Ms. Hawthorne got in touch with me yesterday, arguing that Ihad mischaracterized her views. After chatting with her and giving the paper a second read I have to concede the point. I got out of the cranky side of the bed that morning, in part because I've been exasperated by a lot of papers on Egypt that suggest the US needs to "do more" on democracy and human rights in Egypt without ever really being explicit about what concrete steps should be taken. Hawthorne took issue in particular with my suggestion that she was "waving the flag for the democratization industry in Egypt."
So let's set the record straight. She agrees that the US has been far too elections focused in its approach bringing about change abroad, and argues that the US should focus on criticizing Egypt's human rights record and should seek to find ways to make it easier to cut off some military aid (currently structured into contracts that make it almost impossible to close the spigot) as a first step towards changing the way the US has done business with Egyptian governments for decades.
She also suggests that public criticism of the rights record of Egypt - where the military-led government is in the midst of a sweeping crack down of all forms of political dissent - could yield tangible, if limited gains.
"(Some Egyptian leaders) really don't want critical attention focused on their human rights record," she says. "What do they really want from the international community? They want legitimization... at least some people in the Egyptian power structure are very sensitive to the country's international reputation." She says that if the US and leading EU country's withhold legitimization by say, refusing to praise the country's current political process and keeping the country's poor and deteriorating rights record front in center in their comments, that it "would not go unnoticed in Cairo."
She yields that grounds for optimism in Egypt in the short term are scant. Field Marshall Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has been leading the military government, received promotion to Egypt's highest rank yesterday at the same time as the country's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) said it approved of him running for president.
In the current hyper-nationalist mood, with Sisi and army worship on the streets and those who dare to question government priorities (like the successful constitutional referendum earlier this month) often thrown in jail for the trouble, at this moment it's safe to say the presidential election will be more like a coronation than a fair competition.
But Hawthorne says she worries that the emerging conventional wisdom is the US has next-to-no leverage and that democracy promotion or a focus on human rights is a waste of time. "What I'm really, really worried about is that people are going to give up in Washington."
What should President Obama do about all of this? She says if she was in charge she'd order the National Security Council to set up a review of US military aid to Egypt, arguing that ongoing program - dating back to shortly after Anwar Sadat's peace agreement with Israel's Menachem Begin at Camp David in 1978 - "is built on a status quo that in some ways no longer exists."
Her second priority would be to order the Pentagon to conduct a study at what the US gets militarily out of the arrangement. How vital are overflight rights granted by Egypt, for instance?
"We need to change the dynamic here. I think that we should look carefully at longstanding security interests in Egypt and review them in light of the current changing circumstances and look at the possibility of developing alternatives and contingency plans for some of these interests - for example, overflight rights. It would be an appropriate time to review that in a formal way and look at what other alternatives exist because maybe as Egypt is changing and the Middle East is changing we don’t need to be so dependent on Egypt as we have in the past."
She adds, though: "The review may not indicate that there are many other options to our current arrangement. But it behooves the US to avoid a situation where we’re kind of running on autopilot with regards to how we do business in Egypt. You don’t want to sent the message to them that we’re so dependent on them for security cooperation that they get a free pass on their human rights record. Just doing the review would send that message, the message that though our relationship with Egypt is very important that we’re constantly looking at options and contingencies."
I'm still skeptical that there's much good that can be done from Washington or any other foreign capital. There's also the matter of the frequent hypocrisy of US human rights rhetoric.
The disconnect between the US government's rhetoric of steadfast support for human rights and its tendency to turn a blind eye to misbehavior by friends and allies hardly needs to be pointed out.
While the annual country reports on human rights from the State Department, mandated by Congress, are thorough and honest looks at almost every member of the UN, in the case of favored countries, they are then set aside to metaphorically gather dust, with ambassadors and other diplomats in embassies around the world generally hoping they stay there (since their jobs are ultimately about building and maintaining good relations with foreign powers, not antagonizing them).
