Egyptian Democracy and US Foreign Policy

Secretary Kerry’s recent trip to the region has refreshed the internal debate in Washington DC — this is a debate which is as confused as it is confusing.  It is a rehash of the classic debate between democracy versus stability and security.   What’s clear is that, in Washington circles, the operating premise since the Arab Spring has been that — we are not going to return to a period of stability any time soon, and the idea that Egypt will transition to a democracy is problematic.  Moreover, the notion that Egypt will move towards a democracy in a linear fashion is, to all effective purposes, dead (it should be said that very few in Washington circles held this belief in the first place; we shouldn’t confuse hopes and beliefs).

The feeling in Washington is that we are going through transitional iterations, from SCAF, to the Muslim Brotherhood and now the Sisi period.  In this sense we have been witnessing transition”s” in Egypt that have taken the shape of revolutions, counter-revolutions and Coups.  Within such a context, the day to day operations of the US towards Egypt, is to help this current transition move towards a more democratic outcome.  That is to say, US policy officially and unofficially is to try and influence Egypt’s transitional move in a more democratic direction as other interests are secured.  But the talk is of a period of “transition (to somewhere unknown)”, and not a “democratic transition” overall.

In spite of Obama’s speech to the UN General Assembly at the end of September, which clearly downgraded the importance of democracy promotion to a secondary interest, there is still talk of democracy promotion being one of many interests in the region.  Indeed, top US officials still argue that Secretary Kerry and his counter part Secretary Hegel continue to argue for democracy behind the scenes.  This is why the US is tying its hopes to the roadmap process, and felt the need to at least censure the Egyptian’s by cutting aid in early October.  But ultimately in the short-term, democracy promotion is seen as a means to greater security (a democratic peace), that is to be balanced with counter-terrorism cooperation more broadly, growing threats of terrorism in Sini (which is becoming more professionalised and better resourced as weapons move from Libya), interests in proliferation cooperation, and the maintenance of security cooperation with regards to the security of Israel.

So where are we now?  Ultimately, the US is facing an increasingly uphill set of challenges because of the chaining geopolitical and geo-strategic landscape of Egypt.

1) It is clear that issues of sequencing for Democracy have reared their head.

2) How to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood, and Islamist parties more generally has also become an issue complicated by Egyptian definitions of “counter-terrorism”.

3) Interventions from the Gulf states attempting to see the irradiation of the Muslim Brotherhood is also a new complication, along with the manner in which their economic support is delaying Egypt coming to terms with dealing with serious structural economic problems.  Indeed, Egypt now lives in a state of “just in time financing” that makes reserve adequacy measures meaningless … the economic crisis is coming, but predicting this is now something for soothsayers. Understanding how Egypt’s “muddle through economics” is going to play out is of immediate interest to all — is this going to be more like a Turkish or Pakistani transition.

4) It is clear that the Egyptian military does not have a holistic blueprint for the country, and the committee of 50 is not acting in the manner first envisaged. The military are seeing themselves as protectors of the Egyptian state, but they lack an overall strategic vision.  This in and of itself is an opening for the potential for democracy somewhere long down the road, but right now denies external partners a platform for negotiations.  The military is looking inwardly looking for security, stability and control, with a direction in mind.

5) Just as we are having trouble engaging from above, it is clear that we are having trouble engaging from below.  The Arab Spring has taught us valuable lessons about the nature of social mobilisation in the modern age, that as yet policy and its surrounding apparatus is having difficulty engaging with.  This tells us that we need a “deeper” level of engagement with these societies if we are to truly influence the debate about democracy and understand the hopes and desires of the Egyptian people.

6) There is clearly a need to get to grips with the causes of the 2011 revolution, including Egypt’s demographic troubles.  This speaks to a broader human security problem, where food and water security, economic security, political security etc. are dealt with and considered in this debate. The Egyptian military are going to look for “consensual politics” rather than “contesting politics”, which means that establishing these levels of human security is as much of interest to them as they should be to the US.  This is a point of cooperation, but the US needs to have its eye on democratic transitions if it is to support this route of action — in particular with regard to NGO laws that help provide a litmus test for the US and Egyptian commitments.

All in, there is no magic bullet to Egyptian Democracy, but what is clear is that the new debate in Washington is stuck around many of the same problems, and more, that it was before the Arab Spring.  What’s different is the growing instability in the region and the pace of change.  This tells us, that ultimately, maybe the tools and our thinking around this issue need to keep pace and be bolder.  We need a paradigm shift in how we engage the region that is fit for the 21st Century and not stuck around the policies of the past.

