President Obama, Pursue The Deal On Syria

President Obama, Pursue The Deal On Syria

An off-the-cuff comment by President Obama about red lines placed him in the current political quagmire on Syria. Thanks to another off-the-cuff remark, this time by Secretary Kerry, Obama has an opportunity to navigate out of this debacle while accomplishing all his objectives.

Obama’s Objectives

Obama’s stated objective in Syria is to “degrade Al-Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons against his own people and uphold the international norm against the use of such weapons in general.” An additional objective, occasionally acknowledged by Obama and his surrogates, is to signal to Iran and the rest of the world that U.S. warnings are credible. A critical domestic objective is to push Congress to take on its responsibility in the declaration of war and addressing international security issues, such as the threat of WMDs. Finally, there is the undiscussed objective of Obama’s legacy — will he become yet another U.S. President who gets the country mired in a poorly thought out war in the Middle East? Or will he earn his Nobel Peace Prize?

Would the military strike accomplish the objectives?

The planned military strike on Syria is unlikely to accomplish any of the above. The degradation of Assad’s capabilities will be limited at best, since the U.S. will only use missiles and target weapons caches that have now been moving around the country for over a month. Far from signaling the credibility of the U.S., this limited strike highlights the extent to which Americans are opposed to international military action, and the growing difficulty of coming to any political agreements between the White House and Congress. These facts are likely to more than offset any concerns by Iran about a future U.S. military strike.

A military strike will definitely lead to significant responses by Syria, Hezbollah, and Iran, possibly with clandestine support from Russia. Widespread violence against U.S. and allies’ interests around the world will inevitably pull Obama into a spiraling conflict in the region, potentially worse than anything the U.S. has faced in recent history.

As for domestic politics, Obama has done the right thing by re-establishing the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches when it comes to military action. However, as Sen. McCain has said, a Congressional vote against a strike on Syria would be catastrophic. Obama has already staked out the position that he has the legal authority to move forward with this attack. If he does so in spite of Congress’ disapproval, he might create a constitutional crisis that he, as a constitutional law expert, would obviously be loath to do. If he acquiesces to Congress’ will, he would be terminally disabling the Executive’s capacity for managing international relations. Russia is already testing those waters by sending a delegation to speak directly to the U.S. Congress, bypassing the Executive altogether.

Would the proposed deal accomplish the objectives?

The proposed deal, on the other hand, accomplishes all those objectives. Forcing Al-Assad to hand over his chemical weapons stockpiles (and presumably establish an international inspection regime) may well disable a far larger quantity of such weapons than a limited U.S. military strike can. Additionally, it would force the international community to take a more active role in policing both Al-Assad and other regimes that might consider using chemical weapons in the future. And it would “save” the military option for later and lock Al-Assad into a carefully-enforced agreement. Any failure to abide by that agreement (hiding chmical stockpiles or by any further chemical attacks) would guarantee a unified international response, likely including military strikes.

President Obama should also maintain the pressure on Congress by taking the proposed agreement — including commitments for punitive steps if Al-Assad fails to uphold his end — to them for ratification. This would signal the unified commitment by American political representatives to achieving the President’s declared foreign policy objectives, while denying Russia the opportunity to meddle in internal U.S. political processes.

Perhaps most important of all, it creates a possibility that has thus far eluded the international community: pursuing a negotiated solution to the Syrian conflict. If Obama pulls off a peaceful solution to the chemical weapons crisis, and starts building on it to get close to resolving the overall conflict, he will have indeed earned his Nobel Prize.

President Obama: through your administrations entire political and diplomatic weight behind establishing this agreement. The American people deserve it, the Syrian people deserve it, and your legacy demands it.


