Egypt's military-backed government over the weekend signaled an expanded crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood by announcing that deposed President Mohamed Morsi, who was elected president in June 2012 and deposed this July 3, would be put on trial for inciting violence.
That decision came less than two weeks after President Hosni Mubarak, who headed a military-backed dictatorship for 30 years until February 2011, was released from prison and placed under house arrest while awaiting a trial of his own. Morsi, meanwhile, remains in the secret prison Egypt's military whisked him to shortly after it removed him from office.
Looking a little further, the current regime appears eager to shut down most political avenues and media outlets it can't control. On Sunday, it released and deported three foreigners who were arrested while reporting in Cairo for Al Jazeera English. Last Friday, the offices of Al Jazeera Egypt Live (Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr) in three Cairo locations were raided and shut, their broadcasting equipment confiscated, for what government-controlled newspaper Al Ahram said was a lack of "professional ethics." Previously Al Jazeera Arabic's local offices had been shut down, though correspondents continue to file reports from inside the country.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said the government is trying to suppress dissent.
"The Egyptian government is widening its censorship campaign against critical media in Egypt to undermine coverage of Muslim Brotherhood protests," Sherif Mansour, the group's regional coordinator, said in a statement. "Like their predecessors, authorities apparently fail to grasp that the attempted suppression of dissenting voices only compounds the dissent."
Al Jazeera Arabic, owned by Qatar's ruling monarchy, which is an enthusiastic backer of the Brotherhood, has had some of the friendliest coverage of the Brotherhood among major television outlets, and Egypt's military and military-friendly news outlets have painted them as a propaganda outlet for the Islamist movement.
The big picture: It appears that a battle has been joined in Egypt, with the military and its appointed civilian leaders seeking to put the genie of greater media freedom back in the bottle. The presence of Al Jazeera and other regional broadcasters in Tahrir Square during the uprising against Mubarak electrified not just the country, encouraging more people to get out of the house and join protests, but the region.
Controlling the flow of pictures and reporting stems the chances of a repeat. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood are no friends of press freedom either. Pro-Morsi protesters attacked reporters from local station ONTV, a staunch supporter of the coup, and broke their equipment on Friday. During Morsi's year in power, defamation suits and suits alleging defamation of religion were used to silence critics.
The increasing flow of disinformation, fabrications, and outright lies on Egyptian media pushed outgoing US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson into a rare, extremely angry statement holding Egypt's interim rulers responsible for a fabricated article in Al Ahram late last month. An article written by the government newspaper's Editor in Chief Abdel Nasser Salama reported that Patterson was part of a conspiracy with Muslim Brotherhood members and foreign militants to destabilize Egypt and divide it into two smaller countries.
"I am writing to adamantly deny the outrageous, fictitious, and thoroughly unprofessional headline article that appeared in your paper on August 27. Your article’s claim that I personally am involved in a conspiracy to divide and destabilize Egypt is absolutely absurd and dangerous," Patterson wrote to Mr. Salama. "I am particularly disturbed to think that Al Ahram, as the flagship state-run paper in Egypt, is regarded as a representative of the government’s viewpoint. We will, therefore, raise this article at the highest levels of the government to protest its publication and the irresponsible behavior that led to it."
Ahram has long been a tool for state propaganda, and is emerging as an important figure in Egypt's ongoing information wars. Local television is likewise focused on the threats of the Brothers, allegations of ties to foreign plots, and warnings of the need for stability and order.
Plus ça change.
Before the Iraq war began in March 2003, the elected representatives of the American people, the US intelligence community, and large portions of the American press were in lockstep with the Bush administration: Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in large quantities and something had to be done.
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director George Tenet said US evidence of the danger posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq amounted to a "slam dunk," Secretary of State Colin Powell waived a vial of fake anthrax at the United Nations and went on at length about biological weapons program that could kill tens of thousands of people, and the nation's newspapers battled to carry the most breathless "scoops" possible, spoon fed by obliging but anonymous sources.
It was, of course, all completely false. And as President Obama stands on the brink of military action against Syria over claims that the government of Bashar al-Assad used an as-yet-unspecified chemical weapon near Damascus earlier this month, the press and the intelligence community are doing what they failed to do then: Push back on claims of certainty – and assertions that a military response is warranted.
The comparison can be overdone. Obama and those speaking for him have insisted that there will be no invasion and that there's no plan to replace Mr. Assad by force. Polling shows a US public that wants to stay out of a war in Syria (a recent Reuters poll found 46 percent of Americans opposed to military intervention if Assad had used chemical weapons to attack civilians, with 25 percent supporting military action). And there's pretty strong evidence that a chemical weapon of some sort really was used on the outskirts of Damascus on Aug. 21, with Doctors Without Borders saying about 350 people were killed and many more injured by what appeared to have been some kind of neurotoxin.
But the history of the Iraq war is informing the discussion of what happened and what the US knows about it in a healthy way. Exhibit A for this is an Associated Press story this morning which quotes unnamed intelligence officials pushing back on Obama's claims.
Yesterday, Obama told PBS "We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out. And if that's so, then there need to be international consequences." Today, AP quotes multiple US officials as saying precisely the same thing: That US intelligence on the matter is "not a slam dunk."
A decade ago, US intelligence was stovepiped to present desired conclusions by government officials, and the reputation of the CIA and other intelligence outfits took a serious hit when the truth came out. This time, a much clearer picture is being presented on what they know, what they think happened and can't prove, and how much they don't know at all.
