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Misplaced optimism in the media and inaction by the White House’s characterize their respective reactions to the situation in Egypt

I’ve been reading everything I can about the fluid situation in Egypt (as I’m sure you have), and have come to the same conclusion about one thing as has Barry Rubin:

Experts and news media seem to be overwhelmingly optimistic, just as they generally were in Iran’s case. Wishful thinking is to some extent replacing serious analysis. Indeed, the alternative outcome is barely presented: This could lead to an Islamist Egypt, if not now in several years.

“Oh, now”, you say, “you’re just scaremongering”.  Well, let’s put it this way, the chances of a Islamist Egypt are, in my opinion, much more likely than it was believed to be possible for Iran with its revolution that overthrew the Shah.  I mean, ask yourself, what has been the growing trend over the last 30 years in the Middle East?  Islamic extremism expanding and growing – nations put under its thrall.

So what’s the sense of the nation of Egypt.  What is it Egyptians prefer?  Well according to a Pew poll, not a secular or modern government:

What did Egyptians tell the Pew poll recently when asked whether they liked "modernizers" or "Islamists"? Islamists: 59%; Modernizers: 27%. Now maybe they will vote for a Westernized guy in a suit who promises a liberal democracy but do you want to bet the Middle East on it?

I certainly don’t.  And the pictures Dale posted below tell a pretty damning tale, don’t they?

As with all “revolutions” like the one in Egypt right now, any number of factions are joined in one mighty bit of resolve – remove Mubarak.  That’s it – that’s most likely all they agree upon.  So they’re allies of convenience right now.  But once the government falls, then what?

The Muslim Brotherhood has been a powerful dissenting voice in Egypt for decades.   And anyone who has followed the Middle East for a while knows that the MB has its tentacles in a lot of areas and associated with a lot of extremist jihadist groups.  Call the MB the non-fighting part of the extremist Islamic jihad that is presently underway.

What should the US do?  I’m not sure what the US can do, but it has chosen to essentially vote present on this one.  The President and his advisors are wary of the possibility that if they say anything it may be interpreted as the US meddling in Middle Eastern affairs (and in this case the internal affairs of a Muslim country).  Of course that’s much the same “strategy” that was employed in the Iranian situation recently and that turned out exceptionally well, didn’t it?

It is clear that the US will not take sides in this and it should also be clear that neither side will forget it – and one of them is going to win this confrontation.

The administration did indeed inherit this problem, but then, in foreign policy, that’s true of every administration.   And the policies the US has followed there have been essentially amoral because of the huge weight Egypt carries in the region and the importance of the peace-treaty between Egypt and Israel in 1979.  One of the obvious fears is that if the new government ends up being a radical Islamic government they may void that treaty.  Obviously then, what Obama and the US have to hope for is a more moderate government that will live up to its treaty obligations.  But there is no way to insure that and I think it is genuinely questionable as to whether that type of a government will actually emerge given the population’s apparent approval of a Muslim centered government.  However, one way not to insure it is to sit idly by, refuse to take sides and expect the best and sunniest of outcomes.

Not. Going. To. Happen.

This is an important event – possibly the biggest foreign policy problem the administration could face.   I’m not sure they understand that or that inaction is just as dangerous and the wrong action.

~McQ

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46 Responses to Misplaced optimism in the media and inaction by the White House’s characterize their respective reactions to the situation in Egypt

  • It didn’t have to be this way.
    During the Bush years the US embassy in Cairo maintained a small fund to support groups promoting democratic reforms in Egypt, bypassing the Egyptian government. As I noted back in July, the Obama administration ended support for this fund.
    The Daily Telegraph — while failing spectacularly at making this context clear — reports that according to a WikiLeaked cable, one of the activists who has been arrested this week was sent to New York to meet with other pro-democracy activists. You have to read to the bottom of the story to notice that the embassy apprently ended regular contact with this dissident after 2009.
    http://spectator.org/blog/2011/01/29/the-obama-andministration-wing
    For all its failings, the Bush administration was trying to support freedom and democracy in the Mid-East.
    One thing about democracy…people get what they ask for.  That can be very bad.  It is still the right thing.  They…and we…have to live with the consequences of their choices.
    As I’ve observed here before, the next two years will be VERY dangerous with the pathological man-child as POTUS.

    • I think they wanted to do more.  But I also believe that anything big would be tied to Iraq and ‘US Imperialism’ by the media.  And in 2005, Iraq wasn’t looking too good especially the media’s version.

