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Coup or No Coup?

Western Ambivalence on Egypt

by KARIM MALAK

While Modernists cling to the axiom ‘ballots not bullets’ we must ask ourselves why people keep choosing to risk their lives and confront bullets. Referendums are organized and use ballots as a form of expression; an evolution of pebbles used by the Romans. Protests on the other hand are unorganized, chaotic and insecure but far more expressive. It is quite perplexing why several think-tankers and policy specialists have ignored this phenomenon.

Joel Beinin has remarked that since William Quandt left Brookings the think-tank has gone down hill. In that regard Beinin, Mersheimer and Walt and others have dedicated enough space to question Brookings’ credentials as a think tank that values research. Glenn Greenwald has also more recently tackled its weak academic credentials in the drones debate. Brookings’ Saban Centre for Middle East Policy, headed by Tamara Coffman Wittes is financed by Haim Saban, the known Israeli American Zionist businessman it additionally lacks the academic credentials for it to be taken seriously alongside several other likeminded organizations. Most notably: Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), American Enterprise Foundation, The Heritage Foundation, The Hudson Institute, The Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) and others. The new development is Brookings Doha, headed by none other than Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Saban Center too.

In January 2011 Shadi Hamid published an article titled: “Arab Islamist Parties: Losing on Purpose?” in the Journal of Democracy published by John Hopkins University. This piece provides penetrating insight in that it is evidence of Brookings’ thinking pre-January 2011. The crux of the argument centered round the classic ‘moderation of Islamists in rule’ axiom followed by Hamid’s own insight that Islamists have yet to come out in full force. This is because according to Hamid they, as a social movement, are more interested in da’wa than politics. He argues:

Such deference makes it difficult to envision Islamist opposition groups taking significant risks, whether through civil disobedience or mass protest, to weaken Arab autocrats’ tight grip on power. But if not Islamists, then who? If Islamist groups are not willing to win—and liberal and leftist parties are unable to—then democracy will remain an unlikely prospect in the Arab world.

Hamid then concludes in a rather odd and deterministic way:

 As Islamists have grown comfortable losing elections—and with much of the world comfortable watching them lose—Arab democracy has drifted further out of reach.

Debating what democracy is or isn’t is a larger question; even if it is one that is constantly being ignored. It suffices to draw several smaller conclusions from this piece. First the congruency of Hamid and the MB’s view that democracy belongs firmly to the Islamists (and modern Islamists for that matter in order to utilize the Salafis as a scarecrow) affirms the MB’s exclusionary tactics to begin with. Second is the notion that Egypt is Islamist; this is drawn from the unsubstantiated statement that leftists and ‘seculars’ (without defining either category or asking whether that is a mutually exclusive category) have no currency in society and do not resonate. Third, which maybe the only point that I agree with, is the fact that Islamists are status quo and pro-regime. They are not interested in strikes, protests and changing the rules of the game. Rather they use their social arm to change the rules of the game in order to make it work for them. It is no surprise therefore when Brookings attempts to deliver ‘neutral’ analysis and ‘critique’ the MB on its civil society draft law they do so while reiterating their history as the victim. One has to ask though: throughout those years of being the victim why was it that the labor movement was hit hard while mosques were allowed to operate? Why were social services privatized using civil society? This does not make the victim argument for the MB that strong.

Another way the Brookings repeats the MB punch line is in its treatment of the protests of Taksim. This is seen in its narrative of Taksim, one that is increasingly pro-Erdogan:

The Arab uprisings were not simply about discontent. They were, and remain, revolts against despotic rulers with no democratic legitimacy, whose violent response led to thousands of deaths. That can’t be likened to Turkey, whose democratic experiment is decades old, and whose prime minister won free and fair elections, three times over – increasing his share of the vote every time while his rivals’ dwindled.