Most important, US intelligence officials say they don't know where all of Syria's chemical weapons are or whether Assad was involved in giving an order for chemical weapons to be used. That raises serious questions about what exactly proposed air strikes would target.
And then there's the question of whether attacking Syria serves US interests, or humanitarian ones, at all. Among people who follow the region closely, there are many doubts.
Political scientist Marc Lynch, writing at Foreign Policy, can't see much good in attacking Syria, and worries that it will lead to broader US military involvement, however much Obama insists that won't be the case.
The rumored air strikes would drag the United States across a major threshold of direct military involvement, without any serious prospect of ending the conflict or protecting Syrian civilians (at least from non-chemical attacks). They likely would not accomplish more than momentarily appeasing the whimsical gods of credibility. The attack would almost certainly lack a Security Council mandate. Meanwhile, the response from Arab public opinion to another U.S. military intervention has been predictably hostile; even the very Arab leaders who have been aggressively pushing for such military action are refraining from openly supporting it. And nobody really believes that such strikes will actually work.
... Washington suffers no shortage of suggestions for getting more deeply involved in Syria's civil war. Over the last year and a half, I've read dozens of think tank reports and thousands of op-eds urging U.S. military intervention in some form, from no-fly zones to arming the opposition to air campaigns. Not one has made a remotely plausible case that these limited means will resolve the war in ways favorable to Syrians, the region, or America. The honest ones admit that limited intervention is a wedge toward mission creep (as if Iraq had not proven that full-scale intervention is bound to fail). The rest rely on an alarming series of best-case assumptions that fall apart on close inspection. Seriously, when was the last time any best case scenario actually materialized in the Middle East?
He isn't the only one worried about a slippery slope to war. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in July about the lessons the Iraq war and the law of unintended consequences as he outlined possible US military approaches to Syria. He specifically addressed a mission to contain Syria's chemical weapons:
This option uses lethal force to prevent the use or proliferation of chemical weapons. We do this by destroying portions of Syria’s massive stockpile, interdicting its movement and delivery, or by seizing and securing program components. At a minimum, this option would call for a no-fly zone as well as air and missile strikes involving hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enablers. Thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces would be needed to assault and secure critical sites. Costs could also average well over one billion dollars per month. The impact would be the control of some, but not all chemical weapons. It would also help prevent their further proliferation into the hands of extremist groups. Our inability to fully control Syria’s storage and delivery systems could allow extremists to gain better access. Risks are similar to the no-fly zone with the added risk of U.S. boots on the ground.
... All of these options would likely further the narrow military objective of helping the opposition and placing more pressure on the regime. We have learned from the past 10 years; however, that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state. We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action. Should the regime's institutions
collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.
Joshua Foust wonders why the US would intervene in Syria when so many other humanitarian disasters are ignored, and worries that US intervention on the scale proposed could lead to more bloodshed, not less, in the country.
And will those bombs alter the growing fracture of both pro- and anti-regime militias, which will promise bloodshed no matter what regime is leftover? There is also a steep credibility gap on the part of U.S. planners. The crackdown in Bahrain, for example, was met in the U.S. government with silence. Ongoing, horrific human rights abuses by U.S. allies in places like Saudi Arabia, Yemen and even Iraq are never met with scorn — just indifference.
Recent human rights atrocities, like the Sri Lankan mass killings of Tamil rebels in 2009, merited barely more than a shrug. And last year’s conflict-famine in Somalia, which killed a hundred thousand people in just a few months, warranted a shrug from the international community. When so many other massive tragedies go ignored, there is no easy answer for why Syria, why now.
To be sure, some in the US think punitive strikes won't be enough and are urging Obama to do far more. A group of 74 pundits and former officials, many of them major backers of the Iraq war, released an open letter to Obama on Tuesday calling for immediate action to help the country's rebels defeat Assad:
Moreover, the United States and other willing nations should consider direct military strikes against the pillars of the Assad regime. The objectives should be not only to ensure that Assad’s chemical weapons no longer threaten America, our allies in the region or the Syrian people, but also to deter or destroy the Assad regime’s airpower and other conventional military means of committing atrocities against civilian non-combatants. At the same time, the United States should accelerate efforts to vet, train, and arm moderate elements of Syria’s armed opposition, with the goal of empowering them to prevail against both the Assad regime and the growing presence of Al Qaeda-affiliated and other extremist rebel factions in the country.
Signers of that letter include Paul Bremer, Karl Rove, Dan Senor, Doug Feith, and Leon Wieseltier, men inside the government and out who insisted that the invasion of Iraq was the right thing to do and would herald a new era of freedom and peace in the Middle East. They are urging their counsel be taken once again.
Will it? This afternoon, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel are briefing Congress on military options for Syria and the US has moved Navy destroyers into striking distance in the Mediterranean.
But at the very least, if the US does move toward war with Syria, it will be with a government and a public whose eyes are far more open to the dangers than they were a decade ago.
The gnashing of teeth over Syria that's been emanating from various Obama officials and members of the DC punditocracy since last week has rested on a common but rarely examined assumption: That among the vast ranks of tools for man to kill man invented down the ages, chemical weapons are particularly heinous.
But is it true? If you relied on the Obama administration, you'd think so. The US government says there was a chemical weapons attack on a Sunni Arab suburb of Damascus on Aug. 21. On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement about the "immoral" and "unacceptable" use of chemical weapons, and the pattern of claims from the White House since has clearly been in the direction of some sort of US assault designed to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
But "because he used chemical weapons" is not a reason "why." Nor is "because Obama said the word 'red line.'" Or because, as Secretary Kerry had it, chemical weapons are "immoral." A State Department spokeswoman said today, when asked if the US would wait for UN Security Council permission to attack Syria: "We cannot allow diplomatic paralysis to be a shield to the perpetrators of these crimes."
