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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Talking book in Warsaw …

For those of you who are interested in my latest book and current research, this is a video link may be useful : Vimeo

Thanks again to Thomas Carothers at Carnegie for reviewing the book saying “Skillfully navigating ideologically-infested waters, Hassan arrives at valuable insights and persuasive, dispassionate conclusions about U.S. policy under both Bush and Obama relating to Arab political change. A fine example of rigorous, reflective scholarship applied to current policy issues of considerable importance and controversy.”

The books called Constructing America’s Freedom Agenda for the Middle East: Democracy or Domination (Routledge Studies in US Foreign Policy), and sales are doing well in the US, so thanks to everyone who has bought it.

About the Transatlantic Interests Project …

This project evaluates how the Arab Spring has affected US and EU policy towards regional allies in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The events in one country after another were viewed from across the West with a mixture of awe and hope. There was great respect for the bravery of individual citizens who seemed to be willing to risk everything for a chance to topple existing authoritarian regimes, and this was coupled with a genuine desire to see personal political freedom extended to those people who had previously enjoyed very little of it. At the same time, though, as the wider population in the West was watching with great anticipation the efforts of indigenous democracy campaigns to cast off their existing political shackles, it must be noted that the Arab Spring itself serves as direct repudiation of the democratisation policy previously being conducted in the region by both the US and EU.

The project seeks to understand this tension by exploring how strategic calculations which attempt to balance democracy promotion by external actors with the security of other interests in the region are being transformed by events. Encouraging democratic transition in the MENA has been the stated aim of US and EU policy-makers since September 11 2001 in the name of national security at home, on the assumption that the socialisation of individuals to democratic norms will lessen the chances of the MENA becoming a breeding ground for terrorist organisations. Significantly, though, the one model of democracy promotion which does not appear to have been on the agenda of policy-makers in Washington and Brussels was the type of bottom-up demand for democracy from civil society groups which animated the Arab Spring. Western policy-makers instead have always preferred a policy of gradualism which tried to work with the region’s existing autocratic regimes. The Arab Spring challenges such a strategy in the most dramatic way imaginable, as it does the assumption that autocratic regimes will provide regional stability. This has fatally undermined existing policy, leaving US and EU foreign policy establishments struggling to create a new grand strategy of engagement with the region. The project explores this gulf in policy making, charting: (i) the new initiatives which have emerged from Washington and Brussels to replace the now largely defunct policy which dominated before the Arab Spring; and (ii) the tensions which remain from the failure so far to remove all remaining vestiges of the original policy.

Arguably the biggest challenge which continues to face Western policy-makers is the need for the US and EU to discover whether they have the foreign policy-making capacity to cope with the new regional realities on the ground. In particular, this might mean having to challenge the vested interests which have become embedded in their own security cultures if they are to promote that capacity successfully. The debate is currently in a continual process of reframing, as events are ongoing. This project seeks to trace that process of reframing in an attempt to show just how flexible the US and EU might now be to respond successfully to upcoming developments in the transition movements which were first activated during the Arab Spring. After all, it is not clear what the region will transform into: will the end result of the uprisings be more peaceful and stable democracies, a reversion back to autocratic rule after a temporary pro-democracy hiatus, the seizure of power by Islamist-dominated governments that are openly hostile to the “West”, or a complex combination of all three when viewing the region as a whole?