In its editorial of March 25, the “New York Times” called on President Obama to “start planning for the possibility of a break in the alliance with Egypt”. The newspaper cited an open letter to the President signed by experts and former officials asking him to “confront” Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah Al Sissi over the issue of Cairo’s crackdown on NGO’s and human rights groups.
What was neglected in both the editorial and the letter was the central point of balancing pressure with overall strategic calculations. While Sissi may use the fight against terrorism as a cover for a crackdown on human rights groups, this, nevertheless, does not say if “confronting” him over the later would seriously hinder the former. In other words, it was not clear from the views expressed in both forms if preventing Sissi from getting away with the crackdown on human rights groups may indeed impede the fight against terrorism in the Middle East.
It was striking to find out that some of those who signed the open letter to the president were in the first lines of the cheerleaders of Iraq’s invasion and Libya’s war. It is even more striking that some of the signatories of the open letter, quoted by the “liberal” New York Times, are usually considered “conservatives”, and even “neo-conservatives”. It is either Al Sissi has turned to be the unifier of odd political views, or they both defend an indisputably clear and correct cause capable of unifying opposed views around one basic position.
But the cause in this case is neither indisputable nor clear or correct. The subject which both sides are raising is a little more complex and nuanced.
In the case of Libya, for example, no one questions that Qaddafi was a brutal dictator. As such, the choice was clear. One should either accept him, if one is fond of dictators, or wish he goes away, hoping that something better will emerge. If heavens granted the wish, as it indeed did, one may then start the wait for the better that will emerge.
But what if the alternative is much worse? That was indeed the conclusion of the tragic story of Libya after getting rid of its brutal dictator.
Sissi is not Qaddafi. And “Principled values” which should be “uncompromisingly defended” sound like youngsters’ vocabulary in a certain dreamy age. If pursuing values goes in a limitless arrow-straight line, it ends up with totally different results than those hoped for in the beginning. Since the Great French Revolution, and the Terror which followed, human societies have learned that very lesson the hard way, or they should have.
If we have an organism which includes within its envelope some very destructive elements, we should think twice before thinking of assisting in a process that gets it to burst from within and tears away its boundaries. For if it does, we would find each and every destructive element turning into a very dangerous organism on its own. In other words, we will get several destructive organisms to replace the one which we hoped to induce its transformation into a “better” being. If this word-better-exists in our plans only and not organically within the entity we seek to change, the result would be extremely disappointing.
The balance between values on the one hand and strategic calculations on the other is not a static formula. Priorities change according to a host of considerations. In the case of a region currently in the eye of a violent storm where wars and violence erupt everywhere, the priority should be stability. In other ordinary and stable circumstances, the priority could be anything else. Now, the cardinal objective is to bring the Middle East to a level of relative stability that may enable all, including Sissi, a larger margin of choices. The immediate mission now is to avoid further earthquakes and to improve the region’s general security environment.
Sissi is faced with a mission from hell to put his country back together. The economic situation is bad, the society is divided, the State machine is more to the side of a liability than to this of a helping hand, the urban youth are restless, corruption is a way of life, police force exceed its legitimate limits systematically, centers of power fight each other fiercely, and the Mubarak State is the only left-over that the Egyptian President has to do with. Furthermore, the concept of security is raw and unsophisticated and the rule of law is more a phrase than a reality.
All this is clear. Yet, it has to be placed in the general picture of a region in fire, and in its proper place in the list of priorities.
Furthermore, the threat of “the peaceful Islamists”, as the New York Times call them, is evident to all Egyptians. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) ruled Egypt for a year. Their President, Mohamed Morsi, issued a decree giving himself absolute authorities only six months after taking power. Churches were burned, Shia, a very small minority in Egypt, had their leaders killed savagely in the streets and liberal youth were called Kafirs (unbelievers). The MB embarked on a relentless and comprehensive effort to convert the whole society into adopting the one line of thought the group promotes. Secular and liberal Muslims were considered enemies. This does not sound like “peaceful Islamists”.
Furthermore, ISIL planted the seeds of its presence in Sinai then started advancing to the heart of the densely populated Nile valley. The country was being prepared to go the Syria or Libya roads.
We have seen the Obama administration moving between a position of supporting the MB and that of shyly distancing itself from them. There are some valuable insights into the shocking support given by Washington to a group that announces publicly that its ultimate objective is to build an Islamic Caliphate which, by definition, dissolves the determinants of the Nation State. That was going on, ironically, in the oldest nation on the face of planet earth: Egypt.
Christians in Egypt were told that the MB is having a message of peace to all of them. They just have to pay taxes for being “Kafirs” (non-believers), a tax that their Muslim compatriots would not pay, and never ring the bells of their Churches or build any new one in their own country. The MB dominated Parliament was debating lifting the minimum age of marriage for girls and a host of other terrifying legislations.
Human Rights? Peaceful Islamists?
Does this mean that we should keep silent towards atrocities committed against Egyptians by their own authorities? No. It does not. It simply means that those atrocities must be placed in their proper place in the bigger picture. And the bigger picture is the situation inside Egypt now and how it may develop tomorrow. This should in its turn be placed in its regional context, where an epic fight is raging against radical Jihadists and terrorism.
Ordinary human rights come in ordinary circumstances. Extraordinary conditions in Egypt and in the region, should allow a comprehensive view that gives things their proper weight.
But are these rights denied only because of the extraordinary conditions Egypt is currently going through?
No. And here is where the Egyptian President should be justly criticized. The Egyptian President is responsible for his security agencies’ brutality, which is, ironically, not needed in most cases. There must be a real rule of law in Egypt. Security agencies’ excesses have reached levels of absurdity indeed. This should stop as it hurts the Egyptian regime domestically and internationally. Brutality is politically and morally bankrupt and corrupt. And Cairo should get that loud and clear all the time, ordinary and extraordinary.
What to do with Sissi then? The Egyptian President should be helped in his mission to prevent another Libya in the heart of the Middle East. This is the central point which should come above any other consideration. Very few countries are extending a helping hand to Egypt in this sensitive cross roads it is going through. Instead of “confronting” Sissi, a recommendation that recklessly threatens to repeat the tragic stories of Libya and Syria, he should be provided with constructive, and practical ideas and mechanisms to deal with the challenges of the moment, including the necessity to respect civil society organizations and human rights groups, but mainly on how to cross the current economic difficulty which threatens the whole country.
And for those in the region who want to see Sissi shaking, the reasons why he is targeted with criticism apply to you also. Your turn will come. And if he shakes, a pillar in your own stability would shake as well.
All things considered, a constructive dialogue, not a reckless “confrontation” and “breaking relations” should start with Egypt in earnest. This is a moment when Egyptians will know who is standing by them, as a nation, and who is only happily appointing themselves the protectors of rights, all the while forgetting what they did with the rights of Libyans, Iraqis, Syrians and others in this unhappy region.