What are these crimes? And how do they differ from the crimes of the past few years?
The alleged number of dead from the alleged chemical attack is about 350 people – less than 0.35 percent of the total number deaths in the Syrian war, which is now well over 100,000. In over two years of fighting children have been tortured to death, area fire weapons like mortars and rockets have rained down on crowded civilian neighborhoods (a war crime), suicide bombs from rebels have killed civilians and soldiers alike on the streets of Damascus (ditto), and both sides have executed captives with a liberal hand.
If the immorality of a weapon lies in its capacity to kill, then the humble assault rifle or machete are far more immoral instruments of death. Yes, theoretically chemical weapons could kill far more in a short period of time, but that hasn't been the track record. Consider Iraq's use of chemical weapons to kill about 5,000 Kurds in the town of Halabja in 1988 – the most horrific and perhaps the most deadly use of chemical weapons since WWI (Iraq's use of chemical weapons on the battlefield during the Iran-Iraq war which then raged may have been worse).
But the massacre at Halabja occurred as a tiny portion of Saddam Hussein's Anfal Campaign in Iraqi Kurdistan that began in 1987 and ran until early September 1988. In 1987 Hussein named his cousin Ali Hasan al-Majid as military commander for Iraq's separatist north with one task: Destroy Kurdish opposition. Majid, who soon earned the nickname "Chemical Ali," pursued the mission with a horrific zeal.
Human Rights Watch and many others labeled the campaign a genocide. They had good reason.
Majid issued orders for large swathes of the Kurdish countryside to be depopulated. Over 2,000 villages were destroyed, crops and livestock were systematically eradicated, tens of thousands executed in detention, others tortured to death while family members were forced to watch. Many more died of starvation. In short, Majid had made it illegal to be Kurdish and alive in a large swathe of traditionally Kurdish territory. He was quite explicit about it:
"All persons captured in those villages shall be detained and interrogated by the security services and those between the ages of 15 and 70 shall be executed after any useful information has been obtained from them," reads one executive order from 1987 laying out the plan. HRW estimated between 50,000 and 100,000 Iraqi Kurds were killed during the Anfal.
Yet today, Halabja is spoken of by the lightly informed as some particularly evil moment rather than as one small piece of a much larger patchwork. The true evil of the Anfal campaign was not that chemical weapons were used, but that so many were killed with the deliberate intent that a whole culture and community would be wiped out.
It is hard to understand what moral good could be accomplished by a few cruise missiles lobbed at Syria by the Obama administration in retaliation for a presumed chemical weapons attack there at this point. The message would seem to be "Kill if you must, but kill by other means."
And it is not just Assad that is doing the killing. Frequently in America politicians will be head to say something like "Assad has killed 100,000 of his own people" but that is not true. Tens of thousands of his soldiers and supporters have fallen at the hands of various rebel groups. While the worst atrocities have been carried out by Assad's forces, the white hat/black hat moral clarity of some on Syria blinds some from the realities of war.
Bashar al-Assad is a brutish tyrant, much like his father before him. He is engaged in a battle for survival – as are large numbers of his supporters. The complexity of Syria - and the very real chance there could be a genocide targeting the Alawite minority that Assad belongs to if he is defeated, have been among the reasons staying the Obama administration's hand on going to war until now.
Perhaps an argument can be made that the balance of risk, reward and national interest have shifted recently. If so, that would be an interesting argument to hear – but the use of chemical weapons would not make much sense as its center piece.
Persistent reports of "popular committees" being formed are coming in from Cairo and other Egyptian cities.
The term can mean anything from a genial neighborhood watch to groups of young toughs looking for a fight. During the mass protests against Hosni Mubarak in Cairo in January and February 2011, civilians formed popular committees across the city, erecting barricades in front of their neighborhoods and sometimes aggressively questioning anyone who tried to pass.
I lived in Cairo from 2003-2008 and arrived back to cover the uprising on the evening of the bloodiest day to that point. The city was on edge, and I encountered Egyptian popular resistance committees - and weapons in the hands of civilians in the city - for the first time. I wrote then:
Out of the airport, we then easily went through 100 checkpoints and took three hours making a journey that, on a traffic-free day, takes 20 minutes. First were the friendly, almost offhand checkpoints run by Egyptian soldiers backed by Abrams tanks around the airport.
Then there were the “popular committees” – the neighborhood watch groups of young men armed with machetes, clubs, and butcher’s hooks – who were jumpy and a little undisciplined, but full of apologies for the “situation,” solicitousness to us, and full of more “welcome to Egypts” (a phrase commonly graced to foreigners here, both in English and Arabic) than I’d heard in my four years living here.
Finally, after a long, jagged route that took us far around Tahrir Square, we found ourselves on Roda – the Nile island just south of Zamalek that is a bastion of support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Here, the popular committees were more switched on, easier to communicate with – and a little better armed. Mixed in among their clubs and knives were a few narrow-gauge shotguns and pistols.
No one really knew what was to come for Egypt then. But in the two years since, armed popular committees have become part of Cairo's social fabric, particularly as respect for the police has declined. Now, with huge numbers either furiously in support of the Muslim Brotherhood or furiously against them, it appears that the committees - or perhaps, plainclothes agents of the state claiming they belong to the committees, or both - are going to play a larger role.