But the apparent hypocrisy (witness ongoing deliveries of advanced US weapons to Egypt since its military coup) undercuts the message and I often wonder if it would be better for the US to tone down its rhetoric, or abandon it completely, if the nation's leaders aren't really willing to follow through.
Adam Coogle from Human Rights Watch takes on this issue in a piece about Saudi Arabia in Foreign Policy today.
Saudi activists, many who have been imprisoned, often ask me why representatives of the U.S. government, who have good relations with members of the Saudi ruling elite, don't publically raise their cases and press Saudi authorities to respect the human rights of Saudi citizens. As National Security Advisor Susan Rice admitted in a December speech: "Let's be honest: At times, as a result, we do business with governments that do not respect the rights we hold most dear. We make tough choices." It appears U.S. officials have weighed the economic and geostrategic aspects of the relationship with the kingdom, and effectively told Saudi activists to go to the back of the line.
He recounts the Kingdom's dozens of executions last year, the practice of granting male family members power over whether women can travel, become educated, the effective ban on women driving, the jailing of human rights activists, and the use of pliable statutes against "sowing discord" and "inciting public opinion against the state" to silence internal critics.
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Mr. Coogle writes:
When asked about their silence on these issues, U.S. officials often shrug off the question, or suggest that public criticism would do no good. But without any sign that the issue is being raised in private -- and that private expressions of concern are having an impact -- it may well be time to turn toward the public sphere.
Policy makers might argue that failings and limitations in one country shouldn't stand in the way of doing the right thing in another, and they'd have a point. But the gap between rhetoric and reality could not be more clear. In 2011 the US Congress approved a $30 billion sale of F-15s to Saudi Arabia and a $6.8 billion sale of missiles and bombs made by Raytheon and Boeing is currently pending congressional approval.
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The ability of soldiers to read and write enables them to understand intelligence, keep records, order fresh supplies, read maps, and participate in training crucial to their skills in the field. In the case of the police literacy is perhaps even more important since, ideally, they conduct investigations and make arrests that can lead to fair prosecutions.
Yet it appears that large sums of money have likely been wasted in Afghanistan trying to imbue basic literacy in police recruits due to shoddy contractor work, lax oversight and seemingly nonexistent tracking of recruits over time, according to a report released today by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction:
The command said that the literacy program will meet its goal of 100 percent of ANSF personnel proficient at Level 1 and 50 percent proficient at Level 3 by the end of 2014. However, these goals were based on the ANSF’s authorized end strength of 148,000 personnel that was established in 2009, rather than the current authorized end strength of 352,000. Several NTM-A/CSTC-A (the National Training Mission-Afghanistan and the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan - both NATO-led security training efforts) officials told us they do not know how the goal for the literacy program was developed, but that attaining it based on the current authorized ANSF end strength may be “unrealistic” and “unattainable.
Translation? The already imperfect literacy program for Afghan soldiers and police (collectively known as the Afghan National Security Forces, or ANSF) was designed for an overall force less than half the size of the current one. The SIGAR report also says that between 30 and 50 percent of Afghan police and army recruits either desert or otherwise drop out every year, that literacy training was removed from basic training by the Afghan Ministry of Defense last year, and that "45 percent of police personnel recruited between July 2012 and February 2013 were sent directly to field checkpoints without receiving any literacy training."
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Literacy "level one" is the proficiency of an average first grader in the US school system. The US and its NATO allies have long recognized that the illiteracy of the average Afghan cop or soldier was a major obstacle to their goals in the country. In 2010, fewer than 20 percent of Afghan soldiers and police were literate. In Aug. 2010 Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the head of the NATO training effort for the ANSF at the time, laid out the challenge in stark terms: "Unless we take on literacy, we truly will never professionalize this force."
To address the problem three contracts worth a total of $200 million were issued that month to OT Training Solutions, Insight Group, and the Education Institute of Karwan to teach recruits how to read. How has it gone?