Day three in Cairo: “Sisi, go to the Square and Teach the Brotherhood a Lesson”

By Sarah Eltantawi

I’m beset now by a growing exhaustion.  The proximate cause is having forced myself to wake up in the morning hours, followed by long stretches of walking in the summer heat, but there is also a creeping emotional exhaustion.  This gem I picked up in Tahrir today has a lot to do with it, I think:


“Federation of Terrorism”

And this:

I love my country

“Egypt is dear to us.  I love you, my country”  — With Sis’s picture encapsulating these sentiments.

And this:

anzil ya sisi

“Go down (to Tahrir, or to the pro-Morsi sit-ins, more chillingly) Sisi, teach the Brotherhood a lesson”  (There are spelling mistakes on most of these posters, suggesting hasty production.)

And finally this:


“From 25 November to 33 (?) July”.  Gamal Abdel Naser in the center, surrounded by Jan 25 martyrs.

Tomorrow is the big day, the day the head of the Egyptian army asked Egyptians to go out in the streets to support the fight against “terrorism.”  This terminology is very ill-advised and disturbing in any case, but I see a disturbing interpretation and an ultra-disturbing interpretation.

The disturbing interpretation is that Sisi is trying to show the Muslim Brotherhood who is boss and who the people actually stand behind to get them to stand down and back off peacefully once and for all.  The reason this is disturbing, even thought it’s the least worst possibility, is that calling people a bunch of terrorists does not suggest a willingness to bend over backwards to enfranchise them politically.  Even though I am yet to find a single person “on the street”, as it were, who supports the Muslim Brotherhood (this really is astounding me), Islamists certainly do exist in this country, they are very organized politically, and they have every right to participate politically, should do so, and must do so.

But the caveat is this: there is simply no question at this point that Egyptians do not want to be ruled by Islamists or their vision. They are not interested, they’ve rejected the ideology, and they want absolutely no part of it.  No evidence at all that the Islamists have come close to internalizing this very clear fact; on the contrary, they are currently lobbying world powers to reinstate them “on principle.”  Unfortunately for them, principle is very much not a concept associated with their rule here in Egypt.  When you want to forcibly rule people who don’t want anything to do with you, you’re sending a message that all you want is to rule for the sake of ruling.  This is plainly true of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The ultra disturbing interpretation is that Sisi has called for this bizarre carnival of public support to justify to an international audience massive bloodshed as they begin to forcibly break up pro-Morsi sit-ins.  What we don’t know is what has been going on behind the scenes.  I am sure there have been negotiations.  But the fact that Sisi issued this call very likely means that those talks have gone nowhere.  Why?  We don’t know.  Was the military ever serious about giving the Muslim Brotherhood real incentives to stand down and tell their supporters to go home?  Was the Muslim Brotherhood completely obstinate?  We just do not know.  But unfortunately, I suspect the army did not give them a big enough carrot.  Why would they?  They are in a hugely more powerful position, have been nursing a tremendous grudge against the Brotherhood since last summer when Egyptian soldiers were killed in Sinai during Ramadan, and probably think they belong behind bars anyway.  I do hope I am wrong.

In any case, this is bad.

But there is something else that is bothering me.  If you talk to, let’s call them, regular Egyptians across class, so far as I can tell, I believe it is indisputable, as I’ve already said, that they are just finished with the Muslim Brotherhood.  Many people argue that Egyptians should have been more patient and waited for elections, but they miss an important point:  I think Egyptians would have been patient had they felt their government was leading them in a direction they wanted to go.  They didn’t feel that way.  They felt the Brotherhood had a different, shadowy agenda altogether, and that their first, second, and third priority was themselves and entrenching their own rule.  And frankly there is a mountain of evidence to support that claim.  To state this through an example — you can not blame the Muslim Brotherhood for failing to turn around Egypt’s disastrous economy in one year, but you can blame them for failing to consult with and empower Egyptians who actually understand the economy, opting instead to stack institutions with the unqualified party faithful.  Therefore, I do not blame Egyptians at all for being fed up, think they had every right to oust this government, and think that June 30 was a popular revolution.

