Egypt: Back to the Intifada

The crackdown could usher in the most violent radicalization of the Arab world since the Palestinian uprisings.

A protester comforts a wounded colleague after Egyptian security forces began to clear a sit-in by supporters of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in the eastern Nasr City district of Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013. Egyptian security forces, backed by armored cars and bulldozers, moved on Wednesday to clear two sit-in camps by supporters of the country's ousted President Mohammed Morsi, showering protesters with tear gas as the sound of gunfire rang out at both sites. 
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
Aug. 14, 2013, 10:47 a.m.

As the Egyp­tian mil­it­ary con­sol­id­ates con­trol by mur­der­ing pro-Muslim Broth­er­hood pro­test­ers and de­clar­ing a state of emer­gency, we may be wit­ness­ing the most dan­ger­ous po­ten­tial for Ar­ab rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion since the two Palestini­an in­ti­fa­das. Des­pite the resig­na­tion Wed­nes­day of Mo­hamed El­Baradei, the vice pres­id­ent, in op­pos­i­tion to the Egyp­tian junta’s ac­tion, the dis­com­fit­ing fact is that most of Egypt’s lib­er­al “demo­crats” — along with the United States — have nev­er looked more hy­po­crit­ic­al. If the bloody crack­down is al­lowed to con­tin­ue while the U.S. and West do noth­ing, the ac­tions of the Egyp­tian mil­it­ary could de-le­git­im­ize demo­crat­ic change in the Ar­ab world for a gen­er­a­tion or more.

And for Wash­ing­ton, a dream that began with the neo­con­ser­vat­ive push to turn Ir­aq in­to a “mod­el demo­cracy” after the 2003 in­va­sion — the some­what naïve West­ern hope that the Ar­ab na­tions would catch up with the rest of the world — may already be dead. Worse, the loss of mod­er­ate Is­lam­ist al­tern­at­ives, and the fail­ure of demo­cracy, could sup­ply al-Qaida with its biggest re­cruit­ing cam­paign since 9/11.

The im­ages in Egypt are ex­cru­ci­at­ing to be­hold, both in a lit­er­al and philo­soph­ic­al sense. In what ap­peared to be more of a dir­ect mil­it­ary as­sault than a po­lice-style crowd-clear­ing ex­er­cise, Egyp­tian forces killed more than 500 people, most of them sup­port­ers of ous­ted Pres­id­ent Mo­hamed Mor­si who were en­gaged in noth­ing more of­fens­ive than a series of sit-ins. Sud­denly, in one aw­ful day, the ex­er­cise of the demo­crat­ic rights and ideals that are so dear to Amer­ica’s self-im­age — and which have formed the heart of U.S. for­eign policy since the end of the Cold War — were rendered all but ir­rel­ev­ant to many Ar­abs, es­pe­cially be­cause of Wash­ing­ton’s mild re­sponse. Apart from a few dis­sent­ers such as El­Baradei, the once-in­spir­ing sec­u­lar­ists who massed in Tahrir Square to oust Hosni Mubarak have now re­pu­di­ated those demo­crat­ic rights and val­ues by con­tinu­ing to sup­port the bloody crack­down. And while the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is­sued a rote con­dem­na­tion, the lack of any more dra­mat­ic re­sponse con­tin­ues to frit­ter away what little mor­al au­thor­ity Amer­ica has left.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ini­tial re­sponse, voiced by White House spokes­man Josh Earn­est from the pres­id­ent’s va­ca­tion spot on Martha’s Vine­yard, was mostly an ex­er­cise in pos­teri­or-cov­er­ing. Earn­est urged the Egyp­tian gov­ern­ment to re­frain from vi­ol­ence even as the vi­ol­ence was fully un­der­way. He ad­ded that “we also strongly op­pose a re­turn to a State of Emer­gency law, and call on the gov­ern­ment to re­spect ba­sic hu­man rights such as free­dom of peace­ful as­sembly, and due pro­cess un­der the law,” even as the Egyp­tian gov­ern­ment was clearly not re­spect­ing any of those things, and had already de­clared a state of emer­gency.

Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry also con­demned the mil­it­ary’s ac­tions, call­ing “this a pivotal mo­ment for all Egyp­tians,” but then left the po­di­um without tak­ing ques­tions.

What the ad­min­is­tra­tion must also con­sider — and it has been well be­hind the curve here — is that Egypt may only be the cur­rent epi­cen­ter of the rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion phe­nomen­on. The danger goes well bey­ond Cairo. Con­sider:

  • In Ir­aq and Syr­ia, a newly re­named al-Qaida um­brella group call­ing it­self the Is­lam­ic State of Ir­aq and the Le­vant is dra­mat­ic­ally ex­pand­ing its pres­ence in both coun­tries, The Wash­ing­ton Post re­por­ted Tues­day.
  • In Tunisia, where the Ar­ab Spring began, the sec­u­lar op­pos­i­tion and the rul­ing Is­lam­ist En­nahda party have grown more and more po­lar­ized, and two lead­ing sec­u­lar politi­cians have been as­sas­sin­ated. The sec­u­lar­ists, ap­par­ently in­spired by the ouster of Mor­si in Egypt, have held daily mass protests in an ef­fort to dis­solve the na­tion­al as­sembly.
  • Even in Afgh­anistan there is a danger of re-rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion des­pite the hun­dreds of bil­lions of dol­lars and thou­sands of lives the United States spent there in what has amoun­ted to Amer­ica’s longest war. Ac­cord­ing to a re­port in The Wall Street Journ­al, Pres­id­ent Ham­id Kar­zai is con­sid­er­ing anoint­ing as his suc­cessor the man who brought Osama bin Laden to the coun­try, Ab­dul Ra­soul Sayyaf, an Is­lam­ist war­lord and the man who ment­ored 9/11 mas­ter­mind Khal­id Sheikh Mo­hammed.

