Archive for the ‘Egypt’ Category

Originally published in the Rutland Herald on October 07, 2015

Our military involvement in the Middle East began with Operation Desert Shield in 1990. At the end of that invasion, we did the only intelligent thing we have done in that area, we withdrew without ending Saddam Hussein’s rule in Iraq.

In the 15 years since then, we have invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. We have been militarily involved in Syria, Yemen and Libya. The purpose of this involvement clearly was a desire to bring democracy to the Middle East, based on our idea of American exceptionalism.

Thus, we effectively ended the reign of the existing governments as the first step in establishing democracy. However hard it was pushed by the neoconservatives as part of a “regime change” policy during the administration of President George W. Bush, democracy was a goal we never reached. It never took because the countries and people in question had never had any exposure to democracy and had none of the prerequisites for reaching it successfully.

What we did was remove or try to remove the repressive governments in question. We succeeded in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya and essentially, brought chaos to those countries, which previously had enjoyed stability brought on by repressive governance. We created that chaos by militarily removing those regimes and then not being able to install the kind of benevolent democratic governance we wanted to see in place.

Our current administration has been severely criticized by its political opponents for not having stayed on and maintained order in Afghanistan and Iraq. Theoretically, we could have done that. The problem is that there would have been no end to those occupations because the countries in question have inherent internal religious, tribal and ethnic conflicts that have never been fixed and that may never be resolved.

These are problems that have been contained over the past 14 centuries through repressive governance. Any continued successful occupation of those countries by U.S. forces would have had to have been repressive as well as open-ended. Under those circumstances, the result of our ultimate withdrawal would most likely have ended in instability as it has today.

Essentially, what we have done is destroy existing, repressive order expecting to install democracy. Democracy doesn’t take, and we end up, inevitably, with chaos.

Consider Egypt. The Arab Spring brought a revolution to Egypt. A military dictator was deposed and a new, allegedly fundamentalist government was installed. That terrified the military establishment, which engineered a coup and reinstalled a military dictatorship which in turn, reestablished stability on their own terms. Egypt went full circle from military dictatorship through free elections back to military dictatorship and imposed order.

It seemed to many that the Obama administration would have a different attitude toward the cycles described above. They would get us out of the convoluted messes that neoconservative policies had created in the Middle East. Unfortunately, the Obama administration swapped their very own “liberal interventionists” for the Bush era neoconservatives. We began hands-off wars with drones and “clean” air power. No troops on the ground. We got involved in Libya, Yemen and Syria, adding to our declining popularity in the Middle East and to the mass exodus to Europe now under way.

Where are we heading in Syria? Our government opposes both Syrian President Assad and all the fundamentalist groups aligned against him. We have supported some of the groups opposed to the government and trained a pathetically small number of others, but we have frequently said that it is too difficult to identify those who are really sympathetic to our democratic goals.

To further complicate an already complicated scene, Libya and Saudi Arabia support the rebels (most of whom are Sunni) against the Assad government, which is Alawite (a branch of Shia Islam). On the other side of the issue, Shia Iran and Russia support the Assad government. Russia’s President Putin has said, somewhat cynically, that he is interested only in stability for Syria. It is difficult to say precisely what we seek for that same country, but let’s arbitrarily stipulate that it’s some form of democracy.

You can’t get there from here. If we depose Assad, whom do we support when he is gone? What we might consider, since our real enemy is ISIS and the other fundamentalist groups, is simply turning a blind eye, for the moment, to Assad and joining in a fight, which others are now conducting against those real enemies without moaning about Assad.

What we stand to gain from this is imposed, repressive stability, an end to the killing and to the terribly dangerous migration of hundreds of thousands toward our friends in Europe. Politically, Syria will have to evolve on its own through self-determination, not imposed democracy.


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Originally published in Rural Ruminations

Current events in Egypt represent a perfect example of contemporary Middle East reality.  Irrespective of these dynamics in Egypt, the practical question for us Americans is whether or not the White House and the Congress are able to understand those realities and create viable foreign policy for the region.  This is extremely important because, with both minor and major differences, events in Egypt are likely to repeat throughout the Middle East in the post Arab Spring era.

The root issue here is that there is virtually no practical experience in the Middle East with the conduct of democracy.  Our media currently rant and rave about the fact that Egypt’s President Morsi is “the first democratically elected President of Egypt”, implying that that designation is somehow vitally important.

And so he is the first.

