All of Your Egypt Questions Answered
Well, not all your Egypt questions, but at least a few. Here goes:
Q: Which side should I be rooting for in the current conflict?
A: Your choice is between the theocratic, fascist church-burners of the Muslim Brotherhood or the authoritarian, coup-plotting civilian-killers of the Egyptian military. These are the only two parties that matter in the conflict. It would be something of a cop-out, though an understandable one, to declare yourself a partisan of the mass of innocent Egyptians caught in the crossfire. Here's a provisional, realpolitik solution to your problem: The Egyptian military has a better chance of preventing all-out civil war than does the Brotherhood. Best that it does this without mass slaughter, of course.
Q: Wait a minute, though. Continued rule by the Egyptian armed forces, and the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood by same, will only lead to the creation of a new generation of Islamist terrorists, won't it?
A: Why yes, in all likelihood, it will. In 1966, Gamal Abdel Nasser, then the maximum ruler of Egypt, had the Muslim Brotherhood theologian Sayyid Qutb hanged. This hanging didn't end Qutb's influence. Quite the opposite: He became, posthumously, an important spiritual father to al-Qaeda. The military strongmen who have ruled Egypt for the past 60 years or so consistently believed that they could suppress Islamist extremism by force, and they have failed. (Anwar Sadat, Nasser's successor, died at the hands of Islamists.) There's no reason to believe that the current Egyptian rulers will extirpate Islamism either, no matter how many people they kill.
Q: So how do we get the generals to stop killing Muslim Brotherhood members, and convince them to marginalize Islamists in more nuanced ways?
A: Chuck Hagel, the U.S. secretary of defense, called General Abdelfatah al-Seesi, the leader of the Egyptian junta, 17 times in the days leading up to the army's violent suppression of Brotherhood demonstrators. These calls failed to persuade al-Seesi to moderate his stance. I'm convinced that an 18th call would have worked, however.
Q: You're joking, right?
A: Yes. What Barack Obama's administration has failed to understand is that the Egyptian military thinks it's the only institution keeping the country from spiraling into a calamitous period of instability. A series of stern phone calls wasn't going to convince the junta that its analysis of the situation was mistaken. As Eric Trager, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, explains, the military was actually quite willing to make an accommodation with the Brotherhood, in which the now-overthrown government of Mohamed Mursi would control the domestic sphere while the military maintained control over defense and its economic holdings. "The problem," Trager says, is that the Brotherhood "so mismanaged the domestic political sphere through its non-inclusiveness that it created a mass movement against it that called on the military to act. And the military feared, I think, that siding with the Muslim Brotherhood was a bad political bet and a recipe for instability that would ultimately threaten its economic interests."
Q: So what can the U.S. do to persuade the military to carve out a role for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian politics, so that it doesn't go underground and become further radicalized?
A: Obama administration officials can go back in time, to the beginning of Mursi's reign, and persuade him to include opposition figures in his cabinet, and to think of himself as the leader of all Egyptians, not merely of the Islamists. Open-minded leadership would have shown Egypt's liberals that the Muslim Brotherhood wasn't intending to grab absolute power. Disaffected liberals ultimately forced the military's hand, egging on the generals to initiate what amounted to a coup against Mursi last month. There's no guarantee that this would have worked -- the Muslim Brotherhood might very well have been impervious to pressure from the White House -- but it would have been good for the administration to apply such pressure.
Q: What can the U.S. do today to make the situation better? Suspend its aid package to the Egyptian military?
A: I can't think of a particularly good reason to keep the aid flowing. Two reasons to aid the Egyptian military have been to make sure Egypt maintains its peace treaty with Israel and to help Egypt fight terrorism. But the Egyptian military is uninterested in fighting with Israel, and it seems properly motivated (overly motivated, actually) to fight Islamist terrorists, real and imagined. It doesn't need American aid to continue down the path it's on. The other argument for continued aid is that it gives the U.S. leverage. The 17 fruitless phone calls from Hagel undermine that argument.
Q: Isn't this conversation about cutting off American aid mostly meaningless, because the Egyptian military's friends in the Arab world will more than make up the difference?
A: In many ways, this is true. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have already promised billions in aid. Israel would probably promise aid, too, if this were to be socially acceptable in Cairo. Most U.S. allies in the Middle East are quite openly on the side of the military. That means the monarchs of the Arab world see the Muslim Brotherhood as a direct threat to their rule, and it means that Israel thinks the Egyptian military will be a better guarantor of peace -- and a more effective guarantor of quiet in the Sinai Peninsula -- than the Brotherhood.
Q: Are they right?
Q: So what you're saying is that the best possible outcome in Egypt would be for the military to handle the Brotherhood with finesse, rather than brutality?
A: The Brotherhood became wildly unpopular, mainly because of Mursi's pigheaded mismanagement. His government was going to fall on its own. The military has breathed new life into Islamist radicalism in Egypt by prematurely and violently intervening in what could have been a natural process.
Q: Why is the army so klutzy?
A: Who knows? I do know that Hosni Mubarak, until late in his reign, handled this issue with more finesse than his proteges.
Q: Speaking of which, is Mubarak actually getting out of jail? If he does, what's he going to do?
A: Sources tell me he's heading to Iowa, to test the waters.
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Jeffrey Goldberg at email@example.com