Free Markets, Free People

Mubarak


Meanwhile in the Middle East–Saudi/US strains appear (Update–Bahrain declares martial law)

Yes it’s another fine mess.  Of course the Japanese tragedy and struggles with their nuclear power plants has sucked all the air out of news elsewhere, there is, in fact much news elsewhere.  And not the least of it is coming out of the Middle East where Saudi troops, as a part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), moved into Bahrain ostensibly to “guard government facilities”. 

The GCC is composed of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait.   It was created in 1991 (think Iraq invasion of Kuwait), the 6 members share common borders and are committed by their charter to help each other in times of need.  

The action by the GCC, as you might imagine, is in direct conflict with how the White House has indicated it would prefer the situation in Bahrain be resolved.  Obviously that’s not carried much weight with the GCC.

The move created another quandary for the Obama administration, which obliquely criticized the Saudi action without explicitly condemning the kingdom, its most important Arab ally. The criticism was another sign of strains in the historically close relationship with Riyadh, as the United States pushes the country to make greater reforms to avert unrest.

Other symptoms of stress seem to be cropping up everywhere.

Saudi officials have made no secret of their deep displeasure with how President Obama handled the ouster of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, charging Washington with abandoning a longtime ally. They show little patience with American messages about embracing what Mr. Obama calls “universal values,” including peaceful protests.

The GCC move has caused both Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense and Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State, to cancel upcoming visits to Saudi Arabia.

Again, the apparent genesis of these tensions appear to be related to the way the US handled Egypt.  It has caused the Saudis and other GCC nations to trust the US less than before:

The latest tensions between Washington and Riyadh began early in the crisis when King Abdullah told President Obama that it was vital for the United States to support Mr. Mubarak, even if he began shooting protesters. Mr. Obama ignored that counsel. “They’ve taken it personally,” said one senior American familiar with the conversations, “because they question what we’d do if they are next.”

Since then, the American message to the Saudis, the official said, is that “no one can be immune,” and that the glacial pace of reforms that Saudi Arabia has been engaged in since 2003 must speed up.

Obviously the Saudi’s have their own ideas of how to handle this and apparently aren’t taking kindly to the US attempting to dictate how it should handle it’s internal affairs.  And, given the treatment of Mubarak, the Saudi rulers can’t help but feel that they’re just as likely to be thrown under the bus if protests were to escalate as was Mubarak.

Consequently, they’ve decided to go their own way and handle it with force within the GCC  while throwing money at the problem within the Saudi Kingdom.  Speaking of the latter:

One of President Obama’s top advisers described the moves as more in a series of “safety valves” the Saudis open when pressure builds; another called the subsidies “stimulus funds motivated by self-preservation.”

Saudi officials, who declined to comment for this article to avoid fueling talk of divisions between the allies, said that the tensions had been exaggerated and that Americans who criticized the pace of reforms did not fully appreciate the challenges of working in the kingdom’s ultraconservative society.

Of course the difference between their “stimulus funds” and ours is they actually have the money.   But it is ironic to see the adviser describe “stimulus funds” in those terms isn’t it?  The actual point here should be evident though.  The GCC has rejected the “Bahrain model” as the desired method of addressing the unrest.  As you recall that was the “regime alteration” model, v. the regime change model.

So where does that leave us?

Demonstrating to Iran that the Saudi-American alliance remains strong has emerged as a critical objective of the Obama administration. King Abdullah, who was widely quoted in the State Department cables released by WikiLeaks as warning that the United States had to “cut off the head of the snake” in Iran, has led the effort to contain Iran’s ambitions to become a major regional power. In the view of White House officials, any weakness or chaos inside Saudi Arabia would be exploited by Iran.

For that reason, several current and former senior American intelligence and regional experts warned that in the months ahead, the administration must proceed delicately when confronting the Saudis about social and political reforms.

”Over the years, the U.S.-Saudi relationship has been fraught with periods of tension over the strategic partnership,” said Ellen Laipson, president of the Stimson Center, a public policy organization. “Post-September 11 was one period, and the departure of Mubarak may be another, when they question whether we are fair-weather friends.”

That phone keeps ringing at 3am, doesn’t it? 