The problem for Morsi and Eqypt is that “democratic elections” have little if anything to do with the ultimate pursuit of democracy in any given country.  For democratic elections to result in democratic practices, any given country has to already have the critical underpinnings of democracy which are: the active, unfettered participation of the people, as citizens in political and civic life; national and regional tolerance of pluralism; free and fair elections; the general and equal right to vote (one person, one vote); the rule of law – unbiased courts; a guarantee of basic human rights to every individual person vis a vis the state and its authorities as well as any social groups (especially religious institutions) and other persons; separation of powers: Executive, Legislative and Judicial; freedom of speech, opinion, press and religion; and, finally, good governance (focus on public interest and absence of corruption).

When those critical preconditions do not exist, there is no reason to expect a successful transition to liberal democracy.  How many such preconditions do you think exist in the Middle East?

In post-Mubarak Egypt there are only two entities that have any experience with leadership and governance – the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood.  Neither of those organizations represents anything “democratic”.  Further, today’s events indicate that there are vast numbers of Egyptians who support neither. They are the good folks on Tahrir Square.  The only thing they support is the fact that without the ongoing intervention of the military, they would have no hope of deposing Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.  A poll on July 3 indicated that 83% of Egyptians approved of the intervention of their military in the domestic affairs of their country!

Despite that, they know that they do not like governance by the Egyptian military – they tossed them out when the military assumed power after the downfall of Mubarak.  And they are perhaps even more nervous about the Muslim Brotherhood who seem to them not to have sufficiently taken into account their (democratic/secular?) goals in the process of governing Egypt for the past year.

The problem is that there is no cohesion within this “Tahrir” group.  What do they stand for?  Who are their leaders?  Do they agree on anything?  Just what do they want for the future of Egypt, of the Middle East and Islam?

And the fact is that we have no answer to those questions.  If Egypt is to move forward toward Democracy, they will have to find a way to democratic, secular coalitions that spring from the “Tahrir” movement.  So far, there has been no indication of cohesion other than that they oppose the only two groups that represent the theoretical ability to govern that country – the Brotherhood and the military.

And that’s not good enough.  Successful democratic governance cannot successfully rely on opposition to familiar former repressive governments.  It has to have positive motivation from its own ideals.  Without that, any so-called democratic movement is bound to fail.

So, where does that leave us?  You could say we are up a creek without a paddle. The fact is that there is almost nothing we can do to alter the dynamics of politics in Egypt and most of the rest of the Middle East. What will happen there will happen there.  There will almost certainly be a longish period of instability, but there will be little we can do to alter that.

Given our precarious economic situation and our discontent with our own foreign military interventions, it seems unlikely that we will successfully change anything.

Perhaps the best thing for us is to sit back and see where the Egyptians decide to go.  Ultimately, there will be self-determination.  It won’t be pretty, but there won’t be much we can do to change things.


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This article originally appeared in The Rutland Herald and The Barre Times-Argus. It is the second in a series that began with “Middle East: Cauldron of Conflict” which was published in these papers on December 13, 2012.  The series will consider the Arab Spring, the transfer of democracy to the region and the realities as they evolve in the countries involved.

Voting on the new Egyptian constitution, which was written almost entirely by the Muslim Brotherhood, shows the Brotherhood won. However, with internal dissent evident in the low overall voter turnout of 32.9 percent, and street protests mounting, it is time to take a closer look at the likely ramifications of that divisive win. To do that, it is critical that we understand more about Egypt’s history, what the Muslim Brotherhood is and what it stands for.

Although Egypt has some of the issues of tribe, sect and nation that affect stability in the “countries” of the Middle East created over the past 150 years by Western imperial powers, what is happening there right now has its own very distinctive Egyptian markings.

Since its beginnings before 3000 B.C., Egypt has not avoided repressive rule. The last native Egyptian dynasty fell to the Persians in the fourth century B.C.. Since then Egypt has been ruled by Greeks, Romans and Byzantines. Arabs have ruled only since the seventh century A.D.

Thus, Egypt has not escaped the one reality that dominates the evolving political scene in the Middle East. Since the seventh century A.D., the Egyptian people have no direct, personal experience with democracy, only with the realities of repression, Islam and Sharia law and military dictatorship.

In 2011, the Egyptian people overthrew the military dictatorship that had been in place since 1952, most recently under General Hosni Mubarak. Since 1952, Egypt has no native experience with governance except through military repression. What makes Egypt different from the many other Arab countries that suffered under military dictatorship is that, since 1928, Egypt has had the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood was founded as an Islamist religious, political and social organization. What has made it unique in the Muslim Middle East is that, despite numerous, often brutal, governmental crackdowns, it has functioned as a disciplined political opposition to Egyptian regimes in power. The point is that it has been involved in governance for over 80 years.

