Opinion

The Great Debate

The war in Gaza threatens Egypt too

A Palestinian woman wearing clothes stained with the blood of other relatives, who medics said were wounded in Israeli shelling, cries at a hospital in Gaza City

Cairo’s efforts to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza, according to conventional wisdom, have largely been dictated by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s animosity toward Hamas. After all, Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Sisi’s government has declared a terrorist organization and regards as a serious threat.

That is why, this argument goes, the Egyptian ceasefire proposal ignored Hamas’ conditions and why the Israelis so quickly supported it. The proposal called for an immediate ceasefire. Only then would the terms be negotiated, including Hamas’ demands for an end to Israeli attacks, an end to the blockade of Gaza and the release of rearrested Palestinians who were freed in a prisoner 2011 exchange.

The story is far more complicated, however, for both Sisi and Egypt. Because the longer the war goes on, the more Gaza becomes a domestic problem for the Egyptian president. One he does not want.

U.S. Secretary of State Kerry speaks with Egyptian President al-Sisi in CairoIndeed, the fighting provides an opening for Sisi’s opponents. At a minimum, it creates a distraction the Egyptian president does not need now — he has said his priorities are the economy and internal security. So Sisi has a strong interest in ending the war, particularly since Hamas and its allies are exhibiting far more military muscle than anyone expected.

But Sisi is facing a number of major complications triggered by the war.

First, though many Egyptians view Hamas as an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood, most sympathize with the Palestinians and are angry at Israel. When they see the scale of casualties —  for example, the death and destruction in the Shuja’iah neighborhood in Gaza — they overwhelmingly blame Israel. This is true even as their leaders express anger over Hamas’ refusal to accept the Egyptian ceasefire proposal.

Seeking ‘good-enough-governance’ — not democracy

Only rarely have American leaders been able to reconcile the nation’s democratic values, material interest and national security.

Despite these tensions, promoting democracy has always been a lodestone for American foreign policy. Sometimes its attraction has been weak, very weak, overshadowed by more immediate national security concerns. During the Cold, War, for example, the United States backed many autocratic leaders in exchange for their support against the Soviet Union — or at least for pretending to be democrats. Sometimes, very rarely, as in the case of Germany and Japan after World War Two or Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union, all good things — freedom, security, economic prosperity — have gone together. But these moments are exceptional.

Often the most effective way to increase the chances of freedom in the long run is to improve the prospects for security and economic growth in the short run — rather than pressing for direct democratic reforms.

The surprising force behind change in Cairo

In the space of two years, ordinary Egyptian citizens have organized and led two revolutions that caused two distinct dictatorial regimes to fall. These were street-led revolutions against autocratic regimes that had the support of the U.S. and were thus seen to be invincible.

Although a large majority of Egyptians regard the two events as movements within a single revolution, they were very different in motive and structure, just as the two regimes differed radically from one another. The 2011 revolution, which brought down Hosni Mubarak, was led by the upper-middle class, who recognized the need for large-scale social change to address widespread unemployment, an ailing economy, and rampant political corruption. The more recent revolution was a movement for all, brought about by Mohamed Mursi’s government and its inability to address the root causes of discontent — poverty, inequality, the decline of living standards — and their focus, instead, on securing their own grip on power.

This distinction has been lost on many observers. In the month leading up to the June 30th demonstrations, I was amazed by how a great many of my friends and colleagues outside Egypt regarded events within the country. Most of them believed that the Muslim Brotherhood had the support of the poor and marginalized, and that the only people calling for change were the young, ideological revolutionaries or middle-class Egyptians who had been educated overseas.

Egypt: Protests built on a computer format

Protesters opposing President Mohamed Mursi at Tahrir Square in Cairo June 30, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Much commentary and reporting on Egypt’s evolving crisis depicts these events as a relatively balanced conflict between protestors and supporters of toppled President Mohamed Mursi.

The grassroots opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood regime, some analysts say, could not have gathered the 22 million signatures it claimed in order to compel new elections. For voters not only had to sign the petitions, they also had to verify their signature by including the number on their national ID cards.

Egypt: Elections do not make a democracy

An election is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for democracy.  That’s the takeaway from the continuing upheaval in Egypt.

Last year, Mohamed Mursi became Egypt’s first freely elected president.  Mursi won with 51.7 percent of the vote — slightly more than the 51.1 percent that Barack Obama won in 2012. Mursi was the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization that had been banned and persecuted in Egypt for 60 years.

Mursi’s overthrow last week put the United States on the spot. Could Washington support the removal of a democratically elected government, even one we did not like?

What just happened in Egypt?

It was not supposed to turn out this way: Only a year after Egyptians freely elected Mohamed Mursi as their president for a four-year term, he was removed by a military decree. This sets in motion a “road map” for a new transitional period leading to another experiment akin to the period following the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

The ambivalence was hard to miss. The sheikh of Al-Azhar Mosque, Egypt’s storied and influential institution, was there to lend legitimacy to the military decree. But his words told the story. He was compelled by sharia, he said, to choose the lesser of two evils in supporting early elections. But the ambivalence of the thousands of liberals who joined together in the protests at Tahrir Square and other public squares was even greater.

Many had chanted only months ago against military rule. Some had even voted for Mursi because they felt that his opponent Ahmad Shafik was Mubarak’s man. This is not where they wanted to be — but here they were in the millions with some of Shafik’s supporters. Most are not jubilant; they are relieved but worried.

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