Hellyer of Brookings and Aykol, a columnist at Hurriyet, display the same logic of the MB: the sanctity of the ballot box. This is a startling picture compared to the authoritarianism of the Turkish government towards reporters and dissenters. It is interesting how the article fails to mention that the protest movement, symbolized in the protest against the decision to tear down the park and build a mall, epitomizes the AKP’s cruel neoliberal authoritarianism. Anthropologists have commented on how Turkey’s countryside continues to grapple with socioeconomic grievances while Turkish soap operas emphasis its European and developed nature. Therefore the previous statement, while dissociates the struggle from its common sister at Tahrir, also has another discursive lacuna: failure to triangulate the Tahrir movement as also against neoliberalism.

In that regard Brookings Doha is ahead of everyone else in the Academic Industry Complex and has developed its own native informant panopticon. Staffed by several natives who are willing to spew its, and the MB’s, party line it finds itself with new found legitimacy. Omar Ashour, a fellow at Brookings and a professor at Exeter university made intriguing remarks ahead of the MB’s first cabinet, though he criticized the government for being filled with regime holdovers his section that dealt with ‘pro-change forces’ was odd:

As for the pro-change forces, Minister of Information Salah Abd al-Maqsud, a leading figure in the Muslim Brothers’ media wing, will control a sector that continues to attack the group and Morsi, even after his electoral victory. The new youth minister, Osama Yassin, another leading Muslim Brother, was the de facto “security chief” in Tahrir Square during the 18 days that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak. He belongs to the so-called “iron organization,” a strong, committed faction led by Khairat al-Shater, the Brotherhood’s first deputy chairman (deputy general guide).Four other ministries went to pro-revolution and Islamist figures. Mohamed Mahsoob, a leading figure in the moderate Islamist al-Wasat Party who campaigned against the return of Mubarak-era officials, became Minister of Legal and Parliamentary Affairs. Hatem Saleh, the deputy chairman of the Civilization Party, which joined the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral coalition in the last parliamentary election, was named Minister of Industry and Foreign Trade….Finally, Ahmed Mekki, the former deputy head of the Court of Cassation, Egypt’s highest appeals court, will lead the justice ministry, which is in need of real change. Mekki is a strong proponent of judicial independence, and was dubbed “the revolution’s representative” in Qandil’s government….Overall, only ten of the 35 ministries went to pro-change forces…

The interesting notion here is that ‘pro-change’ and ‘pro-revolution’ are synonymous with Islamists and the opposite holds. Again we see the tendency to exclude all other forces from such a definition and we see the failure to triangulate the co-optation of the judiciary. Mahsoub’s role in the Cabinet was well known: to begin maneuvers to co-opt the judiciary. When Abu el Ela Mady did not get the position of Prime Minister he quit after defending the constitutional declaration. In that regard he is a loyal Islamist who heeds the call to ‘defend Islam’ (embodied in the Brotherhood) but can still quibble over key positions. The same held for Ahmed Mekki who defended the constitutional declaration for sometime and waited for the next cabinet to exit after being tainted. As for Hatem Saleh of the Civilization party, now merged with Al Wasat, he is a businessman that is tainted with allegations of monopolization and crony capitalism. Ashour, in a different piece goes on to describe those who protest against the Brotherhood as ‘spoilers to democracy’ and fails to mention the increasing incursion then of the executive on the state in Egypt:

Finally, total spoilers are usually led by individuals who see the world in all-or-nothing terms and often suffer from pathological tendencies that prevent the pragmatism necessary for compromise settlements. For those, a coercion strategy is advised by Stedman; a strategy that relies on the use or the threat of punishment to deter or alter unacceptable spoiler behavior or reduce the capability of the spoiler to disrupt democratic transition.

Ashour is, in laymen’s terms, inciting for “coercion” after the November Constitutional Declaration and the enthusing violence by the Brotherhood. Again no mention is made either of the state sanctioned Brotherhood violence and torture backed by the police or the unilateral decision to seize the judiciary’s power. Instead he describes dissenters as “pathological”. This, while highly disturbing, provides key insight into the mode of thinking then at the time.

