Why President Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran are Winning in Syria: Flynt Leverett on Al Mayadeen

AFP photo

In an interview with Al Mayadeen’s Min ad-Dākhil (From the Inside), taped in Beirut last month shortly after Syrian forces and Hezbollah fighters recaptured Qusayr, Flynt laid out why Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has not fallen, despite the many predictions of his government’s collapse and high-level calls (from President Obama and the kings of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, among others) for him to go:   

“We’ve been through this before, after former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri was assassinated in 2005.  Many people in Washington thought that this would be the beginning of the end of the Assad regime.  They were wrong then; we’re going through a more extreme version of this now in Washington, but it’s still wrong. 

It’s wrong for a couple of reasons.  One, President Assad and his government retain—this is borne out by polling data, by other evidence—they retain the support of significant parts of Syrian society.  I would estimate that at least half of Syrian society continues to support the Assad government…and that’s probably increasing.  On the other hand, there is no hard evidence—no polls or any other data—that anywhere close to a majority of Syrians supports (let’s call it) the opposition.  Clearly there are Syrians who are disaffected from their government, Syrians who feel like they have legitimate grievances either against the government or that the government is not addressing…I think there are serious political problems in Syria.  But there is no evidence that a majority of Syrians wants to get rid of the Assad government, and I think that’s a very important base of support for the government

The other thing that I think is in play here—and Hillary and I have been arguing this for a long time—it is a delusion for the United States or other Western countries to think that if somehow you were able to bring down the Assad government, that what replaces it is some secular liberal democracy that wants to be aligned, in its foreign policy, with the West.  That’s an absolute fantasy; it has nothing to do with reality…If the Assad government were somehow to disappear, what would replace it would be a group of very contentious, not unified and, in many cases—some people in the West like to say jihadi; I think I prefer the term takfeeri—Islamists (Jabhat an-Nusra and other groups that seem to have a lot in common with Al-Qa’ida).  The kind of Syria that emerges after the Assad government disappears—I don’t think it’s going to be very good for Syrians; I don’t think it would be very good for American interests in the Middle East.”

For the rest of the interview—conducted by the wonderful Zeinab as-Saffar and now posted on Al Mayadeen’s Web site in two parts—see here.  (For those wanting to skip the Arabic-language introduction to Part One, go 2:40 into the video.)

Among other major themes in the interview, Flynt explains the drivers of U.S. policy toward Syria:      

“I think it’s important to say this honestly—the things that are driving American policy toward Syria now are, first of all, a sense that, if you could bring down the Assad government, it’s this big blow to Iran.  Iran is a major driver for the Obama administration in Syria.  

Secondly, there’s an interest in co-opting the Arab Awakening.  When the Arab Awakening started, you had pro-Western regimes in Tunisia, in Egypt, fall; you had a near miss in Bahrain.  So the Obama administration, in early 2011, is looking aroundIt wants to find a way to show that it’s not just authoritarian regimes that subordinate their foreign policies to the United States that are at risk in the Arab Awakening; the Arab Awakening could also take down a government, a political order that has a clear commitment to foreign policy independence.  And Syria was the case for doing thatThey thought they could use the opposition to do thisThis project has failed.”     

But, while the project failed—and was bound, from the outset, to fail, as we have been pointing out for more than two years—Flynt notes that outside support for the opposition took “what might have been an indigenously generated protest against particular grievances” and turned it into a “violent campaign to try and overthrow the Assad government.  It became, in a way, a civil war.  As long as weapons, money are coming in from outside, the opposition was able to prompt a lot of fighting, prompt a lot of damage, a lot of deaths.” 

Turning to the sectarian element in the Syrian conflict, Flynt takes on the Washington narrative that “it is Iran and Hezbollah that have made this a sectarian struggle.  I think the reality is just the reverse.  It is the Saudis, it is other external supporters of the opposition who have really wanted to make this a battle against an ‘infidel’ regime, a ‘Shi’a’ regime.  And then when Hezbollah, when Iran are helping the Assad government, then this becomes a sectarian battle. 

From an Iranian perspective, what I understand of the Hezbollah perspective, this is really an effort to resist a campaign—sponsored in part by the United States, sponsored in part by Saudi Arabia, sponsored by others—to use the Syrian opposition to bring about regime change in Syria, and tilt the balance of power in the regionIt’s also an effort to preserve a position of resistance against U.S. and Israeli hegemony in the regionThose were the motives for Iranian and Hezbollah support for the Assad government, as I understand it. 

I think that, in the end, resistance will overcome sectarianism…Hezbollah was born in resistance to an Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon…The goal was, ultimately, to end the occupation, to make the Israelis leave Lebanon, and Hizballah finally succeeded at that.  In some ways, the situation [in Syria] is tactically different, but I think, strategically, the same dynamic applies. 

You’ve had a kind of foreign invasion of SyriaThis is part of what’s so sad about the Syrian situation, that you took what might have been some elements of legitimate grievance, legitimate protest internally and you just overlaid this external invasion on top of it.  In the end, the Assad government is fighting for Syrian sovereigntyThe supporters of the Assad government, whether it’s Iran or Hezbollah, they’re fighting to prevent, in a sense, a foreign occupation of Syria…    

If you look at what actually wins in this region, resistance wins.  Sectarianism doesn’t win; resistance wins.” 