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Media Q&A on US-MENA Relations and Kerry’s Tour

1. How would you define America’s current position in the Middle East?

At the heart of the US – Middle East relations is a security versus democracy problem.  This problem is caused by a “conflict of interests”. In the short to medium terms the US requires stability to secure the free flow of oil and gas into the world energy market, the movement and protection of military and commercial traffic through the Suez Canal, commercial business contracts, the security of regional allies such as Israel, and cooperation on military, intelligence, counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation issues.  At the same time, the virtues of promoting democracy in the region are at least at the rhetorical level well espoused.  Not only is promoting democracy seen as an extension of US values, but also as a contribution to a wider democratic peace that many believe will deliver greater international security, peace and prosperity.  Immediate security concerns draw the US towards requiring cooperation and stability, whilst promoting democracy creates direct confrontations, stymies cooperation and can create instability.  The conflict of interests problem stood as the fundamental problem faced by policymakers before the Arab Awakening, and this remains the case even as a much more fluid and complex policy-context has emerged.  It is little wonder, therefore, that the US  have ineffectively ebbed backwards and forwards in their democracy promotion strategies even as wide spread populist movements have generated new levels of instability that stretch from the Atlantic Ocean through the Arabian Sea. Given this context, the current US position is to act as a bystander in events and revert towards favouring its core strategic interests in the region.  President Obama made this clear in his speech to the UN General Assembly last month, and this was followed up by Susan Rice arguing that the administration wanted a less involved policy in the Middle East as it “pivots” to Asia.  Rice’s policy review, which was conducted almost exclusively by the White House, tells us that the current administration is putting a high value on restoring its relationships with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel as it sees these countries as a fundamental part of its security strategy in the region.  The problem is that this may well be because the current administration is struggling to come to terms with the changing Middle East and the manner in which the geo-political and geo-strategic landscape is changing.  The current administration is trying to be pragmatic, but failing to really grasp how the region is changing.

2.And how effective do you think Kerry’s mideast trip will be?

Kerry’s trip around the Middle East will be effective at helping to provide some reassurance to allies, as the Secretary of State is effectively telling them that the United States wants to get back to business as usual, and will not push hard for political reforms in the region.  The trip is really about reassurance and damage control.  However, its long term effects will be minimal as events are outpacing policy.  This is often the case in foreign policy, but the way in which the Arab Spring is fundamentally chaining the region means that there are bound to be more crises rearing their heads.  This is at a time when this administration lacks a clear strategic vision and needs to think bigger, be bolder and get to grips with how the region is changing.

What does the Kidnap and release of Ali Zeidan tells us about Libya?

The kidnap and release of Ali Zeidan tells us what we already knew about the current situation in Libya.  The security situation in the country is deeply precarious and “revolutionary” militias are ultimately in power.  They out number, by size and firepower, the official police and army, and have a limited and tenuous loyalty to the countries institutions. This is a serious problem, which combined with the presence of terrorist organisations like AQIM in the country, raises serious challenges for North African, European, and the American government.

The revolutionary group that kidnapped Zeidan argued that because the Libyan government agreed to the US violation of sovereignty, when they captured Abu Anas al-Liby on Saturday, they were acting as an “Anti-crime agency” against a PM they regard as violating the law.  The fact that they could take him from the Corinthia Hotel, which is supposed to be one of the most secure locations in the country is deeply problematic and tells us who really has power.  This is not a government capable of protecting itself, never mind maintaing security and law and order across the country.

I was asked earlier today to comment on Channel NewsAsia, about what this means for foreigners in the country, who Zeidan is now seeking to reassure.  This is deeply problematic as it sends a clear signal that the security situation post-Bengazi attacks has not improved.  (I’ve been told foreigners can get around the country for the most part, but low profile is the way forward).  For details on how to build Libya’s security sector, people should see Frederic Wehrey and Peter Cole’s policy outlook here.

I’ve also been asked by a lot of media outlets about the prospects for democracy in the country.  The thing people need to have in mind is that; when a revolution and international intervention remove a government they leave a political and security space open within that country.  As a new government fills this space the international community asks them to do two opposing things 1) centralise power to form a new state; 2) move towards democracy.  This is asking them to centralise and decentralise power at the same time, and this is all in a scenario where there is no security.  Therefore to move to democracy, first steps need to be centralising state power and the maintenance of security across the country.  This should be done in conjunction with a truth and reconciliation dialogue initiative.  It is only by both securing and reconstructing the state and coming to terms with the past and forming a consensus on the future that progress on deepening democratic institutions can be made.