It's an alarming prospect, and one that bears watching.
The Twitter timeline of an assistant reporter from the New York Times Mayy El Sheikh caught my (and a lot of other people's) eyes today. I don't know her, but a lot of people I know and respect do, and they consider her a careful reporter of what she sees. This is what she said she saw today:
Roaming Cairo streets r dozens of civilians w/ machetes,handguns&rifles creating thr own checkpoints&standing w/ police arnd police stations— Mayy El Sheikh (@MayyNYT) August 16, 2013
On the ringroad a group of 20 or so civilians stopped us 2 warn us abt armed MBs ahead.4 of thm had rifles hanging frm ther shoulders!— Mayy El Sheikh (@MayyNYT) August 16, 2013
They were across frm the Basateen police station which had mre civilians arnd it ready 4 a fight in full view of the officers on the rooftop— Mayy El Sheikh (@MayyNYT) August 16, 2013
She also described a group of men mixed in at a Muslim Brotherhood march along the Nile that frightened her and a number of the Brotherhood supporters she was with. She writes that as the march moved towards the Qasr al-Nil bridge near Tahrir Square, distant shots rang out, and that some people mixed in among them were trying to prevent marchers from moving away to a safer spot. Two masked men with rifles and handguns who had been among the marchers appeared and threatened some bearded Muslim Brotherhood supporters, and tried to force her to stay with the march.
She explained she was a reporter and wanted to leave. They eventually assented.
It was very bizarre and the Islamists behind me were immensely scared of that guy.— Mayy El Sheikh (@MayyNYT) August 16, 2013
I honestly believe that he might have shot them if he didn’t see the notebook in my hand.— Mayy El Sheikh (@MayyNYT) August 16, 2013
That's just one moment in time in a vast city in a vast country. If more of these moments pile up, it won't mean anything good.
Egypt is erupting before the world's eyes, and there is no technology-babble about Facebook or Twitter revolutions anymore. Instead there's a Hobbesian, zero-sum battle being fought that is narrowing whatever window is left for compromise and reconciliation.
Unarmed supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood have been gunned down by government forces, armed supporters of the movement have skirmished with police, dozens of churches have been burned across the country in the past few days, and the rhetoric of holy war and squashing terrorism vie with each other for shrillness and rage across the Egyptian airwaves and on social media.
The death toll has surpassed 700 since Egypt's interim military-backed government stormed Muslim Brotherhood protests camps on Wednesday. And as a military-imposed curfew in Cairo and other cities drew close this evening, the death toll from today alone reached 38.
That may not sound like much compared with the horrific violence that neighbors like Syria and Libya have experienced in recent years, but Egypt appears to be spiraling quickly out of control, leading some to wonder if war could be in the offing.
The current state of play is that Muslim Brotherhood supporters reacted with predictable rage to the government assault on the protests Wednesday, and in many cases played off of sectarian hatred. Egypt's Christian minority groups has long been a proxy target for Islamists too weak to strike out at the military directly, and a current of disdain for other faiths is strong among many Egyptian Muslims.
Egypt's Copts feared the Muslim Brotherhood's electoral victories last year, particularly the rise of the movement's Mohamed Morsi to the presidency. They cheered his ouster with a combination of mass protest and military coup at the start of July. But when the assaults started against churches in Cairo, the Nile Delta, in the coastal city of Alexandria, along the Suez Canal, and in upper (southern) Egypt this week, the military was nowhere to be seen.
Many in Egypt are now wondering if elements of Egypt's military, Egypt's main political power, are happy with the turn of events. Muslim Brothers are derided as terrorists whether they resort to violence or not and are reasoning they might as well resort to violence. Pro-military civilian groups are reported to be taking up knives, clubs, and the occasional rifle. Perhaps army chief Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi and his fellow officers reason that the killing will simultaneously discredit the Muslim Brothers, giving them the pretext for a mass crackdown against the movement, and slam the door shut on the fundamental political change in Egypt they seem to fear.
It is too late for Egypt to pull back from the brink, of course. Perhaps the overnight curfew will pass reasonably quietly and cooler heads will prevail tomorrow - after a Friday that the Muslim Brothers declared a "day of rage." But many people who know the country well are deeply worried.
Feels like we are witnessing what happened in 2011 in Syria, when the govt kept journalists out. How long before it's Syria 2012?— Liz Sly (@LizSly) August 16, 2013
What she means is how Bashar al-Assad responded to peaceful protests against his rule with maximum force after they erupted in 2011, giving his opponents no choice but to surrender or plunge the country into civil war. They chose civil war and since then, at least 100,000 Syrians have died in the fighting, and cities like Homs and Aleppo have been left in ruins.
Or consider Human Rights Watch, which carried a piece yesterday by Middle East researcher Erin Evers, who is now in Cairo and spent 2012 in Iraq:
Society here seems to hang by a thread. Fighting continues and it is unclear who’s on what side. I spoke to a man injured at the Cairo University sit-in who said he and 25 others had come to fight the Brotherhood alongside police. Checkpoints litter the city, some manned by the army or police, others by groups of men in civilian clothes reminiscent of the “neighborhood watches” who took matters into their own hands during Egypt’s January 2011 revolution. The country is polarized in a way I never imagined.
These scenes in an Egypt that I thought I knew remind me, sadly, of the place I spent the better part of the last year as a Human Rights Watch researcher: Iraq.
