Richard Silverstein

The U.S. and Egypt: Backing The Wrong Horse?

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The NY Times reveals that among the parties urging Egypt’s military leaders to stand fast against both the Muslim Brotherhood and western interlocutors attempting to negotiate a way out of the impasse in Cairo, were Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Both have a common interest: they hate Islamists and see them as among the greatest threats to their regimes. That’s why both lobbied President Obama hard not to end the U.S.’ $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt or to take further harsh action in response to the massacres that have left at least 1,000 dead in the past week and thousands more injured.

My Israeli source tells me that the phones lines between Jerusalem and Cairo were humming:

The Israelis, whose military had close ties to General Sisi from his former post as head of military intelligence, were supporting the takeover as well. Western diplomats say that General Sisi and his circle appeared to be in heavy communication with Israeli colleagues, and the diplomats believed the Israelis were also undercutting the Western message by reassuring the Egyptians not to worry about American threats to cut off aid.

Israeli officials deny having reassured Egypt about the aid, but acknowledge having lobbied Washington to protect it.

Contacts with the Egyptian junta leaders was likely conducted by Amos Gilad, one of Bibi Netanyahu’s trusted national security advisors and a former IDF intelligence officer. Though I don’t know what Gilad told them, it’s likely he told them to hang tough; to rid Egypt once and for all of the Islamist threat. After all, that’s the theme song of all Israeli military interventions in places like Lebanon or Gaza: we need to invade these places to rid them of the threat of radical Islam with its permanent holy war against Jews and western values. It’s heady advice to hear from Israelis who, after all, are known for twisting U.S. presidents around their little fingers. One couldn’t fault el-Sisi if he was persuaded that he could work the mojo with Washington as well.

The Israelis told the Egyptians not to worry about western blandishments or threats. They said that westerners don’t understand this region. They don’t live here. They don’t understand these wild-eyed terrorists ready to die for their religion. When all is said and done, the westerners always cave because they need us more than we need them. That’s likely the siren song sung by Israelis to their Egyptian counterparts.

Patrick Smith, writing in Salon, raised some even more troubling questions on this subject:

More pressing has been Israel’s intolerance of an Islamic party — Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood — in power next door. It is apparent, if not quite evident, that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted Morsi’s head before he agreed to any talks with the Palestinians. He assented to new talks within days of the Egyptian coup, it is worth noting. The dreaded question here is whether U.S. support for Israel effectively precludes political advances in the Arab world. One fears the answer, but it is vital now to pose the problem.

But it wasn’t only Israelis who were doing the singing: Aipac, which usually sticks to its single-issue focus on Israel, weighed in as well:

When Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, proposed an amendment halting military aid to Egypt, the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee sent a letter to senators on July 31 opposing it, saying it “could increase instability in Egypt and undermine important U.S. interests and negatively impact our Israeli ally.” Statements from influential lawmakers echoed the letter, and the Senate defeated the measure, 86 to 13, later that day.

Supporting the dictators will add to instability in Egypt. But Aipac doesn’t care about Egypt. The generals could mow down ten or hundred thousand and the Israel lobby wouldn’t even blink. But Aipac believes Israel needs a bulwark against the scourge of Islamism. The Brotherhood, as far as Israel is concerned, is the unknown. What Israel never likes is the unknown. It prefers a status quo in which its citizens remain prey to ongoing hostilities and violence, over an unknown set of territorial compromises and the ongoing waves of Arab populism represented by the Arab Spring.

Israel has thrown in with the worst and most brutal of the Arab world: the generals, the fat cat Saudi sheikhs, and autocratic kings. The Old Guard which maintains its hold on power through brutality, violence, and corruption. Unfortunately, this allows the world to say that Israel itself and its values are those of the corrupt strongmen it supports.

Just how out of touch Israel is with the morals of the rest of the world you can see in this NY Times piece by Jodi Rudoren:

Israel plans this week to intensify its diplomatic campaign urging Europe and the United States to support the military-backed government in Egypt despite its deadly crackdown on Islamist protesters, according to a senior Israeli official involved in the effort.

There is absolutely no shame or self-consciousness in such statements by Israel.  It does not care that it’s backing murderous thugs.  They’re “our” murderous thugs, as the old saying goes, and we back them to the hilt.  Because the only thing that matters is protecting the Israeli status quo, even if that status quo continues getting Israelis regularly killed.  Status quo uber alles.

Rudoren continues:

…Leaders here will press the case with diplomats from abroad that the military is the only hope to prevent further chaos in Cairo.

…The message, in part, is that concerns about democracy and human rights should take a back seat to stability and security because of Egypt’s size and strategic importance.

“We’re trying to talk to key actors, key countries, and share our view that you may not like what you see, but what’s the alternative?” the official explained. “If you insist on big principles, then you will miss the essential — the essential being putting Egypt back on track at whatever cost. First, save what you can, and then deal with democracy and freedom and so on.

“At this point,” the official added, “it’s army or anarchy.”