Questions: given the “critical objective” as outlined above, is it smart to cancel visits by SecDef and SecState?  Doesn’t that possibly signal lack of support for the Saudis and play into the perception the US is a fair-weather friend?  Doesn’t that promise the possibility of more actions the Saudi’s might take that will be contra to the US’s advice?   Isn’t now the time to be going in there and making the case with top leaders and showing support while trying to twist a few arms to ramp down the situation instead of canceling?

UPDATE: Bahrain declares a “state of emergency”.  2 protesters killed 200 wounded. 1 Saudi soldier reported to have been killed.

Here’s a little insight into the Iranian connection mentioned above:

The entrance of foreign forces, including Saudi troops and those from other Gulf nations, threatened to escalate a local political conflict into a regional showdown; on Tuesday, Tehran, which has long claimed that Bahrain is historically part of Iran, branded the move “unacceptable.”

[…]

“The presence of foreign forces and interference in Bahrain’s internal affairs is unacceptable and will further complicate the issue,” Ramin Mehmanparast, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, said at a news conference in Tehran, according to state-run media.

Even as predominantly Shiite Muslim Iran pursues a determined crackdown against dissent at home, Tehran has supported the protests led by the Shiite majority in Bahrain.

“People have some legitimate demands, and they are expressing them peacefully,” Mr. Memanparast said. “It should not be responded to violently.”

He added, “We expect their demands be fulfilled through correct means.”

You have to love their chutzpah.  A little analysis:

The Gulf Cooperation Council was clearly alarmed at the prospect of a Shiite political victory in Bahrain, fearing that it would inspire restive Shiite populations in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to protest as well. The majority of the population in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich eastern provinces is Shiite, and there have already been small protests there.

“If the opposition in Bahrain wins, then Saudi loses,” said Mustafa el-Labbad, director of Al Sharq Center for Regional and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “In this regional context, the decision to move troops into Bahrain is not to help the monarchy of Bahrain, but to help Saudi Arabia itself .”

So that’s the lens by which much of what happens should be viewed – two regional rivals, each aligned with a different sect of Islam as well as different ethnic groups (Arab v. Persian) attempting to take advantage of a situation in the case of Iran, or trying to prevent change that would favor Iran in the case of Saudi Arabia.

The possible result?

An adviser to the United States government, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the news media, agreed. “Iran’s preference was not to get engaged because the flow of events was in their direction,” he said. “If the Saudi intervention changes the calculus, they will be more aggressive.”

Of course they have their own problems at home, but Iran may very well, at least covertly, try to support the opposition in Bahrain.

The primary reason that Bahrain has ended up asking the GCC in is because the recommended way to resolve the crisis, negotiate with the oppositions, was rejected by the opposition. As I mentioned in an earlier post about regime realignment, the entire process hinged on the opposition being willing to engage in honest negotiations with the government.  It appears the Bahranian royal family at least made an attempt to do the things necessary as advised by the US:

The royal family allowed thousands of demonstrators to camp at Pearl Square. It freed some political prisoners, allowed an exiled opposition leader to return and reshuffled the cabinet. And it called for a national dialogue.

But the concessions — after the killings — seemed to embolden a movement that went from calling for a true constitutional monarchy to demanding the downfall of the monarchy. The monarchy has said it will consider instituting a fairly elected Parliament, but it insisted that the first step would be opening a national dialogue — a position the opposition has rejected, though it was unclear whether the protesters were speaking with one voice.

Indeed.  But it doesn’t matter now, does it.  The likelihood of this simmering down to the point that such negotiations and dialogue could occur seem remote – especially with Iran in the background keeping this all stirred up.

We live in interesting times.

~McQ


Observations: The QandO Podcast for 13 Feb 11

In this podcast, Bruce, Michael, and Dale discuss the situation in Egypt, and CPAC.

The direct link to the podcast can be found here.

Observations

As a reminder, if you are an iTunes user, don’t forget to subscribe to the QandO podcast, Observations, through iTunes. For those of you who don’t have iTunes, you can subscribe at Podcast Alley. And, of course, for you newsreader subscriber types, our podcast RSS Feed is here. For podcasts from 2005 to 2010, they can be accessed through the RSS Archive Feed.


Egypt – Remember when the military taking over, dissolving Parliament and suspending the Constitution was a bad thing?

Just sayin’.  Because to hear some in this country, that’s the best thing that’s happened since sliced bread.  Yes, the euphoria over what is happening in Egypt that has gripped an element of the fairly naïve here in this country has been truly breathtaking to behold.

