26 November 2011

Tahrir Square 2.0

A distinguished member of my tiny readership inquired why I was not commenting on the recent events in Egypt.

The reason for my reluctance to write about Egypt is a focus issue. For the most part, I tend to write about the long game, that is, I try to present a coherent perspective anchored in an explicit framework. I find the short game (the daily news) distracting and conducive to "he said, he said" type of analyses. Also, I would like to stay away from moralizing observations and that is hard to do if you deal with the sound and fury of daily events.

There is a complex game being played out in Egypt and the two main actors, the army and the Muslim Brotherhood are taking unusual steps that complicate the situation further. Field Marshall Tantawi, the artist formerly known as Mubarak's poodle, is a wily adversary but he has too many constraints. The Brotherhood, being no slouch themselves, are using a familiar playbook and countering his moves with gusto. But, they, too, have limited options.

The Army

As I claimed from the outset, the so called Arab Spring in Egypt (and also in Tunisia) was actually a coup d'etat. (Interestingly, some other observers are finally coming to the same conclusion) This is not to minimize the sacrifices of the protesters who occupied Tahrir Square and died by the dozens. But the key to their success was the position taken by the army. Despite direct orders from Mubarak, the Egyptian army stood by the protesters, refused to disband them and even protected them against Mubarak's thugs.

And the key to the army's posture was the US. As I maintained at the time, as the recipient of the second largest foreign aid from the US with almost total dependence America for its equipment, technology and training the army could not have turned against Mubarak without US acquiescence (or instructions, as the case may be).

The American directive did not create a cognitive dissonance for the generals as their primary motivation was to preserve their enormous power. Some people has this vestigial notion of the military as a modernizing force and protector of secular values. That was mildly amusing in Political Science text books circa 1970. What motivates the Egyptian military is its huge economic power. Its economic activities started under Nasser and expanded hugely after the peace treaty with Israel:
Now, military-run firms hold strong positions in a wide range of key industries, including food (olive oil, milk, bread and water); cement and gasoline; vehicle production (joint ventures with Jeep to produce Cherokees and Wranglers); and construction, in which it benefits being able to deploy conscripts during their last six months of service.
How big is that empire?
Paul Sullivan, a National Defense University professor who has spent years in Egypt, says it is huge, probably accounting for 10% to 15% of Egypt's $210 billion economy.
The low end of that estimate is $20 billion. Plus, the army pays no taxes and it benefits from the free labor of conscripts. On top of that, it has vast land holdings from earlier era that it has recently been converting into valuable real estate plots. The officer corps, especially the generals, enjoy a much better life than the austere and nomadic existence of traditional soldiers.

Given that situation, it will as no surprise that far from being a modernizing agent onto itself, the army's interests and perspective are aligned with those of the Egyptian business classes. If those classes are conservative and Islamist, there is no reason for the army to find those views objectionable. And they would proceed with the transition to a new civilian government provided that the new regime did not touch to their privileges.

But the American directive means that the army has to negotiate a more comprehensive deal than a simple preservation of its special status.

From the US perspective, the post-Mubarak Egypt is likely to have a civilian and mildly Islamist government alla Turca and the presence of that government could provide enough pressure for Israel's Likud and Ysrael Beiteinu coalition government to negotiate a peace agreement for a two state solution. But the US also requires that the new Egyptian government could never pose a significant threat to the security of Israel.

Achieving these twin goals necessitates a fine balance between providing enough independence to the civilian government for credibility and legitimacy and controlling the political process to prevent an unwanted outcome. After all, the US knows that, left to its own devices, almost all civilian parties in Egypt would tear up the Camp David Accords and take an openly hostile position towards Israel. The recent border killing incident showed the importance of the calming influence of the military.

All of this means that Tantawi had to set up a system and a constitution that kept the army in a position of control. He knew the emptiness of the early hopes of dealing with a weak coalition headed by someone like El Baradei, who has international stature but almost no domestic constituency. So from the get go the military struck a deal with the Brotherhood, as noted by New York Times in March 2011:
“There is evidence the Brotherhood struck some kind of a deal with the military early on,” said Elijah Zarwan, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. “It makes sense if you are the military — you want stability and people off the street. The Brotherhood is one address where you can go to get 100,000 people off the street.”
The deal was about the elections and the Brotherhood's ability to produce the largest bloc in the Constitutive Assembly:
In the months after the revolution, there were signs that the Brotherhood had been transformed into a tacit partner with the military government that had once vilified it, leading many liberals to fear that the alliance would thwart fundamental changes.
Through its Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood was expected to emerge as the largest bloc in parliamentary elections scheduled to begin on Nov. 28. 
In exchange, in the new draft Constitution the army gave themselves budgetary independence (and a secret budget), legislative veto power over military matters and, I suspect, over national security issues such as dealings with Israel.