"The lack of defined requirements for classes and length of instruction resulted in one contractor billing for classes held for as little as 2 hours a month and for multiple classes at one site that could have been combined into one class," SIGAR writes. "None of the three literacy training contracts requires independent verification of testing for proficiency or identifies recruits in a way that permits accurate tracking as the recruits move on to army and police units.
The NATO training mission reports that 298,526 soldiers and police have trained to some degree of literacy (224,826 reading at a first grade level and 73,700 at a third grade level) but that is well below the current authorized force of 352,000 (leaving 53,474 without any literacy training). That's well short of 100% literacy, the goal of the program, and SIGAR says even the reported numbers can be questioned given the absence of outside auditing of performance and the lack of tracking of soldiers and police quitting against new recruits coming in.
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Where are coups most likely this year? Political scientist Jay Ulfelder, who uses statistical models based on past history from who colonized a country to GDP to frequency of coups in a nation's past, takes a stab at it.
He cautions (at his blog The Dart-Throwing Chimp) that identifying where a coup is "likeliest" doesn't mean one will occur - far from it. As he writes: "Statistically speaking, the safest bet for any country almost any year is that a coup attempt won’t occur. The point of this exercise is to try to get a better handle on where the few coup attempts we can expect to see this year are most likely to happen."
He separates nations into fifths - the top fifth, the countries likeliest to suffer a coup, the bottom fifth where it's least likely. The bottom three-fifths aren't really at risk at all. Within the top fifth of 40 countries, seven stand out as far more likely than those that follow. In order:
- Equatorial Guinea
There are no countries from Europe in the top-fifth on his map (represented by the color red), with the Ukraine the only country in the second-fifth (orange). Ecuador and Haiti are the only two countries in the Americas in red on the map. Six countries in Asia are in the most at risk category, and only one in the Middle East (Iraq). To a casual observer Yemen being in the second fifth rather than the top tier is kind of surprising, but that's what his numbers show. The remaining countries are in Africa (among them Egypt and Algeria).
Recent coups, among other factors, increase the chances of a coup in the coming year in his model, and the numbers rely on the definition of "coup" by the Center for Systemic Peace. (Correction: While Jay relied on CSP last year, he writes in to say "this year I used a mash-up of coup lists from two sources, not just CSP.) Since that's a somewhat subjective determination, it can effect the numbers substantially. As Ulfelder wrote about his 2013 predictions:
Finally, notable for its absence is Egypt, which ranks 48th on the 2013 list and has been a source of coup rumors throughout its seemingly interminable transitional period. It’s worth noting though, that if you consider SCAF’s ouster of Mubarak in 2011 to be a successful coup (CSP doesn’t), Egypt would make its way into the top 30.
Again - the safe bet is that a coup or coup attempt won't take place in any of these countries. At least, in particular. But Ulfelder's post on the matter, full of details about how his models are built and tweaked, is an interesting window on how this type of forecasting is done warts, uncertainty, and all.
Perhaps he had already – with his frequent allegations of war crimes against US soldiers and hints that the country would be better off with the Taliban integrated into the government than with US soldiers remaining. But his government's performance in the past few days has demonstrated a monumental level of contempt and perhaps even hatred for his chief foreign backer, whose soldiers have maintained Karzai's control of the capital and whose funding keeps his government, such as it is, flush enough to pay its bills.
RECOMMENDED: How well do you know Afghanistan? Take our quiz.
On Saturday, Karzai's government distributed a dossier of pictures and videos purporting to demonstrate a US war crime, the sort of decontextualized pictures and videos of broken bodies and wailing mourners at funerals that are often offered up by the Taliban as evidence of American evil. In fact, as The New York Times reported, most of the pictures and videos appear to have been gleaned from Taliban websites. And it gets worse from there.
The allegations and supposed evidence for the aftermath of a NATO airstrike on a village in Parwan Province, an area filled with Taliban fighters, on Jan. 15. The US military has insisted that the strike was at the behest of the Afghan Army, who had soldiers under heavy fire from Taliban positions in two village compounds. The US acknowledges that civilians, including two children, died in the strike, but insists the action was necessary – with the lives of dozens of Afghan soldiers and a handful of American advisers at stake. One American and one Afghan soldier were killed in the action.
