Friday Prayers for Egypt: Normalizing Ties?

Flag Cross Quran


You desire good relations. But politics is often about particular interests, and sometimes relationships go sour. Sometimes they are damaged beyond repair. Perhaps in some cases, an outright break is necessary and best.

So with Israel, Turkey, and the Muslim Brotherhood, God, help Egypt arrange her affairs properly. Feelers have gone out that perhaps a thaw is in the offering.

Egypt has had longstanding peace with Israel, but it has usually been cold. Formal relations were handled by the intelligence and security sectors, but recently the foreign minister visited Tel Aviv.

Diplomatic relations carry more normalcy, which is controversial in Egypt. But use his effort to further peace between Israel and Palestine, God. And shape policies and attitudes among peoples, so that warm relations will be possible also with Cairo.

Turkey, also, has been mending fences with Israel, and Russia beside. Egyptian ties severed after Morsi was removed from power, and both sides continue to criticize each other.

But there are also hints that maybe things can change. Interests, justice, and legitimacies are sometimes hard to reconcile on the international stage, God. But Egypt and Turkey are regional powers; coordination is preferred to conflict.

God, may Egypt, Israel, and Turkey bless the region and the world. Much must change to experience your ideal. Forgive and be merciful when your ways are neglected.

At heart, this is a mark of the Egypt-Brotherhood relationship. Both sides accuse the other of bloody and traitorous conspiring. Though the Brotherhood is less than a nation, it is more than a person. And their members belong to Egypt, no matter the legitimacy or substance of mutual acrimony.

But does their ideology? God, give both sides great wisdom. Rule justly between them; may every crime find proper punishment.

Help member, group, government, and nation to come to terms. The issues are too disputed to pray simply for reconciliation, when some pray for retribution and others eradication. Many on both sides would see normalization as a terrible compromise, even a defeat.

Even so, it seems some are trying cautiously. If from good and righteous intention, God, bless them. Bless also those who from similar moral clarity are strident to apply justice.

Sideline those of selfish ambition, but for all others scrub away their every impurity. May good men lead the nation well.

Give Egypt discernment, God, at home and abroad. May all true ties be strengthened. May peace, in place of struggle, soon become normal.



The Great Game

Diplomacy the Great Game

Growing up, I loved the game Diplomacy. Die-hard aficionados compete in hours-long, even days-long competitions vying for mastery of early 20th Century Europe. For both lack of sufficient passion — and players — I enjoyed the computer version.

The basic premise is to be one of the seven great powers at the time — England, France, Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Russia, or Turkey. Each nation is more or less equally matched at the start of the game, the point of which is to conquer the continent.

There are only a few basic rules to learn, and no dice. Winning is determined by best marshaling of forces, but primarily, through negotiations. No country is strong enough to win on its own; the empire usually turns on which ally will stab the other in the back first, but not prematurely.

Living and reporting in Egypt sometimes feels the same.

Especially during the high days of the revolution, so much didn’t make sense. Why is the (NDP, MB, US, insert your favorite actor here) acting against its interests? Or are they? Expand the question regionally and the changes were so rapid that it was hard to keep enough. Add enough conspiracy theory to fill in the gap, debate control vs. competency, and it is no wonder so few have been able to predict the outcomes.

Part of the problem is living in the middle of it all. Diplomacy, after all, is an overhead look. The ‘Great Game of Nations’ is won and lost in boardrooms, over phone calls.

And in this spirit, this recent article by Brookings takes a look at the region:

There is no place in the world today where chaos is more prevalent and the reestablishment of order more critical than the Middle East. The “great game” between rival great powers may have originated in Central Asia but it found its most intense expression at the “crossroads of empire” in the Middle East. As long as American interests are still engaged the United States cannot desist from playing it.

The US used to rely on regional pillars, it argues, specifically Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. These nations could be relied upon to maintain the status quo.

This worked well up until the aftermath of 9/11. The US abandoned the status quo in effort to remake Iraq. The Arab Spring also introduced a wild card.

In the process, the existing order collapsed and has been replaced by failing states, ungoverned areas, and the rise of Al Qaeda and ISIS. One should not be too nostalgic for the old order: its stability was regularly punctured by conflicts and coups and purchased at the price of repression.