Other topics treated in the interview include whether violence in Syria will spread to other states, how Israeli concerns about Hezbollah as “an effective and meaningful constraint” on Israeli freedom of military initiative affect Israel’s calculations (and dealings with Washington) vis-à-vis the Syrian conflict, and the “enormous mistakes” that Prime Minister Erdoğan and his associates have made in their conduct of Turkey’s policy toward Syria since March 2011.  The interview was taped before the Obama administration announced its decision to begin directly providing military support to Syrian oppositionists, but Flynt anticipates this decision and explains, before the fact, the perverse political and strategic calculations motivating it.      

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Can the Muslim Brotherhood Pursue a Real Revolution or Will Egypt Revert to Military Dictatorship—Hillary Mann Leverett on Al Jazeera


Speaking to Al Jazeera (click on video above or here) before the announcement of Mohamed Morsi’s indictment for espionage and collusion with HAMAS, Hillary Mann Leverett discussed the significance of and motives for the Obama administration’s decision that it is not going to determine whether Morsi’s removal as Egypt’s president constitutes a coup: 

“The technical significance here is that, if the United States government does not label what has happened in Egypt as a coup, we can continue to fully fund the military, which has taken over from a democratically elected government in Egypt—which is the goal here.  Strategically, the United States has always seen Egypt as a pillar of what we call ‘stability’—‘stability,’ here in Washington, means a pillar of a pro-American political and security order, even if it’s highly militarized, in the Middle East.  Egypt has been a pillar of that for the United States for thirty years, and that is the core U.S. strategic interest here.  (That’s not my personal opinion; that’s just our core interest.)  So the United States supported this under Sadat, it supported it under Mubarak, and we’re going to support it under this current military government.  The U.S. government, the Obama administration, is very reluctant to do anything that would jeopardize our ties to the military government in Egypt, this pillar of what we call ‘stability’—so-called ‘stability’—in the Middle East…   

The United States, at its core, does not really have an interest in leveraging what’s going on inside Egypt.  All the United States cares about is what Egypt does outside of Egypt, particularly vis-à-vis Israel.  The entire debate here is motivated, I think, by what policymakers and the foreign policy elite here perceive to be Egypt’s stand toward Israel and the rest of the Middle EastIf the military government in Egypt will continue to uphold the so-called ‘peace treaty’ with Israel and promote U.S. interests in the Middle East, that’s fine.  The United States does not really care about what’s happening inside Egypt.  We didn’t care what Mubarak was doing to Egypt’s citizens—not under Mubarak, or Sadat.  I don’t think there’s really going to be very much interest, despite various pieces of rhetoric that may be coming out of various quarters, there’s will very little interest in terms of what’s going on, actually inside Egypt, under a Sisi government.” 

Drawing on her long experience in Egypt, Hillary explains that the current situation confronts the Muslim Brotherhood with the most serious challenge it has ever faced:  

Not only did I work for the U.S. government, work on Egypt at the White House, at the State Department, at the U.S. Embassy in Egypt, but I was a student in Egypt.  It’s a country where I’ve been living and working for over twenty-five years.  I think what’s happening in Egypt is very polarized, very disturbing.  The idea of a military government continuing to have dictatorship over that country, over that people, is something that is a real possibilityThe only real challenge to that, historically and today, has been the Muslim Brotherhood and various other Islamist groups in Egypt

There’s a real test about whether [the Muslim Brotherhood] can pull it offThey didn’t actually start the revolution back in 2011, but the question today is, ‘Can they finish it?’  Can they fight for what they stand for?  Can they fight for a really different system in Egypt, or are we going to be back to, essentially, ‘Mubaraksim’ without Mubarak?  I think that’s really the question that is on the table, and I’m not sure the Muslim Brotherhood is actually up to a real revolutionWe’ll see in coming days.  But the consequence, I’m sure, is going to be a lot more bloodshed, a lot more instability, and some real chronic problems for Egypt for some time to come.” 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Washington Talk About Getting to “Yes” with Iran…But Obama Is Heading toward Another “No”

Earlier this month, Foreign Policy published a deceptively reasonable-sounding article by Robert Einhorn, who recently left the Obama administration.  To read the piece, titled “Getting to ‘Yes’ with Iran,” click here

On a superficial level, Einhorn’s article may read like a serious (if also severely hedged) effort to lay out ideas for engaging Iran in new nuclear talks after the installation of President-elect Hassan Rohani.  In reality, though, the piece is anything but. 

We were thinking of writing a deconstruction of Einhorn’s article but, over the weekend, Dan Joyner posted his own on Arms Control Law, see here; we also append the text below.  Dan superbly gets to the heart of what’s wrong with Einhorn’s—and, by extension, the Obama administration’s—approach to nuclear diplomacy with Iran. 

Unfortunately, Obama and his advisers show no sign of changing course.  If they ever do, it will be because they’ve finally come to appreciate some of the legal and strategic realities that Dan highlights.         

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

Einhorn on Getting to Yes With Iran

Daniel Joyner, Arms Control Law

I’ll try to stay calm as I write this.  I’ll try. 

I just read Robert Einhorn’s new article over at Foreign Policy entitled “Getting to ‘Yes’ with Iran.”  Most of you will know that for the past four years, until May, Einhorn was a key member of the Obama administration’s diplomatic team working on the Iran nuclear issue, and was involved in the P5+1 negotiations with Iran.  Because of this, I think it’s fair to take his opinions as fairly representative of the US perspective on the ongoing diplomatic process with Iran. 