That means that when Mubarak was overthrown, the only two organizations with any kind of practical political experience were the Brotherhood and the Egyptian military. It seemed inevitable that one or the other would grab the reins.

Tahrir Square in 2011 was populated by people of widely differing motivation ranging from the rigid Islamist views of fundamentalist Salafists to the rather fuzzy democratic views of the many secular Egyptians who had had some indirect brush with democracy. Unfortunately, the secular forces are untidy, uncoordinated and disunited. The closest they have come to unification, organization and any hope for power has come with the National Salvation Front headed by Muhammad el-Baradei, former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

And while el-Baradei was getting his act together, the Brotherhood was in full swing. Through their new political party, the Freedom and Justice Party, it ran in and won the elections of November 2011. Muhammad Morsi, a leading figure in the Brotherhood and chairman of the Brotherhood’s party, ultimately was declared winner of the election and president of Egypt.

Since then, Morsi has acted decisively to consolidate his position. He has, at least for the moment, emasculated whatever hopes the Egyptian military may have had for power. He took over the Constitutional Assembly that wrote Egypt’s future constitution, causing the resignation from that body of virtually all those Egyptians who might have disagreed with the Brotherhood’s position.

Finally, he unsuccessfully tried to arrogate to himself all the powers previously vested in Egypt’s judicial system, effectively neutralizing any possibility that the courts would rule the assembly or its constitution to be illegal. Hardly a democratic process!

The Muslim Brotherhood’s credo was and is, “Allah is our objective; the Quran is our law, the Prophet is our leader; Jihad is our way; and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations.”

Its principles include the introduction of Sharia law as “the basis for controlling the affairs of state and society”; and to work to unify “Islamic countries and states, mainly among the Arab states, and liberate them from foreign imperialism.” If this represents the true beliefs of President Morsi, then under his rule Egypt would appear to be heading in the direction of sectarian Islamism of an intensity as yet undetermined.

So, the issue is: Will Eqypt be ruled by an ideologically true Muslim Brotherhood, or has Mr. Morsi, only recently a significant player in the Brotherhood, really been able to effect democratic changes as he claims to have done in an organization that for 84 years has been traditionally hostile to the most basic tenets of democracy?

Whatever evolves, Egypt will remain internally divided and difficult to govern until the political needs of all its citizens are more fully considered.

AP FILE PHOTO Thousands of Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square in Cairo to attend the funeral of activist Gaber Salah, who was killed in clashes with security forces in November.

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Originally circulated in Rural Ruminations
By Haviland Smith

Sometimes it’s almost impossible to figure out precisely why Israel involves herself in activities that appear not to be in her national interest.  This time, that activity is Israel’s perpetual battle with Gaza and Palestine.


There is no question about Israel’s right to protect herself against incoming rocket barrages from the Gaza strip.  In fact, she is not doing badly as her missile defense system has held Israeli casualties to under ten, while Palestinian casualties are over a hundred dead and a thousand wounded.


The real issue is just how the prosecution of this war is going to improve Israel’s position in the Middle East.  Most importantly, how has that battle affected Israel’s close–in neighborhood?


Until Gaza began, things were going pretty well for Israel.  Despite the Arab Spring, which could have been very unsettling for Israel, the attention of the world was focused on Middle East events in a way beneficial to Israel.  Syria was the major media focus with Iran and Iraq not far behind and it was all negative.


As a Shia-run country, Syria has active ties to both Shia Iran and to Shia Hezbollah.  In the case of Syria, most of the world, including the Middle East, was aligned against those three entities who are Israel’s closest regional enemies.  Keeping them in a negative limelight has been good for Israel.  Now, they have virtually disappeared from our view in the media which is now filled with Gaza – an activity earning mostly brickbats for Israel.


Then consider Egypt with her new Muslim Brotherhood governance and her peace treaty with Israel.  The last thing in the world Israel needs is to lose her special relationship with Egypt, yet that is where it easily could be heading.  The simple fact of the Gaza conflict inflames Egyptian public opinion against Israel and puts the Egyptian President Morsi, who is trying to negotiate a cease fire for Gaza, in an impossible position with his own people and in the netherworld between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  It is a no-win, nightmare situation, which could do serious harm to the Egypt/Israel relationship.


And then there is Jordan where, for the first time there are significant stirrings against the King, his Palestinian wife and his government.  Jordan is home to over 3 million Palestinian refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars.  They have further been burdened by the arrival of over 30,000 refugees from Iraq and a like number from Syria.  This has increased the level of general dissent.   Jordan is suffering economically from the Syrian situation because Syria is one of its biggest trading partners.


