U.S. ‘soft power’ hits another hard reality in the Middle East

November 12, 2014

Relatives of detained activists cry and pray for them as the activists stand trial at a court in Cairo

On Sunday, June 22, 1941, Winston Churchill’s private secretary, John Colville, woke him with the news that Nazi Germany had invaded the Soviet Union. In a radio address that same evening, the British prime minister repeated his “consistent” opposition to communism, but said that “all this flashes away … the Russian danger is therefore our danger.” In a later House of Commons debate, Churchill quipped — “If Hitler invaded Hell, I would at least make a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”

Situations change, and men and women in public life are bound to change with them. Few such changes are more wrenching than turning on the dime of principle. Stalinist communism was a system of mass murder: but in the lonely life-and-death struggle for national survival, which Churchill led, it had to be an ally.

The nation now most prone to such diplomatic pirouettes is the United States, still the world’s greatest power. Its strength has ever been defined, in important part, as idealism, “soft” power: belief in pluralism in politics, in free speech and a free press. These institutions are held to self-evidently good for a society: and the United States, with the European allies, has long preferred and rewarded those states which promise to follow that path.

Nowhere in the globe does idealism face a more testing challenge than in the Middle East — now burying the last hopeful remains of the Arab Spring. This is seen most starkly in Egypt. The overthrow in 2011 of the 30-year autocrat Hosni Mubarak was followed by rule by the army; then by an election which brought a government of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, headed by President Mohamed Morsi; then a popular coup against Morsi’s rackety regime, followed by more army rule – sanctified by the election, in June of this year, of Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, formerly the chief of staff. The military, which had governed Egypt through presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Mubarak since the Free Officers’ Revolution of 1952 were, after a brief intermission, back. And back tougher.

The field marshal promised democracy, freedom, an independent press and all good things. He appeared competent; he soon gathered praise from economists for measures to improve his country’s economy. But he shows greater competence in shutting down what had become a briefly raucous and creative civil society.

Both before and after his election, al-Sisi’s army and police suppressed demonstrations by Brotherhood supporters with savage force: well over a thousand have been killed, hundreds condemned to death, thousands more imprisoned. Bit by bit, local and foreign NGOs have been closed down or closed themselves. Those who protest these and other measures are arrested under laws that ban unauthorized demonstrations, or anti-terrorist legislation. One protester, the popular blogger and activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah, got 15 years – though a retrial is scheduled for next week.

The news media — especially television — had cascaded off in a variety of sparkling directions: no longer. Three al-Jazeera journalists received long prison sentences in July, as the Qatari channel is increasingly suspected of support for the Brotherhood: the judge said they were “guided by the devil.” Late last month, top editors and TV presenters gathered to declare that they were with the military — and promised to confront “the hostile culture toward the national project and the foundations of the Egyptian state.” Bassem Youssef, the surgeon who became a TV satire star with a Jon Stewart-style talk show poking — quite hard — at the Brotherhood government and at the military, gave up in June, saying, “The present climate in Egypt is not suitable for a political satire program.”

It’s clear enough that al-Sisi’s regime is the harshest since that of Nasser in the 1950s and 60s. But where the latter sought to remold society to bring socialism to Egypt and unity to the Arab world — both failures — the former has another reason for imposing order. Egypt is in the grip of a sustained violent onslaught by Islamic militants, organized by those who see the overthrow of the Brotherhood government as an abomination. The militants wish to go much further than the fumbling Morsi-led administration, to impose an Islamist tyranny on the country.

Earlier this week, the group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (‘Supporters of Jerusalem’) formally affiliated itself with the larger Islamic State, which has now moved into the spot of terrorist challenge number one. Islamic State’s stores of looted weaponry and control of some oil wells in Iraq gives it a heft that other groups need to take on an army, like that of Egypt. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has already killed hundreds of army and police, and range from Sinai in the east to the deserts in the west — and may soon threaten Cairo with bombs and attacks. The stage is set for a long struggle

And a bloody one, in which democratic freedoms and civic rights will suffer more. Egypt, with other Arab states — including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Emirates — have coalesced to oppose the Islamist terrorist groups, headed by Hamas in Gaza and now metastasizing into new networks of threat. In doing so, they have softened their enmity to the “natural” bogey state, Israel. Egypt, which has a longtime accord with the Jewish state, now views Hamas with the same hatred as Israel does.