“Preventing further chaos? ” What in God’s name do they think’s going on now in Egypt?  A tea party?  But of course what they really mean by “chaos” is an Islamist government that turns Hamas loose against Israel and becomes a bastion of Al Qaeda-style religious extremism.  Such a thing didn’t happen in the year Morsi was in power.  No matter how badly he governed he understood there were limits to what he could do (even if he wanted to do them, which is an open question).  Israel’s problem is that it projects the worst possible scenario when the worst is never what will happen.  But in trying to persuade the world that the worst will happen, it becomes almost a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So what the Egyptian junta, with Israel’s solid backing, has done is to double down on their own form of State terror.  You kill 1,000 people to “restore order,” which makes it impossible to restore order.  So then you have to go farther.  You have to kill another 1,000.  You have to take control of all the levers of the state.  You have to become a police state.  But what happens when even that doesn’t help because the people, not just Islamists like the Brotherhood, rebel?

In short, this is an awful, cynical bet that Israel has encouraged the generals to make.  They assume that the world, when it sees and understands the full horror of the Islamist “terrorists,” will permit them to do what the Algerian military did to its Islamists in 1992.  But frankly, the world’s a different place 30 years later, and Egypt and Algeria are different cases.  It just won’t work.  But you can’t fault Israel and the generals for trying…

As I wrote above, an Israeli government that says only an army prevents Egypt from falling into chaos, and that tells the world that democracy must take a back seat to restoring order (at all costs), is a government that has given up on these values for itself as well.  Democracy is not a luxury.  Not something you earn by first killing 10,000 bad guys to get there.  Democracy is an absolute principle.  One that can’t be compromised.  There is no other first principle.  Order is no first principle.  Order is the byword of fascism (“ordnung muss sein“).  Not of liberal western democracies.  Order flows from democracy, not the other way around.

While there is no way I can say that I support Islamism in its extreme forms, I have even less regard for men who rule by the barrel of a gun. If a government fails and needs to be replaced, as many Egyptians believed of the Morsi regime, then it must be brought down by a popular uprising if there are no institutional political means to do so (such as impeachment). Those who believed that the army was a shortcut to democracy were sorely mistaken. Armies almost without exception don’t lead to democracy. They lead to men with medal bedecked chests and sunglasses giving the orders and everything’s for their taking.

Where does that leave us? The U.S.? We have thrown in our lot with the generals. We’re not comfortable about it. Obama, is after all, a liberal. He doesn’t like the guys with epaulets running countries. It offends those democratic values he declaims about so eloquently in his speeches. But there are priorities and pragmatic interests that must be acknowledged. As the Times so cynically and inaptly puts it:

The violent crackdown has left Mr. Obama in a no-win position: risk a partnership that has been the bedrock of Middle East peace for 35 years, or stand by while longtime allies try to hold on to power by mowing down opponents.

That partnership may, at one time, have been the bedrock of Middle East peace, but when was the last time it was? 1979? What did Mubarak ever do for Middle East peace other than be an obedient lackey? What has el-Sisi done besides killing and wounding civilians in their thousands. There are even observers who suggest that the military is preparing to do to the Muslim Brotherhood what the Algerian military did: eradicate them. Even if this projection is wrong, and I wouldn’t bet money that it is, how can this ruling junta ever be a force for peace or anything constructive after the events of the past week?

We are betting on the wrong horse. We’re betting on the forces of the past over the forces of the future. We’d rather be on the side of the strong (for now) than on the side of the right.

Why? Because we have a war to fight against Islamists in Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq. Maybe even Iran. We have allies to protect in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan and Israel. How are we to ship our troops and their weapons if we don’t have ready access to the Suez Canal? What happens if one day a general like Nasser comes along and says: sorry Uncle Sam, closed for business?

But what if this calculated gamble of the military putchists fails? What if they play all their cards and it’s not enough? What if they can’t create order out of the chaos they’ve unleashed on the country? What if Sinai turns into an Islamist version of the Wild West with Bedouin tribesmen armed to the teeth, attacking Egyptian security forces and Israeli targets as well on a daily basis? What if security forces sent to quell their uprising are slowly torn to pieces in a war of attrition? What if the people turn sullen and unyielding in their resentment of the ongoing violence? What then? Who will our friends be then in Egypt?

Nasser threatened us five decades ago and we let Israel loose on him in 1967 to bring him down a peg or two. Do we really think it’s impossible that another Egyptian leader might arise seeking to emulate him? What then? Could we then blame an Egyptian nationalist who turned on us for our cozying up to the worst elements of Egypt’s ruling economic and military elites?

If we wish to retain even a shred of our vaunted reputation as upholder of democratic values, we must do much more than we have. We must cut off aid to the generals. We must impose military sanctions. If we can do this to the ayatollahs in Iran, why not the generals in Cairo? This sort of statement shows those who lead us remain clueless:

“The million-dollar question now,” said one American military officer, “is where is the threshold of violence for cutting ties?”

That’s not a million-dollar question. That’s a ten-cent question and the answer is evident: we passed the threshold long ago.


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