It’s honestly hard to know where to begin to criticize this piece.  There’s so very much to criticize.  I think the most maddening aspect to it is simply the tone throughout—the paternalistic, arrogant tone that drives most of the world crazy about US “diplomacy,” and makes them want to collectively scream at us “who the f#&*! do you think you are!?!”  Here are a few jewels: 

“The two sides could try to work out a road map containing the general elements or principles of a phased, comprehensive deal, including an outline of the key elements of an Iranian civil nuclear program that would be permitted in an end-state. . .

More specifically, any acceptable approach to permitting enrichment would have to provide confidence that Iran could not quickly or secretly “break out” of agreed arrangements and use its enrichment capabilities to produce highly-enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.  This would require limits on Iran’s enrichment capacity (both in terms of numbers and types of centrifuges), restrictions on its stocks of enriched uranium (in terms of quantities and locations), and special monitoring measures capable of detecting a breakout at the earliest possible moment. . .

The question of whether the negotiations’ end-state should include a domestic enrichment program cannot be answered until we have explored such practical arrangements with the Iranians.  Such engagement will not be easy for either side.  It will require the United States and its partners to do what they have so far avoided:  talk about what would make an Iranian enrichment program acceptable.  And it will require the Iranians to recognize that the United States and the international community will not accept an unrestricted enrichment program, but only a regulated capability that denies them the opportunity to convert their program rapidly or clandestinely to the production of nuclear weapons.” 

Do you hear it?  How many times he uses words like “permit,” “accept,” and “acceptable”?  This drives the rest of the world crazy—how the U.S. and the West generally put themselves in the position of parents telling other states—as if they were little children and not fully equal sovereigns—what they will accept and not accept, permit and not permit those states to do in their own countries!  And if you don’t go along with these parental orders, the U.S. and E.U. will slap sanctions on you, like a parent punishing a child. 

Never mind if there is no international legal basis either for the substantive “non-acceptance” of the activity, or for applying punitive sanctions, as is the case with Iran’s nuclear program.  Dad’s going to do it anyway, because he knows what’s best, and because he can. 

Do you not see how this drives other states crazy, and makes them want to defy these edicts from the West, just on principle?  It’s basic schoolyard psychology.  And we would feel and respond the same way, if the tables were turned. 

But wait, there’s more.  He also tries his hand at legally justifying the U.S. refusal to recognize Iran’s right to peaceful uranium enrichment:

“The United States has been justified in rejecting an unfettered ‘right to enrich.’   The Nonproliferation Treaty protects the right of compliant parties to pursue nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, but it is silent on whether that right includes enrichment, which is a dual-use technology that can also produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.  Lawyers can debate whether a right to enrich is included in the treaty, but what is not debatable is that Iran has forfeited—at least temporarily—any right to enrichment (and reprocessing) until it can demonstrate convincingly that it is in compliance with its NPT obligations.  For the time being, whatever rights it has to these technologies have been suspendedby a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions, which are legally binding on all U.N. members, including Iran.”    

Well, I wrote a whole book on why he is wrong in his assessment of the NPT and Article IV.  I’d be happy to explain it to him sometime, or he can just buy the book and read it (it’s out in paperback!), now that he’s out of office and has time to actually think about policies, instead of running around implementing them based on erroneous understandings.  And as far as the Security Council resolutions are concerned, I’ve written about them as well, including in an article in the Georgetown Journal of International Law.   And I’m currently writing another piece in which I will discuss more thoroughly the issue of states’ rights in international law.  In that piece I plan to demonstrate that the rights of states, including the one codified in NPT Article IV, have jurisprudential meaning and implications, and impose obligations on other actors to respect them—including the Security Council.  And when the Council acts to prejudice these rights, its decisions are null and void.

But coming back to a macro view of this piece by Einhorn, it really makes for a depressing read.  It convinces me that there really is no hope for a practical, negotiated solution, as long as the U.S. approaches the negotiating table with this attitude and with these erroneous ideas about both the principle and practicality of what they’re hoping to accomplish through them.


Roots of the Egyptian Coup—and What Comes Next

Unfolding developments in Egypt will continue to have profound ramifications for politics and regional dynamics across the Middle East.  We want to call attention to a new interview on the Egyptian coup and its implications by Abdullah al-Arian—an exceptional young historian of the modern Middle East who is, among other things, a trenchant student of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood—for CounterPunch, see here; the text is also appended below. 

Abdullah offers important insights on the roots of the coup.  Among the “revolutionary forces” in Egypt, “the Muslim Brotherhood clearly proved to be the most successful in the [post-Mubarak] transition,” winning “one election after another.”  It also “proved itself to be adept at becoming a partner in government.” 

But, Abdullah argues, the Brotherhood and, after his election to the presidency, Mohamed Morsi, were never willing or able to “take on the power of what’s called the ‘deep state’…the institutions that are deeply rooted enough to weather the storm of accountability and the calls for reform and complete overhaul.  The most obvious example of this is the security regime,” including “the police, the internal security service of the state, the military,” along with “things like the state bureaucracy, the state media, and the judiciary.  The judiciary blocked a number of attempts at reform that Morsi tried to put through.  These reforms would have started to peel back some of the layers of old regime power that continued to exercise itself long after Mubarak had left the scene.”      

