From Strange to Bizarre: The Mutations of Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy

CounterPunch

President Barack Obama and his officials are saying some very strange things about events in the Middle East and Ukraine. The White House was loud in its support for factions who were united only in opposition to President Viktor Yanukovych. The Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s leaked telephone conversation with the American ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, revealed much more about how the State Department was secretly plotting for regime change in Kiev before Yanukovych was abruptly removed from power in a political coup in February.

In a speech at the National Press Club in Washington in December 2013, Nuland admitted that the United States had spent five billion dollars since Ukraine became independent following the Soviet Union’s breakup in 1991 in “developing democratic institutions and skills in promoting civil society” and what she described as “a good form of government.” Nuland claimed that all of it was necessary to “achieve the objectives of Ukraine’s European.”

After the opposition takeover in Kiev, the referendum in Crimea where people voted in overwhelming numbers to join the Russian Federation, and the wishes of Russian minorities in the east, brought a very different response from Washington. The Crimean referendum was denounced as illegal and a sham. Ukraine remains in turmoil. Russia on one hand, and the United States and the European Union on the other, are locked in a struggle for influence in Ukraine. It is a struggle whose final outcome is far from certain.

In Syria, devastated by three-years of civil war, with external powers pouring oil in the conflict, President Bashar al-Assad has also won an overwhelming victory. Fears of the Crimean and Russian minorities in the new Ukraine are understandable. For Ukraine is a broken and vulnerable state, with armed far-right and left groups dominating parts of the country where anarchy rules. Western governments seem obsessed about freedom and democracy, but we hardly hear about security and welfare of Ukraine’s minorities. In Syria, the civil war has extracted a very high toll. If the western narrative was to be believed, then all Syrians are united against Assad, so any election leading to his victory must be fraudulent.

The Assad dynasty has ruled Syria with the iron fist for decades. The dynasty might well have been overthrown in the uprising which began in 2011 if a better alternative was present. The truth is that many of Syria’s minorities, Christians, Jews, Druze, Kurds and Assad’s own Alawites, are terrified by the cruelty of, and conflict within, Assad’s opponents, foreign Salafists in particular. Three years since the uprising began, Western governments, US, British and French, are in a strange situation of their own making. They have lent moral and material support to the enemies of Assad, but are weary and worried of them, for anti-Assad fighters are no lovers of the Western governments and values they preach. What has happened in Libya is a lesson.

History shows that great powers, instead of learning from mistakes, keep repeating the same follies. Ceaseless ideological propaganda, whatever its origin and nature, makes a feeble cover for real motives.

Assad’s victory was by a whopping margin – he secured nearly 89 percent of the vote. It was a win like any other dictator’s, but there is little doubt that many Syrians were scared of the other side, and preferred Assad. The American Secretary of State John Kerry, smarting from his debacle in the Israel-Palestinian talks which were sunk by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, quickly moved on. Syria provided an escape route. Kerry described Assad’s victory as “meaningless” and “a great big zero.”

It gets more and more bizarre. Nearly a year after Egypt’s army chief Abdel Fatah al-Sisi overthrew the country’s elected President Mohammed Morsi and abolished the fragile political order which had evolved after Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow, there was another presidential election at the end of May. Thousands were killed and even more thrown into jail in the months before. Sisi took 97 percent of the vote, virtually the whole country, while Muslim Brotherhood leaders and supporters languish in jail. If Assad’s election was “meaningless” and a “great big zero” for the Obama administration, then think of Sisi’s victory margin?

When a ruthless dictator and America’s proxy is in trouble, Washington is slow to respond to events, hoping that the dictator will eventually overcome opposition and it will be all right in the end. South Vietnam, Cambodia, Iran, Egypt and beyond, examples are aplenty. More than three decades after the fall of the Shah of Iran and President Jimmy Carter’s bungled handling of the crisis in what was America’s policeman in the Persian Gulf, Barack Obama faced a similar crisis in Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak was in trouble. Obama dithered.

Mubarak’s rule collapsed under relentless popular pressure, but while the military had disintegrated with the fall of the shah in Iran, the Egyptian armed forces remained intact. Egypt’s 2011 revolution was incomplete in comparison with the Iranian revolution of 1979. The military-led counterrevolution in 2013 has taken Egypt back to the Mubarak era.

