Protests in Egypt: the real reason for Obama's two-handed game

Commentators have castigated the Obama administration for not demanding the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak and the institution of democratic elections. Yet this 'passivity' may not be a function of support for Mubarak’s dictatorship but rather a desire to retain the Egyptian military as a reliable partner throughout rapidly changing political circumstances.

Every human soul has the right to freedom of expression, an economic livelihood, and security from physical abuse – rights that Egypt has denied her people for too long. Unprecedented mass protests in Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez over the past week provide room for optimism, yet commentators should not force Egypt to be a living test case for academic theory or democratic activism. It’s time to take stock of what we might reasonably expect in Egypt and what we should not.

There is no doubt that the demonstrations were – and continue to be – a truly remarkable event. Throughout Egyptian history, the major drivers of political change have not been shopkeepers, laborers, or middle-class professionals but imperial personalities, Western powers, and military rulers.

History of repression

In the early 19th century, it was the Albanian-born Ottoman governor, Muhammad Ali, who secured Egypt effective autonomy from Istanbul and declared himself Khedive. For another century, the only effective challenge to the power of his successors came from Europe, which assumed control over the country’s finances, established a parallel system of law for foreigners, and banned the use of the kourbash (a whip made of hippopotamus hide) on seasonal laborers conscripted to dig mud from irrigation canals with their bare hands. In July 1952, a group of mid-level military officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser orchestrated a successful, top-down coup with little popular support. As repression, successive economic crises, and an unpopular peace treaty with Israel tarnished the regime, citizens never took to the streets en masse, held in check by massive state patronage and a heavy-handed state security apparatus.

IN PICTURES: Egyptian protests

Courageous protests in the past seven days have blown the lid off, exposing the fragility of this top-down model of government. That said, we should still be realistic in our expectations of Egypt. Here are a couple of things to watch for:

The military is likely to play a crucial stabilizing role. The military is the only entity in Egypt that is logistically capable of restoring and maintaining public order, and its support will be crucial for any future leadership – democratic or otherwise. By contrast to the corrupt, brutal, and 1.4 million-strong internal security forces, the Egyptian military is a professional force of about 468,000 that has largely remained aloof from domestic politics. It enjoys widespread popularity for launching Egypt to a position of regional leadership under President Nasser, as well as for efficiently running large segments of the economy, from tank manufacturing to bottling water and baking bread during shortages. This sentiment was palpable on Friday, when protestors welcomed the military’s peaceful deployment and subsequently joined forces with soldiers to defend their neighborhoods from looters.

Egypt’s socioeconomic problems will probably destabilize politics well into the future. President Hosni Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party built its coalition of support on two opposing yet interdependent legs. The first was a Nasser-era legacy of public-sector employees in the civil service and state-owned enterprises, many of whom lack the skills for successful reallocation to private sector jobs. The second is a pro-economic reform coalition of businessmen, financiers, and technocrats that came to occupy major economic portfolios after the inception of the government led by now-dismissed Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif in 2004. These powerful families became wealthy on partial economic reforms, especially trade and financial sector liberalization, which bankrupted the rest of the Egyptian population. Yet as the lion’s share of taxable income, this group is indispensable to paying the Egyptian government’s massive salary and social-welfare commitments. It is telling that during Friday’s Internet blackout, the only servers to remain online were those of the Noor Group, which services Egypt’s stock exchange.

There are also several things that are unlikely to occur, at least in the short term.

Egypt is unlikely to undergo a popular revolution. The late American political scientist Samuel Huntington defined revolution as a “rapid, fundamental, and violent domestic change in the dominant values and myths of a society, in its political institutions, social structure, leadership, and government activity and policies.” As such, revolutions are distinct from coups, rebellions, or any other conflict that results in only superficial changes (despite the popularization of the term “Jasmine Revolution,” recent events in Tunisia do not yet technically constitute one).

As in Tunisia, Egypt’s potential for revolution is hindered by a lack of organized opposition that can move beyond destabilizing the incumbent leadership to either seize control outright or bargain for concessions. Egyptian protesters are individuals united around myriad issues including economics, police brutality, and democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s most potent opposition, is internally fragmented among introverted conservatives and politicking pragmatists. On Sunday, opposition groups including the Brotherhood united in their demands for a transition government under Mohammed El Baradei. El Baradei, who lacks his own social base, is unlikely to get anywhere without the consent of the military, which could provide the opposition with some organization, guidance, and access to the state. Yet the military has not yet signaled that it will abandon Mubarak, and division among officers seems unlikely given the military’s existence as a cohesive, parallel society forged through the same training, clubs, and activities.

The Obama administration is unlikely to unambiguously support the protesters or call for Mubarak’s resignation – but not for the reasons that most people think. It is well known that the United States plays a two-handed game when it comes to political reform in Egypt. On the one hand, Congress and specific offices in the State Department have escalated pressure for reform. The FY 2008 Consolidated Appropriations Act conditioned $100 million of economic or military aid on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s "certification" that Egypt had taken “concrete and measurable steps” to promote the independence of the judiciary, curb police abuses, and clean up smuggling networks on the border between Egypt and Gaza. The outgoing Bush administration unilaterally reduced Egypt’s economic aid from $455 to $200 million, allegedly retribution for the regime’s refusal to release jailed opposition figure Ayman Nour. This reduction has been upheld under Obama. Last week, the Obama administration said it would be “reviewing” aid based on the government’s response to demonstrations.

Close ties

On the other hand, the US values the services of the Egyptian military: preferential passage of US warships through the Suez Canal, Egyptian intermediation with Hamas, and intelligence cooperation in the “War on Terror.” Since 1979, the US has provided Egypt with roughly $1.3 billion in military aid annually. Weapons acquisitions, joint training, and the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program have cultivated close relations between the Pentagon and the Egyptian Armed Forces. The Egyptian military maintains its own permanent representation in Washington, and the US Defense Attache in Cairo is traditionally a two-star general.

Commentators have castigated the Obama administration for not demanding the resignation of Mubarak and the institution of democratic elections. Yet this “passivity” may not be a function of support for Mubarak’s dictatorship but rather a desire to retain the Egyptian military as a reliable partner throughout rapidly changing political circumstances.

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The administration should counsel the Egyptian military to avoid violence and focus on stabilization, keep its officer corps unified, and preserve the institution’s popular appeal. At the same time, the US should review its policies toward Egypt and remove provisions that might repress the popular will. Two elements of military aid, IMET and Foreign Military Financing, however, should stay. In training Egyptian officers and funding the acquisition of advanced weapons systems, these programs do not support the reviled Ministry of the Interior, and are essential to the cohesion and morale of the military. Terminating these programs would not only antagonize the military before we know how this story ends, but also logistically undermine the core of Egyptian statehood – its ability to defend its own borders.

The Obama administration must not block the popular will of Egyptians, yet it should also carefully manage its relationship with the Egyptian Armed Forces. That may not lead to revolution. That may not lead to democracy. But if it is what the Egyptian people do by their own accord, it is good enough for now.

Anne Mariel Peters is assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University, where she teaches courses on comparative and Middle East politics. She was a 2007-2008 Fulbright fellow in Egypt.

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