But that's not how Karzai's people see it. The Times reports:
By contrast, the Afghan commission appointed by Mr. Karzai to investigate the raid described the action as primarily American, with roughly eight hours of indiscriminate and unprovoked bombing followed by a house-to-house rampage by American soldiers. The commission has said that it can prove that 12 civilians were killed, and that there were indications of two to five additional civilian deaths.
“Villagers on the streets and even inside their houses were shot,” said Abdul Satar Khawasi, a member of Parliament from the area who led the investigation. “Ten houses were destroyed.”
... But at least two of the images distributed in the dossier could not have shown casualties from the Wazghar strikes, because the photos are more than three years old.
One was taken at the funeral of victims of a NATO airstrike in northern Afghanistan in 2009, which killed at least 70 civilians. It was distributed by Agence France-Presse and Getty Images and published in The Times on Sept. 5, 2009, along with an article about the airstrike. The origins of the second misrepresented photograph are murkier. It shows the bodies of two boys wrapped in burial shrouds, and has been used for years on websites assailing civilian deaths in American drone strikes in Pakistan.
Yet on Saturday, the Karzai government doubled down with a press conference that included some of the villagers whose innocent friends and relatives were allegedly killed. It was an "oops" moment for the prosecution, as Stars and Stripes reports.
On Sunday, the Afghan government organized a news conference with men who said they were from the area north of Kabul where the clash took place. One man, Alif Shah Ahmadzai, said that he did not witness the fighting itself but that his cousins had been killed. He accused the Times of “spreading lies.”
When confronted with the photo that was demonstrably published in 2009 , the men heatedly insisted that they knew the people at the funeral depicted in the picture. “I can take the dead bodies out of their graves, and if I was wrong I should be hanged,” Ahmadzai told reporters assembled at a government press center.
What's going on here? Karzai and his allies have been refusing to sign a security agreement that would allow US and other NATO combat soldiers to remain in the country beyond the end of this year, when their current mandate runs out. While Karzai constantly expresses skepticism that foreign troops are of any value in accomplishing much but killing civilians, his aid-dependent government is also well aware that without foreign troops, much of the promised civilian aid to Afghanistan will also dry up. Without them, it will be too dangerous to administer, and already rampant pilfering and central government corruption will also grow.
On Facebook and email, I've been chatting with friends – soldiers and civilians both – who served in the war effort in Afghanistan who constantly feel slapped in the face by Karzai's behavior. That anger has finally filtered out to the US Congress, which last week slashed civilian aid for Afghanistan in the current fiscal year to $1.1 billion, down from an initial Obama administration request of $2.1 billion. They also banned any more Pentagon spending on big new infrastructure projects.
The bill also prohibits any US funds being for "the direct personal benefit of the President of Afghanistan," the Washington Post reported, a clear slap at Karzai.
Afghan presidential elections are in April, and Karzai is term-limited out, though he appears to be maneuvering, thanks to the vast political war chest and favors he's accumulated in the past decade, to remain the power behind the scenes. The conventional wisdom is that he's been running a game of chicken with the US - betting that he can extract vast concessions from the US in terms of more cash or weapons for his army by delaying signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement. But the so-called "zero option" for Afghanistan looms ever larger and more attractive for a US, which is slated to spend a further $85 billion there this year.
An interesting contrary take on the "Karzai doesn't really mean it" theory was provided by Marvin Weinbaum earlier this month. He suggests Karzai may honestly believe that the US is a source of instability in the country. And why not?