For a country born out of a revolution, the United States is remarkably counterrevolutionary. Now that Egypt is again ruled by a former army chief, the White House has said that President Obama is looking forward to working with Sisi “to advance our strategic partnership and the many interests shared by the United States and Egypt.” The White House claimed that “elections [there] were held in accordance with Egyptian law.”

That Egyptian law, which Obama has so readily accepted as the basis of a closer relationship with Sisi’s government, originates from a constitution which has been heavily criticized for granting the military sweeping powers. The 2014 constitution was introduced after a coup which overthrew Egypt’s freely elected president, abolished parliament and abrogated the 2012 constitution, approved by the Egyptian electorate in a far more relaxed political environment. In cozying up with Sisi, Obama denies that there was ever a coup.

Never mind Obama’s idealism and soaring rhetoric – that was a long time ago, five years ago in fact. Now it is time to build a legacy, so he will do anything. Obama’s foreign policy is a charade.

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Disquiet grows in US over Egypt policy

Middle East Eye

America’s relationship with the military regime of Egypt and President Barack Obama’s keenness to give military aid to that country have created acrimony between the administration and Congress.

The dispute goes beyond Washington, with Obama’s Middle East policy coming under increasing criticism at home and abroad. There are warnings that his administration may be creating more international enemies.

A recent op-ed by Robert Kagan in the Washington Post on 2 May is one example. A leading neoconservative thinker, Kagan was one of the founders of the Project for the New American Century that called for regime change in Iraq and a strategy of America securing global control. Kagan’s wife, Victoria Nuland, is now a senior State Department official in the Obama administration.

Kagan says that far from helping in the struggle against terrorism, as the Egyptian military dictatorship and its supporters claim, the military’s “brutal crackdown on Egypt’s Islamists is creating a new generation of terrorists”. The Muslim Brotherhood did use violence against protestors, he continues, but that is nothing compared with the military’s killing of thousands and jailing of tens of thousands since overthrowing president Mohamed Morsi.

Kagan goes on to warn that the crackdown in which hundreds may be sentenced to death after a trial barely lasting an hour will convince some Islamists to believe that their only choice is to kill or be killed.

His conclusion is that Egypt’s new military strongman, former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi can never bring stability, no matter how ruthless he becomes. America’s current policy is only bringing closer the day of the next revolution, and that revolution will be a “more radical and virulent anti-American event than the last one”.

President Obama’s intention to send military aid to Egypt and bitter criticism from a leading neoconservative hawk such as Robert Kagan look strange. The White House plans to supply Egypt with Apache attack helicopters, arguing that they are needed to fight “terrorism” in the Sinai peninsula. Obama wants to give $650 million worth of additional aid to Egypt’s military regime. Moreover, the administration says that Egypt is abiding by the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

All of this must be music to Sisi’s ears, but represents a sad turning in Barack Obama’s journey from soaring idealism to Machiavellian behaviour. Political expediency and short-termism have triumphed over idealism in this journey.

Congressional unease over Obama’s Middle East policy has turned into open rebellion. Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat who is chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees foreign aid, has told the White House that he would not approve American aid to the Egyptian military.

In particular, Senator Leahy has denounced a summary trial which ended in an Egyptian court sentencing 683 people to death, including the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie. Leahy said that he would remain opposed until he could see “convincing evidence the government is committed to the rule of law”.

Given the Obama administration’s eagerness to supply Egypt’s military rulers with weapons and economic aid, it was odd indeed that the White House expressed alarm over the court’s ruling when the United Nation did so. As severe measures continue against opposition supporters, a powerful insurgency is building up in Egypt. It is especially concentrated in the Sinai peninsula.

The overall character of President Obama’s predecessor George W Bush was distinctly aggressive in military terms. Since the heady days of Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, American policy has undergone a Machiavellian transformation. His pronouncements often do not match facts on the ground.

The Foreign Assistance Act requires that the United States cut aid to any country “whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree”. President Obama, however, concluded soon after Morsi was deposed by the military in July 2013 that the White House was not “legally required” to decide whether Egypt’s president was the victim of a coup. An unnamed administration official told the New York Times at the time: “We will not say it was a coup, we will not say it was not a coup, we will just not say [anything]”.

