03 July 2013

My Take on the Islamist - Army Confrontation in Egypt

You must have seen the breathless headlines about the dark future awaiting Egypt's beleaguered President  Mohammed Mursi.

Indeed, these last weeks have not been very good for the Muslim Brotherhood. Millions of people gathered in Cairo and around the country and held huge anti-Mursi rallies. They ransacked the Brotherhood's shiny new HQ, the Salafist al-Nour Party deserted the president and called for early elections, all non-Brotherhood members of the cabinet resigned and the army issued an ultimatum for a compromise power sharing solution to be found within 48 hours.

Most commentators seem to think that Mursi's days are numbered and he will either resign or be sacked by the army in the coming days.

As the resident contrarian I am not so sure.

Let me explain.

It is the Economy Stupid

The reason why these protests were so widespread and so successful has little to do with the creeping Islamisation of Egypt. That was already the case under Mubarak. And if you look at the electoral success of the Brotherhood and the Salafist Nour party, you can see that a majority of Egyptians do favor an overt Islamist system.

What did Mursi in is the state of the economy. Instead of giving it its top priority, he focused on either silly ideological measures, like dealing with skimpy swimwear and alcohol in resorts or expanding the Brotherhood's grip within the state apparatus like fast-tracking a dubious draft constitution and placing his office above courts.

As a result, within a year, the already fragile Egyptian economy was in ruins:
Tourism and investment have dried up, inflation is rampant and fuel supplies are running short, with power cuts lengthening in the summer heat and motorists spending hours fuelling cars. 
The cost of insuring government debt against default surged to record highs. Forward contracts indicated a significant fall for the pound against the dollar.
Along with economic mismanagement, Mursi and the Brotherhood failed to ensure the basic tenets of governance. Remember Hobbes' Leviathan and the deal people made to escape, their nasty, brutish and short lives?
I asked four middle-aged men, two taxi drivers and two accountants, sipping sweet tea and puffing tobacco through water pipes in a scruffy pavement café, whether they would prefer to have a man like former President Hosni Mubarak back in office.
They all said yes, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. "It's because back then we were safe!" finished one of the accountants.
Given these serious economic mismanagement and governance errors, you might think that the army would be justified in intervening and sacking Mursi. The problem is that the army is in no position to fix the economy. If they take over, they own the problem.

In fact, an intervention might destabilize the country even further and wipe out all that is left of tourism revenues. After all, if the army removes the duly elected president, it is highly unlikely that the Brotherhood will stand idly by and accept this. The Brotherhood may be terrible at governing but they are very good at clandestine resistance work.

The army has another problem and that is to find a unified front capable of governing Egypt. If the opposition forces were united and had such a candidate, they would have been able to field him against Mursi. If you recall, the elections were between Mursi and Ahmed Shafik, a Mubarak-era air force general under Mubarak.

As for Muhammed ElBaradei, well, he might have been a decent administrator when he was running IAEA and he is liked by the Western powers but he has no constituency in Egypt and I doubt that he can be an effective president. Especially if the Brotherhood and the Salafists were to oppose his government. And they will.

Just as people turned against Mursi when faced with a terrible economy, they will turn against the army within six months.

So, I don't see why would the army get involved in a situation that has no good solution.

The Larger Picture

There is also the issue of the stability of the region. Removing Mursi and pushing the Brotherhood underground would negatively affect the Israeli - Palestinian peace process. It would also have serious implications on the Syrian civil war.

If you remember my starting point and the decisive role of the armies in Tunisian and Egyptian regime changes and the US plans to bring stability to the Middle East by solving the Palestinian and Kurdish problems, you might see why sacking Mursi would make no sense for the region.

The regime change was needed to force Israel to come to the table (and the army was there to ensure that the Brotherhood didn't do anything to jeopardize Israel's security). Bringing in another strongman like Mubarak would mean a return to status quo ante with all the false sense of security such an arrangement entailed for Israel.

It just makes no sense.

You might think that I attach too much importance to American influence in the region. Maybe. But once the military gave that 48 hour ultimatum, do you know what happened?
General Martin Dempsey, the top U.S. military officer, called the chief of staff of Egypt's armed forces on Monday morning, a U.S. defense official told Reuters, without providing details on the conversation. 
The call by Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Egypt's Sedki Sobhi came the same day that Egypt's armed forces handed Islamist President Mohamed Mursi a virtual ultimatum to share power.
And do you know what happened after that call? The Egyptian army issued a clarification.
The Egyptian armed forces issued a statement on Monday denying that an earlier statement from its commander amounted to a military coup and said his aim was only to push politicians to reach consensus.
Denying any political ambitions for itself, the military said it was responding to the "pulse of the Egyptian street" in issuing an ultimatum to political leaders to unite after mass rallies on Sunday against President Mohamed Mursi.
I am writing this as people await anxiously the army's response as the deadline has come and passed.

I would be quite surprised if the army actually mounts a coup. If they do, that would mean that there are other variables that we don't know about.

But under normal circumstances, my guess would be that the army will stop short of sacking Mursi and with ask for the formation of a national unity government with decent representation for the opposition parties. Perhaps with al-Baradei as the Prime Minister and Mursi as President.

We'll see soon enough.
Well so much for that. They actually did it.

Before the army announced its non-coup coup, apparently Chuck Hagel, the US Secretary of Defense called General Ahmed Fattah al-Sisi. No one knows what they talked about but my guess would be that Hagel tried to dissuade al-Sisi from intervening, as I am sure the US would have preferred a broad consensus coalition with the participation of the Brotherhood. And clearly he failed.

Obama's reaction was telling in many respects.
"We are deeply concerned by the decision of the Egyptian Armed Forces to remove President Morsi and suspend the Egyptian constitution.
I now call on the Egyptian military to move quickly and responsibly to return full authority back to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible through an inclusive and transparent process, and to avoid any arbitrary arrests of President Morsi and his supporters.
Given today's developments, I have also directed the relevant departments and agencies to review the implications under US law for our assistance to the Government of Egypt.
The voices of all those who have protested peacefully must be heard - including those who welcomed today's developments, and those who have supported President Morsi."
First, he notes that he is deeply concerned.

Second, he calls on the military to give power back to a civilian government. He is careful to say a democratically elected government instead of the democratically elected government.

Third, he avoids the word coup because that would force him to cut military aid to Egypt and remove his main leverage. But he still threatens them with a review.

Finally, he urges for the inclusion of Islamists in the new system, as he knows that no one can rule Egypt without their consent.

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