Could we be reading Karzai incorrectly? Is it possible that rather than trying to call Washington's bluff in a high stakes game, he is prepared for and even eager to have no American military presence in Afghanistan? What if Karzai is in fact persuaded that the United States seeks to perpetuate the Afghan conflict and is conniving with Pakistan to divide the country? Could it be that Karzai has come to believe that Afghanistan has alternatives to its American military dependence that offer greater promise of weakening or possibly ending the insurgency? Has he concluded that with foreign troops gone, he can count on Iran, India, China, and Saudi Arabia for support, and that the chances for a negotiated peace will improve? And might Karzai also be convinced that Afghans are more likely to resolve their internal political differences if freed from U.S. interference? Interestingly, Karzai's views on the BSA and other issues happen to mirror the thinking of the political and military wings of Afghanistan's Hezb-i-Islami. Arguably, Karzai has wittingly or unwittingly aligned himself with this radical Islamic party.
Hezb-i-Islami is the party and militia of notorious warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. His group has been a major force in the insurgency since 2001, and often aligned itself with the Taliban. But it has also shown a willingness to reach agreements with the Afghan government on one condition: the full withdrawal of foreign troops from the country.
RECOMMENDED: How well do you know Afghanistan? Take our quiz.
Perhaps Hekmatyar is even sincere. Either way, after a decade of war, the US seems to have no more understanding of Afghan politics than it did when the war started. It's not even clear if the marginal returns of the war effort are "diminishing" anymore.
So why not take Karzai's words and actions at face value, and give him what he appears to want?
Late in the night on Feb. 11 2011, Alaa Abd El Fattah huddled with a few dozen young democracy activists in the rooftop bar of Cairo's downtown Carlton Hotel.
The atmosphere was electric. Mr. Fattah and his fellow activists were almost stunned by what they had just heard a few hours ago: Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's unchallenged leader for 30 years, had been forced by the military to resign.
Similar meetings were taking place all across Cairo that night as activists grappled with the question of "what next." The crowds streamed home from Tahrir Square, willing to trust that the newly installed military junta would guide the country towards a more just and open political future.
But Fattah, from a family of human-rights activists and dissidents, was under no illusions. Taking a break from the strategy session that night, he was worried about the disorganization among regime opponents, the absence of a consensus on what to do next, and how the Egyptian military could seize on this disorder to snuff out their collective dreams before they had begun to take shape.
“At the moment, the military isn’t talking to anyone, I don’t think they really know who to talk to," he said then. "Right now, all the existing parties are trying to cut deals and get something for themselves – the longer this goes on, the better chance (the military has) of success.”
Three years on, his words have proven grimly prescient. Fattah himself is in jail, along with dozens of activists and journalists from across the political spectrum. His latest detention came in late November, when over a dozen police stormed his home and beat him.
Why? He's been charged with inciting violence, thuggery, and for organizing an illegal protest (under a law recently passed by the military-run government). So he won't be on the streets tomorrow, the third anniversary of the start of the revolution.
The crackdown on dissent began after the July coup against President Mohamed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood and originally focused on the Islamist movement. Up to 1,000 pro-Morsi protesters died in a massacre last August in Cairo's Rabaa Square.
Alaa's latest arrest is just one of the pieces of evidence about how far it is spreading now. At the end of December, three reporters for Al Jazeera English - Australian Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed - were arrested on charges of spreading lies to tarnish Egypt's reputation and harm national security.
Emad Shahin, a widely respected political scientist at the American University in Cairo, told Kristen Chick earlier this week that the arrest of journalists was a "continuation of the message of suppressing any opposition, any voice that opposes this coup." Shortly after Mr. Shahin's comments, Egypt announced that he had been charged with conspiring with foreigners to undermine the country's stability.
Political scientist and liberal activist Amr Hamzawy was recently charged with insulting the judiciary. His crime? Using Twitter to criticize a ruling against a number of democracy promotion NGOs - among them the US-government funded International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute.
At the end of December Ahmed Maher, co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement that was vital to the organization of the Jan. 25, 2011 protests, was sentenced with two others to three years in prison for the crime of protesting.
None of these people are Muslim Brotherhood activists. This is about sending a clear message that dissent of any flavor won't be tolerated - something that the military has been more than hinting at since the moment Mubarak stepped down. In Alaa's case, this was far from his first arrest.