It was like showing green light to Sisi. With each hint of suspension of aid and every expression of “concern” over Egypt’s worsening situation comes something that gives succour to Egypt’s military junta. More than three years after the fall of Hosni Mubarak and a brief democratic interlude, it now looks inevitable that Sisi will be “elected” the country’s new leader at the end of this month.

The election will be an extremely restricted exercise. It will be a reminder of the worst days of the Mubarak era. Sisi will be “endorsed” by an overwhelming majority, with no more than a tiny percentage of votes going against him.

The truth about today’s Egypt is that the real opposition is either in jail or has been forced underground if its supporters have not been killed already. Meanwhile in the United States, influential voices are engaged in a perfunctory exercise to express the mildest of unease with demands that America must ensure that the next Egyptian government “makes good on the people’s demands for a free and prosperous society”, as was written by Evan Moore, a senior policy analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative, in an op-ed piece published by US News and World Report on 8 May.

As Sisi pursues his repressive policies against Islamist and liberal opponents alike, the Obama administration is advised by these voices to “strategically leverage US assistance to incentivize Cairo to adopt vital political and economic reforms”.

Emboldened by Obama’s refusal to acknowledge that Morsi’s overthrow was a coup, Sisi now says that democracy will take at least 25 years to bring to Egypt, and that too if stability can be restored. Bizarrely, he has described the overthrow of Mubarak in 2011 and Morsi in 2013 as major steps towards democracy.

In less than a year since overthrowing the elected political order which had emerged after a people’s revolution, Sisi has moved to crush Egypt’s largest movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. He has outflanked liberals, many of whom are also on his target list. Egyptians are bracing themselves for another long era dominated by a military dictator, who at 59 years of age could maintain his iron grip for a long time. Sisi has President Obama to thank for this gift.

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Another Gaza War

Palestine Chronicle, November 28, 2012

Bombing Gaza

It is important to dismiss some fallacies surrounding the recent Gaza war before we examine the significance and fallout of Israel’s eight-day bombing campaign. One of those fallacies is that Hamas started the fighting by firing hundreds of rockets into Israel, the other that Israel was targeting “terrorists.” A careful analysis of the sequence of events leading to Israeli bombardment proves the former to be untrue. The latter fails scrutiny in view of available reports and casualty figures released by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights based in Gaza City. The vast majority of the more than 150 killed and 1000 injured were civilians, though the Israelis claimed the opposite.

Assuming new powers

President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt was widely praised for playing a key role in negotiating the truce between Israel and Hamas. Riding the crest of popularity, Morsi immediately issued a presidential decree giving himself sweeping powers which would be impossible to challenge. He appointed a new prosecutor-general of his choice, granted the Constituent Assembly and the Shura Council,  the upper consultative house of parliament, protection from dissolution by the judiciary. He also ordered the retrial of Mubarak-era officials who were accused of killing and injuring protestors during and after the Tahrir Square demonstrations last year.

The presidential decree has stunned the population and sparked a fierce debate in the country. Supporters have hailed it as “revolutionary.” Opponents have condemned it as a “coup.” From now on, all presidential declarations, laws and decrees will be immune to appeal “by any way or by any entity.” There now exists a climate of anger and frustration in Cairo and other cities. Judges, liberals and secularist politicians and activists outside the Muslim Brotherhood circle are furious and offices of Morsi’s party have been ransacked.

On the BBC’s Today program on November 23, Fawaz Gerges, a leading Middle East expert at the London School of Economics, compared President Morsi’s move with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s “power grab” in the 1950s, paving the way for dictatorial rule under Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. Professor Gerges warned of a “dangerous” situation in the country. For a while it had looked as though Egypt under Morsi would retake its role as the most powerful and effective Arab nation in the Middle East. However, his move to grant himself sweeping powers has upset the delicate political balance in the post-Mubarak era. For Egypt without internal stability cannot play its proper role in the region and beyond.

The roots of conflict in the territory called Palestine are as ancient as an interested party would profess. But claims that Hamas rockets began the latest Gaza war are false. The blockade, the humiliation of Palestinians who must pass through the Israeli crossings regularly, the Israeli army’s incursions and rockets from Gaza are part of everyday life.

