The consequences of Cameron’s Syria defeat

AL JAZEERA, September 1, 2013

Parliament’s rejection of Syria intervention will have important repercussions in Britain as well as abroad.

Cameron on Syria

Cameron makes a point

The defeat of British Prime Minister David Cameron in Parliament over his plan for “humanitarian intervention” in Syria to “protect civilians from President Assad’s chemical attacks” is one of the most significant parliamentary votes in recent years.

It means that Cameron, one of the most aggressive advocates for military intervention, has been prevented from participating in any United States-led operation in Syria. The divergence between London and Washington on this matter has echoes of the 1960s, when Prime Minister Harold Wilson successfully rebuffed President Lyndon Johnson’s pressure to send British troops to Vietnam. Some writers have gone all the way back to 1782 and the American war of independence in search of a parallel.

A defeat of this magnitude has many consequences for foreign and domestic policies, as well as for Cameron’s own authority. The atmosphere before the debate was poisoned by extraordinary behaviour outside Parliament. As the prospect of defeat became distinct in the hours before the vote, expletives were used against the opposition Labour Party leader, Edward Miliband, in private news briefings. They originated from the prime minister’s official residence and the Foreign Office.

In an ill-tempered phone call, Cameron accused Miliband of siding with Russia and giving succour to Vladimir Putin. Such low punches were bound to unite the opposition, and alienate the undecided, and even friends, as seen in the parliamentary vote and after.

Immaturity and misjudgement

The use of raw language by unnamed people close to the prime minister reflects the degree of the government’s immaturity and misjudgement of the mood in Parliament and outside. The doubters included many in his own party and his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats: Thirty Conservative and nine Liberal Democrat MPs voted against the government. Some ministers missed the vote. It showed how divided Cameron’s troops were, how high the stakes became, how desperate the battle to win, somehow, anyhow – and why the atmosphere turned so unpleasant.

It was largely Prime Minister Cameron’s own making, for he and his hawkish Foreign Secretary William Hague were the two leading architects of the policy on Syria. Together, they had pushed an unsure President Obama to an interventionist position. Cameron and Hague had persuaded the White House to intervene in Libya in 2011. They almost succeeded in doing so again on Syria, before the British Parliament stopped them. By then, however, they had walked Obama far enough not to be able to reverse the US position without appearing politically impotent.

Cameron recalled Parliament to debate Britain’s participation in the false hope, as it turned out, of getting the MPs’ backing for intervention in Syria. Assertions of Britain playing its essential role as befits a “major power on the world stage” were heard again and again.

Cameron and Hague hopped from one justification to another during the debate in the House and outside: The ban on chemical weapons has to be upheld; Britain cannot sit idly by while innocent civilians are slaughtered; Britain has a responsibility to protect; the United Nations Security Council does not matter; we do not plan regime change, but Assad must be punished.

When the crunch came, Cameron and Hague failed to deliver. Their arguments were vague and predictable. Their legal justification was far from compelling and unconvincing to many. Their assertions that Britain was already certain of the culpability of Bashar al-Assad, although the UN inspectors had yet to decide whether chemical weapons had been used, sounded bizarre.

Why was the “use of chemical weapons” in Syria’s civil war – the “red line” – unacceptable while mass killing by all sides, abduction, torture and forced expulsion of civilians were not? Absurdities of this kind in making the case for intervention are there for all to see. There will be no UN Security Council approval or NATO umbrella – instead, there may be only a “coalition of the willing” like the US-led invasion against Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Cameron exhibited too much hubris and undisguised eagerness to look like a war leader in the mould of Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair – who is a much diminished figure in Britain today after his role in the “War on Terror”. The evidence presented by Cameron to Parliament failed to convince members, who knew public opinion was strongly opposed to Britain’s involvement in another war. Blair’s advocacy for intervention in Syria reminded many people of Iraq.

Domestic fallout

Britain’s appetite for punching above its weight has come to an end. One commentator on the left said thatBritain’s illusion of empire was over. The Economist, the pillar of the right-wing British establishment, described Cameron’s defeat on its website as “The vote of shame“, and the Conservative-Liberal coalition is now deeply traumatised as accusations and counter-accusations abound.

For all this, the oposition Labor leader Miliband deserves credit. He is not like left-wing Labour politicians of the past, offering an alternative to neoliberal militarism. It is a welcome change that is good for democracy.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives must try to rebuild their party and the Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in the Conservative-led government, face an existential threat. Having sacrificed their principles while in power, the Liberal Democrats will face a tough election next time around.

In an open display of bitterness, former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Paddy Ashdown - now a party grandee - said he was ashamed after the vote on Syria. The Guardian was right to rebuke him for lecturing the nation. On the contrary, the newspaper declared: “We should feel ashamed that our instinct for legitimacy and our patriotism have been too often and too cheaply taken for granted … Britain’s mood is not never again. The mood is not now, not again, not like this.”

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On Egypt’s turmoil

AL JAZEERA, August 14, 2013

A victim mourned

A victim mourned

The bloodbath in Egypt’s security crackdown against opponents of the military coup is truly catastrophic. Enough independent observers maintain that the crowds of protesters, including women and children, were largely peaceful, and the use of violence by the security forces was disproportionate. Egypt faces a lasting conflict with itself. The army’s repression is a shattering blow against a fledgling, and brief, democratic experiment. Muslim Brotherhood activists and other opponents of the military-backed government may feel that they have little choice except to go underground.