The article criticizes President Obama for reacting to regional crises on a piecemeal basis. A grand strategy is needed, and the author sees two possibilities:

1. Joint Condominium with Iran: The essence of this approach is for the United States to concede Iran’s dominance in the Gulf in return for its agreement to curb its nuclear program, reduce its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad in Gaza, the Houthis in Yemen, and Basher al-Assad in Syria and contribute instead to the construction of a new regional American-Iranian order.

2. Back to the Future: This approach would require the United States to return to its dependence on its traditional allies in the region: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Turkey. The objective of this renewed “pillars” strategy would be to restore the old order based on the containment of Iran, the roll-back of its advances in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and the curbing of its nuclear program. This same coalition of traditional allies would then have the sense of security to work more effectively with the United States against ISIS and Al Qaeda.

The author recognizes the difficulties in each strategy, but in part two of his article argues for option #2.

Fair enough. It is not my point here to argue one way or another, but to remark the sanity that is restored by having a ‘great game’ lens through which to interpret events. In each crisis a push-and-pull dynamic can be seen, and at times the American administration appears to be at odds with itself.

Do we want an Iran deal, or not? Do we prefer Arab autocracies, or political Islam? The questions are endless, and beyond the direct interests of the US regional rivalries are at play as well.

One in particular is aptly described by Foreign Affairs, analyzing Egypt and Turkey. Like Brookings, it begins with chaos:

The chaos in the Middle East has tested many relationships, not least the one between Egypt and Turkey. Shortly after the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Turkey became one of Egypt’s chief regional supporters. When the new president, Mohammad Morsi, was himself pushed out of office in 2013, Turkey shifted course. With General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in power in Egypt, Turkey quickly became one of the country’s main adversaries in the Levant.

In the earlier analysis, both represent US interests in the pillars strategy. As such their rivalry is serious:

In the immediate term, it seems likely that the regional rivalry between Egypt and Turkey will exacerbate the Libyan civil war. Further out, it could throw the whole region in to worse chaos.

Reading the Egypt-Turkey article, it was easy to see the development of events. But through the lens of Brookings, it is not easy to see why. Clearly Turkey favors the Muslim Brotherhood. But good relations between nations in business and coordination can continue under any government. It almost feels as if Turkey feels that Sisi threw a wrench into a well-developed plan.

Such plans are part and parcel of great game thinking, but they are also only one step removed from conspiracy thinking. Egypt is full of ideas that Sisi has defended the nation — indeed, the region — from the schemes of US-Israeli-Qatari-Turkish efforts to remake the region. And given how strongly Saudi Arabia and the UAE have supported Egypt, there are definitely different agendas at play.

But what are they?

As much as great game thinking can give a sense of sanity, it also threatens to eliminate agency. As I spin my wheels to understand the region, I sometimes feel every article I read — or even write — is subjugated to someone else’s larger purpose. That is not to accuse respected journalists and analysts of bias, though sometimes I wonder. Rather, it is that any article about human rights in Egypt, or about the duplicity of the Brotherhood, or or or, winds up fitting in to some version of a great game agenda.

The news is not neutral, even if the reporters strive to be.

What then to do? Continue striving. Everyone else is, even those actively manipulating, whether engaged in conspiracies or only propagating the theories.

But the main ones striving are the ordinary people who actually make events happen. Maybe the (US, MB, Egyptian army, insert your favorite actor here) actually desired a revolution. But they did not go down to the streets.

Striving also are those who did not go down to the streets, but could have. Fulan al-Masry [the Arabic equivalent of John Doe] is as real a person as Barack Obama. Both deserve to have their stories told well.

Is this only a hopeful faith in agency, where all real decisions are made by those with power? Maybe. But to conclude with a different kind of faith:

He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises up others. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning.

Maybe this also is a misplaced faith. But it too is a lens for a better sanity. God will achieve his purposes in the world, through and in spite of the strivings of all.

So we might as well strive for what is right and good. Anyone doing otherwise risks being of the devil. And the devil, in diplomacy or otherwise, is in the details.


Two Years of a Shrunken State

From the Arabist:

This is a useful follow-up to the previous post on diplomacy:

Perhaps the only viable way to get the state to function is for the Brothers to offer the opposition enough reassurance that major political forces together could reach consensus on the illegitimacy of violent protest. If Egypt’s political forces acted in unison — a general appeal for order, or for justice to take its course, or for disputes to be resolved in parliament rather than in the street — these have a powerful calming effect. The Interior Ministry, for example, has called for such an appeal to “patriotic forces” to calm Port Said.