In October 2011 he was arrested and held for 30 days on spurious charges of inciting violence against the military, in the wake of a military crackdown on Coptic Christian protesters outside the state radio and television building in Cairo that left about 30 people dead. In May 2006 he was arrested and held for 45 days after participating in a peaceful protest calling for an independent judiciary.
That 2006 arrest led to an online campaign for his freedom and was a foreshadowing of the digital activism that eventually helped to propel massive street power in 2011. Fattah had been living in South Africa, but returned home a few days after the protests erupted and was soon in the thick of it all.
Not all of Egypt's Jan. 25 revolutionaries were as prescient as Alaa in spying the risks ahead. Consider Wael Ghonim, a computer engineer who worked for Google.
Mr. Ghonim was briefly an icon for Egypt's democracy movement for his role in organizing the "We Are All Khaled Said" Facebook page, which commemorated the murder of young Egyptian who was beaten to death by the police in Alexandria in 2010.
A few days after Mubarak's ouster, as activists debated holding mass protests against military interference in national politics, particularly the use of military courts to try civilian protesters, he wrote that the military would get the country on the right course.
“I trust the Egyptian Army,” he wrote.
A few weeks ago the dismissive comments of Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon that Secretary of State John Kerry's zealous pursuit of a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians amounted to an "incomprehensible obsession" and "messianic feeling" caused a bit of a kerfuffle. Yes, many senior Israeli officials have grown tired of humoring Mr. Kerry and are not much interested in the kinds of concessions that would be necessary to make a peace deal and creation of a Palestinian state possible. But it's generally considered bad form to needlessly antagonize the Americans.
Yet more evidence that the process jalopy is destined to keep spinning its wheels comes today by way of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Speaking to reporters in Davos shortly after meeting with Kerry, Mr. Netanyahu was asked about the fate of Israeli settlements in the West Bank half of the Jordan Valley in a possible peace deal. Interest in the question has been stirred by reports that Kerry has been hoping for Jordan Valley concessions
The prime minister was blunt. "I have said it before and I repeat it today: I'm not going to evict a single community, I am not going to uproot any Israeli from his home.” He also added that the US side has not proposed anything resembling a possible peace agreement. "The Americans are talking about a suggestion for a framework for negotiations," he said. .
Twenty years after Oslo one would hope that the "suggestion for a framework for negotiations" stage - which is the easy part - would be over. That it isn't tells you most of what you need to know.
The Ma'an Development Center, a Palestinian group, says there are 11,679 Israeli settlers and roughly 58,000 Palestinians in the valley. As the settlement enterprise goes (there are over 400,000 Israeli settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank) the valley is small potatoes. But the Netanyahu government appears feels that controlling the valley - which borders the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan - is vital to national security.
Egypt, of course, has had four of its freest elections in its long history in the past three years. At the same time, it has seen an economic collapse, a military coup cheered by millions of Egyptians, the outlawing of its most organized and popular political movement as a terrorist group, and a surge in hyper-nationalist rhetoric. Almost anyone who speaks out against the new military-driven order is attacked as a traitor.
This isn't the fault of elections, often seen as the gold stamp of "democracy" by many here in the US and elsewhere – at least not exactly. Many Egyptians favor the decidedly illiberal and non-pluralistic Muslim Brotherhood to run the country, as was shown in the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2012. Many others hated that notion, and have thrown their support behind the July military coup and the spreading wave of repression against Brotherhood supporters and secular-leaning political activists that followed.
Meanwhile, political violence is surging. The three coordinated bombings targeting police in Cairo today are just the latest example.
Ms. Hawthorne says democracy is the answer.
Advancing US strategic interests ultimately depends on Egyptian stability—and repression cannot stabilize today’s Egypt. Authoritarian measures are unlikely to quell roiling popular discontent given the diverse sources of mobilization and resistance; instead they will fuel extremism. An Egypt caught in endless cycles of political strife will not tackle its severe economic and social problems. Efforts to crush the Brotherhood, stifle dissent, and put down a rising Islamist insurgency will strain Egypt’s weakened state capacity further; under such conditions, the government cannot be an effective US partner.