Marc Lynch, an ex­pert in the Ar­ab world at George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity, says that if the Muslim Broth­er­hood sep­ar­ates it­self per­man­ently from the demo­crat­ic pro­cess — and its lead­ers have vowed to do so un­til Mor­si is re­stored — then the mod­er­ate Is­lam­ists the West was hop­ing to bring in­to the gov­ern­ment may grow scarce.  That, in turn, will em­power and re­in­vig­or­ate the more rad­ic­al al-Qaida-linked groups who preach the use of force. “What Is­lam­ist can now plaus­ibly ar­gue that demo­crat­ic par­ti­cip­a­tion works?” he says. “Many Is­lam­ists will likely pull back from polit­ics for a while, go un­der­ground, or re­treat to char­ity work, but some por­tion are go­ing to find ex­trem­ist ideas much more con­vin­cing now. Only takes a small num­ber to make a dif­fer­ence, re­mem­ber.”

Lynch’s as­sess­ment is en­dorsed by Re­uel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA ex­pert in the re­gion and a con­ser­vat­ive com­ment­at­or at the Found­a­tion for De­fense of Demo­cracy. “For rad­ic­al Is­lam­ists who thrive on tyranny, the Nile Val­ley has again be­come ex­cep­tion­ally fer­tile ground,” Gerecht says. “The sec­u­lar crowd blew it. They can try to walk away from the mil­it­ary now “¦ but it’s too late. Egyp­tian so­ci­ety is badly, prob­ably ir­re­triev­ably, po­lar­ized with the po­ten­tial for hor­rendous vi­ol­ence. The sec­u­lar crowd who thought they’d pulled off a ‘coup-vo­lu­tion’ with Mor­si’s down­fall have guar­an­teed that we only see de­vol­u­tion in Egypt, either to an in­creas­ing sad, mor­ally cor­rod­ing, im­pov­er­ished so­ci­ety, where lib­er­als have no fu­ture, or to an ex­plo­sion that may con­sume the coun­try.”

Fawaz Gerges, dir­ect­or of the Middle East Cen­ter at the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics, agrees that an ex­cess­ive fear and loath­ing of the sec­u­lar­ists for Mor­si and the Broth­er­hood may have triggered the cur­rent dis­aster, and it’s dif­fi­cult to see how to turn things around. “The sec­u­lar-lean­ing op­pos­i­tion nev­er al­lowed Mo­hamed Mor­si a hon­ey­moon peri­od,” Gerges says.

In the sad­dest irony of all, the ul­ti­mate out­come could be a re­turn to the Ar­ab an­cien re­gime: the pre-Ar­ab Spring world of ret­ro­grade mil­it­ary rule, with rad­ic­al Is­lam­ists as the gen­er­als’ chief op­pos­i­tion. “There have already been calls by ex­trem­ists, such as Ay­man al-Za­wahiri, cur­rent chief of al-Qaida, to re­nounce the elect­or­al box and rely on force as the most ef­fect­ive means to es­tab­lish God’s king­dom on earth,” says Gerges. “Al­though the ma­jor­ity of Is­lam­ists will not buy Za­wahiri’s faulty goods, some would do so out of rage at the hi­jack­ing of the top­pling of the first demo­crat­ic­ally elec­ted Is­lam­ist pres­id­ent in Egypt’s mod­ern his­tory.” 

As it has for the last two years, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is still strug­gling with the ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponse. But the per­cep­tion abroad is that the ad­min­is­tra­tion has va­cil­lated without any co­her­ent policy. Ini­tially dur­ing the Ar­ab Spring the ad­min­is­tra­tion de­fen­ded its old auto­crat­ic al­lies, such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Ye­men’s Ali Saleh. Then it moved to cham­pi­on­ing the young sec­u­lar­ists in the street, with hopes of lib­er­al demo­cracy that now look as na­ive as the vis­ions of the George W. Bush-era neo­con­ser­vat­ives. After the elec­tion of Mor­si, the ad­min­is­tra­tion lurched in yet an­oth­er dir­ec­tion, em­bra­cing the Is­lam­ist pres­id­ent and the Muslim Broth­er­hood, even to the ex­clu­sion of sec­u­lar­ists. And when Mor­si was ous­ted on Ju­ly 3, the ad­min­is­tra­tion avoided call­ing it a coup so as not to jeop­ard­ize its aid re­la­tion­ship with the Egyp­tian mil­it­ary.

To be sure, there was nev­er any easy course — no ob­vi­ous choice between an alarm­ingly Is­lam­ist pres­id­ent, which Mor­si was be­com­ing, and the mil­it­ary junta that suc­ceeded him. But for months crit­ics of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ap­proach have been ur­ging it to at least speak loudly and clearly, us­ing the $1.3 bil­lion in U.S. aid and mil­it­ary sup­plies as lever­age, in de­mand­ing that first the Mor­si gov­ern­ment and then the mil­it­ary junta up­hold demo­crat­ic prin­ciples. That did not hap­pen. And it may be too late now to al­ter the ter­rible path that Egypt is on.

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