    • Bush supported the freedom of ME countries to vote in Islamist governments (that’s what democracy is: the ability to vote in a government the population wants, no matter how scummy).
      As the post notes, though, democracy creates a very real danger that psychotic nutjobs will be granted office.

      • Rod-jor.  I mean, look at us in 2008!  You makes your choices, you eats your lessons!  If you are not suicidal, you correct.
        It is the cost of admission to democracy!!!

  • I believe they are trying to take any heat off Obama.  By saying it will turn out alright, there’s no questioning of Obama’s policy of letting atrophy whatever was in place previously to help the pro-democracy forces.
     
    Anybody want to work at the US Embassy in Egypt about a year or two from now?

  • I also suspect an Islamist government would likely just fund and control Hamas or another Hamas like organization rather than break the treaty directly.
     
    At least at first.  They’ve become smarter at working the US/World media and the US/World media loves to look the other way at Palestinian conducted attacks on Israel.

  • I’m seldom optimistic about anything resembling a “people’s revolution,” especially when it consists of mobs shouting slogans. The one exception was Eastern Europe in 1989, where the direction, toward liberal democracy, became clearer and clearer. There was a fairly obvious bridge in that situation, and the crowds were mainly ready to vote with their feet, crossing borders into what was then the “free world.”

    The situation in Egypt is most likely to go bad, slightly less likely to stay the same with a new coat of paint, and least likely to evolve into something different and good. Only time will tell, of course.

    In case it becomes an extremely bad situation, it probably would be a good idea for the U.S. to have a plan to take control of the Suez canal, along with a clear plan to hand it back as the situation stabilized, if it stabilizes.

    Before you can decide which “side” to take, you have to know what the sides are, how many of them there are, who is on them, and ultimately what their purchase is with the Egyptian military. Since we’re not privy to what U.S. intelligence knows about the factions and the players, and whether it has adequate knowledge to formulate a coherent policy, much less a plan of action, every position, even if it ultimately turns out to be sound, is uninformed and speculative.

    Even more serious than that, for me, is what is going on in the Obama administration, where the gauge runs from incompetent to malevolent (to American interests), in my opinion.
    If what is happening in Egypt boils down to a crapshoot, or moves from some unknown and undisclosed plan by a given faction into a crapshoot, then…look for the most fanatical faction to step out of the rubble and take control.

  • I think Obama is handling this perfectly. THere seems to be a lot of strange assumptions in this article, and some muddled thinking.
    First off, you must not have been alive, or mature, in 1979 if you think that the Iranian situation turned out in a surprising manner. Khomeni was always seen as the spiritual leader of the opposition, from long before the revolution happened. Others had leading roles, but everyone knew that Khomeni would return and have a major role in any new regime. There is no such figure in Egypt today.
    Secondly, there seems to be an utter disregard on your part for that most fundamental of American values (a value we explicitly define as universal) – namely that governments are only legitimate if they have the consent of the people. How complicated is this? IT IS NOT UP TO THE US to decide who shall rule in other countries. If it is true that the overwhelming majority of Egyptians want an Islamic government, then that is what they should have. How can you deny that and still claim to believe in any of the basic American political values?
    Bur I dont think it is the case anyway. From things I have read on the matter, the MB would probably get only around 20% of the vote in a free election. In any case, it is up to the Egyptians.
    Obama has made all the right moves here. He has not explicitly endorsed Mubarak remaining, saying merely that if he remains he needs to implement reforms immediately. He has not explicitly endorsed overthrow, although he is easing the way to that, calling today for a peaceful transition.
    It would be absurd for US president to oppose an authentic grassroots movement against a dictator. It would be equally absurd for him to throw a longtime ally under the bus unless or until it becomes clear that the people are truly rejecting him. Most of all, it would be highly damaging to any legitimate democratic movement for a US president to be seen ordering the dictator out. This revolution, if it happens, will be owned by the people of Egypt. It is not about us – it is not, nor should it be made to look like a US president ordering a change in a client state.

    • “Obama has made all the right moves here.”

      It’s an incoherent situation (i.e., not an “authentic grassroots movement against a dictator”) being handled incoherently by, at best, an incompetent American administration. At worst, the administration is ideologically predisposed to work against America interests. There’s plenty of evidence of that in its track record.

      Your comments are a mish-mash of incomplete history that, for instance, smiles past the horrible outcome in Iran. You ignore the peril of an Egypt with a regime hostile to the U.S. and the West, which would pursue its own ideological agenda at the expense of the Egyptian people.

