Does Kerry still see stirrings of democracy in Egypt?

After mass death sentences, and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's announcement he is running for president, the 'democratization' the US is hoping for seems a long way off.

Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters
Egypt students who support the Muslim Brotherhood's ousted President Mohamed Morsi responded to Field Marshall Sisi's presidential aspirations today in Cairo.

The Egyptian military is cementing (or recementing) its grip over politics, and the Obama administration doesn't know what to do about it.

A military coup last July and the worst massacre of political protesters in Egypt's modern history a month later managed to slow, but not stop, US military aid to the country. A few weeks ago, the US seemed to be leaning towards restoring in full that aid, on the basis that a presidential election had been promised for this summer and that, therefore, Egypt was on the path to democracy.

Meanwhile, thousands of opponents of the military – most, but by no means all, Muslim Brotherhood supporters – languished in Egypt's prisons, and peaceful political activists and journalists faced show trials over spurious allegations of connections to terrorism.

But two events in quick succession shattered the pipe dream of a democratizing Egypt. The first was Monday's show trial of 529 Egyptians for the murder of a single policeman in which lawyers were not allowed to provide a defense. The trial ended with a death sentence for all of the defendants – never mind that a few died before the policeman was killed and a few others were out of the country at the time of his death. 

And yesterday Abdel Fattah al-Sisi – who rose from general to field marshal after the coup, despite never commanding forces in battle -– stepped down from his position as defense minister, resigned from the military, and announced his run for president. With vast financial resources, the national media in lockstep, and the Brotherhood outlawed, his victory is a lock.

Yet the Obama administration is still unwilling to admit what's going on. Secretary of State John Kerry's statement Wednesday on the mass death sentences expressed dismay, but left the door open for closer relations:

I am deeply, deeply troubled by the sudden and unprecedented decision by an Egyptian court to issue preliminary death sentences for 529 citizens after a quick mass trial. It simply defies logic. There are many avenues of legitimate review for this judgment and I urge the appropriate Egyptian authorities to remedy the situation. This news simply does not reflect the values and goals to which the interim government has aspired publicly and privately.

... The interim government must understand the negative message that this decision, if upheld, would send to the world about Egypt's commitment to international law and inclusivity.

"If upheld" is the key phrase, because the mass sentence is virtually certain to be overturned. But death sentences revoked weeks or months later still send a powerful message, and Egypt's institutions are running wild in their desire to suppress political dissent.

Shadi Hamid, a longtime critic of US aid to Egypt and now a fellow at the Brookings Institution Saban Center for Middle East Policy, argues it's time for Obama to get tough:

It is late—some might say too late—but if the Obama administration was waiting for a last straw, then these sentences could, and should, be it. The only way to restore even a modicum of leverage with the Egyptian government—and, for that matter, credibility—is to finally close the ever-growing gap between what we have said and what we still insist on doing. For starters, that would mean announcing in clear language that the “held” aid from last fiscal year will not be released, and that new assistance for the coming year will not be certified. For too long, the United States has hoped, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, that the Egyptian government might succumb to reason and listen to American counsel. But the Egyptians have not listened, and it is unlikely they will, unless the administration gives them a reason to do so.

But US leverage isn't what it used to be. Billions of dollars from Gulf monarchies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have made US aid, which dates back to the Israeli-Egypt accords, more dispensable. As the US spoke of democracy, nation building, and supporting the Egyptian state, the Gulf states sent bags of cash to the military. 

Reuters quotes Maj. Gen. Taher Abdullah, the Egyptian military's chief engineer, saying the UAE is determined that its cash be channeled through the army.

"(UAE officials) said, 'we will support the Egyptian people but through the army – if the people want a hospital, the armed forces will build it,'" the 58-year-old career officer and engineer told Reuters in an interview.

The army's role in building construction became public earlier this month when UAE government-linked Dubai firm Arabtec's announced it had inked a $40 billion deal with the military to build one million homes in Egypt.

Based on the Gulf monarchies' track record – they are notorious for failing to deliver all the cash they promise – the full $40 billion, equivalent to about 16 percent of Egypt's GDP, is unlikely to ever be spent. But a meaningful portion of the money probably will be delivered, and when it is spent, it will yield riches for the generals. 

The military has long been allowed to seize unoccupied land under the pretext that it is needed to "defend the nation." In recent decades, much of that land has been used to build for-profit housing projects – low-income homes in the desert, far from jobs and transportation, as well as lavish condos for the wealthy – and for tourism development along the Mediterranean coast.  (An excellent overview of the perverse incentives this generates and the damage it does can be found in urban planner David Sims "Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City out of Control.")

This money from the Gulf states will help the military remain as the dominant economic and political power in Egypt – a goal starkly at odds with the Obama administration's professed desire for civilian oversight of the military under a real democracy. While the US talks "democratic transition" in Egypt, the country's major financial backers are determined to transition to something else.

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