Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Bam! The Army Takes It Up a Notch

Violence overtly directed against political protesters in Cairo reached a crescendo in mid-December 2011, and then abated.  Just as US policy makers were breathing a sigh of relief that their bet on a democratic Egypt had paid off, the generals pushed things up a notch.  Or three.  Just the bits that made the international press are hair-raisingly disturbing:  at least 74 deaths in one of the deadliest soccer disasters in history, raids on the offices of half a dozen organizations whose aim was supporting democratic transition, and the indictment of 43 people—Egyptians and others—on charges of using foreign funds to undermine the state and partition the country. 

Those who believe that Egypt’s military is under the control of the United States may want to take another look.  The ruling military council has challenged President Barack Obama and the Congress who are most likely to take it sitting down.  Perhaps even more important they have moved significantly to restrict the activities of Egyptian activists concerned with human rights, the rule of law, and civil society which have been the slogans beloved of US policy makers even when they did little to forward them.

Field Marshal Tantawi’s initial reaction—seconded by regime supporters—to the soccer disaster was that these events could have happened anywhere.  He saw it as a brawl between fans (Ultras) of the visiting Ahly team and the hometown Masri team in the industrial city of Port Said on February 2.  It was, in short, the kind of thing you should expect when the soccer hooligans who fought the police in downtown Cairo in late November and early December took to the road.  Left unspoken but certainly recognized in Washington and Jerusalem was that the Ultras were intimately involved in the assault on the Israeli embassy in September.  Egypt has had its share of soccer brawls but this, it must be repeated, was not simply a case of rowdy fans tearing up the town (which indeed has indeed happened in earlier matches between these teams); it had one of the highest death tolls of any soccer match disaster ever.  It was the kind of disaster more generally associated with collapsing stands and massive panic than with fights between rivals. That’s because, as long as the police play their expected role, it’s very difficult (although not wholly impossible) to generate large casualties through individual violence.

The violence may have begun with rivalry and taunting or it may have begun with the activities of hired thugs.  What seems to have made it really deadly were two contributing factors.  First, the police largely stood aside from beginning to end.  Evidently the customary pre-game searches weren’t undertaken.  And once the violence erupted the television footage of the events shows the police standing aside.  Indeed as members of the audience erupted on to the field and chased down the Ahly players you can see them running past a double phalanx of helmeted and shield bearing police in the direction of the dressing rooms.  And as the crowd panicked they ran into locked gates that prevented their exit and, of course, ensured that dozens of people would die in the crush.  As of now these are not merely press reports but have found their way into a parliamentary report and may rise to the level of criminal negligence.

The soccer disaster is now called a massacre.  It has been widely interpreted, by foreign observers, by many Egyptians and certainly by the Ultras, as a deliberate attempt to get revenge for their opposition to the regime on the streets.  It is also the kind of event for which political leaders would, in a democracy, be expected to take responsibility whether in the form of resignations or public apologies but Egypt’s present governors are no more inclined to either of those paths than previous ones.

Besides increased conflict with domestic opponents, the military council has also increased tension with its foreign partners, notably the US by raiding the offices of half a dozen organizations committed to building civil society and indicting 43 people.  Nineteen of those indicted are American of whom 6 are currently in Egypt and have been refused permission to leave.  One of the six, Sam LaHood, is the son of the US Secretary of Transportation.  The organizations include Freedom House as well as two foundations funded by the US Congress through the State Department (the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute) to support civil society and democratic transition around the world.  They have trained activists around the world but they have also been involved in funding research into a very sensitive area: voter fraud.  

The American press and punditocracy has been set back on its heels by the Egyptian army’s assault on the American foundations.  How, after all, can a client state that has received billions of dollars from the US since the days of Jimmy Carter turn on its patron? Leaving aside the foolish arrogance of the question, it is worth considering that the Egyptian general staff, like the rest of the world, follows the American media.  They are aware that Barack Obama is not anxious, especially in the period before an election, to engage in unnecessary conflict.  Even if they did not follow the debt limit debate, they have an ambassador who did.  They were also aware that the Republicans in Congress were already considering using aid as a means to pressure the new government especially in the wake of the assault on the Israeli embassy.  At some point in their military training they were undoubtedly introduced to the idea that the best defense is an offense and most of them were on active duty as young officers in 1967.  It is therefore not so surprising that they struck at the US before it could strike at them.  Neither the Congressional Republicans nor the Democratic president have, especially in the present regional environment, a desire to complicate relations with Egypt.  By a neat act of political jujitsu, moreover, the generals have made it clear that the Camp David treaty and the cold peace with Israel now work wholly to their advantage.  Leaders of the Muslim Brothers have suggested that if US aid to Egypt ends so will the treaty.  Whether that would really happen is not something either President Obama or Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has been notably quiet about events in Egypt ever since the attack on his country’s embassy in September, want to discover.  After some initial bluster the Republicans have said little and even the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has been remarkably quiet about a military regime that in other circumstances they might describe as holding half a dozen American hostages.