Indeed, in many ways the Egyptian coup represents a re-ascendance of the “deep state”; the agenda is a return to “Mubarakism” without Mubarak.  This project is being aided and abetted by various secularist and (self-described) “liberal” parties and actors; Saudi-supported Egyptian salafis are facilitating it as well.     

In the interview, Abdullah also offers sharp comments about the impact of the coup on Egypt’s posture vis-à-vis Gaza—and sobering observations about the likely characters and trajectory of Egyptian politics in the near-to-medium term.    

All in all, it’s sad validation for a point that some of our Iranian colleagues have been making with regard to post-Mubarak Egypt and the Brotherhood’s less-than-astute approach to consolidating their political gains over the past couple of years:  if you’re going to have a revolution, then you really need to have one.  

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

The Coup in Egypt—A Conversation with Abdullah al-Arian

Interviewer:  Paul Gottinger, for Counterpunch

Abdullah Al-Arian is assistant professor at Wayne State University.  His research interests include Islamic social movements, globalization and the Muslim world, and United States policy toward the Middle East.  His writing has appeared in Foreign Policy and Al Jazeera’s websites.  Our conversation focuses on the events that led to Morsi’s fall and the likely consequences of the military coup.

Paul Gottinger:  After Morsi took power in 2012 the Egyptian military generals maintained comfortable economic privileges and political autonomy.  Would you say the Muslim Brotherhood ever had control of Egypt? 

Abdullah Al-Arian:  It’s important to understand that it was not always a zero sum game.  What you had was an opportunity for the revolutionary forces, which included at one point the Muslim Brotherhood, to try and restrict some of the power and privileges that the military had enjoyed.  Now of course, that’s not to say that the military wasn’t on its heels at certain points and time.  I think you can point to specific moments during the last two years where it was restricted to a certain extent.  This is particularly true after Morsi’s election when his popularity was quite high, and when he was able to retire senior level military generals.  He was able to easily put to bed the idea of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) actually maintaining an overt role in governance.

However, the constitution preserved the military’s immunity from prosecution and the privileges it had enjoyed under the Mubarak regime.  That was the arrangement.  It wasn’t that the military had maintained overall power to govern; I don’t think they were ever really interested in that.  I think they simply wanted to maintain their economic privileges, the lack of civilian over-sight over the military, and also immunity from prosecution for any of the atrocities that they committed when they were in power during the transition from the Mubarak regime. 

PG:  The speed with which the Muslim Brotherhood was repressed indicates that the military never lost control of the security apparatus.  Would you agree with that?

AA:  When you look at the revolutionary forces the Muslim Brotherhood clearly proved to be the most successful in the transition.  It was able to obtain certain advantages and access to political power.  The Muslim Brotherhood won one election after another and then proved itself to be adept at becoming a partner in government. 

But one thing that Morsi seemed unable or unwilling to do was to take on the power of what’s called the “deep state.”  By this I mean the institutions that are deeply rooted enough to weather the storm of accountability and the calls for reform and complete overhaul.  The most obvious example of this is the security regime.  This includes the police, the internal security service of the state, the military, but it also includes things like the state bureaucracy, the state media, and the judiciary.  The judiciary blocked a number of attempts at reform that Morsi tried to put through.  These reforms would have started to peel back some of the layers of old regime power that continued to exercise itself long after Mubarak had left the scene. 

PG:  How dangerous do you see the military’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood after Morsi was removed from power?

AA:  The military’s crackdown of the Muslim Brotherhood, which started in the first hours after Morsi was overthrown, signals a number of very troubling things.  On the one hand it certainly signals the fact that this was all premeditated and orchestrated well in advance.  We know this because they immediately went to all the media stations that were run by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and shut them down.  They even went to Al Jazeera’s offices and detained some of its staff.  Then they went to detain a number of high profile Muslim Brotherhood figures, in addition to leading a violent crackdown on the pro-Morsi demonstrators.  That situation continued to escalate itself in the days after that including, of course the bloody massacre in which over 50 people were killed and hundreds more injured.  All the evidence so far demonstrates it was an unprovoked attack by the Egyptian military on the pro-Morsi demonstrators, which were demonstrating peacefully. 

The Muslim Brotherhood now finds itself in the strangely comfortable position where it’s always been:  it is the opposition to an authoritarian and repressive regime.  This was the position it maintained for decades. I don’t think the Muslim Brotherhood’s opinion on the coup will change due to the harsh military response.  They believe their cause is just and they still support the elected president.  This has serious implications for the legitimacy of the next Egyptian president.  All indications are that the Muslim Brotherhood will be boycotting the upcoming process.  This means boycotting the transition, the writing of the constitution, the referendum, and even the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for next year. 

Unless there is a serious effort by the military to reengage the Muslim Brotherhood, they will continue to boycott the transition process.  And I don’t think you can have a legitimate political process as long as you have a significant segment of the Egyptian population that is disenfranchised.  Even with the Muslim Brotherhood boycotting the process the oppression of it has not ceased.  In fact, July 10 there was an indictment for Mohammed Badie, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood movement.  He is being charged with incitement of the events, which led to the massacre of pro-Morsi supporters.  This is something that is very troubling.  As long as people keep calling for dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood, but the actions on the ground are nothing but repression and violence, it’s doubtful that the current transition process will be able to move forward smoothly. 

PG:  Do you see any threat of a militant faction of the Muslim Brotherhood forming and sectarian violence breaking out? 