Iraq too is littered with checkpoints, far more numerous and permanent than in Cairo, and with bomb-scarred neighborhoods; radical Jihadist groups and security forces who commit abuses in the name of fighting terrorism. This is what I fear Egypt could become. There, divisions are entrenched: the sides are unable to divorce themselves from past grievances and ultimately choose violence over national reconciliation. Waking Thursday in Egypt, after a night of fires blazing in Cairo neighborhoods, a death tally over 500 and steadily rising, I fear Egypt has embarked on a similar path.
Egypt is of course a vastly different place than Iraq, with different sectarian fault lines and political tensions. And while the war that raged in Iraq from 2003-2008 has cooled, it never really died out.
But what Egypt has in common with Iraq – or any other society amid turmoil – is a growing level of distrust, declining respect for its national institutions, and a security establishment that is increasingly inclined to reach for the gun as its first response to domestic trouble.
The lesson many supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood already seem to be taking is that democracy doesn't pay: Muslim Brotherhood leaders who gave up violence as a tool for political change generations ago are being shown up now as fools. In Cairo today, black banners associated with holy war were seen at some marches, and Brotherhood supporters repeatedly speak of martyrdom and of the threat posed to Islam itself by unfolding events in Egypt.
That's of course "Islam" as the Brothers see it. The majority of their opponents, both in uniform and out of it, are Muslims too, but don't desire the total conflation of faith and state that is the Brotherhood's ultimate goal.
Egypt is not at war yet. But take a look at the video below, which shows pro-Morsi protesters fleeing from a clash with security forces in Giza, just across the Nile in Cairo today. This is what the war before a war often looks like.
On the main road from Cairo's international airport to downtown, there's a strange circular building with decommissioned fighter jets, tanks, and artillery pieces out front that provides a glimpse into the mind of the military-backed order that ran Egypt for 50 years. If the events of the past few days are anything to go by, it still does.
The site is the 6th of October War Panorama, celebrating what generations of Egyptians have been taught was a great victory over Israel in 1973 (that conflict is generally referred to in the West and in Israel as the Yom Kippur War) – even though it was not even close to one.
But it is less a museum or a monument than a conscious attempt at mythmaking by a military establishment that has viewed itself as the sole true protector of Egypt and its values since the Free Officers coup of 1952. It's similar to propaganda halls built by military-backed dictatorships from Syria to Indonesia to Pakistan.
RECOMMENDED: In Egypt, journey down a Nile of discontent
The panorama was suggested in 1983 to former President Hosni Mubarak, commander of the Egyptian Air Force during the 1973 war with Israel, by North Korea's self-styled "Great Leader" Kim Il-Sung, a man who knew a little something about mythmaking. Mr. Mubarak had been named president two years prior, following the assassination of Anwar Sadat by Islamist militants, and he was looking to bolster his position and public persona.
Mr. Kim's suggestion was just the ticket for Mubarak, a former vice president chosen as Mr. Sadat's vice president precisely because he was deemed not to have presidential qualities, and thus not to be a threat to his boss. A team of North Koreans completed the panorama in 1989.
Ever since, schoolchildren have paraded through the place, with its revisionist history, busts of Mubarak and other military leaders, and three bombastic short films about the glories of 1973. While the Egyptian and Syrian surprise attack on Israel on Oct. 6 that year badly rattled their Zionist enemy, particularly after Egyptian troops poured across the Suez Canal into the Sinai Peninsula that Israel had occupied since 1967, it didn't end in a clear victory for anyone – and could have seen Egypt's military smashed.
Despite early tactical gains, within nine days Israeli troops had crossed the Suez Canal and prepared to threaten Cairo, mostly due to bad leadership decisions. The war ended later that month with the status quo restored, but with Egypt having proved that Israel's supposedly impregnable defenses on the Sinai front could be breached. Sadat was dubbed the "hero of the crossing" and his power – and that of his generals – rose.
The October War has been milked for legitimacy ever since. It helped entrench the mind-set among Egypt's senior officers that they and only they understand what Egypt needs and how to protect it – never mind that the offensive capability of their military has been steadily eroded, particularly relative to Israel's, ever since.
But the belief, and the myth, remain. They can be seen in the actions of the Egyptian military since the July 3 coup, particularly the bloody crackdown currently under way, which have the support of millions of Egyptians. Posters of Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the Army chief who announced that the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, abound.
The Free Officer's coup in 1952 was prompted by anger that Israel's victory in 1948 was down to the corruption and incompetence of Egypt's old monarchy and its civilian advisers. Ever since, Egypt's military, much as those in other countries, has looked askance at the notion that civilians should reign supreme. Civilians, to their thinking, are feckless, either uneducated peasants, or Muslim fanatics, or lacking the will to do what is required.
The failures of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mr. Morsi in his year in office surely reinforced that view. Morsi was Egypt's first civilian leader for 60 years, and his time in office marked a sharp decline in Egypt's economic fortunes, rising public protests, and inept and arrogant handling of internal affairs. The mass protests that erupted against him on June 30 of this year – probably larger than the protests that saw Mubarak ousted in 2011 – were surely seen as evidence for the military's longstanding view.
And what of Morsi and the Brotherhood's civilian opponents? They have shown themselves good at protest politics, but have squabbled among themselves and failed to build mass political movements that could stop Islamist victories at the ballot box in both the parliamentary election and the presidential election, which Morsi narrowly won. Though Sisi has promised democratic elections in the future, he and his advisers won't want to see the Brothers win again.
So where does that leave them? Perhaps, to push Egypt down the path of greater chaos by goading the Brothers and their supporters to lash out, setting the stage for crushing this force within their midst and bolstering the narrative that it is the security state alone that can deliver stability and a modicum of prosperity.