So what we are left with is a population that is against the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamists who are outraged by what they call a simple coup, and a small liberal elite that is currently very angry at the army.  And though I find the above posters and the climate they engender and characterize to be truly noxious, there are several things that bother me about this liberal discourse.

Some of these liberals, many of whom are an English speaking elite, have struck the following pose:  we never liked the Muslim Brotherhood, but we don’t like the army either, and so we wish that Morsi had been allowed to serve out his term or we wish that Morsi had called early elections.  Two problems here:  first, the Egyptian masses made it perfectly clear that they had had enough and that they felt the country could not survive Morsi serving out his term.  Though the military establishment is cynical and self serving, I think they also had very genuine concerns about the state of the country generally, and about terrorism, especially in Sinai, in particular.

As for early elections:  Morsi was never going to agree to that.  So what we are left with is a purgatorial discourse that is actually practically meaningless, and ends up sounding like lecturing the Egyptian masses from on high about what they should have done if they were as clear thinking as these analysts.  But when you break it down, they really aren’t advocating for anything solid in particular, but striking a medial position that is discursive rather than real.  This strikes me as a different kind of elite discourse — the practically impossible but rhetorically “principled” one, and the tone of lecturing Egyptians leaves me a bit cold.  I can respect Morsi’s supporters clear denunciations of “the coup” more.  Ultimately, I fall on the side of majority of the population, who I think know what they do not want more than what they do want.

Moreover, it’s  easy to endlessly slag the Egyptian army on social media.  Plese don’t get me wrong — critiques of the army are more than justified — see: Maspero, virginity tests, and military trials of civilians.  On the other hand, zoom the lens out and look at the Arab world.  The Iraqi army was destroyed by the American invasion.  The Syrian army has been transformed into a genocidal militia.  The Gulf can not defend itself.  Lebanon can not defend itself without a shi’i militia that has disastrously cast its fortunes with Bashar al-Asad.  Tunisia and Libya are in post-revolutionary turmoil (Tunisian opposition leader Mohammed Brahimi was assassinated today – Islamists have been blamed.)  Let us not begin to speak of Palestine, the ongoing open wound.  What does this tell us?  The Egyptian army is the only standing army in the Arab world left.  It is also an army that is currently enjoying massive public support.  Unsavory as it may be, these are facts to be dealt with.

This later point is, of course, immaterial to the spectacle currently on display domestically in Egypt.  Despite the pro-army hysteria currently gripping the nation, I still think that if Sisi overplays his hand by confronting the Brotherhood violently without giving them a diplomatic way out, they will pay a big price in the long run.  The human rights establishment domestically and internationally will turn against them, Islamists region wide will obviously turn against them, and Islamists in Egypt will form violent militias bent on revenge.  The country will be thrust into chaos.  I’ve long held that the Egyptian army is an intelligent actor. If they fall into this above trap, then I will change my mind.

I do not want to begrudge Egyptians the right to be happy that a government they hated is gone, and if they want to go to the square, they should go to the square.  I also think it should be of interest to scholars and analysts that a population that launched a revolution against military rule a mere two years ago was so despairing of Islamist rule that they called the army right back.  The lesson here is one about the failure of Islamism, not the triumph of totalitarianism, fascism, or stupidity, as many strangely allege.  But if the army rides this wave of hubris too far, I might have to agree with a friend who said today that we are being “taken for a ride” by the army; but that would be a ride I think recent history suggests Egyptians won’t stay on indefinitely.

El-Sisi’s Dangerous Gamble

El-Sisi’s Dangerous Gamble

General El-Sisi has called on “honorable Egyptians” to hold massive protests on Friday to give him a popular mandate in the latest “war on terrorism.” This escalation in the conflict between pro- and anti-Morsi groups is a political miscalculation that will backfire on El-Sisi and on Egypt.