And thus it is that the United States must again set aside its ideals in favor of realpolitik. President Barack Obama met al-Sisi in New York, when the Egyptian leader attended the United Nations. He raised the issue of the Al Jazeera journalists, but that was against the backdrop of increased military aid to Egypt and clear signs of closer cooperation on issues such as the fight against Islamic State.

The anti-militant Arab coalition may or may not hold. If it does, it shows a welcome assumption of responsibility for the peace of the region, and resistance to the extreme Islamist version of fascism, from its strongest powers. It may, in its course, bring a rapprochement with Israel closer.

It’s a great prize. It’s just that it means putting the issues of democratic rule, civil society and freedom of speech and the press, in the box marked – “See you later, Arab Spring!” The best to be hoped is that it’s not “Goodbye!”


PHOTO: Relatives of detained activists cry and pray for them as the activists stand trial at a court in Cairo, Nov. 11, 2014. An Egyptian judge ordered 21 democracy activists — including leading campaigner Alaa Abdel Fattah — to be arrested on October 27 at the start of their retrial for breaking a law against protests passed after the military ousted former President, Mohamed Mursi last year. REUTERS/Al Youm Al Saabi Newspaper  


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An interesting article but a deceptive analogy. There is little to compare between a Stalinist regime and the control of Egypt by the army.
For an erudite journalist like you this cannot be taken as simply -a poor analogy.
When combined with the seeming unbiased reporting, of potential problems you predict may face Egypt on all sides by extremists, this article does harm to the country.
The army is dealing with such threats quite effectively. Yet you portend dire problems that frighten off badly needed visitors and tourists to a country in need of financial support after more than three years of struggle.
Please remember that the rosy dreams of the Obamas of this world however well intentioned may not apply. Iraq, Libya and Syria have been destroyed in a vain attempt at democracy.
There are peoples on this earth not yet ready for this form of governance.
England, India and America needed centuries of conflict to reach todays flawed democracy. As a desirable goal, participatory rule can only be achieved when the base is ready. In the Middle East and Egypt,if you know anything about these cultures; they are not there yet.
“When you are up to your ass in alligators it is difficult to think about clearing the swamp.”

Posted by pharoah | Report as abusive

Lloyd brings out a bigger theme that extends beyond the Middle East: the continuing relevance of realpolitik and irrelevance of idealism on the strategic level. His point about the Middle East being an excellent example of how the many often diverging factors at play end up crafting the most practical solutions for the moment, rather than following an ideal-driven master policy, cues up the role of realpolitik. In an idealistic world (at least from the Western perspective), the UN is the ultimate solution to which nations owe subservience, but the UN has never come close to being the solution for anything other than income redistribution, and rather it maintains its position simply as a forum for every nation to posture and sound off about their gripes, generally to deflect internal criticism. Even the Western nations (i.e., Europe and its military arm, NATO) quickly gave up any sense of idealism and devolved into inaction in the face of Russia’s aggression (Putin is a committed practitioner of realpolitik). It’s a tough, what’s-in-it-for-me (from a national or ethnic perspective) globe, and idealism only offers superficial comfort to those who are too timid to take a pragmatic approach. Obama is begrudgingly being driven in the direction of realpolitik, dragging his heels all the way, simply due to the complete failure of the idealistic goals his administration has tried.

Posted by Senseiman | Report as abusive

Washington has never used its soft power in the Arab World. It has been using military power since early 1950s. It seeks to reinforce Israeli domination in the region and also to embolden and provide security to Arab dictators. In Iraq , millions have been killed and 5 million people left their country. It is a genocide. Elites in Washington seek to apply what they did in Iraq to other countries like Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon, among others.