      • Martin,
        I think you remarks betray a fundamentally prejudiced view of things – something that is, unfortunately, rampant in the conservative world. You don’t like Obama – therefore whatever he does must be “incompetent”, or “incoherent”, if not downright anti-American. Thank you at least for sparing us that comical term “feckless”.
         
        The horrible outcome in Iran can be blamed on America only to the extent that we can be blamed for supporting an authoritarian dictator for a quarter century – someone who did not allow a legitimate political opposition to flourish. As a result, the best-organized anti-Shah forces were in the religious community – the only institution that had a far deeper legitimacy (and hence power) than the Shah’s regime.
         
        TO paraphrase a common slogan – if you outlaw political parties, only outlaws will have political parties. Yes, there is a danger that anti-American forces will emerge in Egypt. Can you blame them? They have been denied the basic rights that you and I enjoy here – participation in the political process, even if it only entails exercising free speech – and they have been denied those rights by our lackeys. There is going to be a moment of reckoning for stuff like this eventually – might as well get on with it. Especially now, while we have a President in place who can credibly argue to the people in the street that a real page is being turned.

    • Wow.  Amazing array of straw men in that post.
      Great piece of Collectivist poop!

    • Khomeini seized power.  He may have had the largest organized support base, but its dubious to believe he represented the majority.
       
      And that’s what is prone to happen here.  The Islamic Fundamentalists are the best organized largest minority in Egypt as well.  Sort of like the Communists in Post Czar Russia.

      • Well, we may disagree as to whether Khomeni was supported by a majority, or a plurality, but we do seem to agree that he had the best political organization. Certainly no one other than him had a greater claim to popular support. I recognize the possibility – though I don’t think it likely – that the MB might emerge from all this in a position of power in Egypt. Actually, I think that the military would not allow that to happen, given that the military is the biggest recipient of our aid, and it is a relatively huge amount, and they are not going to let the MB spoil that gravy train for them.

        • When a person holds a referendum with a single option, themselves, they are pretty much admitting they aren’t a clear majority.

    • “In any case, it is up to the Egyptians.”

      Prefectly true – I’ll do Martin one better right now, the most fanatical WILL gain control, all the remains to be seen now is how long it takes them to consolidate it and focus it outside Egypt.

      And, friend, if you really think the US is the one the Egyptians need to fear, you are sadly illusioned.   Look for the hidden hand of Syria and Iran here, it’s too mighty an opportunity for them to pass up.

    • “There is no such figure in Egypt today.”

      What about Ayman al-Zawahiri?

    • “Obama has made all the right moves here.”

      The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition group,is in talks with other anti-government figures to form a national unity government without President Hosni Mubarak, a group official told DPA on Sunday.
      Although the Muslim Brotherhood is officially banned from running for elections for parliament, some movement members have presented candidacy for parliament as independents.

      This would seem to sow the beginning of the second worst outcome.

  • What did Egyptians tell the Pew poll recently when asked whether they liked “modernizers” or “Islamists”? Islamists: 59%; Modernizers: 27%. Now maybe they will vote for a Westernized guy in a suit who promises a liberal democracy but do you want to bet the Middle East on it?

    >>>> 

    The best we can hope for is a slightly more authoritarian strongman emerges, as opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood.  I have very little hope they’ll actually choose freedom at this point.

  • The US should not do much publicly.  Any action should be quiet and covert.  This is, after all, Egypt’s issue and the US does poorly if it is seen as trying to butt into and shape matters in the Arab world.
    But this could be only the start.  The regimes throughout the Mideast are anachronistic and unsustainable.  President Bush had that much right when he thought this meant the US should use military power to try to start a move to democracy in the region.  Though that failed, one can understand why the neo-conservatives thought that would be the right path — ultimately the regimes in power are hated.
    Add to that: almost everywhere in the Arab world is half the population under 22.  (Our median age is 37).  The new generation is growing and lacks opportunity.  They will rise up against these old anachronistic regimes.  It already could spread to places like Yemen and Jordan, outside the Arab world Iran has had inklings of this which continue.  Saudi Arabia is not immune.  We could see an unraveling of entrenched oppressive dictatorships in the entire region, and US support for dictatorships is likely going to only harm our position.
    It’s a tough call, but I think Obama should more aggressively be on the side of the protesters.  Not out of optimism, but strategically positioning ourselves for a wave of change that will come sooner or later.  The information revolution of the present will have profound effects on politics, much like the printing press helped lead to the creation of the modern state system.  This is the start of something bigger than most people imagine.

