THE BLOG

Egypt: The End of Illusions, Part 2

As the Egyptian situation continues to unravel, we are witnessing more examples of long-held views being shattered by the realities of the situation. In fact, most recent developments have provided us with a new set of conventional wisdoms, in essence illusions without any relevance to what really matters and happens.

First, the commendable statement by Secretary of Defense Hagel, stating that the US influence over events in Egypt is very limited. Hagel simply said the truth, something that sounds as a bitter wake-up call to conservatives, whether old and new, who convince themselves that the US can intervene in foreign countries, even friendly, and determine the course of their history. Yes, the US can intervene, and even effectively, but under a set of circumstances much different than that existing in Egypt now. Just the other day, the CIA officially admitted to orchestrating the coup that brought down PM Mussadegh of Iran in 1953. Were the CIA to officially claim responsibility to all its interventions before and after in Central America, for example, we will have volumes to deal with...

But these were different times, and today in Egypt it simply cannot happen. There is a profound divide in Egypt's society, not yet a full-fledged civil war, but close to it, where the protagonists are not cliques of rival officers, but millions of civilians with deep convictions about the future of their country. The Egyptian army, while no more the source of across the board popular support is still well-liked by many millions, and the generals, led by Al-Sisi, are not a Junta detached from the hopes and expectations of many Egyptians. Sure enough, the generals form a caste with its own interests, but their struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood reflects the interests of a lot of Egyptians, among them millions of Christians, who are under ferocious attack by Muslims, who destroy another illusion that religious motives have nothing to do with the current struggle. So, under these circumstances, any foreign interference can, at most, be a marginal contribution to any of the parties involved, which are engaged in an existential struggle, exactly the type of struggle where the belligerents have ample motivation without having to draw on external support.

Altogether, the experience of the US in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria, as well as that of Israel in Lebanon of the 1970's and onwards, clearly attest to the built-in limitations of foreign interference. Western democracies simply cannot fit into internal struggles in countries which lack democratic traditions, and whose politics are so much different than that of the democracies.

Those who believe that the US has effective leverage through its aid to Egypt really live in fantasy land. One more illusion. The US clearly has some influence, but it needs a strong and stable Egypt and will not throw its aid down the tube knowing that doing that will just weaken those in Egypt who stand the best chance of achieving stability, i.e. the military, let alone that billions of dollars will be given to the generals by Saudi-Arabia and other Gulf states. On top of all that, the Russians are watching and lurking in the wings...

The real problem with terminating aid is not the continuing existence of the Camp David accords, which may be put in danger if it stops, this is just a side-show. The Egyptian military will continue the policy of Mubarak about cold peace with Israel, simply because this is the real national/strategic interest of Egypt. When the generals think war, it is not Israel which is on their radar, rather it is Ethiopia with its plan to divert the Nile, but even that is a remote scenario.

Altogether, Americans of all political stripes need to realize that foreign aid is a tool, one of many, of American foreign policy, not the key to intervene in other countries and get away with it. And I did not even mention the element of national honor and self-esteem. It is not too risky to argue that Al-Sisi will get a lot of popular support in Egypt, rather than the opposite, if American aid will abruptly be terminated.

We got a fairly good indication of feelings about the West, and not of the Islamists, with the petition being distributed and promoted by the Tamarud movement (the Liberal-secular Egyptians who revolted against Mubarrakm and Morsi), calling upon Al-Sisi to abrogate unilaterally the civilian clauses of the peace with the "Israeli entity." This is a clear challenge to the generals, but beyond that, it is another shattered illusion regarding the liberal-secular opposition in Egypt. They want democracy, so they say, provided it is not a democratically-elected Muslim government, but they do not want peace. A strange combination... Al-Sisi and the government will not heed the petition, will continue the military cooperation with Israel in the Sinai desert, will go after Hamas and at the same time, will strongly go after those who blame them for doing all this.

The Israelis do not like it perhaps, but they are mature enough to understand the way -- some would call it the folkloristic way -- in which politics are conducted in this part of the world. Or, they understand it better than others, exactly because unlike many, mostly from outside of the region, they are too realistic and harbor no illusions about the situation.