A failing state in the Arab world’s most populous country is a dangerous prospect for the region, Europe, and the United States.
The only way Egypt will achieve lasting stability is to create an inclusive, consensus-based system of government involving all key political forces. This may seem an unimaginable task now. The role of the Muslim Brotherhood, an illiberal and widely distrusted yet deeply rooted movement, will be particularly hard to resolve. But Egypt has changed since 2011 in ways that make a lasting reconstitution of an authoritarian system unlikely. At present, anecdotal evidence and press coverage suggest that much of the Egyptian public strongly supports the newly repressive path. But Egyptian public opinion post-2011 has shown itself to be fickle. The January 25, 2011, uprising unleashed not only generalized public demands for change but also new social movements, dominated by young Egyptians with a distinct pro-democracy, anti-status quo mindset. They demand accountable government, human rights, and dignity. They believe in citizen activism and entrepreneurism to solve Egypt’s social and economic problems. These movements are not yet politically cohesive or electorally significant, but they have the potential to play a more significant democratizing role in the years to come.
This is all very well, but Hawthorne goes on to write that the US can guide Egypt towards democracy by withholding weapons deliveries, praising moves towards democracy and criticizing the opposite, and encouraging US private investment in the country and promoting tourism. She acknowledges this leverage is limited, but nevertheless suggests it can drive the country towards the kind of society the US wants.
Over time, more consistent US (and European) criticism of Egypt’s democracy record and other negative international attention could increase the political cost to the regime for sustaining authoritarian practices; when international pressure dovetails with domestic demands, the costs become high indeed.
Really? At the moment the country has the staunch financial backing of Saudi Arabia (a fact she acknowledges), which reflects the Saudi horror at the notion of American support for a democratic order emerging in Egypt. And as for dovetailing with domestic demands, many Egyptians are delighted with the role the Egyptian military is once again playing in Egyptian politics.
I have watched US democracy promotion efforts in Egypt for a decade now. Under both the Bush and Obama administrations, a consistently high-minded rhetoric about the universal, cleansing power of democracy has been matched by a consistent abandonment of this principle when it became inconvenient. I saw the Bush "democracy agenda" U-turn to the old "stability agenda" when 2006 elections in Egypt demonstrated the electoral power of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Obama administration react tepidly when the country raided the offices of American-funded democracy NGOs and threatened their employees with extended jail terms in 2012, and the ongoing talk about "democracy" even as the US continued to send financial aid to the country in the wake of the 2013 coup.
Elections in Egypt since 2011 have not led the country closer to any kind of national consensus – far from it. And in the current climate, the military's hand is growing stronger.
More American democracy talk, uncoupled by a willingness to take action based on it (and bear the consequences) isn't going to change that.
The segment starts at about the 1:50 mark. I just listened to it and, well, boy am I pessimistic.
A year ago I wrote about the strange case of Kam Air, an Afghan company that was blacklisted after the US military accused the company of bulk opium smuggling. The strange part was over how quickly the US blacklisting – confiscation of planes or prosecutions were never on the cards – was dropped.
It was clear by the speed of the reversal that the decision was a political one: Afghan President Hamid Karzai wanted to protect a financially and politically-powerful ally, Kam Air owner Zamari Kamgar (who steadfastly denied the US military's accusations about drug smuggling).
At the time the US military was none too pleased about the pill they had to swallow. ISAF spokesman Col. Thomas said "we are suspending this action pending the outcome of the Afghan government’s investigation" but added that the evidence of Kam Air smuggling opium was clear. It may have been clear to ISAF. But the Afghan investigation is now complete and - surprise! - appears to have completely exonerated Kam Air. And it appears the US government is fine with that.