In a vast country so deeply split, the authorities will find it very difficult to establish total control that the military seeks. Civilian political figures cooperating with the army face isolation from sections of Egyptian society. The turmoil will be destabilising, and a serious setback against hopes for democratic change in the region. The conflict will inflame the anti-American feeling, and pose a particular challenge for the United States in the Middle East. President Obama cannot disown the Egyptian military. But Washington’s close links with the ruling military establishment in Cairo will provide further fuel to the resentment against America.

Others on the Al Jazeera panel were Mahmood Mamdani (Columbia University), John L. Esposito (Georgetown University), Phyllis Bennis (Institute of Policy Studies), Adel Iskander (Georgetown University), Mark LeVine (University of California, Irvine) and Richard Falk (Princeton University), Sarah Mousa (Georgetown University), Larbi Sadiki (Qatar University), Michael Hudson (NUS), Daniel Levy (ECFR) and Abdullah Al-Arian (Georgetown University). 

A “democratic” coup

AL JAZEERA, July 23, 2013

The military overthrow of President Morsi is not a coup for democracy, but an old remedy that has long failed. 

The military overthrow of Egypt’s freely-elected president Mohamed Morsi represents the beginning of a new, more turbulent phase in the country. The coup in early July was decisive in the immediate run, ending a brief democratic experiment with a Muslim Brotherhood politician in power.

Beyond the immediate outcome, however, the military takeover has thrown Egypt’s future into uncertainty, and caused further ruptures in civil society. While the Brotherhood insists on Morsi’s reinstatement, surely an unlikely prospect, the anti-Morsi coalition of liberals, secularists and Mubarak-era elites is determined to move on.

The newly installed interim president Adly Masour has appointed a 35-member cabinet led by an economist, Hazem el-Beblawi. General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who led the coup, is the first deputy prime minister and defence minister. Prominent anti-Morsi figure and ex-International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Mohamed ElBaradei is one of three acting vice presidents in the new administration, which has also dissolved the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated upper house of the Egyptian parliament.

The new administration is made up of technocrats and unelected people, establishing the armed forces as the real power. More than promises to hold elections, the military’s future course of action is vague at best.

The coup would have been inconceivable without millions of anti-Morsi Egyptians pouring out into the streets of Cairo and other cities. The protests offered the generals a justification to intervene on “behalf of the people.” To many, Morsi was his own worst enemy. In his short presidential tenure since winning the election by a wafer-thin majority a year ago, Morsi had alienated large sections of Egyptian society that had either not voted for him, or had supported him reluctantly.

Egypt’s Christians, about 10 per cent of the 85 million population, felt threatened by President Morsi, who was viewed as too Islamist and who had amassed too much power in the presidency. Liberal and women’s groups were deeply unhappy with the new constitution, which Morsi had pushed through just over six months ago.

His administration was unable to tackle the worsening economy, betraying the hopes of many Egyptians. For them, the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak was far from over. So, amid renewed demonstrations against Egypt’s elected head of state, the military removed President Morsi on “behalf of the people.”

However, there are problems with this narrative. The truth is that the Egyptian people are bitterly divided into the Morsi camp and the opposition, which in itself is fragmented. That Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood still enjoy substantial support among the poorest sections, especially in the countryside, is not in doubt. There are large demonstrations by Brotherhood supporters almost every day, and a military crackdown is going on against Brotherhood leaders and activists.

In one of the bloodiest incidents, more than 50 Morsi supporters were killed when soldiers shot at a crowd, said to be praying outside the headquarters of the Republican Guards. The swearing-in of the new cabinet took place amid continuing clashes in which lives were being lost. Morsi and other senior figures of the Brotherhood are either in custody or at large. He is under investigation for “spying, inciting violence and ruining the economy.” The leaders’ assets have been frozen.

These events do not bode well for Egypt and the wider Middle East. The military is back in power, and the most significant political movement, with grassroots support, is the target of repression. Leading opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood are collaborating with the military.

This experiment has failed decade after decade in Egypt, and the record of military coups leading to a smooth transition to real democracy is poor. The same educated liberal-secular middle classes that were in opposition to Morsi’s rule will soon be opposing the military regime. It is only a matter of time.

The two greatest risks for Egypt and the region are further radicalization and volatility.

There are credible reports that the military overthrow of President Morsi happened under the Obama administration’s close watch. On 6 July, the New York Times published an expose on the final hours of Morsi’s presidency, written by David D. Kirkpatrick and Mayy El Sheikh.

According to their account, the United States, through an Arab foreign minister acting as emissary, made a ‘final offer’ which would avoid a military coup: the appointment of a new prime minister and cabinet that would take over all legislative powers and replace Morsi’s chosen provincial governors.

For Morsi, it was a coup in all but name, and he refused. A telephone call between President Morsi’s top adviser, Essam el-Haddad, and President Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, followed. Rice informed him that a military takeover was about to begin, and a Morsi aide told another associate, “Mother just told that we will stop playing in an hour.” The State Department in Washington offered no comment on America’s role.

Washington’s response in the aftermath, and the announcement that the United States would go ahead with the supply of F16 aircraft to the Egyptian military, suggest that Washington’s priority is to see “controlled change” in Egypt. As clashes continued on the streets of Cairo, America’s deputy secretary of state William Burns met Egypt’s new leaders in the capital, telling them of President Obama’s firm commitment to help Egypt succeed in this “second chance” for democracy.

President Obama’s preferred scenario is to ensure that any political change in Egypt is under the supervision of the army, with a lesser role at best for the Muslim Brotherhood in governance in future. In its fundamentals, Washington’s latest remedy is no different from the past, since President Anwar Sadat broke with the Soviet Union in the 1970s, and joined the U.S. alliance.

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