Staying true to its host, Brookings continues to polish the Qatari regime and the House of Al Saud, which shows how its understanding of democracy is peculiar and in reference to its patrons. In fact some researchers pay homage to Brookings for allowing it to facilitate research in these otherwise off-limits countries. It is no surprise this in turn produces policy papers that talk about the liberalization of Gulf Countries.

Its of no surprise that Brookings, along with other think tanks, chose to publish far more Op-Eds than research papers and in certain platforms where their soundbites have no space for rebuttals. This creates a certain Middle East ‘pedagogy’ where critics find themselves swimming upstream with no where to voice their opposition. It is not my intent, as Mersheimer and Walt have argued in The Israeli Lobby and US Foreign Policy, that there is a conspiracy to control key positions and all those individuals are in one way on the incumbent’s payroll (though one does wonder after wikileaks and whistleblowers’ revelations who is being hired to execute what). Nor is it my intent to turn this into a witch-hunt and round up people via guilt by association of a certain organization. But one cannot deny the unequivocal view that in the face of mounting dissent and criticism there is an organized cohort of organizations and individuals that stick to the incumbent’s logic in Egypt and propagate it like there is no tomorrow.

One of the pillars of said logic is the famed “Egypt is too big to fail” punch line that the academic Industry complex continue to repeat. Tamra Cofman Wites of Brookings made an intriguing remark before the House Committee on Foreign Relations:

Egypt has been a stalwart opponent of nuclear proliferation [original emphasis]. As the region and the world continue to confront the dangers of Iran’s nuclear program, we have a shared interest in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, and countering Iran’s efforts to undermine regional stability.

With half of these think-tankers and policy specialists having come from the USNSC and US State Department and having found themselves landed in comfortable retirement posts in NGOs (Robert Mackey, extensively critiqued by Mersheimher and Walt of ICG is a case in point) and think-tanks they continue to repeat the executive summaries of USNSC reports. It is unlikely that these think tankers and area specialists will move beyond the ‘stability’ paradigm argument. It precisely why these specialists do not engage, or to be quite frank may not have read, works such as Oliver Roy’s book ‘The Failure of Political Islam’ and Lorenzo Videno’s ‘The New Muslim-Brother-hood in the West’. It is not surprising that Tamara Wittes wrote on the 4th of July (with a disclaimer claiming the piece was written on the 3rd of July) utterly critiquing the military for its ‘coup’ only to backtrack and write an article in the USA Today titled: “A popular impeachment in Egypt: Column” co-authored with Michael O’Hanlon a Brookings academic as well. Both pieces, extremely divergent, neglect to mention Morsi’s November Constitutional Declaration, which would in most democracies provide good grounds for impeachment. This is hardly surprising to hear from the Saban Center ‘scholar’, Haaretz’s report titled “4 reasons Israel will miss Morsi” suggests that the biggest loser from Morsi’s ouster is Israel. To add to the confusion Wittes then signed on to the statement issued by the ‘Egypt Working Group’ a collection of “think tanks” that feature the Atlantic Council’s Michelle Dunne, Daniel Calingaert of the NGO Freedom House and Reuel Gerecht of the ‘Foundation for the Defense of Democracies’. The point is not that these individuals, who are on Capitol Hill and disjointed from the situation, are the ones that form the discourse on the region. It is that they view the events within the narrow confines of American partisanship. It is why they frequently backtrack and reverse their positions. These individuals are far from ‘non-partisan’ or ‘analytical’.

They are ideological and confined to the donors of these organizations and the United States Government and their various organs. Most of them have a USG background. Wittes’ flip-flop shows the ambivalence that the West seems to be suffering from in digesting events in Egypt. If this will be labeled a coup, is it anymore of a coup than February 11th 2011?

Karim Malak writes about Middle East politics. He can be reached at: karimmkarim@aucegypt.edu