What appears to be true is that for about two weeks there had been a lull, broken on November 8 when Israeli soldiers entered Gaza. In the ensuing fighting a 12-year-old Palestinian boy playing soccer was killed. In retaliation, Palestinian fighters blew up a tunnel along the Gaza-Israel frontier injuring one Israeli soldier, followed by the firing of an anti-tank missile which wounded four Israeli troops.

On the same day, an Israeli tank shell landed in a field killing two teenagers. Thereafter, an Israeli tank fired on a funeral. Two more Palestinians were killed and many more injured. On November 12, Palestinian factions offered a truce provided Israel ended its attacks. Two days later, the Israelis assassinated Ahmed Jabari, the Hamas military chief, and at least eight others, including two Palestinian children. It was this sequence which triggered the war. Was it self-defense on Israel’s part, or provocation?

Itching for war

The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been itching for war with Iran in recent years. He may have succeeded in launching a military campaign which could lead to a broader Middle East conflict but for President Obama’s reluctance to go down that route. This is why Netanyahu wanted a victory for his friend Mitt Romney, who appeared eager to take military action against Iran and its allies, Hezbollah and Hamas.

President Obama’s opposition, Romney’s failure to win the American presidency and serious doubts from influential voices within Israel’s own military and political establishment thwarted Netanyahu’s ambition to attack Iran for the time being. But Netanyahu was not happy with his present grip on power. He would like to strengthen it further and for that he called fresh elections. A war would show him to be Israel’s “strong man,” improve Likud’s election prospects and a win would give him a longer period in office. However, those who play the game of Russian roulette must be ready for unexpected consequences.

In the aftermath of another Gaza war, two realities confront each other. On one hand, Israel’s bombardment of Gaza has taken the lives of more than 150 Palestinians, many of them innocent civilians, for a handful of Israeli lives. Netanyahu can continue to display hubris; his offensive in Gaza may improve his prospects in the coming elections, or may not; and President Obama has to go on expressing public support for Israel, though his private views may be different.

Escaping for cover

On the other hand, Hamas rockets of Iranian design have travelled longer distances than before; thoughstill crude and incapable of precisely targeting anything, they are enough to cause more alarm in Israel than before; Hezbollah has shown that its drones can fly over Israel now; and the movement’s leader Hasan Nasrullah openly taunts the Israelis and the Americans in his speeches. One side, all powerful, is struck by fear and paranoia. The other, armed with primitive rockets, professes its willingness to make whatever sacrifice there is to be made. No ceasefire can last.

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The Struggle for Egypt’s Soul

CounterPunch, October 15, 2012

When the official announcement of Mohamed Morsi’s election as Egypt’s president was made following a tantalizing period of uncertainty, I had raised some questions about the country’s constitutional future. I had also suggested that a multilayered battle between the military and civilians, Islamists and secularists, and conservatives and liberals was likely (Palestine Chronicle, July 3, 2012). An example of such conflict has been witnessed at Tahrir Square in recent days. Clashes between liberals and Muslim Brotherhood supporters show simmering discontent in a polarized society as Morsi walks a political tightrope.

In his first hundred days in office, President Morsi has exercised caution, but also made some bold moves in a bid to keep many sides happy. On October 8, he announced a “blanket pardon” for all political prisoners arrested since the beginning of the uprising which overthrew Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 and finally led to free elections in which Morsi won the presidency. The announcement said that all those serving prison sentences or still awaiting trial on charges to do with supporting the revolution would be released and charges against them would be dropped. The decree excludes those convicted of murder, but pointedly includes military officers arrested for taking part in demonstrations against Mubarak’s dictatorship.

Pressure had been growing on Mubarak’s successors to announce an amnesty and Morsi could hardly have ignored it after his election as the candidate of the Freedom and Justice Party formed by the Muslim Brotherhood in the wake of the anti-Mubarak uprising. That he was careful to address wider sections of society, including the military, was hardly surprising. The move was aimed at helping the new administration in several ways. For forty years under Hosni Mubarak’s and his predecessor Anwar Sadat’s rule, mostly with American support, Egypt’s military-dominated ruling elite had alienated the opposition and much of Egyptian society. The new administration must demonstrate different priorities.