AA:  Here I think we have to be careful before we jump to that kind of conclusion.  So far all indications are that the entire organization has adopted non-violent/peaceful means to protest what they perceive as the illegal overthrow of the elected Egyptian president.  This is not to say that certain people will not be disillusioned with the democratic process.  I think that is a danger anytime you undermine the democratic process.  But the Muslim Brotherhood has maintained non-violence as the cornerstone of its activist mission for the better part of the last 3 decades.  And I don’t think that is going to change overnight.  I do think there are already militant elements that exist throughout different segments of Egyptian society that could flare up into isolated incidents of violence.  But I don’t think that is something that can be traced directly back to the Muslim Brotherhood, or even to any elements of the opposition.  The only side that is focusing on violence as a means of accomplishing their goals is the Egyptian military. 

PG:  The Egyptian Military has destroyed many of the underground tunnels into Gaza nearly stopping the transfer of goods.  Given the Israeli siege, these tunnels are essential for the Gaza economy and for the population to have access to essential food and basic goods.  What effect do you think the military coup will have on the people of Gaza? 

AA:  This is a very important question considering once again that this military coup received so much support from liberal/progressive and revolutionary/leftist forces in Egypt and even beyond Egypt.  I think some of that misguided support is the inability to see the immediate effects.  This is just one area where we can see the immediate consequences of what this coup actually means.  Here we’re talking about a humanitarian situation, in which the people of Gaza have been sieged for nearly a decade now and have needed all kinds of humanitarian support.  The Mubarak regime was a chief partner in the siege of Gaza and once the revolution happened one of the bright spots was that the people of Gaza would have a little bit easier access to food, medical attention, goods, as well as an ease in the movement of people in and out of what is essentially an open air prison for 1.7 million people.  But let’s not idealize the situation.  Even under the Morsi presidency there were still an enormous degree of restrictions on the Palestinians in Gaza. 

But I think we see that situation ratcheted up tremendously the moment that the military took charge—essentially resuming the siege situation.  We’re now reading reports that not only has the military destroyed the tunnels used to deliver goods, but they’ve even closed the overland boarder, which allows the movement of people in and out of Gaza.  On top of that the Egyptian government has said that any Palestinian traveling into Cairo on any airline will be turned back and will not be allowed to continue on.  The only route to get into Gaza is to fly into Cairo and take the overland route crossing from Egypt.  A lot of these signs are deeply troubling.  I think it points to a certain brazen behavior on the part of the Egyptian military, which extends beyond the Egyptian people to include the treatment of the Palestinians as well. 

PG:  Where do you think the revolutionary energy of the youth movement will go from here?  Do you see any progressive force gaining political power? 

AA:  I would say that I’m not very optimistic for the future prospects of the transition.  The first reason is what I mentioned before:  there has already been a disenfranchisement of the largest political party in Egypt.  The Muslim Brotherhood is being completely excluded from the transition process and is being violently repressed.  We’re also seeing a certain amount of horse-trading and deal making between the remaining so called revolutionary forces.  These forces are made up of different revolutionary movements including the youth movement, the leftists, liberal political leaders within Egypt, and others.  All of these groups seemed to have made their peace with remnants of the old regime. 

So we’re seeing the temporary makeshift government is appointing former Mubarak loyalist judges to the heads of the judiciary body.  We’re also seeing this within the constitution writing committee.  We’re even seeing some of the ministries starting to go to figures whose reputation has been compromised by their behavior during the Mubarak authoritarian era.  That is not encouraging because Egypt was expected to rid itself of a lot of these elements.  We’re probably just going to see a resumption of business as usual.  Perhaps there will be some slight democratic practices in which people are able to select from among a few different bad options, but I don’t think Egypt will develop any kind of alternative leadership anytime soon.


First Reflections on the Egyptian Coup

We are currently travelling and will have more say in coming days about recent developments in Egypt and their implications for the Middle East’s balance of power.  In the meantime, we want to call the greatest possible attention to a piece by Esam al-Amin for CounterPunch, see here; the text is also appended below.  It is, by far, the single best piece we have read on the coup—for that’s what it is—that has taken place in Egypt.

 In Egypt, the Military Is Supreme

by Esam al-Amin for CounterPunch

The Generals have done it again!

Egypt’s president, Mohamed Morsi, was deposed one year after being democratically elected by the Egyptian people.  For those opposed to Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the move by the military is seen as supporting a popular uprising and a belated effort to revive or restore the Egyptian revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak more than two years ago.  But for Morsi’s supporters or those who simply had any respect for democratic governance and the rule of law, the action by the army is nothing short of a brazen though soft military coup d’état.

Which one is it?  Here are the facts.

The military in Egypt has always enjoyed a privileged and autonomous status and is tacitly considered the power behind the throne.  For decades, political power was concentrated in the hands of an elite yet mostly corrupt political and business class that monopolized power and looted the country’s resources.  But the revolution that toppled Mubarak was in essence a rejection not just against the dictator, but also his entire corrupt regime.  One of the major demands of the revolution was to get rid of dictatorship and repression and uphold the principles of democracy and the rule of law.

Over the next two years, the political process that followed Mubarak’s overthrow allowed for the will of the Egyptian people to be expressed numerous times through free and fair elections and referenda.  The people in Egypt went to the polls at least six times: to vote for a referendum to chart the political way forward (March 2011), to vote for the lower and upper house of parliament (November 2011-January 2012), to elect a civilian president over two rounds (May-June 2012), and to ratify the new constitution (December 2012).  Each time the electorate voted for the choice of the Islamist parties to the frustration of the secular and liberal opposition.