Posted by JohnGlobe | Report as abusive

Reapproachment with Isreal. Hahahahahahaha, Keep dreaming.

Isreal will not last very long, not in this neighborhood.

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

American pluralism? That is long gone along with “soft power”. Committing a coup in the heart of Europe? Involving the EU in a costly toussle with Russia at a time of exceptional financial hardship as well as significantly postponing the end of austerity.

To launch another cold war is not illogical it is insanity. We are flogging off porcelain poppies with one hand and reaching for our guns with the other. Is this not madness, because if it isn’t I’d like someone to point out to me how it makes any sort of sense. Soft power has led to the sacking of the Middle east by crazed zealots whose very existence dates back to the Russian adventure in Afghanistan and the CIA led Mujahedin.

Posted by baglanboy | Report as abusive

Those who blindly follow any religion are never really free. We can hope all we want for democracy for the middle east but if they lack open rationality they will never achieve it. Of course, that is why democracy is also dying in the US, there is a lack of rational thought by the populous.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Long live Egypt, all Egyptian people behind the president AL Sisi
Egyptian people and the Egyptian armed forces are heroes and stand together against the traitors at home and abroad
US, Qatar, Israel They can not topple Egypt
John Michael liar journalist writes for the money paid to him, he assistant the terrorists M. brotherhood such as Obama.

Posted by MuhammadFathy | Report as abusive

Precious crap. USA fears and abhors Islam, and signs up Monarchies and Despots to fight them. And it is greedy for oil at all times – the thing that Islamic World did wrong in the USA eyes was go for those oil wells .. otherwise in it’s training it was entirely USA / Jordan / Israel’s plan. Now they fight for Islam, and I believe it will go some distance if only because they get so many willing recruits. In the meantime USA / UK / EU are being OVERTAKEN by Russia / China who are working together finally, and who will lead the rest of this century if not beyond. English may well not be the lingua franca that it now is …

Posted by bothandeach | Report as abusive

The article says:
“Both before and after his election, al-Sisi’s army and police suppressed demonstrations by Brotherhood supporters with savage force: well over a thousand have been killed, hundreds condemned to death, thousands more imprisoned.”

These are the same words the USA leveled against Saddam Hussein, the military dictator of Iraq, as he fought Islamic fundamentalism in Iraq, and struggled to hold together a secular, non-Islamist government there.

The American invasion of Iraq, ostensibly to oust Saddam Hussein, was a gigantic mistake for which the whole world continues to pay. Who wanted and pushed America to invade Iraq? The British and American oil companies, the Israeli lobby, and the American military-industrial complex. All these institutions are still in power, and have since grown even wealthier and more powerful as the Middle East lays in ruins.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

The article says:
“Both before and after his election, al-Sisi’s army and police suppressed demonstrations by Brotherhood supporters with savage force: well over a thousand have been killed, hundreds condemned to death, thousands more imprisoned.”

These are the same words the USA leveled against Saddam Hussein, the military dictator of Iraq, as he fought Islamic fundamentalism in Iraq, and struggled to hold together a secular, non-Islamist government there.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

“soft power” was always just a journalistic cliche, it was never an actual strategy or thought about seriously. It only represents the decline of the American empire which peaked in the 1950’s. “soft power” only means normal power on a budget and with a war-weary american public.

Posted by citizen_shmike | Report as abusive

This article is written from a western point of view and yet again is misjudging the situation in Egypt, historically the Egyptian army represented the average Egyptian citizen against invaders that colonized Egypt such as the British and the French, The Egyptian army was and is supported by the average Egyptian who does not want to see Egypt turn into Syria,Libya,Sudan and other countries that are now enjoying the fruits of the democratic experience so called “Arab Spring”

Posted by masrya | Report as abusive

When would the Arab realize that it is not in the interest of the West as a whole for democracy to flourish in the Middle East and Africa.

Posted by Ibenzawla | Report as abusive