Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Egypt and the failure of US policy

What occurred was a massacre (see El Amrani at The Arabist for his take on the possible motivations for the crackdown). 

This wasn't a ''security'' operation, it was protest clearance from the school of brutal totalitarianism- via bulldozers and snipersThe Egyptian government decided that they were going to crush Morsi's supporters and they did just that.

Others are covering the specific Egyptian political angle, but I want to consider why American diplomacy was unable to foresee or restrain this human disaster. I think there are three key reasons.

Absent policy clarity/direction

From the very start of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the US Government has been hesitant to adopt a clear policy in Egypt. After promising to support Egyptian democracy, President Obama then cut related aid. Only when Mubarak's fall became inevitable and the bloodshed intolerable, did Obama finally pressure Mubarak to fall from power. The Egyptian people asked for our support and they found our equivocation. 

In a similar vein, Secretary of State Kerry's remarks today were the first significant US condemnation of the Army since Morsi's removal from power a few weeks ago. We're still unwilling to commit to the basic premise of Egyptian democratic rights.

To Egyptians on all sides, the political essence of US policy is now viewed in largely the same manner- that the US Government lacks the courage and confidence to establish a clear policy and then support that agenda with action. In result, America's influence has withered and Egyptian political dynamics have run out ahead of us. At terrible cost. Instead of shaping Egypt's transition towards stable democracy, all too often, we've been chasing the metaphorical greyhound. This failure helps explain why the US is so mistrusted by Egyptians. In short, by attempting to hedge our bets, we've ended up burning our cards.

Absent moral courage

At its core, US foreign policy must reside upon certain non-negotiable values. These should include our unyielding support for democracy, civilian protection and the rule of law. If there's one thing that encompasses all these concerns, it's that America won't tolerate the use of violence against innocent protesters. The Egyptian government believed that we wouldn't stand in support of that belief. This evening, nearly 300 people are dead.

Don't misconstrue me, I'm not saying that America should have supported Morsi against the Army (his tenure was hardly defined by adherence to democratic tradition). But because we've been willing to tolerate the Army's increasing brutality since Morsi's fall, we've played to the propaganda narrative of the hardliners who oppose us - the notion of an America without honor. The sad reality is that our gelatinous morality has born a terrible cost - the US Government has discredited itself in the eyes of the Egyptian people and has discredited American values in the eyes of the world.

Absent will to engage with political complexity

At the heart of American dysfunction in Egypt is our emotionally laden and logically deficient foreign policy discourse at home. Since 2011, most American politicians and commentators have sought to define Egypt's political crisis as a fight between existential forces of democracy (the Army/anti-Morsi protesters) and totalitarian Sunni Islamism (the Muslim Brotherhood). From both the American political right and political left, our policy debates have taken refuge in intransigent understandings that discourage foreign policy bi-partisanship on Egypt. We've entertained the myth of simple policy prescriptions - support the army/oppose the Brotherhood - an approach that was and remains fundamentally flawed. This has weakened the prospective power of our diplomats. 

Alongside a determined policy born of moral and strategic clarity, we also need influence with all Egypt's actors. Most of all, we need to reclaim American foreign policy to a position of intellectual endeavor. The politics of the Middle East and north Africa are not simple.

         In the end, the political repercussions of today's events are likely to reverberate for years to come. Salafist extremists will be lavishing over the prospect of a new batch of disaffected recruits - individuals who thought protesting was a democratic right and paid for that belief in blood. This is a huge propaganda coup for the enemies of democracy.

Yet, America can recover. We can rebuild our influence. If we use this tragedy to inject a new courage to our policy in Egypt - to propagate a policy centering around a mix of absolute values and flexible relationships, we can help Egyptians reach a better, more inclusive and decidedly more hopeful future.

Here's a link page to my other MENA writings.

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