Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Egypt, the Arab Spring, and the US

Establishment international relations analysts in the West view the justification for their existence in terms of the utility their work has for decision makers. They often end their articles in academic journals with policy prescriptions for government officials. This partly helps explain the wide disparities in coverage and analysis of comparable conflicts and political events around the world: protests in Turkey are discussed in great detail, those in Bulgaria ignored; a war where millions die in the Congo is side-lined, but conflict in Syria has thousands of pages of analysis dedicated to it. This reflects, in part, the relative strategic priority assigned to different events and nations by the government of the state the analysts call their home. Most IR work is carried out in the US, and so they spend their time studying and coming up with policy prescriptions for areas the US considers to house its vital strategic interests; the Middle East is far more important to the US than Central Africa, and so the corresponding volume of academic analysis dedicated to the two regions reflects the incongruity in importance US planners and policy makers assign to the two areas.

I write this because recent events betray this fact in its entirety. Since the June 30th protests in Egypt several articles about the situation have already appeared on Foreign Affairs, the journal published by the Council on Foreign Relations (probably the largest establishment institution for IR analysis). Having several articles published on the website of possibly the main IR journal two days after a political event is notable. It signifies that analysts believe urgent policy advice is needed for US governmental planners for the Middle East; it signifies that the US considers Egypt to be a country of major importance to US interests.

There is ample evidence to suggest that this is the case and ample reason why it would be. Egypt, the most populous Arab country, is located right at the heart of the Arab world in an incredibly important geo-political location. The Suez Canal is the connection between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, the sea route between East and West. The Sinai Peninsula connects Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, and is a historic locus of political strife involving Israel, Egypt and outside powers. Egypt is known as the ‘heartland of Arab discontent’, with a tradition of revolution and uprising; Nasser was once one of the biggest enemies of the West for his anti-imperialism and attempted moves towards Arab independence. What happens in Egypt effects the rest of the region, and what happens in the region effects the rest of the world.

It then comes as little surprise that the Egyptian military receives more military aid from the US- around $1.3 billion a year- than any other country in the world, bar Israel. US troops are stationed in the Sinai (more are being moved there currently), and close relations between the US and Egyptian governments have been entrenched since the days of Sadat.

The Arab Spring is a complex phenomenon that has been subject to many competing interpretations. The situation in Egypt is in many ways evidence of a true revolution taking place; democratic transformations don’t happen overnight. Sheri Berman detailed in Foreign Affairs the other month how most modern democracies had years long, sometimes generational struggles to achieve the gains they have today, on occasion even descending into civil war before coming out the other end (the US is a prime example). Those upheavals which we uncontroversially describe as ‘revolutions’ today often took years, and smaller events which were at the time described as revolutions, like those in the 2000s in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, will probably not be judged as such by history.

The struggle in Egypt has been characterised as taking on three parts- against the Mubarak government in 2011, against the SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) regime in 2012, and against the new Morsi government in 2013. But there is another underlying and pervasive struggle against counter-revolutionary forces present which is often missed. As Tariq Ali claimed in New Left Review a couple of months ago, ‘any adequate analysis of the outcomes of the Arab Spring must reckon with Washington’s tight defence of its interests in the region’ (‘Between Past and Future’; New Left Review; 2013 (80)) . This isn’t merely leftist dogmatism; a careful reading of the establishment journals and a close look at US policy reveals as much. Writing in the same issue as Sheri Berman, Seth Jones of the conservative RAND Corporation gave a realistic assessment of US policy during the Arab Spring. According to him, the US and its allies ‘need to protect their strategic interests in the region- balancing against rogue states such as Iran, ensuring access to energy resources, and countering violent extremists. Achieving these goals will require working with some authoritarian governments’ (‘The Mirage of the Arab Spring’; Foreign Affairs; 2013; 92(1)). This is more or less what the US is doing and should be doing, according to him. He is honest when he states that ‘a number of authoritarian Arab countries… are essential partners in protecting [US] interests’. However the key piece of analysis comes at the end of the article, where he states that the reality is ‘that some democratic governments in the Arab world would almost certainly be more hostile to the United States than their authoritarian predecessors, because they would be more responsive to the populations of their own countries’, which he goes on to show are highly unsupportive of the US role in the region (i.e. in 2012 19% of Egyptians had a favourable view of the US, according to a Pew Research poll).

Jones inadvertently hit the nail on the head. He recognises that democracy is actually one of the biggest threats the US faces in the Arab world, something to be combated at all costs, at least for as long as the US defines its interests in a way counter to the wishes of the majority of the population. As Jones realises, any move towards democracy would make Arab governments ‘more responsive to the populations of their countries’, and since the vast majority of the populations want the US out of their country, to have domestic control over their country’s resources and foreign policies, and to have an economy run in the interests of the majority of the population, then almost by definition the US must be opposed to democracy in the region, Egypt included. And indeed US actions have shown this to be the case. Jones, for his part, concludes from this that it is quite proper for the US to be opposing democracy in the Middle East- and using his warped logic that is a rational course to take. For the sane majority, however, we should conclude the opposite: that the US should leave the region in accordance with the wishes of the population.

More to come on Egypt as events unfold. 

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