In Lebanon, Shia Hezbollah has called for all Arab states to send weapons to Gaza.  Lebanon is, itself, about as precarious a “country” as one can find in the Middle East with a population containing just about every nationality, ethnicity and tribe in existence.  Hezbollah, which owes its allegiance to Shia Iran, is estimated to have something in the neighborhood of 30,000 rockets on hand and capable of hitting deep into Israel. George Mitchell, former US Middle East Peace envoy, describes these rockets as “better, longer range, more destructive” than those already fired from Gaza.


As if that were not enough, consider the cyber attacks now underway against Israel.  “Anonymous”, an ad hoc group of hackers waging war on Israeli Web sites, is the least of Israel’s cyber problems.  After almost a week of millions of cyber attacks by Anonymous, they have been joined by a far more virulent and effective set of attacks, apparently originating from Gaza and Iran, that have introduced malware and RATs into the picture – programs capable of taking control of the infected Israeli computers.


And then we have Turkey, a country that clearly would like to see its role and importance increase in the Middle East.  The Turks have been openly negative on Israel’s ongoing Gaza blockade and their invective against Israel has risen to the point where the Turkish president has accused Israel of trying to eliminate the Palestinian population of the Gaza strip.


On balance, Israel’s neighborhood is in far more ferment than it was prior to the beginning of the Gaza fighting.  It is becoming increasingly unstable at a time when Israel, surrounded as it is by hostile populations, can ill afford such instability.  Sadly, it seems fair to say that Israel’s increasing instability is largely self-induced.


The big question here is Why?  The logical end to this instability is regional conflict and it is difficult to see how Israel could find advantage in such a dangerous situation.


Of course, it may be that Israel’s entire Gaza show is there simply to influence Israel’s upcoming elections in favor of the Likud and Mr. Netanyahu.

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Egyptian Democracy?

As the situation in Egypt heated up last week, we learned that the Obama administration is applying the heat to Egyptian military rulers in the hope it can influence Egypt’s political future.  According to press reports, the administration’s concern is focused on the need for faster democratic reforms and stricter restrictions on the Egyptian security forces that are being blamed for the many deaths during the recent street protests in and around Tahrir Square.

Apparently, most of the heat came as a result of administration fears that the ongoing Egyptian unrest is threatening what the Obama administration hopes will be a smooth transition to democratic rule in that country.  And therein lies the rub!

“Smooth transitions to democratic rule” have certain prerequisites.  Most important, irrespective of the location of the hoped-for changeover, is some sort of history or experience with the most important aspects of democratic rule.  Those are:  the active, unfettered participation of the people in politics and civil life; national tolerance of pluralism; the right to vote in free elections; the existence of the rule of law and unbiased courts; the guarantee of basic human rights, particularly religious; the separation of powers and freedom of speech, opinion, press and religion.  Absent these preconditions, the struggle for democracy will rarely be won.

Egypt formally ended its colonial period in 1922 when England issued a unilateral declaration of Egypt’s independence, resulting in the creation of the Kingdom of Egypt.  That kingdom limped along with persistent British manipulation until 1953 when the Egyptian military, led by Gamal Abdul Nasser took power.  From then until the January 2011 uprising, the Egyptian military, successively under Generals Naguib, Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, has maintained control of Egypt.  In fact, they control Egypt today.

The Egyptian election cycle started on November 28.  The question that needs to be examined is what are the likely outcomes of this process?

Given the fact that Egypt has virtually no experience with democracy, it is difficult to see the cohesive support that a triumph for democracy would demand.  There are, essentially, two national organizations that have the requisite organizational and political experience to compete effectively in these elections.  They are the military establishment that has ruled the country, to the ire of much of the population, for almost 60 years and the Muslim Brotherhood that was founded in Egypt in 1928 and has been actively engaged in Egyptian politics, albeit often surreptitiously, ever since.

There is no democratic organization in Egypt that has the political or organizational experience that would make it a contender in these ongoing elections.  Even if there were, such an organization would be perpetually in the crosshairs of both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Why, then, have we Americans staked so much on a “democratic” outcome for Egypt or any other Muslim country, if such a result in so unlikely?  Of course, we do it because we believe it is the absolute best system of government for all of mankind.  We do it because we are a collection of ethnocentric human beings who have little to no understanding of Egypt or Islam.