Yezid Sayegh has argued that Egypt can do without the aid.  It is true Egypt today is also a very different country than the one that first received American aid.  In 1980, American aid of $1.5-2 billion loomed very large in an Egyptian economy whose GDP was about $22 billion.  In today’s Egypt where the GDP was in 2010 almost $250 billion, that aid is miniscule.  It is also negligible for the generals if they indeed, as now seems to be widely believed, control 40% of the economy.  In 1980, moreover, Egypt was extremely short of hard currency; today thanks in part to the widely despised neoliberal reforms the Egyptian pound is convertible. 

One of the puzzling aspects of the way the military authorities in Cairo have chosen to deploy coercion in months since the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak is how much they have used against marginal groups of protesters and how little they have used against protests that posed a significant threat to authority, public safety and the economy.  As many Egyptians have noted and as I will deal with in the next entry, the government is facing a serious challenge to both to its authority and to the coherence of its institutions from Alexandria to Asyut.  Many, but not all, of these challenges arise from assaults on Christians.  How seriously army commanders take the substance of these assaults is one question but they have clearly worked to undermine and entangle state officials in a web of anti-constitutional activity.

The arrests and closures of the NGOs have a clear target inside Egypt as well as outside it.  There is no reason to diminish the importance of persistent attempts by the generals to deploy xenophobia.  They have spoken of hidden hands and threats to divide the country since March 2011.  They have wrapped themselves in the mantle of sovereignty since the early days of their rule and when they refused to allow the official participation of foreign observers in the election.  What is new here is that the assault on foreign funding has a direct bearing on Egyptians and not simply those who worked for the NGOs.

In Egypt, as in Europe but unlike the US, judges both investigate cases and provide the initial trial of facts.  The press conference at which the investigating judges explained the indictments had a certain dramatic flair.  They reiterated that they were simply acting in accordance with existing Egyptian law and dealing with violations.  Cloaking themselves in the mantle of law and order, they implicitly placed the US (and Germany) in the position of either accepting the principle and the indictments or rejecting them and thus undermining the principles they have claimed to support.  It was a stance that American policy makers will find difficult to reject unless they wish to mount a wholesale attack on the fairness of the judicial system in the post-revolutionary era.  And since these trials will be in the civil courts, not the military courts, it is hard to see how US officials can reasonably oppose them in the wake of the revolution.

First, as many Egyptians have noted the military is more concerned with foreign funds that flow to secular human rights organizations than that flow into the coffers of the Salafis and Muslim Brothers.   I have no all-embracing answer but there are some possibilities that have not yet been explored elsewhere.

It is not well known that the NDI and IRI, in addition to funding workshops on political participation (which even members of the Salafi Nour party attended), had also begun to experiment in supporting research on voting fraud.  There have been some allegations of fraud in the recent elections (for example by the blogger Sandmonkey) although most accounts describe the election process as relatively fair and free of overt intervention.  Electoral fraud as well as outright repression have, however, provoked widespread anger in the last several decades and were clearly an important ingredient in popular unrest in the wake of an obviously fraudulent parliamentary election in 2010.  This is unlikely to be an area of research that Egypt’s political leaders are going to wish to see pursued.

Even more peculiar than the indictments of the American foundations, is the indictment of Andreas Jacobs, director of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.  The Adenauer Foundation, as its name might imply, is a German organization of moderate aims.  Unlike the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, more closely identified with social democracy, the Adenauer Foundation is a child of German Christian Democracy and espouses scientific policy analysis.  Jacobs is a political scientist who has headed the Foundation’s Cairo office since 2007 and was planning on leaving soon.  He wrote, for example, a brief article for the German publication Qantara in December 2011 that suggested the revolution had not brought about significant structural change but by then such analyses were commonplace. 

The indictment of Jacobs is, however, a threat to Egyptians who participated in conferences he agreed to provide funding for.  Because he was seriously interested in the country’s intellectual life this would cut a wide swathe among intellectuals, writers, and public servants.  Whether they would be legally susceptible is less important in the current atmosphere than that they would be politically on the defensive.

            These events are troubling enough on their own but coupled with what amounts to the emergence of a social movement that thrives on attacking Christians and substituting “popular” justice for the court system, they are even more so.