Issandr El Amrani, a writer and keen analyst of Egyptian politics, worries this may be the case. He writes how secular politicians who backed the coup in the hopes that it would lead the Brothers to realize they'd lost a round, and adapt to new political realities, were only small in number.
Unfortunately, among the broad liberal camp in Egypt, those who entertained such hopes are in a minority. Even among the National Salvation Front, as its obscene statement praising the police today showed, most appear to have relished the opportunity to crush the Muslim Brothers and to believe that other Islamists could simply choose to be crushed alongside it, kowtow to the new order, or be pushed back into quietism. It appears that much of the business and traditional elite – represented politically by the Free Egyptians and the Wafd Party among others – falls into that category. They are joined by the security establishment, or deep state if you prefer.
The camp that eventually won does not just believe that the Brothers are not worth negotiating with. They want to encourage it in its provocative sectarian discourse, its supporters' desire for violence – and then push as much of the Islamist camp as possible into being outlaws. Those who nurture such eradicateur sentiment do not so much actually want to physically eradicate all Islamists as to provoke them into a situation where their political existence will be eradicated because they will have opted for violence. They are willing to endure that violence, even a return to the counterinsurgency of the 1990s, and sporadic sectarian and terrorist attacks, because they believe it will strengthen their camp and enable them to permanently block most Islamists from politics. This is why I believe I think that analyses such as this one, that argue that such an insurgency is not possible anymore, are wrong.
Could Egypt return to a long period of military-backed dictatorship? There's been a strain of thinking over the past two years that after the mass protests against Mubarak a sort of break with the past had been made that would require more open and pluralistic politics, and that the military would understand its interests would best be served by withdrawing a little further into the political background.
But Sisi may be drawing different lessons from both recent events – and the wide praise he and the security state are receiving from large numbers of Egyptians, hungry for stability. Keep an eye out for more spit and polish being put on the October War Panorama.
RECOMMENDED: In Egypt, journey down a Nile of discontent
On July 3, Egypt's military carried out a coup, albeit one that was applauded by millions of Egyptians. With the democratically elected Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood ejected from office after less than a year on the job, the probability of a more violent and chaotic Egypt jumped exponentially that day.
And that is what unfolded, coming to a head yesterday. Yet for most of the past month and a half the Obama administration, led by Secretary John Kerry's State Department, tied itself into knots to avoid calling the military takeover a coup. It insisted that Army chief Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sisi's appointment of technocrats and former officials of the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship were evidence of civilian control.
Consider what Mr. Kerry told Hamid Mir of Pakistan's GeoTV on a visit to that country way back on Aug. 1.
"The military was asked to intervene by millions and millions of people, all of whom were afraid of a descendance into chaos, into violence. And the military did not take over, to the best of our judgment so – so far. To run the country, there’s a civilian government. In effect, they were restoring democracy."
At this point Mir interjects: "By killing people on the roads?" Kerry responds:
"Oh, no. That’s not restoring democracy, and we’re very, very concerned about, very concerned about that. And I’ve had direct conversations with President Mansour, with Vice President ElBaradei, with Gen. al-Sisi, as have other members of our government. And I’ve talked to the Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy, so I’ve been in touch with all of the players there. And we have made it clear that that is absolutely unacceptable, it cannot happen."
Yet it just did, in far greater numbers than on July 3. Egypt is closer to, not farther from, chaos after the past month, and further from a democracy than at any point since the day before Mr. Mubarak was toppled in February 2011. With 525 people killed in the past two days and more than 3,500 wounded after security forces broke up pro-Muslim Brotherhood protests and Brotherhood supporters staged reprisal attacks, people are wondering if the military is going to try to engineer a return to the status quo that prevailed before Mubarak was removed from power in February 2011.
Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of "The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square," wonders if the military was ever interested in letting go. He writes in Foreign Policy this morning:
Egypt is as far away from the revolutionary promise of Tahrir Square as it was in November 2010 when Mubarak staged perhaps the most fraudulent parliamentary election since they began in the late 1970s.
Today the "revolution" that really never was, is over. Egyptians will go to sleep tonight under a curfew and wake tomorrow under the hated Emergency Law that places the country under military rule. The government claims the measure is temporary – only for a month – but given Egypt's current circumstances that is not likely to be the case. Supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsy have stepped up their mindless campaign against Egyptian (Coptic Christians) and the violent repression of the opposition sit-ins will likely lead to even more radicalization. How long before the Muslim Brotherhood seeks redress through the force of arms? Spokesmen for the interim government argue that they have extended a hand to the Brothers to join the transition, but that they rejected it. Of course they did.
Kerry appears to be belatedly shifting his tone on what's happening in Egypt, while perhaps still misunderstanding the Egyptian military's intentions. In a statement last night, he said:
Violence is simply not a solution in Egypt or anywhere else. Violence will not create a roadmap for Egypt’s future. Violence only impedes the transition to an inclusive civilian government, a government chosen in free and fair elections that governs democratically, consistent with the goals of the Egyptian revolution. And violence and continued political polarization will only further tear the Egyptian economy apart and prevent it from growing and providing the jobs and the future that the people of Egypt want so badly.
... The only sustainable path for either side is one towards a political solution. I am convinced from my conversations today with a number of foreign ministers, including the Foreign Minister of Egypt, I am convinced that that path is, in fact, still open and it is possible, though it has been made much, much harder, much more complicated, by the events of today.