On closer scrutiny, however, his “blanket pardon” was described by some commentators as insufficient. The presidential decree’s first article said that the pardon was “for all felony convictions and misdemeanor convictions or attempted crimes committed to support the revolution and the fulfillment of this goal.” Amnesty International has now said that “all Egyptians tried in front of military courts need retrials, including those whose offenses did not relate to the revolution.”

Morsi’s political base is the Muslim Brotherhood, a major force in Egyptian society for decades. But his narrow victory in the 2012 election against Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister of the Mubarak era and regarded as the military’s favorite, was made possible with support from moderate and secular voters. Morsi cannot shake off the Muslim Brotherhood label, perhaps he does not need to, but he was careful enough to declare that he was going to represent all Egyptians.

The task of a president in post-Mubarak Egypt is extraordinarily delicate. He has to establish civilian control over the military, which has dominated the country’s power structure for decades. Yet he has to work with the generals. He must not alienate other sections of the population as he remains a Muslim Brotherhood figure above all. He must respond to raised expectations following the old regime’s demise and his election. At the same time, he should ensure continuity and avoid a dramatic break from the past, for Egypt lives in a volatile environment.

President Morsi’s move against the military top brass, particularly ordering the retirement of Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi from his posts as commander of the armed forces and defense minister in August, seemed to have been executed with remarkable ease. But recent clashes at Tahrir Square highlight the continuing tensions between secularists and minorities on one hand, and Muslim Brotherhood supporters on the other. It is too soon to say that the task of reshaping the military into a force compliant to the democratically-elected government is complete. For the middle ranking and junior officers are bound to take longer to change. Meanwhile, the president needs their help to maintain order.

If Morsi’s move to change the military’s top leadership was executed with ease, his attempt to remove the state prosecutor general, Abdel Meguid Mahmud, has run into difficulties. The president announced Mahmud’s removal and appointment as Egypt’s envoy to the Vatican after a court acquitted more than twenty senior Mubarak era officials of organizing an attack on protestors during the uprising. Mahmud’s office was held responsible for presenting “weak evidence” against the accused. But the presidential order resulted in an outcry from the judges, who complained that Morsi had exceeded his powers in dismissing the state prosecutor general. In a setback to the president’s authority, the prosecutor general said that he was going to stay in his job. And the president was forced to back down.

Another controversy is brewing over the draft constitution released for discussion. This time, Human Rights Watch has called on the Egyptian Constituent Assembly to “amend articles in the draft constitution that undermine human rights in post-Mubarak Egypt,” The draft, it said, provides for some basic political and economic rights but falls far short of international law on women’s and children’s rights, freedom of religion and expression, and torture and trafficking.

The fall of Hosni Mubarak was an historic victory for the people, but the outcome of the struggle for the soul of the Egyptian nation is far from certain.

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American Stingers’ First Casualty is Diplomacy: Syria’s Parallels with Afghanistan

CounterPunch, August 13, 2012

The revelation about President Barack Obama’s decision to provide secret American aid to Syria’s rebel forces is a game changer. The presidential order, known as an “intelligence finding” in the world of espionage, authorizes the CIA to support armed groups fighting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s government. But it threatens far more than the regime in Damascus.

The disclosure took its first casualty immediately. Kofi Annan, the special envoy to Syria, promptly announced his resignation, bitterly protesting that the UN Security Council had become a forum for “finger-pointing and name-calling.” Annan blamed all sides directly involved in the Syrian conflict, including local combatants and their foreign backers. But the timing of his resignation was striking. For he knew that with the CIA helping Syria’s armed groups, America’s Arab allies joining in and the Security Council deadlocked, he was redundant.

President Obama’s order to supply CIA aid to anti-government forces in Syria has echoes of an earlier secret order signed by President Jimmy Carter, also a Democrat, in July 1979. Carter’s fateful decision was the start of a CIA-led operation to back Mujahideen groups then fighting the Communist government in Afghanistan. As I discuss the episode in my book Breeding Ground: Afghanistan and the Origins of Islamist Terrorism (chapters 7 & 8), the operation, launched with a modest aid package, became a multi-billion dollar war project against the Communist regime in Kabul and the Soviet Union, whose forces invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. In the following year, Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan, who went for broke, pouring money and weapons into Afghanistan against the Soviet occupation forces to the bitter end.

Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski later claimed that it was done on his recommendation, and that the motive was to lure Soviet forces into Afghanistan to give the Kremlin “its Vietnam.” The Soviets’ humiliating retreat from Afghanistan in 1989, the collapse of Soviet and Afghan communism and the rise of the Taliban triggered a chain reaction with worldwide consequences. President Obama’s decision to intervene in support of Syria’s rebels, who include fundamentalist Islamic fighters, points to history repeating itself. Brzezinski, now in his 85th year, still visits Washington’s corridors of power. And General David Petraeus, a formidable warrior, is director of the CIA.

Three decades on, it seems likely that President Carter’s motive behind signing the secret order to provide aid to the Mujahideen was to entice the Soviets into Afghanistan’s inhospitable terrain, thus keeping their military away from Iran in the midst of the Islamic Revolution which overthrew America’s proxy, Shah Reza Pahlavi, in February 1979. If that was indeed the plan, then the Soviet leadership fell right into the Afghan trap.

China was then part of the U.S.-led alliance against the Soviets. Now Beijing and Moscow stand together against Washington as the conflict in Syria escalates. Otherwise, the U.S.-led alliance has many of the old players––the much enlarged European Union, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others in the Sunni bloc in the Arab world. And Turkey, which is now the base for the anti-Assad forces, channeling help to them. Turkey’s Islamist government plays a crucial role in Syria, like Pakistan in the 1980s during America’s proxy war in Afghanistan.

In Washington, an American official told Reuters that “the United States was collaborating with a secret command center operated by Turkey and its allies.” And a few days before, the news agency reported that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey had established a “nerve center” in Adana in southern Turkey, near the Syrian border, to coordinate their activities. The place is home to America’s Incirlik air base and military and intelligence services.

According to NBC News a few days ago, the rebel Free Syrian Army has acquired American MANPAD Stinger missiles via Turkey, clearly to target Syrian government aircraft. It reminds of President Reagan’s decision in the mid-1980s to supply Stingers to Mujahideen groups for use against Soviet aircraft. Their use was first reported in 1987 and it soon emerged that the heat-seeking weapons were so accurate that they were hitting three out of four aircraft in Afghanistan. As I have discussed in my book Breeding Ground, some of the hundreds of Stingers were likely to have been passed on to the Taliban and their allies after the Soviet forces left Afghanistan and the last Communist government in Kabul collapsed in 1992.

In recent months, American and European officials have been busy feeding information to media outlets that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are the main sources of weapons to rebels in Syria through Turkey. The pattern is consistent with the long-standing Saudi policy to keep Islamists out of Saudi Arabia itself, lest they challenge the ruling family. Long-term lessons of proxy wars remain unheeded for immediate perilous “gains.”

Reports of the Obama administration sending Stinger missiles to Syrian rebels carry the first indication that non-state players now have advanced U.S. weaponry in the Middle East. That Washington is in such a cozy alliance with forces including Islamists soon after the killing of Osama bin Laden on Obama’s personal order is as incredible as it is consistent with follies of the past. The present will define the future again.

The situation in Egypt is becoming explosive. The killing of 16 Egyptian border guards in the Sinai Peninsula by “suspected Islamists,” and violence thereafter, represent challenges on several fronts for the new president Mohamed Morsi. Israel has been quick to blame Islamic militants in Gaza, ruled by Hamas, which has close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, the party of the Egyptian president. For its part, the Brotherhood has pointed the finger at Israel’s secret service Mossad, claiming it is a plot to thwart Morsi’s presidency. These developments cast a shadow over Morsi’s relations with Hamas and, at the same time, increase his dependence on the Egyptian armed forces to quell the unrest, thereby undermining his authority. Murderous optimism of powerful and suicidal pessimism of victims in an oppressive environment blight the lives of many.

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Questions about Constitutional Future: Whose Egypt?