To the discontent of the Islamists, all their gains at the polls were reversed by either the Mubarak-appointed Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) or the military.  The lower house of parliament, of which the Islamists won seventy three percent of the seats, was dissolved by the SCC a year ago, while the military has just suspended the new constitution, while ousting the democratically-elected president.

Undoubtedly, the MB committed colossal mistakes.  For example, they reneged on several promises to their secular and liberal coalition partners, including to not contest the majority of parliamentary seats, field a presidential candidate, or be more exclude others in the composition of the Constitution Constituent Assembly.  Perhaps, their gravest mistake was to ally themselves closely with the Salafist groups during the process of writing the constitution, thus alienating many of the secularists, liberals, as well as Christians even though the MB did not care much about the constitutional ideological battle.  Their motivation was not to be outflanked by the Salafis on the Islamic identity of the state.  To accomplish this objective, they lost most of the others.

In addition, Morsi and the MB did not adhere to their promise of full partnership in governance.  Many of the youth and opposition groups felt that the president and MB leadership were not genuine in their outreach and only sought their participation for cosmetic reasons.  Even their Islamic partners such as the Salafist Al-Noor Party complained that the MB wanted to monopolize the major power centers in the state.  It did not matter that the MB did not control the military, the intelligence, the security apparatus, the police, the diplomatic corps, the banking system, or even the bureaucracy.  But because of the MB’s lack of transparency and openness, the perception was that they were trying to control the major centers of powers in the state and exclude other parties based on ideology while the reality was that such control was non-existent or superficial.

But to the average people on the street what mattered was their security and livelihood.  During his one year in power, Morsi faced enormous challenges: deterioration in security and basic services, lack of social justice, and economic decline.  It appeared to many as deliberate attempts by the deep state (entrenched elements and bureaucrats loyal to the former regime) to ensure the failure of his presidency.  His lack of transparency and openness to his people in favor of presenting an optimistic or upbeat outlook added to public cynicism and the perception of incompetence.  Another major mistake by the MB was its failure to separate its socio-religious movement from its political manifestation, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).  While the public in past times respected the MB for its social services and religious outreach, engaging in politics by its nature is a source of division and rancor.  For example when the MB fielded its presidential candidate in March 2012, it was MB’s Guidance Bureau that made the declaration instead of the FJP. In the eyes of the public there was little distinction between the MB and the FJP.  So the MB was, correctly or not, held responsible for any political missteps by the FJP.

In part because the 2011 revolutionary partners were sharply divided on ideological grounds, former regime loyalists, politicians, and corrupt businessmen were able to regroup and play an increasing role in the political battles that engulfed the country. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP), which dominated political life for decades, was the only party in the country capable of organizing nationwide and competing with the MB.  But since the public rejected the NDP (and it was banned shortly after Mubarak was deposed), it did not participate in the parliamentary elections in the fall of 2011.  However, by June 2012, Ahmad Shafiq, Mubarak’s last Prime Minster, represented the NDP’s interests.  As one of the two remaining candidates in the second round of the presidential elections, he ultimately lost by less than two percent.

Morsi took over power by June 30, 2012.  When he was not as inclusive as promised in his senior appointments, the opposition almost immediately turned against him.  Two months after he was sworn in, they called for a massive protest on August 24, calling it “The protest to oust the rule of the Brotherhood.”  Their hostility and acrimony increased as the writing of the new constitution was finalized.  Meanwhile, the new political openness and freedom in the country allowed for the private media, owned and controlled by many of the former regime’s loyalists and supporters, to target Morsi and the MB in an orchestrated campaign to alienate and inflame the public.

By the time the president issued his ill-advised and ill-fated constitutional decree, the opposition was not only united against Morsi and the MB but also determined to dislodge them from power.  Morsi argued that his move was necessary to protect the nascent democratic political structures that the courts were dissolving one by one.  He eventually reversed course and annulled his decree, even though the opposition rejected all his appeals for political dialogue.  However, his objective of having a new constitution, which the opposition vehemently rejected, and replacing the Mubarak-appointed public prosecutor, a demand that the youth and revolutionary groups had called for, were already fulfilled.  This single act proved to be a rallying point for all the opposition and the remnants of the former regime (fulool), which united under the National Salvation Front (NSF) in order to confront and defeat Morsi and the MB.  They campaigned vigorously to defeat the constitution, which to their dismay, was passed by 64 percent.

Meanwhile, the MB and their Islamist allies aimed at targeting the corrupt elements in the judiciary, which represented not only a major obstacle in delaying or dissolving the new democratic components of the state, but also it reversed the convictions and released all the corrupt elements of the Mubarak regime.  Although this was also a revolutionary demand, the opposition, which so far had not fared well at the ballot box, aligned itself with the judiciary and accused the Islamists of attacking an independent branch of government that had reservations, if not outright discontent, about the revolution.

By the spring of 2013, the MB and its supporters were preparing for new parliamentary elections, which they had expected to win.  Their strategy was that if they won the parliamentary elections and forced judiciary reform, they would be able to control or influence all branches of government and easily confront the deep state and institute their program.  Sensing the danger of this scenario, NSF coordinator Dr. Mohammad ElBaradei met with Shafiq in the United Arab Emirates in March.  In an interview last week, Shafiq disclosed that he and ElBaradei had agreed on an elaborate plan to depose Morsi and the MB.  He also predicted that Morsi and MB officials would be arrested and tried.  Furthermore, Shafiq complained that ElBaradei and the opposition did not fulfill their part of the bargain, which was to promote and support Shafiq and help make him the next president, and that they instead began to distance themselves from him.