Does the Egyptian military really want to allow a "transition to an inclusive civilian government?" With the crackdown of the past two days, arrests of more senior Muslim Brotherhood members, and what appears to be an intent to wipe Egypt's Islamist politicians from the scene, we have good reasons to doubt that.
The reasoning behind this decision was that Egypt's military is the most powerful force in the country and that alienating and punishing them for their action would both undercut US influence and create the conditions for a broad military crackdown. And, besides, the massive protests against Mr. Morsi leading up to him being deposed and arrested showed he couldn't lead or stabilize the country any more himself.
So while principled talk about "democracy" and getting militaries out of politics is one thing, the world of realpolitik is something else. While emissaries from Obama danced around the "coup" question, the US government refused to announce a cut off in the Egyptian military's $1.3 billion annual subsidy, and continually urged restraint and reconciliation.
These decisions led to odd rhetorical constructions from the US government, as when State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki was pressed last week on whether the Obama administration thought Egypt's military had carried out a coup. "We have determined that we do not need to make a determination," she said.
Today, the military and Gen. Abdel Fatah Sisi, delivered the military's own determination: We're going ahead and doing it our way.
This morning Obama White House Spokesman Josh Earnest said that the US is opposed to the state of emergency declared by Egypt's military, which gives it sweeping powers, much as a state of emergency after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981 formed the backbone of the military-backed Mubarak dictatorship that prevailed until 2011. Mr. Earnest said the US believes today's actions will make achieving "stability" more difficult. He also said that the US is not ready to determine whether Egypt has had a military coup. He said Egypt's interim rulers have promised a swift creation of a democracy and "it's a promise we're going to encourage them to keep."
Whether calling the coup by its proper name earlier would have changed anything is now an academic debate. It doesn't really matter now. A cycle of violence, with the military calling the shots, is all but assured for the foreseeable future. Elections, let alone free and fair ones, this year? Not likely to happen. Forming a national consensus on a revised constitution any time soon? Also hard to imagine.
The illusion of US influence over Egypt's military – which is pursuing what it sees as its own and its nation's interests – was brought home by the visit of Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham to Cairo last week in which they met with the top brass and sought to act as mediators between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Sen. McCain appeared to recognize the risk of severe destabilization if the military sought to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood entirely from Egyptian politics. In February 2011, he was staunchly opposed to a political role for the Brothers. "I think they are a radical group that first of all supports sharia law; that in itself is anti-democratic – at least as far as women are concerned. They have been involved with other terrorist organizations and I believe that they should be specifically excluded from any transition government," he said then.
But on his visit to Cairo last week he expressed a different opinion. "We believe they should treat each other with respect. We also urge the release of political prisoners. We also urge strongly a national dialogue, a national dialogue that is inclusive for parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood," he said.
That dialogue will now come, if it comes at all, amid an atmosphere of fury and distrust. US influence with the military has proven negligible so far. The Muslim Brotherhood now views the US claims about supporting democracy as hypocritical, since it stood by as an elected president was ousted. And the Brotherhood's secular-leaning political opponents are angry at the failure of the US to provide full-throated backing to the military and American willingness to work with Morsi when he was Egypt's elected president.
It's a truism that you can't please everybody. But in the case of Egypt, the US has pleased precisely no one. And the Arab world's most populous country is heading into a period of turmoil likely to dwarf the troubles of the past few years.
Overnight and into today, the Egyptian military did what it has been threatening to do for more than a month: Surround and violently disburse the main Muslim Brotherhood protest camp at Rabaa in Cairo, leaving scores dead, and touching off all-too-predictable reprisals against government interests and Christians across the country.
Judging by the historical behavior of the Egyptian military's top brass, they won't be too upset by the reaction of Brotherhood supporters and may well be delighted by it. From the moment it toppled elected President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, the military has spun a narrative that paints opposition to their actions as terrorism, directed by foreigners interested in destroying the Egyptian state. Who is the hero of moment, the only one who can "save" Egypt?
And the military today declared a month-long state of emergency, as well as a daily curfew, that gives them nearly unfettered powers of arrest and a free hand to use violence as they see fit, much like the 30-year state of emergency they used after Anwar Sadat was assassinated to bolster the reign of Hosni Mubarak. Mr. Mubarak was abandoned by his military allies after the popular uprising against him in January 2011.
While there has been much talk in Egypt about democracy and the "will of the people," it's hard to see the ground that's currently being shaped as one that favors anyone more than the military, which now seems determined to decapitate the Brothers. The blood of the innocent poor has never troubled Egypt's army, perpetually more concerned with looking after its sprawling business interests.
The military toppled Morsi, too, in response to mass protests against his government. But while the cleavages in Egyptian society were papered over by the euphoria of toppling a longstanding dictator in 2011, they were right out in the open this July, and now. There is no longer even the illusion of a united nation of those who might have different political opinions but were willing to set the terms for open and peaceful political competition.
Egyptians afraid of the Brothers have lapped all this up. Their fear of the Brothers and their regressive agenda is understandable. The Brotherhood's ultimate goal is for Islamic law to dominate society, and that worries millions of Egyptians, not just the Christians who make up about 10 percent of the country.
But it's also a fact that many millions of Egyptians support the Muslim Brotherhood and are now being spoken of as vermin, as animals that deserve death. Many of them will inevitably fight back, and with the military too strong to attack head on, soft targets and civilians will likely be their targets. Scores of unarmed Brotherhood supporters died today.