CounterPunch, July 2, 2012; Palestine Chronicle, July 3, 2012

A development of this magnitude was unthinkable before Mubarak’s fall

After a tantalizing delay, Egypt’s military authorities accepted the inevitable. Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was declared elected as president a week ago and took the oath of office on Saturday (June 30, 2012). A development of such magnitude was unthinkable before Hosni Mubarak surrendered power to the military in February 2011 amid a massive popular uprising against his regime. For nearly 60 years since the 1952 Egyptian revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood had been the main source of opposition to the ruling establishment. The prospect of the Brotherhood’s candidate being allowed to stand, let alone freely campaign, for the presidency had looked remote.

That the Islamist movement has survived despite long state repression, and its own internal conflicts, will be seen as a remarkable feat. Since the Brotherhood’s founding by Hassan al-Banna in 1928, when Egypt was under British rule, the movement’s anti-Western ideology and commitment to an Islamist order as the remedy to the “ills” of colonialism and imperialism have made it an object of admiration as well as fear in much of the Muslim world. The organization has transformed itself many a time and promises to work by peaceful means. Even so, its activities, and those of its breakaway factions, have generated profound distrust among many secular and Western-oriented people in the Arab world and beyond.

Morsi’s victory comes in controversial circumstances. Sections of Egypt’s educated middle classes are far from happy. Leading secular and liberal candidates were eliminated, even though together they had gained more than forty percent of the vote in the first round. It meant that Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq, a prominent figure from the Mubarak era, entered the final round representing opposite poles. Shafiq was initially disqualified as a candidate, but was quickly reinstated. The Egyptian armed forces apparently did not want to let go after the fall of Mubarak from the presidency.

Although a member of the ruling elite despised by many, Shafiq came close to being elected as Egypt’s president. But it was not to be. Displaying their influence in society, Muslim Brotherhood volunteers collected unofficial counts from precincts around the country. The overall tally showed Morsi getting fifty-two percent of the vote. The delay in making the formal announcement of Morsi’s victory, which caused anxiety and tension in Egyptian society, is a topic of speculation. It appears that ultimately the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces reconciled itself with the new reality. However, before it happened the military council granted itself sweeping powers in all important areas, including defense and foreign policies and internal security.

For now, the elected president is Mohamed Morsi, but real power remains with the military. American aid of 1.3 billion dollars a year since Egypt signed the 1978 Camp David accords, and made peace with Israel, enabled Washington to exercise enormous power over the Egyptian armed forces. Those developments following President Anwar Sadat’s defection from the Soviet camp neutralized Egypt’s official backing for Palestinians and isolated Egypt in the Arab world. Sadat also enraged many in his own country. His assassination in 1981 led to Mubarak’s rise to the presidency and the rest is history.

Despite the recent political upheaval, it is difficult to see how Egypt’s conduct on the international stage can alter. For unless the country has a constitution defining the powers of the president, the parliament and the judiciary, the chairman of the Supreme Military Council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, remains the most powerful man and President Morsi his deputy.

There is another possible explanation of what was a soft military coup prior to Morsi’s victory. It suggests that military’s move was not so much against the Egyptian people, but was to prevent Hosni Mubarak handing over power to his son, Gamal. In that scenario, Egypt would have turned into a country ruled by a single family like most other states in the region. So, it is said, the military moved against Mubarak, one from its own ranks, to maintain its control in the country. If Gamal Mubarak had succeeded his father, Egypt would be on the road to becoming a family dynasty such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait or Qatar, where institutions are more frail and the rule of law has corroded.

Questions about Egypt’s constitutional future persist. A multi-layered battle is set to continue between the military and civilians, Islamists and secularists, conservatives and liberals. Many eyes will be on parliamentary elections if and when they take place. For now, those firmly entrenched in power and those in the population yearning to see a new Egypt confront each other. The most important country in the Arab world is going to be looking inward rather than outward. And it is what happens in Egyptian society that is going to affect the rest of the Middle East.

Can President Morsi possibly order permanent twenty-four hour opening of the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza? The answer is: “Not likely.”

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Old State Instruments Are Still in Place: What’s Changed in Egypt?