Don’t get me wrong – I’d like as much as anyone to see “democracy flower” and everyone live happily ever after as true statesmen come to the fore and deliver Egypt from the tyranny of dictators and forever ensure one man, one vote, representative government and government of, for and by the people.

I just don’t live in moon pony land.  That’s not to say it couldn’t happen, but it is to say that’s very unlikely to happen. 

Why?

Well let’s consider the facts concerning this benevolent military takeover.  It hasn’t taken over anything.  The military has been in defacto charge of the country since Nasser.

Yes, Mubarak is gone.  So what?  Who replaced him?  Omar Suleiman.  He’s a product of the military, Egypt’s intelligence chief and named in a 2007 diplomatic cable found in WikiLeaks as Mubarak’s “consigliore”.  He’s been in that position in 17 years and has been the main means of the Mubarak regime’s ability to oppress opposition.  He’s now serving on the “Armed Forces Supreme Council “.

And speaking of the Armed Forces Supreme Council, others who serve on it are Defense Minister (and Lt. General) Anan and the new Prime Minister (and Air Marshal) Shafiz – both very stalwart supporters of Hosni Mubarak.

This 18 member body has dissolved the Parliament, suspended the constitution and banned labor strikes.  And although it has promised elections in 6 months, well, that’s 6 months away, isn’t it?  We really have no idea if that Council really means to actually hold the election or will find ruling the state to be much more to their taste than turning it over to the rabble.

The military  – of all institutions – played this whole thing very well.  It was in charge but it pretended it wasn’t.  It took the side of the protesters, nominally, and removed one of its own to be replaced by 18 of its own.  What has happened is a very well done defusing of a volatile situation while in reality nothing much has changed in terms of who is in charge of government.

That’s not to say some things aren’t different – for instance, that well-known “secular” organization (according to our chief of intelligence) the Muslim Brotherhood (yup, real secular name there, skippy) is attempting to take advantage of the situation as well and has applied for status as a political party.

And it appears, despite reassurances to the contrary, that the MB is setting itself up to be another in a long line of theocratic parties that use elections (at least once) to legitimize their rule.   Read these two paragraphs carefully:

The Brotherhood’s charter calls for creation of an Islamic state in Egypt, and Mubarak’s regime depicted the Brotherhood as aiming to take over the country, launching fierce crackdowns on the group. Some Egyptians remain deeply suspicious of the secretive organization, fearing it will exploit the current turmoil to vault to power.

But others – including the secular, liberal youth activists who launched the anti-Mubarak uprising – say the Brotherhood has to be allowed freedom to compete in a democracy alongside everyone else. Support by young cadres in the Brotherhood was key to the protests’ success, providing manpower and organization, though they never came to form a majority in the wave of demonstrations.

The question is, once it has competed in “a democracy” and won, does it ever plan to compete again?  Nothing has changed in the MB’s charter.  And having watched other “Islamic states” come into existence, democracy is not one of their foundations – although it would certainly be useful in a peaceful takeover vs. having to do so through violence.   Bottom line, though, the end state is the same.   See any number of authoritarian regimes (such as Venezuela or Iran) which began with “free and open elections”.

To answer the question on the minds of some reading this, no, I don’t consider myself cynical about this, I instead see my pessimism grounded in observing the experiences of like states and the results that’ve unfortunately resulted.  I consider my take to be quite realistic.  And that’s a pity as I’d like nothing more than to see a magic flowering of democracy in Egypt. 

The irony of course is the same people who said a democracy could never be established in Iraq are now saying democracy is spontaneously establishing itself in Egypt.  Of course democracy in Iraq has been established, however tenuously, by the presence of the US military.  However, in Egypt, those now ruling the country are from the military.  I’d appreciate someone – anyone – pointing out why Egypt, without a US military presence or the presence of any other entity capable of forcing the country down the road to democracy will suddenly become a democracy? 

In fact it seems the fox is guarding the hen house in Egypt.  There’ll be a lot of busy work in the interim -  a new or at least amended constitution (who is going to pass it or debate it with Parliament dissolved?  The military council?  The people?), the organization of political parties and elections, etc.   All the while, I expect the military to quietly consolidate its power over the next 6 months while others are buzzing around doing the busy work that will keep them out of the streets.