The tragedy of churches burned and Christians murdered in Minya, al-Arish, and Suez within hours of the military attack in Cairo provide a perfect pretext to move on senior and mid-ranking Brotherhood members, whether they were involved in violence or not. Lightly guarded police posts and offices of the Justice Ministry – symbols of state power without guns to back them up – have also been attacked around the country.
It was a dead certainty that reprisal attacks on Christian and civilian government targets would closely follow a violent attack on Rabaa. Once you know that, the failure of the military to take steps to secure likely targets ahead of its attack on the Muslim Brotherhood protesters speaks volumes.
Parts of Cairo were described as free-fire zones by reporters on the scene, with soldiers firing live ammunition at rock-throwing protesters. Pictures of makeshift morgues with dozens of bodies have been circulating via social media. Multiple news outlets, as well as many people on the ground in Rabaa, have said that among the dead at Rabaa was the teenage daughter of Mohamed Beltagy, the secretary general of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, which won Egypt's last parliamentary election.
Liberal democracy in Egypt? The press often speaks of "liberals" in opposition to "Islamists" in Egypt, but that's generally a severe abuse of the word "liberal." Many Egyptians opposed to the Brotherhood were delighted by the military coup last month and want the army to use force to drive the Brothers from political life. They are untroubled by niceties like freedom of expression, or freedom from arbitrary arrest, or a desire to restrain state violence.
While many of course support neither the Brothers nor military rule, Egypt's officer class now has the wind at its back, and appears to be intent on returning Egypt to the status quo of three decades under Mubarak.
A new, bloodier period is coming for Egypt. The Brotherhood, which renounced violence decades ago as a tactical decision, with the promise that it might achieve power at the ballot box, has now been given a lesson in the failures of peaceful political organization.
The only real question is if it will be something like the early to mid-1990s in Egypt, when jihadi groups engaged in sporadic terrorist attacks and clashes in Upper Egypt, or if something even deadlier than that is to come.
US Secretary of State John Kerry says expanded settlement construction in the West Bank is "illegitimate." He also says it's not a major obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, set to resume tomorrow.
As he told reporters yesterday: "The United States of America views all of the settlements as illegitimate. That is the policy of the United States and we have communicated that policy very clearly to our friends in Israel and we have worked very closely with the Palestinians in order to try and make certain that everyone understands what the road forward will be like. I think what this underscores actually is the importance of getting to the table, getting to the table quickly."
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has fought for years for a settlement freeze and he's never really gotten one. The Palestinians want settlement construction to stop because they view it as a tactic to whittle away at the size of any possible Palestinian state and understand that the larger the settler population grows, the harder it will be to move them once any deal is reached.
RECOMMENDED: How much do you know about Israel? Take the quiz
Today comes word, via Israel's Haaretz, that Mr. Kerry has privately told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, that the announcement of 1,200 new housing units being put out to tender in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem violates the terms of the "return to talking" agreement that were secretly agreed to with so much fanfare in the middle of last month.
"Kerry expressed US concern over recent announcements of land being marketed for new settlement construction in the West Bank and Jerusalem," Haaretz writes. "Senior Israeli and American officials said that Kerry told the Israeli premier that some of the tenders being published contravened agreements between the sides to curb construction over the course of the nine-month negotiations period."
Nevertheless he continues to insist that talks should go forward and told reporters in Brazil that Mr. Abbas is "committed" to sitting down tomorrow.
So, if you were puzzling over what is illegitimate – but not an obstacle to peace – plus a sign that talks should go ahead with full good faith and openness quickly, you have your answer: Settlements. (The Onion's satire of this, as usual, cut to the chase: "Israel Builds New Settlement to Host Palestinian Peace Talks").
The talks probably will happen, though they're likely to prove rancorous and unproductive given the atmosphere. And the elaborate dances with words that Kerry and other US diplomats are already being forced to engage in are yet another sign that all is not well with "peace process 3.0."
Could this work out? All things are possible. Perhaps Abbas will give up the dream of a negotiation based on the old 1967 borders – after all, successive US administrations, including Obama's, have backed off from that call.
But settlements aren't the only issue. The Israelis dream of the Palestinians giving up the right of return for refugees, a concession that would be politically crippling for Abbas. The Palestinians dream of controlling their own borders (including Gaza) and being able to move about freely in a future state. The odds of the Netanyahu government agreeing to that? Very, very slim.
While Kerry is judicious and at times confusing with his public words, there are some with more clarity on the Israeli side of the fence. Also via Haaretz today, there's a report that Daniel Seaman, famous for his combative relationship with the foreign press in Israel when he ran the Government Press Office, is expected to soon be elevated to a senior position in the prime minister's public diplomacy office.
Barak Ravid writes that Mr. Seaman is expected to named head of an "interactive media unit... which will be in charge of coordinating the public diplomacy efforts of the Prime Minister’s Office on the Internet and the social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter" and will also start "'covert units' within Israel’s seven universities that will engage in online public diplomacy."
How diplomatic is he?
In May, Seaman, writing about longtime Palestinian lead negotiator Saeb Erekat, wrote on his Facebook page "Erekat, said his side would only agree to renew peace talks if Israel ceased all settlement activity and openly declared that a future state of Palestine would be created on the 1967 lines adding that this should not be viewed as a precondition to talks but rather as an Israeli duty," and ended with a profane sendoff.
Well, in fairness to Seaman, the Palestinians did indeed back down.
And in fairness to Netanyahu's government, they seem to have clear idea of where they're headed, and how to get there.
Can Kerry and the rest of the Obama administration stay the same?
RECOMMENDED: How much do you know about Israel? Take the quiz