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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Terrorism in North Africa

I was asked to provide comments for Sanlian LifeWeek Magazine in China today, and thought I would blog my responses in English …
Q:With regards to the two operations in Africa, does this demonstrate that the US is shifting its counter-terriorism battlefield from the Middle East to North Africa, while others argue that US is just sending a strong message to the world that the they will spare no effort to hold terrorists accountable, no matter where they hide or how long they evade justice?

A: It would be wrong to suggest that the US is shifting its counterterrorism policy from the Middle East to North Africa, as the US has always regarded the two areas as interlinked through its Near East Department and associated policies.  Indeed, lets not forget that some of the 9/11 attackers were from Egypt – in North Africa.  What is interesting about the two operations the US undertook was that it returned to a rendition policy that was highly unpopular under President George W. Bush.  At one level it sends a strong message that the US is willing to “hunt down” these terrorists no matter what time frame has passed, but it also signals a move away from using “Drones” to carryout extrajudicial killings.  This extrajudicial killing policy has been the most controversial dimension of the Obama foreign policy, as it goes against current human rights conventions and demonstrates a duplicity on the part of the US.

Q. As far as you’re concerned, in recent years, has terrorism in North Africa gotten  so much rampant that it disattracts US’ attention from other issues?

A. The US is capable of pursuing more than one issue at a time, so I don’t think its counter-terrorism policy in North Africa is a distraction.  However, the way the policy is framed does distract the US from paying attention to the domestic nature of the problems.  Terrorism in North Africa should be seen like a business as much as a political phenomenon.  For example, terrorist organisations like Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) make millions of dollars through drug trafficking and kidnaps.  Dealing with these local and regional problems requires a local and regional strategy.  However, with the Arab Spring and the removal of Gaddafi, the West has lost an ally, albeit brutally authoritarian, that was willing to take more regional responsibility for countering terrorism.  That is to say that fighting organisations like Al Qaeda in the Maghreb was in Gaddafi’s interest, which is why in 2009 Libyan security leaders met with their counter-parts from Algeria, Mali, Nigeria and Mauritania in the Algerian city Tamanrasset to formulate a regional terrorism strategy.  When Gaddafi was removed, the Tamanrasset agreement fell apart, removing the regional ability to deal with a growing counter-terrorism threat.  This however, is more of an issue for Europe than for the US. 

 For my other thoughts on Extremism in North Africa see mine and Elizabeth Iskander’s submission to the UK House of Lord Select Committee looking into the issue (here).