Friday, July 4, 2014

Egypt's Democratic Reconstruction

     As the United States celebrates its independence today, it is important for other nations not to forget the struggle for governance under democracy.  Chief among them is Egypt.  Ever since Egypt ousted their leader, Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the nation has been in a bit of a tailspin with some glimmers of success, albeit, dimly lit.  Many Egyptians fought tirelessly to rid their nation of Mubarak with iconic images in Tahrir Square.  TIME Magazine went so far as to name the anonymous protester as their person of the year in 2011.  The democratic election of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi in 2012 was seen as a huge transition from the prior 30 years under Mubarak's autocratic rule.  However, as moods soured over Morsi's usurpation of power, many questioned if Egypt was ready for democracy.  

     Putting issues regarding Egypt's democratic readiness and the supposed lesser of two evils mentality of the 2012 candidates (the Muslim Brotherhood Morsi and a former Mubarak official), the nation is still facing widespread economic malaise and now weariness of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood.  Current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who was the military commander that ousted Morsi in a semantically ambiguous yet apparent coup, faces an ailing economy in which he has received some monetary assistance from Gulf allies as well as international organizations.  Prior to his election, Sisi was judged on how he would handle the Muslim Brotherhood who have become widely unpopular in the Arab world.  Saudi Arabia has quarreled recently with Gulf neighbor Qatar over the Qataris sympathy toward the Muslim Brotherhood.  Other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations including Saudi Arabia have withdrawn ambassadors from Qatar until Qatar relinquishes support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

     The Muslim Brotherhood has been a victim of the greater regional conflict in Syria.  While Salafism, or a strict view of adherence to Islamic law, has recently been personified by radical Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra or Islamic State (formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS), the Muslim Brotherhood shares similar ideology, though their execution is much different.  Radical Islamists in Iraq and Syria "lack political flexibility and maturity," according to a paper published by the Center for Complex Operations. The authors of the paper continued to say that the Muslim Brotherhood, along with traditional Salafists, "generally argued that armed jihad is not permissible in Muslim countries where no foreign occupation exists.  Instead of fighting their own regimes, these jihadists were encouraged to return to their home countries and either be examples of Islamic living in their local communities, or organize politically to prepare, non-violently, for more Islamic governments."  Given the eventual aspirations and current events unfolding in the region, it is no secret why Egypt and GCC countries would want to harshly crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood, especially after Morsi's usurpation of constitutional authority.  

     Terror attacks have also become more frequent in Egypt from groups such as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, who was recently designated a terrorist group by the United States despite previous activity in Israel.  Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has responded to the angst of the Muslim Brotherhood by attacking Egyptian police forces following the ouster of Morsi.  With rampant terrorism and crackdowns on pro-Morsi, pro-Muslim Brotherhood citizens, President Sisi has felt the need to begin an online monitoring campaign as well.  It has been reported that Egypt is acquiring systems to monitor certain social media outlets.  According to reports, "The system would monitor Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Viber in real-time for usage that might 'harm public security or incite terrorism.' It would also screen content for 'vocabulary which is contrary to law and public morality,'" to gain a leg-up on defectors and potential terror attacks.

     Tracking online media is no way to begin the democratic healing process.  Members of the media in Egypt have keenly pointed out that social media served as a catalyst and an aid to protesters during the Egyptian revolutions.  Also, such oppression provides a cause for radical responses against the government, which in fact may produce counterproductive results for President Sisi.  

     Sisi was under pressure from the moment he was elected to manage the terrorist and Muslim Brotherhood outbreak.  However, following the militant takeover (dare I say coup) that ousted Morsi, Egypt risked losing aid from the United States.  According to US law, the US is barred from providing military aid to Egypt if they oust their leader via a coup.  United States government officials have stopped just short of calling the ouster a coup for fear of breaking-off ties with their friendliest Middle Eastern ally, which also happens to be the largest Arab nation.  Human rights violations such as jailing journalists from the Qatari news organization Al Jazzera for supposedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, to the social media crackdown further risk American aid cessation.

     Michele Dunne, Senior Associate with the Middle East Program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, believes the United States should begin to siphon its military monetary contributions to Egypt by supporting democratic efforts.  Ms. Dunne advocates for only essential security and counterterroism cooperation while devoting support towards "higher education and vocational training scholarships for Egyptians, with minimal government involvement...the reopening of political and civil society space that will be essential to build consensus among Egyptians," and a dialogue among Egypt, Europe, and the Gulf.  Ms. Dunne astutely observes that given the short-lived governments of the last three years in Egypt, a strong commitment to the state does not seem like sound policy for the United States.  Efforts would be better spent on the Egyptian people to foster a stronger society until the government becomes stable enough to engage diplomatically.

     Conversely, as M. Cherif Bassioun, Emeritus Distinguished Research Professor of Law at DePaul University, warned, "The last thing the U.S. needs is to offend the Egyptian people and the military at this critical juncture. It is essential for the U.S. to maintain its contacts with the Egyptian military in order to retain its leverage and to influence both political and strategic outcomes...If the Egyptian military becomes fed-up with U.S. threats to cut off military assistance, Egypt could turn to Russia in the same way it did in 1956."  Professor Bassioun also addressed a key conundrum for US officials from which, "A security vacuum in the Sinai has already allowed Islamist militants to establish themselves in the north of the peninsula," and wage attacks against police forces.  The United States does not want Egypt to crawl to Russia for military support especially after US sanctions are poised to hurt Russia's one-trick-pony oil export economy over intervention in Ukraine.  An Egyptian-Russian arms deal could be counterproductive to such sanctions.  Additionally, if the United States wants to assist the people of Egypt and foster democratic sentiment, rebuild infrastructure, and grow the education sector, terrorist attacks spurred by terrorists who thrive in security vacuums are antithetical to that goal.   

     Egypt's path to a sustainable democratic society may seem like a delusion.  Heavy economic reliance on Gulf partners to stabilize the dismal economy may prove to be worrisome as Gulf nations may seek political favors in return.  Egypt must enter into a dialogue with its people and not alienate populations as seen in Iraq.  Democracy does not come easy and inclusion can prove to be inexorable at times.  If Egypt wants to prove it is ready to move forward, gross violations of civil liberties must stop.         

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