M. K. BHADRAKUMAR
If the popular upsurge in Cairo sweeps away the military establishment, the U.S.’ strategy to harness the Arab Spring will have to be reworked all over again.
The events unfolding in Tahrir Square in Cairo are epochal. A cross section of the Egyptian society — youth, intellectuals, workers, Islamists — has converged on Tahrir. Their demand resonates in a single word: “Erha! (Leave!”). It is a call to the remnants of the authoritarian system of the Hosni Mubarak era to quit, so that Egypt’s incomplete revolution of February can be successfully rounded off. A bloody crackdown seems no more sustainable.
The protestors are demanding that the military should return to the barracks from where they marched out into the civilian world nearly six decades ago in 1952 under the charismatic leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser. However, as of now, the military continues to probe where the fault lines run within the opposite camp. The political discourse principally dwells on the supremacy of elected civilian governments in a democratic environment. In a manner of speaking, it is a strain of the regional malady of a civil-military “imbalance” that has its roots in the political culture that Turkey spawned. The Egyptian military demands a “Turkish model” of democratic governance. Surely, Turkey cannot influence the course of events in Egypt, which is an ancient nation that is disdainful of Ottoman claims to grandeur. All the same, the “Turkish model” bears some scrutiny in the emergent context in Egypt.
The “Turkish model” rejected the concept of civilian supremacy in a democracy. The civilian governments exercised no control over the military, while the latter claimed to be the Praetorian Guards of the state founded by Kemal Ataturk. The military incessantly invoked Ataturk’s legacy to insert itself into the making of national policy and repeatedly intervene to change elected governments it didn’t like. The present government headed by Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, who is an immensely popular figure, has asserted civilian supremacy and much depends on how he follows through by rewriting the Turkish constitution and making the democratisation of the Turkish state a fait accompli. The Turks accept that the answer to their country’s problems may lie in having more democracy and the unparalleled economic prosperity also gives them a belief in the brave new world.
Suffice to say, Turkey’s democratisation process is happening within a certain uniquely “Anatolian” environment, so to speak. A major factor has been that Mr. Erdogan’s reform programme was necessitated by the accession requirements for European Union membership and, thus, it bore the imprimatur of the western liberal democracies (which also raised its comfort level for Turkey’s western-minded elites). An engrossing detail of much consequence has been the stance taken by the United States, which was largely helpful. Washington could have incited the pashas to shake off the harness that Mr. Erdogan put around their necks. But it didn’t.
How this intriguing performance can quite repeat ditto over Egypt is the big question. The mass upsurge in Tahrir demanding vacation of the political space by the Egyptian military junta puts the Barack Obama administration in a tight spot. The U.S. wields enormous clout over the Egyptian top brass, given the $1.5-billion military aid that it provided annually to Cairo ever since the Camp David accord and the umbilical cords that tie the Egyptian military establishment to its U.S. (and Israeli) counterparts.
The top echelons of the Egyptian armed forces are weaned in the American military academies and have vested interests in the perpetuation of the close links with the Pentagon. (Like the Turkish pashas, Egyptian generals also maintain a lavish lifestyle, which they won’t easily give up.) Clearly, Washington has good enough reasons to trust the Egyptian military leadership to continue with the same old regional policies that Cairo dutifully pursued under Hosni Mubarak.
On the contrary, the political forces clamouring from the barricades in Tahrir stand beyond the pale of U.S. influence. The spectre that haunts the U.S. is that in a free election, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood may win the most seats in a new parliament. Although there are low-key contacts between the U.S. and the Muslim Brothers, a “constructive engagement” is yet to mature and Washington cannot but be concerned about the policy orientations of any civilian government that emerges in Cairo in the present circumstances. Thus, Washington took a safe stance of calling on both sides — military junta and the unarmed protestors — to show “restraint.”