Throughout the political power struggle, the youth movements, which spearheaded the 2011 revolution against the Mubarak regime, were marginalized while their grievances were not addressed.  Morsi and the MB gave only lip service to their demands and needs.  But during his address to the nation last week, Morsi belatedly acknowledged this neglect as he promised to address it.  By late April, the youth groups had already come together to form a new movement called Tamarrud or Rebellion.  The central theme in their program was to call for early presidential elections by gathering 15 million signatures, a million more than Morsi had received during his presidential run.

During the process, the secular opposition and the fulool embraced Tamarrud’s message, while the latter used the offices of the NSF and held several press conferences at the headquarters of well-known media outlets of Mubarak loyalists.  There is also anecdotal evidence that the group received financial support from fulool groups.  Meanwhile, the private media started a well-orchestrated campaign and continuous onslaught on the MB in particular and the Islamists in general.  The level of hostility and hatred spewed against them was reminiscent of the 1930s Nazi propaganda against the Jews.  Dozens of incidents were reported in the past two months, in which supporters of the MB were attacked verbally and physically by strangers because of their purported associations.

Though the campaign against the MB was in full swing, the president and the group did not take it seriously and did not attempt to offer a compromise to the opposition or genuinely address their concerns.  They miscalculated badly as they thought that the popular support of Tamarrud’s initiative was thin.  In short, the MB was facing a perfect storm.  Whether in reality or perception, the MB has alienated its former liberal and secular partners, the youth groups, the judiciary, the media, the general public because of lack of services and rising prices.  The fulool and their allies within the deep state took advantage of this public discontent.  Many former security officials and wealthy businessmen tied to the former regime were seen organizing and mobilizing for the June 30th protest, the day Tamarrud designated to force Morsi’s ouster.  By July 2, the Appellate Court invalidated the appointment of the General Prosecutor appointed by Morsi and returned the Mubarak-appointed corrupt prosecutor, who was dismissed last November.  Furthermore, in order to further muddy the political scene, the courts also ordered that Morsi’s Prime Minister, Dr. Hisham Qandil, be arrested and sentenced to one year in prison for not implementing an earlier court order given to a Mubarak-era prime minister.

However, on June 30 an impressive numbers of Egyptians protested against the MB and the president in Tahrir Square and across Egypt.  It was reminiscent of the early days of the 2011 protests against Mubarak.  Although the protesters did not include Islamist groups, they were diverse.  Many youth groups were represented, voicing their frustration of being marginalized and their demands neglected.  Many were ordinary citizens alienated because of economic hardship and the lack of basic services.  Many were secularists who hated Islamists and wanted to overthrow them by revolutionary means since they could not defeat them at the ballot box.  Many were Christians who feared the Islamists and were tacitly encouraged by the Coptic Church to participate.  But it was also clear than many were fulool and Mubarak regime loyalists as the picture of the former dictator was prominently raised and hailed in Tahrir Square amid chants in his support.  Many were also former and current security officials who showed up in their uniforms.  Even two former Interior Ministers who served during the military transitional rule and former regime were leading the protests as revolutionaries, even though they were charged by the youth groups at the time with murdering their revolutionary friends and comrades. Many protesters were also thugs hired by NDP politicians and corrupt business people.  In fact, over the three days protest, these thugs raped over 100 women in Tahrir Square including female journalists, according to public officials.  Meanwhile, in an orchestrated manner, dozens of buildings that belonged to the MB and the FJP including their headquarters were burned down, torched, or ransacked.  More than a dozen members were killed, while hundreds were wounded.  Within hours, five cabinet ministers resigned and dozens of senior officials including presidential spokespersons and dozens of diplomats submitted their resignations in an attempt to collapse the state.

Meanwhile, pro-Morsi supporters were also gathering in a different square in Cairo in large numbers.  After the MB and its allies saw the massive demonstrations of their opponents on June 30 they called for massive mobilization the following day, holding more than 20 huge protests across the country that also numbered in the millions.  With few exceptions, the secular and liberal media ignored these protests.

On the afternoon of June 30, Defense Minister and military chief Gen. Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who was appointed by Morsi last August, issued an ultimatum to the president and the opposition to reach a compromise within 48 hours or else the military would intervene.  In reality, it was an ultimatum to the president to resign since the opposition had in the past rejected all attempts at dialogue or compromise.  On July 1, the frustrated president addressed the nation and adamantly rejected the military’s ultimatum, as he called on his people to support his legitimacy as a democratically-elected president.  Immediately after the speech, the president’s supporters, who were holding a huge rally in Giza, were attacked by thugs and snipers.  Sixteen people were killed and hundreds wounded.

By July 2, it was evident that the army has decided to overthrow Morsi and side with the opposition.  As the military reached out to foreign governments, it was clear that many Western governments, especially the U.S. had difficulty accepting the military overthrow of an elected president. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, called their Egyptian counterparts, advising that they should instead either encourage Morsi to resign or keep him as a figurehead.