Will the military willingly turn over its power to a president elected by the people?  If I knew that I could probably make a fortune.   Let me just say it like this – if the winner of the election is a candidate that is acceptable to the military (say some military officer from “the club’’), then probably “yes”.  Accepting such a candidate would most likely keep the military’s grip on government in place, just with a new (and somewhat more benevolent) face.

If the winner isn’t acceptable to the military (such as a theocrat from the MB – one of the reasons they play this “we’re secular” game is an attempt to head off those sorts of charges.)  I expect to hear charges of vote fraud, illegal activities and arrests to ensue, along with a declared “state of emergency” after which the military will retain control and begin the inevitable crack-down on dissent.  It will also claim to want to hold new elections at some time in the unspecified future – to keep the West off its back and the people at home.

Not a rosy picture, that’s for sure – and I could be completely wrong.  But unfortunately, I just don’t think so.

Call it wisdom – intuition, experience and observation combined to come to a conclusion.  And it isn’t necessarily a pretty one.

~McQ


Observations: The QandO Podcast for 30 Jan 11

In this podcast, Bruce, Michael, and Dale discuss the situation in Egypt.

The direct link to the podcast can be found here.

Observations

As a reminder, if you are an iTunes user, don’t forget to subscribe to the QandO podcast, Observations, through iTunes. For those of you who don’t have iTunes, you can subscribe at Podcast Alley. And, of course, for you newsreader subscriber types, our podcast RSS Feed is here. For podcasts from 2005 to 2010, they can be accessed through the RSS Archive Feed.


After Mubarak

It’s difficult to have any sympathy for Hosni Mubarak, or any other member of Egypt’s current ruling elite. Egypt has been ruled by a succession of authoritarian dictators since 1954, when Gamal Abdel Nasser took control of the Government in 1954, a dictatorship continued by Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, in turn. One always hopes that a popular movement to overthrow a dictaror will be followed by a flowering of democracy, but, sadly, that rarely happens, historically, and is even less likely to happen if Mubarak is toppled.

In all probability what will follow Mubarak in Egypt will be a government run by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and their allies.  This means that Egypt’s most likely post-Mubarak government will be an Islamist, radical government, similar in many respects the Islamic Republic of Iran.

As Lawrence Wright points out in The Looming Tower, Mubarak’s jails have been an incubator for Islamist radicals. And why should we expect otherwise? The liberal, Western, Democratic states have been fairly supportive of Mubarak, and Sadat before him, ever since Sadat disavowed warfare as a method of destroying “the Zionist entity”, as Israel is generally known by the Arab states. Even among proponents of democratic reform inside Egypt, the support that the West has given Mubarak has made the West appear to be, at best, amoral, and, at worst, positively duplicitous. This has undercut the influence in the popular culture of Egyptian proponents of Western-style democracy.

As a result, it has been the Islamists who have seen their influence rise among the general population in recent years.  Indeed, the Islamist influence on Egyptian culture is immediately noticeable by looking at the following pictures posted a year ago by Pajamas Media. The pictures are of the graduating classes of Cairo University in 1978 and 2004.  Notice how the women are dressed.

Cairo University Graduating Class, 1978

Cairo University Graduating Class, 1978

Cairo University Graduating Class, 2004

Cairo University Graduating Class, 2004

The devolution from the modern era to a more conservative past is obvious.

The upshot of all this is that a post-Mubarak regime is likely to be undemocratic, Islamist, and hostile to the West in general, and the US–and, of course, Israel– in particular.  With Egypt having such a large population and corresponding cultural influence on the rest of the Arab world, there is much reason to believe that that a post-Mubarak Egypt will be the cause of a significantly less stable, and more troublesome environment in the Middle East.

Our policy failures in Egypt have been bi-partisan, and made for ostensibly the best of reasons, but their results seem likely to be disturbing. Still, it’s difficult to see what other choices were available to us.  Had we imposed too much pressure on the Mubarak regime to democratize, the end result would likely have been either a) much the same as we are facing now, or b) simply caused Mubarak to turn to China to replace the security and stabilization support provided by the West.  Sadly, the policy options we faced were those presented by the real world, and not the idealized world we might wish for. Although, one notes, had we forced Mubarak into the arms of the Chinese, we might have more acceptable moral support to offer the proponents of Egyptian democracy at the present moment.

Now, we don’t even have that.  The Egyptians are going to do whatever they’re going to do, and we have little choice but to sit by as passive observers.