Today a representative from the company forwarded me a letter sent to Hamid Zaher, the director general of Afghanistan's civil aviation authority. The letter dated Jan 12, 2014 from Melvin Cintron, a diplomat at the US embassy in Kabul. And the meat of it is that the company need not be afraid:
I am writing in response to your request for additional information on the status of Kam Air Airlines following media reports that the airline was on a Unites States Government (USG) list of banned vendors. I wish to ensure you that we have held discussions with our military counterparts and have coordinated this response to ensure clarity and consistency. As such we wish to advise you of the following:
- Kam Air is not on a USG list of prohibited vendors, thus they are not prohibited from applying for USG awards.
- Kam Air, like every other vendor applicant, would go through a vetting process.
- USG vendor vetting results do not bar vendors from applying or reapplying for awards.
- USG vendor vetting results do not necessarily prohibit a vendor from being selected for an award.
- The interested stakeholders are in receipt of the investigation outcome from the Afghanistan Attorney General's Office Investigation Committee.
That the Afghan Attorney General would clear Kam Air was a foregone conclusion last February. Same goes for the US military, with the State Department in the lead, given the stakes for President Hamid Karzai. Airline owner Mr. Kamgar played a powerful role in securing Hamid Karzai's return to power in 2009 elections. He helped to broker a peace between ethnic Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostun and Karzai that shored up the president's vote machine in key parts of the country. Now, with new elections due in April, Karzai needs all the allies he can get to deliver the vote, even though he won't be a candidate due to term limits.
So the whole matter of Kam Air's dubious record seems to have been put to bed.
Even so, the US embassy letter is extraordinary. "USG vendor vetting results do not bar vendors from applying or reapplying for awards." In plain English, this means that even if corruption or evidence is found that a contractor is materially or otherwise supporting the Taliban, they still might be given a contract. And why emphasize this point?
The pivot to Kam Air underscores just how contradictory the US Afghan "strategy" is. For years the US military paid for convoy protection to local Afghan warlords, many of whom were aligned with the Taliban. US drug policy has mostly focused on poppy eradication, never mind the consequences for insurgent recruitment of depriving poor farmers of their limited livelihood (it turns out that's not an effective way to win hearts and minds).
But if the US military indeed had strong evidence of a political powerbroker close to Karzai smuggling opium (which is processed into heroin) this would have offered an opportunity to undermine drug proceeds without uprooting a farmer's valuable crops. Much of the money from Afghanistan's opium sales flows to various parts of the insurgency, as well as officials in Karzai's government, Afghan officers and policemen. If the US military's allegations were true, this was a chance to strike a blow at that revenue stream without uprooting a farmer's best prospects of feeding his family in the coming winter.
At any rate, opium production has continued to soar. The profits flow to various parts of the insurgency, as well as government officials and security forces. The US estimates that land under opium poppy cultivation grew almost 40 percent last year, and the UN estimates that opium sales brought in $3 billion – about 15 percent of Afghanistan's GDP. Since 2002, poppy cultivation has tripled, and all that growth has occurred while the US has spent $7 billion on drug interdiction.
Here's how the US Special Inspector for Afghan Reconstruction John Sopko summed it up last week:
The narcotics trade is poisoning the Afghan financial sector and fueling a growing illicit economy. This, in turn, is undermining the Afghan state’s legitimacy by stoking corruption, nourishing criminal networks, and providing significant financial support to the Taliban and other insurgent groups. There are already signs that elements within the Afghan National Security Forces are reaching arrangements with rural communities to allow opium poppy cultivation, or even encouraging production, as a way of building local patronage networks and to establish rent seeking opportunities.
In sum, the expanding cultivation and trafficking of drugs is one of the most significant factors putting the entire U.S. and international donor investment in the reconstruction of Afghanistan at risk. All of the fragile gains we have made over the last twelve years on women’s issues, health, education, rule of law, and governance are now, more than ever, in jeopardy of being wiped out by the narcotics trade which not only supports the insurgency, but also feeds organized crime and corruption.