Egypt has Islam.  Islam provides its Egyptian believers with complete and comprehensive rules for behavior.  Most believers are comfortable with those rules.  Many see no benefit to them, either nationally or individually, in democracy.  In fact, the existing Islamic parties offer a viable alternative to the corrupt, repressive, long-serving dictators who have clearly been seen by Muslims to have been kept in power by western “democratic” governments.

On November 25th, Morocco’s first post-Arab Spring elections were won by an Islamist Party.  The only thing that is important here is that the Moroccan and other Islamist parties actually reflect the will of their peoples.  What we should be concerned about here is not “democracy” but “self-determination”.   Once these Muslim nations have decided what form or forms of government they wish to have, we should support them unreservedly, while maintaining our own convictions that our system has something to offer the rest of mankind – if they agree and if they should choose to adopt it.

It is absurd and counterproductive for the Obama administration to be up in arms about the Eqyptian elections.  The notion in the administration and in Congress that we will refuse to contribute foreign assistance to them because they “do not become a democracy” is absolutely absurd, particularly if it is in our national interest to support them. They will become what they become and no amount of American pressure will change that.

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[Originally published in the Barre Times-Argus and the Rutland Herald]

By Haviland Smith

What is happening in Egypt may be unique to that country, but it is certainly a portent of what may come to pass in the Middle East and North Africa. Time will tell as the “Arab Spring,” President Obama’s “new” policy toward the region and American congressional attitudes unfold.

Our president has just said we will support the legitimate wishes of the Arab people for self-determination. But what if that turns into an Islamist government or a military dictatorship in Egypt?

Egyptians will have their first presidential election this fall. There is only one political party that is in any way “established” in Egypt. That is the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in 1928 as an Islamist movement.

Egypt doesn’t have a lot of options. With a broad array of political candidates and virtually no established democratic institutions, the Egyptian military is the only other organization with any real power.

Mohamed El-Sayed Habib, first deputy of the chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood, recently made a bold statement in which he outlined his party’s positions. Whether you believe him or not, and many Egyptians do not, he has come out along the following lines.

He said the brotherhood believes in political reform, democracy, pluralism and the peaceful rotation of political power. He sees the nation as the primary source of national power.

Further, the brotherhood is in favor of the termination of the state of emergency, restoring public freedoms, including the right to establish political parties, whatever their tendencies may be. It also supports freedom of the press, freedom of criticism and thought, freedom of peaceful demonstrations and freedom of assembly.

He concluded that the brotherhood also supports the end of Hosni Mubarak’s exceptional courts and exceptional laws. It wishes to establish the independence of the judiciary and fully supervised general elections, and remove all obstacles that restrict the functioning of civil organizations.

Whatever you may have heard about the brotherhood, this statement certainly contains just about all the elements we Americans, as purveyors of liberal democracy, would like to see embedded in constitutions around the world.

And remember, this statement was made for internal Egyptian consumption prior to the fall 2011 presidential election, in which roughly 20 percent of the population is estimated to support the brotherhood; it is unclear if it will even be allowed to run its own presidential candidate.

With the presidential election coming up this fall, the U.S. Congress has already weighed in. The Republican chairman and the Democratic ranking member of the House Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs vowed in May at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference to deny aid to Egypt if the Muslim Brotherhood should happen to gain strength in the upcoming elections.

Over the last 50 years, the Egyptian military has invested in and now “owns” somewhere between 5 percent and 40 percent of the entire Egyptian economy. That makes it the only cohesive force in Egypt that has a real, ongoing stake in the status quo, and it is the only ones with guns.

What might happen if the Muslim Brotherhood gets favorable results in a new, free election? It got 20 percent in the rigged 2005 election when it was not even allowed to label its own candidates as belonging to the brotherhood. Will a favorable result trigger the withdrawal of U.S. aid from Egypt? Will that withdrawal include our generous provision of military aid?

If that plays out as our congressmen vow it will, what is the Egyptian military likely to do? For it, everything is at stake. It relies heavily on U.S. aid. What happens immediately after the election is critical for Egypt’s hopes for future liberalization. The military has already begun to threaten some of the civil rights gained after the Tahrir Square revolution.

It has the power and is not about to give it up. Any election result will have to be at least tacitly approved by the military. It may or may not object to the Muslim Brotherhood; however, it can probably re-establish a military dictatorship whenever it wishes.

The military would certainly react badly to a loss of billions in U.S. aid. If ultimately there is a military coup, will it be because Congress is miffed at what it considers to be positive brotherhood election results and halts all aid to Egypt? Do we support real self-determination in the Middle East or not?

America must not kill the Egyptian Spring, ultimately returning Egypt to military dictatorship, simply because of our fear of and suspicions about Islam.

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