    • “President Bush had that much right when he thought this meant the US should use military power to try to start a move to democracy in the region.  Though that failed, …”

      It hasn’t failed. There hasn’t been a final outcome for Iraq, and with the internet shut down it’s too early to tell if Iraq’s democratization had any influence in Egypt.

      • You’re in denial about Iraq.  But without the Iraq war, there would be no President Obama, so maybe it was good for something ;-)   Oh, Iraq is not a democracy any more than Egypt is.   It’s government is the most corrupt in the world, Sunni tribes hold power in Sunni regions, Islamic councils in Shi’ite regions (and al-Sadr is back), and the Kurds are essentially autonomous.  Iraq is probably the greatest foreign policy failure of the US government in history.

        • Acxtually, it was the financial crisis which resulted in President Obama. And the Clinton Administration caused the crisis. So, Clinton fu*ked up and as a result we got POTUS Obama, the worst POTUS on record.

          But 2008, the Surge had worked and Iraq was removed as an issue the Democrats could leverage.

        • ” to start a move to democracy in the region”

          Iraq had multiple people on its ballot for leadership of the government. That’s more than Egypt, or any other Muslim nation in the region. That’s a start.

          Just noting the consistent leftist tactic of starting with a false premise.

        •  
          Scott Erb: More flat assertions lacking support that are little more than leftist sloganeering.
           
          What are we in denial about, Professor?
           
          Iraq is hardly perfect, but no one here has claimed that it was. However, Iraq is better — just ask the Iraqis — and the world is better without Saddam Hussein running that country as a totalitarian hellhole with him and his psychopathic sons in charge. I would say that you are in denial about all that.
           
          [Iraq’s] government is the most corrupt in the world.
           
          Support? Worse than Zimbabwe, North Korea, China, Afghanistan, Syria, or any number of other less than ideal states?
           
          And what happened to the “Time will tell” that you grant Obama before you close the door on your peculiar belief that Obama will become a great president? Will you be back here in 2012, if Obama loses, to admit that you kinda got that wrong too?

    • Nature…and politics…abhors a vacuum.  What fills the vacuum if an “anachronistic regime” (whatever the hell THAT is) is brought down is the big question.
      What, again, was the average age of the 9/11 attackers, Erp…???
      Seems like al Qaeda uses the “information revolution” pretty well.
      How many tens-of-thousands of hand printed English translations of the Bible were destroyed before the invention of movable type?  (Hint: quite a few tens-of-thousands).
      Isn’t Iraq a claimed success by the Obami?”
      Just food for thought…

      • The real problem here is that this is a choice among “evils”.
        Does anybody really think the “proletariat” will have a voice in what they end up with ?
        If you think so, I have some ocean front property for sale in Montana.

  • In a way I think that what happened in Iran makes a Islamic state less likely. Most Egyptians, according to some of the things I have seen, do not want an Islamic council running things. But of course a small cadre of ruthless thugs often come out on top in these sort of situations.

  • “What should the US do?”

    Whatever Erp says, of course. The White House is trying to get in touch, but he is too busy, what with working 60 hour weeks, kids, and blogging. 

  • In terms of the war on terror, there could be a lot of movement in the terror networks, a lot of excitement, relative to Egypt. That could mean this is a time to reap.

    It would be nice to be in the intel hut watching this, but not at the CIA, that’s the junior varsity.

  • Additionally, we should have hundreds of “messengers” on the ground delivering greetings to playas in the Brotherhood.

    We’re ready to fight the war the way it must be fought, right?

    If not, let’s hope the Israelis know when opportunity is knocking.

  • http://www.redstate.com/laborunionreport/2011/01/30/the-american-lefts-role-in-leading-mid-east-regime-change/

    Signs are beginning to point more toward the likelihood that President Obama’s State Department, unions, as well as Left-leaning media corporations are more directly involved in helping to ignite the Mid-East turmoil than they are publicly admitting.

    Hmmmm….

  • I wonder about some things:

    1.  Did we see this coming, or were CIA and State asleep at the switch AGAIN?

    2.  Why is this happening?  To the extent I’ve read / watched MiniTru coverage, it’s all “crowds on the streets” and “questions about Mubarak” and damned few facts about what trigged this thing. 

    3.  Are the Iranians, Syrians, or Saudis involved?

    4.  What IS our policy here?  I admit that it’s a tough situation in that Mubarak isn’t exactly the sort of person we’d like to have on our side, but he IS on our side and has been for years.  It would be absolutely wonderful if every ally of the United States was a rock-solid democracy but, sadly, the real world isn’t so kind and we have to make a choice between thugs who are friendly to us and thugs who are not.

    kyle8[A] small cadre of ruthless thugs often come out on top in these sort of situations.

