Monday, 19 August 2013

Egyptian Crisis - Options for the U.S.

A boy sits on a traffic sgnal holding the Egytian national flag during protests against ousted President Morsi

The recent military crackdown against supporters or recently ousted president Mohammed Morsi has dominated the news cycle over the last several days.  The Egyptian military is currently showing zero tolerance for anyone who opposes its recent ousting of Morsi and has responded with deadly force against protesters.  This has naturally raised eyebrows in the state department, but in a similar fashion to the attitude displayed over the last two years, the US has been extremely reluctant to engage in the crisis fully.

The military initially ousted Morsi on the 3rd July, claiming that he had failed in his leadership of the Egyptian state and that they were responding to the mass protests against his governance displayed on the 30th June.  As the first democratically elected president of Egypt however, there have been major ramifications.  His supporters have understandably perceived the military’s ousting as an illicit coup d’état. To the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi was elected by a popular vote not within the mandate of the army to remove him from office based on dissatisfaction within the government and a particular sect of society. 

The military’s motivations for seizing control of Egypt are likely far from benevolent.  It is especially unlikely that they took action solely on the desires of the Egyptian people due to Morsi’s apparent mishandling of the economy.  The Army’s previous loyalty to Hosni Mubarak suggests their commitment to civil rights in Egypt is suspect to say the least. 

It is worth noting that the military has historically been an immensely influential voice within the state and is subject to limited civilian control, a position enjoyed by many other North African militaries. As a result, the military are very capable of acting upon their dissatisfactions through their armed forces if they deem it necessary.  They also maintain de facto control of a sizeable portion of Egypt’s private sector; a large number of private enterprises are owned by senior figures in Egyptian military command.  Consequently, the military have a large stake in the economic success of Egypt.  It is in this area, Morsi’s government has failed to deliver over the last year.  It is also believed that the moderate Islamist ideology of Morsi and the Islamic Brotherhood could be detrimental to Egyptian business if enacted into state law or business practice.   

The military favours the status quo of secular autocratic governance as it has previously allowed favourable relations with the Western world.  Algerian military leaders were similarly fearful of an Islamic state in 1991 and launched a coup d’état against its own elected Islamist party.  Some commentators therefore believe that the Egyptian military will attempt to establish a stratocracy similar to the Burmese junta and back its legitimacy through economic success and deriding the failures of the Islamists. 

Egypt is a key state regarding US policy in the Middle East and Africa and the recent crisis has burdened Washington with a major dilemma.  Clearly, the military’s actions against the people of Egypt are worthy of condemnation and any perceived legitimacy the military may have previously enjoyed has been eroded by the bloodbath that has followed.  On the other hand, there are many considerations that the US feels it must take into account over the recent situation and must be especially careful with regards to how it projects itself towards Egypt’s government, if at all.   

Historical context

The USA has historically strong ties with the Egyptian military and has stressed ever since Hosni Mubarak first became President of Egypt.  The military has been a vital ally towards securing American interests within the state. Both the US military have desired a secular Egypt that takes an active approach in curbing Islamic fundamentalism and maintains harmonious relations with Israel. The USA provides $1.5 billion in military aid annually to ensure this outcome.

In an instance where the military is longer influential or in control of Egypt, these objectives may be difficult to achieve. The US public appears to fear even moderate Islamist regimes and is highly concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood’s possible attitudes to Sharia law and tackling Islamic extremism within Egypt.  Extremism is a growing problem in the region as many sympathisers actively collaborate with Hamas and the Sudanese regime to smuggle arms into Gaza.  Currently the military actively tackles this to the best of its ability, having recently taken the extreme policy of flooding known smuggling tunnels.  If the US antagonizes the military by condemning their ousting, it may be substantially less willing to co-operate with the anti-terror efforts in the near future.  The US also requires Egyptian support for military access to the Suez Canal, which it has used extensively for its anti-terror operations and military conflicts in the Middle East.

As mentioned, the US is also highly concerned about Egypt’s relationship with Israel.  Egypt and Israel share a fragile peace treaty signed after the Yom Kippur War.  Historically, the military has acted as an arbiter between the Israeli government and the Egyptian people.  It is very well known that the Egyptian public are opposed to maintaining diplomatic ties to Israel, often polling at around 90% opposition.  A more disturbing issue is that a figure ranging from 15%-30% support backing Hamas against Israel, however actually doing so would almost undoubtedly provoke war with the highly reactionary Israel.

The Obama administration likely fears that a democratic Egypt would eventually involve the civil government having to cave into public demand to pull out of the treaty, something the US would view as extremely destructive to the whole Middle East. US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel, somewhat renowned for his stance towards Israel, has stated a need for minimal hostilities between Israel and its neighbours. 

Continuation of civility 

The Egyptian military has every desire to maintain this peace treaty and are believed to have pressured Morsi to agree to maintain it upon assuming office. Pulling out of the treaty would surely harm relations with both Israel and the USA and disrupt economic activity within Egypt.  The more technologically advanced and battle hardened Israeli IDF would also likely annihilate Egyptian military strength in the event of conventional conflict, despite Egypt’s recent military modernisation, given that Israel is rumoured to have numerous contingencies for an assault on Cairo in the event of open hostility. This would also have disastrous regional consequences, especially for the Arab-Israeli peace process. Israel is also not known for its restrain and the ensuing conflict would likely involve a significant number of civilian deaths on both sides. The Obama administration is desperate to ensure the continuation of civility between the Egyptian and Israeli states.

Whilst an Egypt under control of a junta or a military backed civil administration is clearly more beneficial to the USA’s strategic interests, it is obviously difficult for Obama to openly support the army.  The safe course of action would be to throw support behind the majority faction, so the US can claim to be on the side of the Egyptian people.  Despite this, it is very difficult for the US to actively gauge the level of Egyptian public support and opposition to the military’s ousting of President Morsi.  The sheer size of the protests seen at the end of June suggested huge public opposition to the President.  On the other hand, the level of violence that has resulted from the military’s ousting makes the division within Egypt seem more balanced.  It is also very difficult for the US to publicly support a regime that is taking such action against its own people, especially when it often claims to be in support of the promotion of human rights and civil freedoms. 

Strengthening concerns 

Finally the US also faces its own internal problem when it comes to supporting the military.  US Congressional law entails that the US executive cannot officially recognise a government that has seized control of a country through a coup d’état.  The White House has tried to tackle this obstacle by explicitly refusing to label the ousting as a “coup” and has been very careful in its diplomatic language when referring to the events in Egypt. 

It is clear that the US faces a difficult dilemma and wants to ensure that it doesn’t create a situation where the Egyptian military would be weakened and unable to ensure the previous status quo within the state. The American public is also very much afraid of allowing the Islamists back into power, whose ideology instantly brings negative connotations in the Western world.  Egyptian polls regarding Sharia law and Israel have little to allay those fears.  Islamist ideology in Turkey and Gaza are also strengthening concerns towards the Muslim Brotherhoods support of democracy and human rights.  Morsi had already begun substantially reversing civil rights outlined in the Egyptian constitution shortly after taking office. 

On the other hand, it also runs the risk of losing further credibility throughout the Arab World by refusing to support democratic reform in North Africa and continuing to back the region’s infamous despots. It is a matter of how much the United States values the certainty of harmony with Israel and strong bilateral; military ties with Egypt over the promotion of basic human rights.  

By David Alex Stanton 

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