And the Brotherhood seems to have said, yes.

The Muslim Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood is the oldest Islamist organization in the world, dating from 1928 with millions of members and sympathizers from all segments of Egyptian society. They are very well organized and after almost a century of struggle against the central state they know how to play the game better than anyone.

During the uprising, they -along with the army- were the key players. Initially, they waited to see the army's posture. Once they realized that the army was not crushing the rebellion, they joined in, took over the logistics of maintaining several hundred thousand people on that square, including food and sanitary services and they provided the main line of defense against Mubarak's thugs.

But they were also careful not to appear as the leaders of the revolution.

Their savvy was evident in a recent documentary made by the PBS program Frontline. The crew were accompanied by a young Muslim Brother, by the name of Muhammed Abbas who looked affable and pleasant and sounded very moderate. If you watch the linked clip, you will see at 8m12s, another young man appear before the PBS cameras to hold up his pocket Koran. Abbas immediately goes to him to tell him to put the Koran away. The young man is puzzled. Abbas tells him that he can show his Koran but not to the media. He then explains to the PBS reporter that they do not want to turn this into a Muslim Brotherhood "show" so they tell their people not to display their religious ideology to the media.

After the revolution, The Brotherhood focused on organizing its Freedom and Justice Party with a specific blueprint, the Turkish model.

This is not what you think. The so called Turkish model recommended by many observers is full of ironies for Egypt. The Egyptian army is an exact copy of the old Turkish military down to its huge military industrial complex, which includes anything from food processing to car manufacturing plants, estimated to be one of the top three conglomerates in the country. And that is a $1.1 trillion economy. As one observer put it:
Increasingly, the Egyptian military is looking at the Turkish military as a model. The problem is the model they are looking at is a decade old. Under Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan, Turkey’s military has evolved from being the country’s political guardian to one in which it is responsible under civilian supervision for Turkey’s territorial integrity and the fight against terrorism.
The way AKP confronted the military was to put in place a system that forced the army to choose between its economic assets and its political supervisor role.  It is too detailed to deal with it here but the end result is that the military, as to be expected, chose its assets over its guardianship of secular values.

The correct Turkish model is to have an Islamist government slowly take away the political guardianship of the army, while staying away from its economic privileges. The main leverage is that the enormous wealth they would risk to reject this deal would provide the necessary incentive for change.

From the series of agreements between the Brotherhood and the military and the compromises the former accepted, my guess is that their plan is to let the military have its privileges for now. Once in power, they  hope to reduce the army's political influence in the system. That is the Brotherhood's playbook and the correct Turkish model (and it has very little to do with secularism).

But the Brotherhood realized that the constitutional model the army proposed was going to far and would prevent them from implementing this plan. So, in early November they pulled their people into the Tahrir Square to protest against the military and then they promptly pulled them out and wowed not to participate in such demonstrations. It was their way of telling the army that they can make life miserable for them if they wanted to.

The End Game

The army has a major dilemma. It could get all it wants from the Brotherhood, minus the political guardianship it also requires. Without that, it would be unable to comply with the US directive. If it insists on that, it would risk all that wealth and privilege.

On the other hand, it does not have the luxury to suppress the uprising with bloodshed. Already the reverence people feel towards it (based on the fact that every male Egyptians goes through military service and has this inculcated in them) has taken a major hit. That is why they apologized for the deaths.

But, since they have very little room to maneuver, if pressed to far, they will use violence.

The Brotherhood knows that and that is why they are not pressuring the military too much. One step forward, two steps back. But there is a downside to that. People could see their constantly shifting positions as a cynical strategy and such a perception would be quite damning for the organization, especially while young people are dying on a daily basis.

For both sides the best outcome would be to hold elections next week, hoping that would placate the protesters. The Brotherhood has everything to gain as they are expected to do well. Why risk it with a protest movement whose demands, they know for sure, cannot be met by the army.

As for the military, this will keep them in control for at least another year and they will have ample time to insert the required supervisory mechanisms later on.

As partners since the early days of this "revolution" each side knows the limitations and constraints of the other. My guess is that they will  work together to mollify and pacify the Tahrir crowds until the elections. They calculate that (and I agree), barring some unforeseen results, no Tahris 3.0 will take place after those elections.

But the crowds could return if no improvement is brought to the economic hardship of ordinary Egyptians.

On that score both the army and the Brotherhood are woefully inadequate, which leads me to believe that next year will be quite turbulent.

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