    Unfortunately true.  It seems to me that it would be in our interests to try to head this off… or at least try to get the best thug in place.  This is the sort of thing CIA SHOULD be able to do but, sadly, they seem limited to keeping desk chairs from wandering off.  On a good day, that is.

    jpe - [D]emocracy creates a very real danger that psychotic nutjobs will be granted office.

    Once again, I thank God that things turned out so well for us a couple of centuries ago.  It was (shall we say?) a perfect storm: a populace steeped in and wedded to the ideals of democratic republican rule coupled with an elite that was interested in a limited government, all led by a great man who had the wisdom to use the power he had to build his country instead of himself and the self-discipline to hand it over to the next man when his time was up.

    • The State Department is always the last to know. Although it has long been known to have a deep bias toward the Arab world (as opposed to Israeli interests), what that means in a situation like this is not discernible. State’s main job is the conduct of the everyday formalities of diplomacy. It’s depth perception is limited.

      The CIA, as I said above, is the junior varsity. This has been obvious for a long time, for those who wanted to see it, but I, for one, resisted understanding it until recently. The heavy lifting is done elsewhere, and “elsewhere” is also where the serious money goes.

      As citizens outside of the process we might know what is going on right now if we live another fifty years. But I suspect that there are complications present in the current situation in D.C. that lie outside the normal process. I refer you back to the public declaration in the WaPo by former DCI Hayden, circa December 2009 (maybe January 2010), that, essentially, the current administration was a national security threat.

      What we never see in the real time progressions are the adjustments made at the business end of the intel buggywhip when someone like Hayden does a shout out like that. Hayden is not a partisan.

    • IF you have not already, you might want to read that RedState piece I cited above.  Dunno, but it makes for some head-scratching…

      • I read it. It’s a jumble of speculation.

        • Well, two things–
          1. it is partly hard information
          2. all intelligence is a jumble of speculation
          I’m not sponsoring it as true or right, just very interesting…and potentially true.

          • It’s potentially true that Morning Joe caused Egyptians to take to the street.

            The pure frustration of watching Americans blowing smoke up their own asses drove the unemployed males of Egypt (and now apparently the employed males) into a frenzy.

            Any sort of riot is at its base a mimetic contagion. There are many spurs and calls to action that masses of people have no reaction to, but if they see other people rioting, say in the streets of Tunis, that could be what sets it off.

            I recall the impact that students rioting in Paris in 1968 had on American students. “If they’re rioting in Paris it must be cool to riot, because Paris is cool” was about the size and shape of it.

          • Well, I think rather more connection than between Mourning Joe, Martin.

            Though the movement appears to be a mix of grassroots spontaneity and targeted direct actions, it has achieved political valence through the savvy of organized labor activists. In the days leading up to the uprising, unions were feeding the foment of the demonstrators by calling strikes nationwide, including an 8,000 strong lawyer strike that paralyzed the courts. [Respecting the Tunisian revolt]

            (Damn lawyers, again!)
            Not to be picky, but a riot and a revolt are different things to me.

    • It wasn’t seen coming by many people.  I wrote about this on my blog on January 19th: http://scotterb.wordpress.com/2011/01/19/you-say-you-want-a-revolution/
      When you look at demographics and trends, it’s been clear for a long time that the regimes of the Mideast are anachronistic and won’t last as the new generation (again 50% of the population younger than 22) demands change.  In that sense, everyone should have seen this coming.   But it needed a spark, and Tunisia was an unexpected spark.  It also is a sign of how the information revolution is allowing political activity to coalesce quickly.
      Iran and Syria would welcome Mubarak’s fall, though they have to be concerned about contagion themselves.  Saudi Arabia is strongly against the protests — again for obvious reasons.   Besides the possibility of contagion, this could shift the balance of power towards Iran and Syria in the region, especially considering recent events in Lebanon.
      I think we have to dump Mubarak.  The longer the Arab world rots under such despots, the worse it will be for the US when the inevitable occurs.  We probably should have started disengaging from Egypt quite awhile ago, but we didn’t see any alternative.  Given the economic crisis in the US, we’ll probably be forced to have a more modest foreign policy anyway, I’m not sure what we can do here.  Public support of Mubarak would probably enhance protester rage, if anything is done to help him, it would have to be very quiet.   Also, the US really needs to think about the transition, to try to help get a regime that is not too radical in its place.   That isn’t impossible, but isn’t easy.