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The Nile Runs Red

Yesterday's confrontation between Egypt's army and the Muslim Brotherhood may only be the beginning.

4:01 PM, Aug 15, 2013 • By LEE SMITH
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This morning President Obama announced that he is cancelling this year’s joint military exercise with Egypt, Operation Bright Star. It’s a symbolic gesture intended to show that, should the army continue to pursue its present course, the White House may eventually decide to suspend military aid. But cancelling Bright Star also underscores American impotence. The administration reportedly warned Egypt’s military regime against a violent crackdown, an admonition to which, with 638 now confirmed dead after yesterday’s nationwide confrontations with Muslim Brotherhood supporters, the army obviously turned a deaf ear.

It’s true that American influence is limited. A billion plus dollars doesn’t go as far as it did in the 1980s when Egypt first allied with the United States, but the Obama White House has sold American values cheaply. As Fouad Ajami writes today: “When the Obama administration could not call the coup d'état by its name, we put on display our unwillingness to honor our own democratic creed...When our secretary of state opined that the army was ‘restoring democracy,’ we gave away the moral and strategic incoherence of an administration that has long lost its way.” 

Therefore, at this point Egypt’s de facto ruler, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, sees the United States as little more than a prop, a rag with which he burnishes his reputation as a strongman, a village mayor puffing his chest and boasting that he is unafraid of standing up to the Americans. Sisi will no doubt use the cancellation to further enhance his domestic prestige. Who knows but that his spokesmen aren’t already spreading the word that it was Egypt who put off the joint exercises and Obama simply wished to avoid being embarrassed by the patriotic army of the Nile?  The current military regime is coming to look less like Hosni Mubarak’s and more like Gamal abd el-Nasser’s.

Yesterday, interim Egyptian president Adly Mansour imposed a curfew on the country and, invoking law 162/1958, declared a state of emergency that is scheduled to last for a month. First enacted under Nasser in 1958, the emergency law, among other things, suspended constitutional rights, extended police powers and prohibited political activities. Aside from an 18-month suspension in 1967, the law applied up until May 31, 2012, when it was allowed to expire in the middle of Egypt’s first, and perhaps last, free presidential elections. Given that over the last half century the law has tended to target the Muslim Brotherhood, it seems unlikely that it will be lifted as long as the Brotherhood holds a vendetta against a military that has slaughtered its rank-and-file in the streets. Thus having cashiered its brief experiment in democracy, Egypt has swallowed its own tail—and, now divided against itself, has spit it up again in revulsion. Egypt, what Herodotus called the Gift of the Nile, is bathing in its own blood.

Credit Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei as one of the country’s few political figures who has imagined what the near-term future of his country looks like and wants no part of it. He resigned yesterday in protest against the crackdown—an act of conscience which, met by indifference in Egypt, only shows how far the former presidential candidate is from the mainstream of his country’s political culture: All the rest of Egypt welcomed the opportunity to express their grievances in blood. Both the Brotherhood and the military have understood since the July 3 coup against Mohamed Morsi that it was a zero-sum game that would eventually have to be decided on the streets.

Curiously, it was the democracies that least understood how the vote had changed the political equation in Egypt. Western diplomats had urged the army to reconcile with the Brotherhood and bring them back into the political process. This might have had some chance for success had there not been an election that put the Brotherhood in the presidential palace. But because there was, the army’s outreach was a non-starter. From the Brotherhood’s perspective it was like being invited back in to your own wedding after being thrown out by the caterers to watch your bride married off to the bartender. To participate in a political system stewarded by the institution that had unconstitutionally removed its candidate from power would mean providing the cover of legitimacy for an objectively illegitimate process. The army knew it would have to put the Brotherhood down, and the Brotherhood knew it was coming, sometime after Ramadan.

Yesterday’s showdown amounts to a draw. Yes, most of the casualties were Morsi supporters, but as Reuel Marc Gerecht wrote recently, the Muslim Brotherhood will rise again.  In the meantime, the Brotherhood now has hundreds of martyrs in its column, and as the victims of the army’s depredations has earned sympathy across the world—in spite of the fact that Brotherhood supporters burned dozens of Coptic Christian churches and attacked Copts throughout the country.

It is hard at this point to envision a future that does not entail more violence, engulfing everyone, including those self-described liberals who, having demonstrated to bring down Mubarak, have now invested their faith in Sisi to protect them from the Brotherhood. If they had an ounce of intellectual honesty or moral integrity they’d petition Sisi to free Mubarak, his family members and other regime figures presently in jail or in exile, for it is they in their frenzy to destroy who helped send them there. We will know that Egypt is on the right path when the liberals and secularists now supporting the army make an act of contrition and apologize to the old man, an Arab Lear betrayed by his two daughters—the army and the secularists whose advancement was made possible by the stability that he ensured for three decades. Since he has no Cordelia, let Egypt build a statue for him, not colossal like the sphinx and pyramids but on a human-scale befitting the stolid president-for-life who, like he said, really did understand Egyptians—not only the humor, earthy charm and sepia-tinted glamor of his children, but also the horrifying levels of violence that they might stoop to without someone to take the knives out of their hands.

There are many who believe that Sisi represents a return to Mubarak. For instance, Israel’s former ambassador to Egypt, Zvi Mazel, argues that “the new Egyptian government is pro-West and will have decent relations with Israel.”  Perhaps the army will continue to have good relations with Israel, but with a White House that’s turned its back on the Middle East and incapable of projecting power to undergird the relationship between Cairo and Jerusalem, it will be subject to the whims of an Egyptian army that has repeatedly proven its incompetence, especially in the Sinai. At present it is in the interests of Egyptian national security to maintain good relations with Israel, but there are other interests, too, like inter-regime struggles as well as domestic and regional dynamics, that might someday override border issues and maybe even the peace treaty. Moreover, it’s worth remembering that when mobs overran the Israeli embassy in September 2011 and Israeli officials called Cairo for help, the army didn’t pick up the phone—and that’s when it was run by Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, a bureaucrat with one eye on his retirement plan and not, like Sisi, a man eager to see Egypt leading and likely himself leading Egypt.

As for the notion that Sisi is pro-West, even a cursory glance of his interview with the Washington Post shows that this is a different cut of cloth. “You left the Egyptians, you turned your back on the Egyptians, and they won’t forget that,” said Sisi, adding that Americans need to pay up unless they want Egypt as an enemy. “Where is the economic support to Egypt from the U.S.?” asked Sisi “Where was the U.S. support to help the country restore its economy and overcome its dire needs?”

These are threats, coming from the leader of a country that has lived off the generosity of others for way too long.  It’s not just Egyptian bread and fuel that are heavily subsidized, for so is Egyptian politics. For the last two-and-a-half years, Egyptians have behaved like spoiled children, trashing what they like because someone else will pay for it.  Neither the United States nor Europe has the cash on hand right now, so the Gulf Arabs—the very same people the Egyptians typically blame for their problems with radical Islam—have agreed to extend Cairo a large line of credit.  But eventually the Saudis, Emiratis, Kuwaitis and Qataris will tire of feeding 80 million people who hold them in contempt. When Egypt becomes more importunate, more tiresome, more dangerous, and the Arabs are no longer willing to pick up the check, what happens?

What happens when the army proves that it is no more capable of fixing Egypt now than it was in the brief period following Mubarak’s exit? What happens when many now on the sidelines, or even standing against the Brotherhood, demand the return and resurrection of a political movement better organized and galvanized by a vendetta that it has been nurturing against the many millions of Egyptians who cheered to see their blood run? 

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