When ousted president Morsi was in power, his Muslim Brotherhood (“MB”) group would regularly call for counter-demonstrations against his opponents who were camping out in Tahrir and elsewhere. The opposing camps would meet, inevitably leading to violence and a climbing death toll. Most Egyptians rightly criticized the MB for “placing the matches near the fuel.” Yet, many of those same Egyptians are today cheering for El-Sisi’s repetition of the MB’s mistake.

When the military ousted Morsi, it was in response to millions of Egyptians protesting Morsi’s undemocratic practices and managerial incompetence during his first year in office. Although Morsi was democratically elected, he had worked to systematically dismantle all democratic elements in the state, pack all levels of government exclusively with MB members and supporters, ignore his campaign promises, and place himself above the constitution and the rule of law.

For all intents and purposes, Morsi’s actions rendered unusable the legal mechanisms by which citizens can hold their national leaders accountable in between elections. That left Egyptians with no path towards change other than street demonstrations. And when Morsi responded by loudly declaring that he will defend his presidency “with [his] blood,” and his supporters started amassing in Cairo, the military had no choice but to intervene to prevent a potential bloodbath. That was a legitimate response to the people’s will, to the lack of legal options, and to the imminent danger of the breakout of civil war.

Violence has broken out during the three weeks since Morsi’s ouster, mostly in the lawless Sinai governorate and at a few pro-Morsi sit-ins. Dozens have been killed and a few thousand hurt. But the million or so pro-Morsi demonstrators have remained mostly peaceful. MB leaders and other “Islamists” continue to egg them on, believing that large sit-ins will eventually bring back the MB regime. They have failed to recognize that all they can accomplish is run out the general population’s patience with them and provide an easy excuse for extremists to ratchet up their attacks against the state.

El-Sisi is gambling on receiving another popular mandate through demonstrations, this time to crack down on “violence and terrorism.” This is a dangerous miscalculation for a simple reason: unlike the case of holding the president accountable, there are clear and active laws governing the state’s response to violence. The security forces will find wide support for cracking down on the few armed protesters in Cairo. And the military will be cheered as a national hero if it launches a major campaign to rid Sinai of its festering terrorism camps and pockets of violence. The military can even be called to help secure Cairo against extremist elements by a simple declaration of a state of emergency by the Interim President, Judge Adly Mansour.

El-Sisi’s asking for popular demonstrations prior to taking action implies one thing: he intends to use the military in an extra-judicial crackdown on peaceful protests. That is the only objective for which he has no legal or political cover.

International political entities and donors are already skeptical about the military’s intentions in Egypt. The U.S. has been threatening to withhold over $1B in aid to the Egyptian military. And the IMF has still not approved its $4.8B loan to Egypt, desperately needed to kickstart the economy. However, most international bodies gave El-Sisi the benefit of the doubt in ousting Morsi because of the events that led up to it.

El-Sisi is seeking a similar popular mandate and additional leeway from international observers. He may well receive the former but almost certainly not the latter.

Two developments are likely to happen over the next few days. First, massive pro-military demonstrations will clash with pro-Morsi crowds, potentially leading to widespread bloodshed. And second, the military and security forces will launch an iron fisted campaign to snuff out public support for the MB, perhaps killing hundreds and arresting tens of thousands, many of whom will disappear into military jails, forcing the remaining sympathizers underground.

If El-Sisi’s intention is, as he has stated, to re-establish the rule of law and stability to the nation, this plan will backfire. If his intention is to eradicate opposition, he may succeed in the short term, but will soon have to repeat his actions to deal with the next wave of opposition, likely by the secular youth who still remember the heavy handed rule of the military after Mubarak’s ouster.

In either case, Egypt is about to pay a heavy price for the miscalculations of one very powerful man.