CounterPunch, June 5, 2012; Palestine Chronicle, June 4, 2012

The day of judgment for Hosni Mubarak arrived on June 2. The 84-year-old deposed president was given a life sentence with his interior minister Habib al-Adly for the killing of hundreds of protesters during last year’s uprising. Mubarak and his sons, Gamal and Alaa, were acquitted of corruption charges. The court also acquitted a number of key interior ministry officials and security chiefs. Some Egyptians celebrated immediately after the verdicts were announced. Soon, however, the mood turned angry, because many thought that the verdicts were too lenient. Both Mubarak and Adly will have the right to appeal. Other factors, too, continue to foment anxiety in the country.

Millions of Egyptians had voted in the first round of the presidential election only a few days before. Just who will become president after the final round in a fortnight is not certain, but the drift of Egyptian politics is clear enough. The two leading candidates who emerged from the first round and will fight it out for the presidency of the most important Arab state are poles apart; the moderates have been eliminated from the race. One candidate to emerge from the first round was Muhammed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Just behind Mursi was Ahmed Shafiq, a former military officer and briefly prime minister in the final days of the Mubarak presidency.

Shafiq was initially disqualified under a law prohibiting figures associated with the previous regime, but hastily reinstated as a presidential candidate. He received favorable coverage in the state media in the run-up to the first round. When the votes had been counted, the difference between Mursi and Shafiq was no more than one percent and both went into the second round.

The most fundamental question to arise at this juncture is what has changed in Egypt? The Egyptian uprising that saw the end of Hosni Mubarak’s presidency in 2011 was largely bloodless as far as the protesting millions were concerned. The same could not be said about gangs, said to be associated with Mubarak’s security services, who attacked peaceful crowds, killing and wounding hundreds of people.

Events have since included attacks on Egypt’s Coptic Christians, their churches and other members of the public. The military has maintained, even consolidated, its hold while Islamic parties have come to dominate the new parliament after recent elections. There is inevitably a tacit understanding between the Muslim Brotherhood, the most organized political force, and Egypt’s ruling Military Council. It is a familiar scenario in which two equally powerful sides learn to live with each other in the same environment.

Those eliminated include some high profile figures like Amr Mousa, former Arab League Secretary General and one-time cabinet minister under Mubarak. Supporters of the Egyptian Spring were bitterly disappointed after their vote split between Hamdin Sabbahi, a leftist, and Abdul Moneim Aboul Fatouh, a physician and lawyer renowned for years of opposition to Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. Fatouh had broken from the Muslim Brotherhood last year and stood as an independent. Together, Sabbahi and Fatouh secured forty percent of the vote, but found themselves eliminated. The feeling among many Egyptians is that the forces of real change were so close, yet so far and will have to wait for another day. The instruments of state power are still in the same place.

Their bitterness was summed up by a spokesman of the secular liberal Free Egyptians Party, Ahmed Khairy. He described Mursi as an “Islamic fascist” and Shafiq as a “military fascist.” And he lamented that the outcome of the first round was “the worst case scenario.”

For a country which endured long years of brutal dictatorship, helped by one superpower or the other, and then went through a spring which brought optimism on the horizon, the future looks far from promising. Certainly insofar as the moderate majority of nearly 60 percent Egyptians is concerned.

Thousands came out to demonstrate at Tahrir Square in Cairo after the results of the first round were confirmed. Protests are continuing in other parts of the country. Egypt’s semi-official newspaper Al-Ahram acknowledged that crowds vented their anger outside the Constitutional Court, insisting that they would never accept Shafiq––describing him as the “second Mubarak.” Amid ugly scenes, protesters were attacked by unidentified thugs. Shafiq’s headquarters was set ablaze after being ransacked and his home came under attack.

Against the background of these developments, large numbers of Egyptians continue to feel disenfranchised. To them, the second round promises one of two unwelcome scenarios and neither candidate’s victory may bring genuine change in a country yearning for democracy. The election of Shafiq would mean a continuation of the old era. It would suit the Egyptian armed forces, the United States and Israel much more than a victory for Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

There have been episodes in the past, both during Hosni Mubarak’s and his predecessor Anwar Sadat’s rule, when the regime entered into a tacit understanding with the Muslim Brotherhood. Now, though, the Islamists dominate the Egyptian parliament, but real power remains with the armed forces. Egypt still does not have a new constitution and the powers of the president and parliament are yet to be defined. Powerful internal and external players are still in the game. Like the deposed strongman Hosni Mubarak and his associates, Egypt’s emerging system is on trial.

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