying to overcome the Israeli-Palestinian tendency to say “no” to restarting peace talks.
Miller said he expects the secretary will succeed, at least in getting the parties back to the table.
“I think he will get talks resumed,” Miller said. “The question is whether he can keep the parties at the table.”
Miller says one major difficulty is that the two sides aren’t as invested in the process as they need to be.
“People care only about what they own,” Miller said. “And until Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu own this negotiation, no matter how bad Kerry wants it, no matter how bad Obama wants it, they’re not going to get it.”
In Egypt, Miller said, the Muslim Brotherhood will resist what it sees as a repeat of 1990s Algerian history, when the military and secularists forced democratically elected Islamists from power. The military, meanwhile, doesn’t want to govern though it does want to protect the country’s prosperity and security.
The secular, liberal, young opposition, along with millions of Egyptians who are tired of Mursi’s leadership, can’t organize effectively, Miller said.
One lesson the region may draw from Egypt’s turmoil is the inability of Islamic-oriented governments to meet popular demands, Miller said. To bolster his point, he pointed to Turkey, where another democratically elected, Islamist-oriented party was the target of popular unrest because of its authoritarian policies.
“I’m not comparing them,” Miller said, “but yes, this will set political Islam and its competency and effectiveness in governance back a ways.”
The situation in Egypt is “likely to get worse before it gets worse,” Miller said, “because you’ve got a lot of moving parts.”