The Egyptian Revolution in A Democratic Context

The Egyptian Revolution in A Democratic Context

It’s understandable why people who live in a solid democratic system like the U.S. (despite its many shortcomings) think that Egyptians are crazy to support the military’s actions against deposed President Morsi. To help bridge the gap between what Americans expect from their system and what Egyptians are experiencing, consider the following thought experiment:

Imagine one major change in the American electoral process: there are no party primaries. Every candidate (several from each party), instead of running in a primary, run in the same general election against everyone else, and the two top candidates (if no one got a majority outright) have a run-off. Now imagine this: most Americans are somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum. But in the last general election, there were so many candidates in that middle that no one of them got more than 10-15% of the vote. There was also exactly one candidate on each extreme, each of whom got ~20%, because the people towards each end of the spectrum only had the one choice. And so those two extreme candidates are the ones who end up in the run-off.

Now imagine that the people had just overthrown a corrupt leftist government, so when the rightist candidate (think Sarah Palin but far more religiously extreme) promised to be the “revolution’s candidate”, giving people the inclusionary, clean government that they’ve been asking for, some of the revolutionaries decide to give her a chance. Most of the others join a “Hold Your Nose” movement to vote for her in order to keep the other “old regime” out of the White House. And she ends up winning by a 1.7% margin.

Within a few months, President Palin declares that her presidential decisions are above the constitution, “fires” ) 6 of the 9 Supreme Court Justices b/c they’re too leftist or moderate for her, fires all the Governors in the 50 states, replacing them by decree with Tea Partiers, has a bunch of Tea Party members with ZERO political or legal background draft a new constitution in the middle of the night, then terrorize/pay off people to vote on it in a referendum.

She appoints only Tea Party insiders (again, with zero experience in anything outside a church) to every cabinet post, “retires” 80 Generals and Admirals in order to install people loyal to her at the top of the military, closes down CNN, MSNBC, CBS, and NBC when they criticize her, and activists who try to demonstrate against her start getting into fatal “accidents” … en masse. Others are arrested and jailed with little or no legal process.

Within another 6 months, since the nation is being run by inexperienced ideologues, every aspect of government falls apart. There’s no electricity, no water, a quarter of the population is unemployed, civil society organizations are shut down and their leaders are in prison. Career professionals in the State Department, the military, the courts, the FBI, and pretty much every other national institution stop cooperating with her and her incompetent government.

Finally, a third of the population (in the U.S. that would be 100 Million people) hit the streets demanding early elections b/c they’ve had enough of her and her Tea Party. Those numbers had been seen on the streets before, and are 2-3 times the number that had voted for her in the run-off. Most of those who had “held their noses” and voted for her join the demonstrations.

In response, her party mobilizes a couple million of their own hardline supporters (i.e. a small percentage of the opposition demonstrators). Some of them are armed to the teeth and most believe they’ll be doing God’s work by martyring themselves in order to keep her in power. Then she gets on national TV and says, “Screw you all! I have the legitimacy of the ballot box and will defend it with my blood.”

The military sees all this, recognizes that a bloodbath is on the way and gives Palin 48 hours to negotiate an agreement with the opposition. She and her party refuse to attend negotiation meetings and continue the “martyrdom to protect legitimacy” rhetoric.

What should the people do? Say “well, she does have a point about legitimacy, and we don’t like the idea of the military getting involved in politics, or the idea of widespread bloodshed if the military doesn’t get involved, so let’s keep the status quo for another 3 years then vote her out?”

Oh and BTW, there’s no House in congress and she appointed one third of the senate who now have absolute legislative power and have been passing laws right and left that are strictly along Tea Party ideological lines, rolling back decades of progress on women’s rights, etc…

Finally, it should be recognized that the head of the military who led the ousting of Palin was appointed by her. And he immediately installed a civilian interim President: the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, who was also appointed by Palin. Thankfully, both are career professionals in their respective fields.

Disclaimer: This is not a perfect analogy, something that I don’t think would be possible. But I still hope it helps non-Egyptians understand how the country got to this point before preaching democracy to Egyptians. On a personal note, I was opposed to the military getting involved and even to the demonstrators insisting that Egypt’s Palin step down. I wanted them to insist on a national unity government instead… until she got on TV and flipped them the finger. It became obvious at that point that she had to go.