However, as they officially announced that Morsi was removed from power, the generals surrounded themselves with several civilian and religious leaders, including the head of Al-Azhar, the Coptic Pope, ElBaradei as NSF spokesman, and representatives of Tamarrud and the Salafist Al-Noor Party.  It was a brazen attempt to make it seem as if the overthrow of Morsi had broad consensus by civilian and religious leaders.

In essence, Sisi embraced all the demands of the opposition and the fulool.  Not only did he depose Morsi and replace him with the head of the SCC, but he also suspended the constitution and dismissed the government.  He unilaterally also gave the powers to issue constitutional decrees and legislative authority to the newly- installed president.  Within minutes, huge celebrations with full display of festivities and fireworks were taking place in Tahrir Square and in many cities across Egypt.  Meanwhile, Morsi’s supporters across Egypt were stunned and angry at the turn of events.  They had mistakenly held hope that the army would force some sort of a compromise that would not circumvent the will of the Egyptian people who elected a president and passed a new constitution with a large margin only few months ago.

Immediately after Sisi’s announcement, the new regime began its crackdown on the media that supported the deposed president.  Four TV satellite channels that belonged to the MB or the Islamists, as well as two Al-Jazeera channels were suspended and taken off the air.  The pro-Morsi protests across Egypt were also surrounded by the military.  TV cameras were removed and the electricity was cut in anticipation of forcefully evacuating the protesters, as food and water were denied.

Meanwhile, MB leaders Mohammad El-Beltagi and Esam El-Erian, who played pivotal roles during the 2011 revolution, called Morsi’s ouster by the military an illegal coup d’état and vowed to oppose it, as they called on their supporters to resist it with all peaceful means even if they lose their lives.  Morsi also released an eleven-minute video on the Internet rejecting his overthrow and defying the military’s act, insisting on his constitutional legitimacy as the duly elected president of the country.

Meanwhile, a crackdown against the MB leaders and their supporters was in full force, strongly suggesting premeditation.  Within two hours of Sisi’s announcement, Morsi and some of his senior assistants were detained and transferred to the defense ministry.  Former speaker and FJP Chairman, Dr. Saad Katatni, MB leader and General Guide Dr. Muhammad Badie, as well as his deputies Khayrat El-Shater and Rashad Bayyoumi were also arrested.  Former presidential candidate and Islamist Hazem Salah Abu Ismail and preacher Safwat Hegazi were arrested and charged with ‘insulting the military.’  Al-Ahram newspaper also reported that over 300 arrest warrants were issued against the MB and their supporters, as dozens were rounded up while all MB and FJP properties, assets, and buildings were being seized and their bank accounts frozen.  Moreover, within minutes of the announcement, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Muhammd Bin Zayed of the UAE, the two countries most openly hostile to the MB’s rule, issued statements praising and congratulating the military.  Ironically, Bashar Al-Assad of Syria expressed his relief and joy at the ouster of ‘the Islamist regime’ that was threatening his country.

Meanwhile, the Secular and liberal opposition and many youth groups and their supporters argued that their protests followed by the ouster of Morsi by the military was analogous to the overthrow of Mubarak.  But this argument conveniently ignores the fact that Mubarak was not a legitimate president or elected by the will of the Egyptian people while Morsi, whether one supports or opposes him, loves or hates him, was duly elected in free, fair, and contested elections that the entire world observed and accepted.  Furthermore, Mubarak killed hundreds of youth in order to stay in power, while dozens of youth were killed in the streets defending the legitimacy of Morsi’s presidency.  In addition, most of the people and groups who oppose Morsi today after one year in power, never lifted a finger during Mubarak’s 30 year reign.  Mubarak’s security apparatus used thugs to terrorize his opponents and oversee fraudulent elections, while the same thugs today attack and terrorize unarmed supporters of Morsi.  While official and government media outlets and corrupt businesspeople and judges supported Mubarak for decades, the same government-supported media, businesspeople, and judges attacked Morsi from his first day in office.

Liberals, democrats, and human rights activists have been preaching to Islamists for decades that democracy is the only legitimate system for peaceful political participation and transition of power.  In 1992, when the Algerian military intervened and canceled elections after the Islamic Salvation front (FIS) won it, the West, led by the U.S. and France, looked the other way.  Meanwhile, Algeria was engulfed in civil strife for over a decade, a conflict that resulted in over two thousand deaths.  Two decades later, whether or not one agrees with its political program, favors or despises the MB, there is no doubt that the group played by the rules of democracy and embraced the rule of law.  It did not employ or advocate the use of violence.  Yet, it is the height of irony that the ones who called for, encouraged, and cheered the military intervention to oust a democratically-elected president are the secular, liberal, and leftist parties and individuals such as ElBaradei, Amr Mousa, Naguib Sawiris, Ayman Noor, and Hamdein Sabbahi, as well as human and civil rights activists who frequently advocate for free media and freedom of political association.

The international community looked the other way when the will of the Algerian and Palestinian people were thwarted when they elected Islamists in 1992 and 2006.  This is the third time in two decades Islamists are dislodged from power.  It remains to be seen if the West will take a strong stand against the military’s latest attempt to prevent Islamists from holding power.  It may indeed define the relationship between Islamist groups and Western governments for the foreseeable future.  The message such stand would send to people around the world will be profound.  Either the West stands for democratic principles and the rule of law or it does not.  When President Obama called Morsi on June 30, he admonished him that “democracy is about more than elections.”  But what is equally essential to recognize is that there is no democracy without respecting and protecting the legitimacy of its results regardless of its outcome.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett