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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.

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