The opposition would probably not try to coax protesters out of Tahrir, nor would it be necessary — the square can probably remain an open-air museum of the revolution as the state rebuilds itself elsewhere. But a joint appeal for order would at least contain street violence and push Egypt’s flare-ups of violence to become less frequent and bloody.

The opposition knows however that to stand alongside the Brothers would be handing Morsi a major concession. The National Salvation Front has demanded as the price for its cooperation that a committee be empowered to amend the constitution. If Morsi’s objective in pushing through the constitution in December was to provide some security for his administration — ie, to prevent the Supreme Court’s from topping off its dissolution of parliament by pushing Morsi out of office, as Brothers said they suspected might happen — then perhaps he would take that risk.

But the first articles targeted would be ones that circumscribe civil rights with religion. The Brothers have in theory agreed to revisiting the constitution. If the Brothers are committed to aggressively Islamicizing society, or if they are worried about having their Islamic credentials challenged by the Salafis, they aren’t going to give the opposition what it wants.

This is an excellent analysis of why the opposition is being somewhat mum on all the street violence. Conspiracy will say they started it, but they are not standing in the way. In fact, rightly in a sense, they lay the burden of responsibility on the state. Ongoing violence is a function of state ineptitude and political intransigence.

So after sidelining the opposition to get what they wanted (i.e. the constitution), Morsi now calls them back for dialogue – but as above – will he be willing to pay the price? It is as if the opposition is saying: You cheated to get your constitution, we’ll cheat to take it back.

Islamists may say the opposition has been cheating from the beginning, but this only opens up the conspiracies even further, which most liberals are happy to slap back at the Brotherhood. It gets Egypt nowhere.

The only thing that will, as the author suggests, is consensus. Can it be found? If not, what is the price?


Diplomacy is Dead

From the New York Times:

DIPLOMACY is dead.

Effective diplomacy — the kind that produced Nixon’s breakthrough with China, an end to the Cold War on American terms, or the Dayton peace accord in Bosnia — requires patience, persistence, empathy, discretion, boldness and a willingness to talk to the enemy.

This last point is crucial. One must always talk, and listen. Yes, even the fact of talking grants a measure of legitimacy, and it can be said this should not be freely offered. One reason why Hamas refuses to acknowledge the Jewish State of Israel is that they feel this is must be an end result of negotiation, not its starting point. But even so, Israel and Hamas have been communicating for years, through back channels.

Speaking of Hamas:

Breakthrough diplomacy is not conducted with friends. It is conducted with the likes of the Taliban, the ayatollahs and Hamas. It involves accepting that in order to get what you want you have to give something. The central question is: What do I want to get out of my rival and what do I have to give to get it? Or, put the way Nixon put it in seeking common ground with Communist China: What do we want, what do they want, and what do we both want?

Earlier in the article the author mentioned Egypt as a mini-success of Obama’s diplomacy, and he may have a point. Many here in Egypt’s opposition see the current situation as a negotiated settlement between the US, the military, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Each one has gotten something that they want. The opposition, meanwhile, feels left out in the cold.

But here is where diplomacy’s rubber meets the road. For the idealist, it is painful. But did the opposition get what it wants? There is the beginnings of a democratic system which can be continually contested. They just didn’t win.

Maybe. But to voice their complaint, what did the Brotherhood get? Access to the reigns of power has limits – the army is off limits, as is any real tension with Israel – but comes with great privilege. Some see this privilege extending to be able to manipulate the situation (democratic as it may remain) for their own benefit. What does this give America? As goes the theory, stability in the region.

So, diplomacy, if this picture is true, is it good enough?

For America, perhaps. The task of international diplomacy is to secure the interests, and not the ideals, of the home nation. If Egyptians only get a manipulated democracy that allows the US to check off the accomplishments of its own internal ideals, of what major concern is this to America?

But that is no reason for the Egyptian opposition to accept the situation. They have their own diplomacy to worry about. And part of diplomacy is overstating your case in negotiation. It is conceivable they have quite exaggerated the manipulations of the Brotherhood.

But do the events of yesterday, the second anniversary of the revolution, suggest that the opposition is abandoning diplomacy?

Diplomacy achieves an imperfect solution, but tends to avert war and violence, which usually are far less perfect for all parties involved. But goodness, is it maddening.