A host of contrarian trends comes into play. Arguably, the U.S. comprehends that the legitimacy question involving the Middle Eastern autocratic regimes lies at the core of the region’s instability. The U.S. is also capable of the requisite pragmatism to deal with the forces of Islamism if that serves its geopolitical interests. A lot of ground has been covered in the recent period in building contacts with various Islamist groups in the Middle East. In Tunisia, the U.S. acquiesced with the ascendancy of Ennahda. Washington didn’t lose sleep over the Islamist elements within the Libyan opposition; it trusted Doha to duly “handle” them (which it is doing). Nor is the U.S. perturbed that the intelligence agencies of close allies like Saudi Arabia and Jordan are actively financing and assisting violent Islamist elements in their campaign to overthrow the Syrian regime. Even in Afghanistan, if only the Pakistani ally could put together the broth, U.S. officials would readily sup with the Haqqanis.
Broadly speaking, the Islamist forces in the Middle East are home-grown movements with popular base and it is only through an inclusive approach of accommodating them can political stability be ensured on an enduring basis. Thus, the U.S. is showing political realism selectively by exploring the possibilities that may exist in trying over time to influence (or corrupt — depending on one’s point of view) the ideology-based Islamist groups and get them to abandon the straight path rooted in the dogmas of justice and resistance. The U.S’ Persian Gulf allies have shown remarkable genius to bring money power into play in the politics of Islamism in the Middle East — especially Qatar, which is today punching far above its weight in Libya and Syria. Ironically, it is here that the Islamists of Turkey may offer a role model in the politics of Islamism — how to gracefully succumb to the persuasions of “green money.”
On the other hand, the U.S. also needs to weigh in certain compelling, near-term considerations affecting the geopolitics of the region: the likely policies of a future democratic regime in Cairo on the Egypt-Israel peace accords and the security cooperation between the two countries; Cairo’s dealings with Hamas and other “non-state actors” and its stance on the Palestine problem and the Arab-Israeli conflict; and, the likelihood of a warming up of ties between Cairo and Tehran. The last one is particularly crucial since the containment of Iran lies at the core of the U.S’s Middle East strategy, whereas the prevailing Egyptian popular opinion (Islamist and secular alike) happens to be to seek to normalise ties with Iran. The Egyptian Islamists and secularists also lack the appetite for playing sectarian Sunni-Shi’ite politics, which, in turn, would present a level playing field for Iran in Cairo under a democratic dispensation.
Most important, Egypt is the “brain” of Arabism and what happens in Cairo in the coming days — with the revolutionary fervour resurging, reclaiming lost territory and restoring primacy in the political discourse — is going to impact profoundly on the politics of the entire region. Actually, Turkey has been a mere pretender to claim the status of a role model in the Arab world. The plain truth is that Egypt never vacated its leadership even in the darkest years since the Camp David accords and that is also how the Arab world is watching the events unfolding in Tahrir — be it in the borderlands of Yemen or Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. In sum, the U.S. strategy to harness the Arab Spring within a new political framework aimed at perpetuating the western regional hegemony in the Middle East in a manner that doesn’t appear to be overbearing needs to be reworked all over again if the popular upsurge in Cairo sweeps away the Egyptian military junta.
On the Middle Eastern landscape, an epochal break with the past through a popular upsurge happened only once in the recent decades — in Iran in 1978. And the results were disastrous for the U.S’s geostrategy. Unsurprisingly, there is great uneasiness in Washington. But Tahrir offers a brilliant opportunity for the Barack Obama administration to showcase its regional policy. On the Arab street, all eyes are trained on Washington.
The odds are that Mr. Obama is tempted to grasp the nettle and take up the challenging offer by the Muslim Brothers to be held accountable and wedded to democratic intentions and religious tolerance. Of course, it needs a leap of faith on Mr. Obama’s part, But more than that, as a politician seeking re-election himself, his main worry narrows down to how the Israeli Lobby and the Republicans would forgive him for being party to the rise of the Muslim Brothers to power in Egypt.
(The writer is a former diplomat.)