Saturday,16 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1290, (7 - 13 April 2016)
Saturday,16 December, 2017
Issue 1290, (7 - 13 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Calls for sanctioning Egypt?

A recent New York Times editorial fundamentally misunderstands what is currently underway in Egypt, writes Yassin El-Ayouty

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Even a reputable newspaper like The New York Times slips occasionally into the realm of the absurd. The unreasonable, the ridiculous, the war-like. Since its founding in 1851, its motto has been “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”

Judging those words by an editorial dated 26 March, that journalistic promise has induced in me not concern but derision and contempt. Why? It was the newspaper’s vacuous advocacy of aggressive meddling in Egypt’s internal affairs.

Under the title “Time to Rethink Relations with Egypt,” the paper’s editorial called not only for the unwise but for worse, the unimplementable. Here are its main false assertions followed by rebuttals.

A faulty assertion: In the summer of 2013, “the Egyptian military took power in a coup.”

A rebuttal: from June 2012 to June 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood’s reign of Islamisation and terror was leading Egypt towards a bloody civil war. The then defence minister, now president, Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s negotiations with the then president Mohamed Morsi, who had presided over that descent, failed to produce a result. Responding to the call by 35 million Egyptian demonstrators, “a road map” agreed by the national civilian forces, including the Coptic Church, produced an interim secular administration headed by venerable jurist Adli Mansour.

In June 2014, Al-Sisi was chosen for the presidency over Hamdeen Sabahi, a moderate Islamist, in open and internationally-observed elections. The fact that Al-Sisi was at that time defence minister does not stamp his selection, by popular will, with the totalitarian stamp of a military putschist. Al-Sisi ascended to the presidency of Egypt through an orderly transfer of power.

Prior to the installation of Al-Sisi as president, the Morsi regime, now recalled by the electorate, clung to the myth of “legitimacy by the popular choice of June 2012.” But that legitimacy, originally supported by the neutral might of the armed forces, was destroyed by the Muslim Brotherhood. Until now, it still clings to the propagandistic myth of “legitimacy,” (shariyah). The Brotherhood’s unforgiveable sin was to assume power through democracy and then to subvert that into an instrument to turn Egypt into an Islamist province.

When you board a bus, your ticket of admission as a passenger is not a license to hijack that vehicle. The terms of your purchase are clear: ride peacefully, or get off. For if you don’t, you are no longer a rider. You are a criminally offending usurper. This was the status of Morsi and his Brotherhood during their one year as “rough riders.” The bus driver, the Egyptian electorate, threw them off the national bus. It was a self-inflicted wound by the Brotherhood, and it was not engineered by Al-Sisi. The fault was the Brotherhood’s, presided over by its dictatorial “guidance bureau.”

One of the Brotherhood’s “supreme guides” once declared “to Hell with Egypt.” The nation simply responded by saying “to Hell with the Brotherhood.” I quote from an article in Arabic by Mohamed Noman Galal, Egypt’s former ambassador to China, which appeared in the newspaper Al-Wasat on 28 March. “It is Egypt’s brave army which assured Egypt’s safety and peace, saving the country from collapse. This is because it is a national army which has deep faith in its homeland. Unlike in other Arab countries, the Egyptian army is not the army of the president, nor is it a sectarian army battling for a particular tribe or sect.”

A second faulty assertion: “Egypt’s human rights abuses become ever harder to overlook.”

A rebuttal: And who are you to judge? Egypt is not a US protectorate. With the exception of the crime of genocide, the question of human rights is essentially a domestic matter. It has been globally shown that uninvited interventions in the internal affairs of other states have always backfired. This has been true even of interventions, as has been the case in most cases of American unwanted intervention, by proxies either of the internal type or the external type calling themselves “human rights / civil society organisations.”

The New York Times cites what it calls “Egypt’s crackdown on peaceful Islamists, independent journalists and human rights activists.” It quotes from “leading American Middle East experts.” It warns against “authoritarian rule, leaving few if any Egyptians free to investigate mounting abuses by the state.” It decries “arbitrary imprisonment of tens of thousands of Egyptians... and extrajudicial killings.”

All of the above reflect an imperialist approach towards the affairs of proud nations like Egypt. Egypt is not America’s burden. America should simply “butt out.” Even if one followed the colonialist and interventionist approach of The New York Times, the following questions should be asked.

Were there “peaceful Islamists” at the bloody standoffs, lasting for six weeks (3 July to 14 August, 2013), between the occupiers of two public squares in the heart of the country’s capital? Adamantly refusing the entreaties of the forces of law and order to peacefully disband and despite well-publicised exits for safe passage? Shouldn’t The New York Times judge the reactions to such provocations by the standard of the US authorities’ crackdown on Occupy Wall Street movement or the Black Lives Matter movement?

The battles of August 2013 in the public squares of Rabaa and Orman in Cairo did not have to occur. They were avoidable, except that the overthrown Brotherhood was acting upon its oath which includes the assertion that “death for the sake of Allah is our most cherished wish.” In America, we call this “suicide by cop,” meaning goading the police to open fire.

A third faulty assertion: “when president Morsi was overthrown, senior American officials dithered... [hoping] that this would be merely a bump on Cairo’s road towards becoming a democracy.”

A rebuttal: Egypt’s democracy is on track. The road map of July 2013 has now been implemented with the inauguration of the new parliament in March 2016. It needs no outside evaluator or overseer. Such monitoring is the most obnoxious form of intervention in the internal affairs of other states.



ANOTHER HAT: Now I take off my hat as an Egyptian residing in America to don that of an American naturalised citizen. American democracy is the least suitable model by whose parameters other forms of democracy should be evaluated.

The American voter does not directly select his or her Congressional representative. Between his or her vote and the final selection is a sieve which blocks the one-person one-vote formula. This is a formula to which Egyptian elections adhere. In effect, since its founding American democracy has been rule not by the people but by a higher oligarchical tier.

This sieve, now represented by the electoral college in presidential elections, still reflects the fear of the country’s founding fathers of rule by the mob in favour of rule by the select. There are voters, then delegates, then super-delegates, and then unbound delegates. This is a dizzying game of numbers, with the primary voter left at the bottom.

Thus in 2000, Al Gore, though winning the popular vote in his presidential bid against George W Bush, lost to the latter. Bush became a US president whose leadership was overpowered by a war-monger, Dick Cheney, whose vice-presidency led to the catastrophic Iraq War in 2003.

Would the US tolerate the Egyptian authorities telling Washington what to do regarding this stratified system? At a historic press conference held by Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the US president spoke of democracy, causing Putin to emit a rare laugh of disbelief. Bush said something to the effect that the US was a “champion of democracy” everywhere. At which point Putin asked derisively, “like in Iraq?”

Money has a determining voice in the make-up of the US Congress. In the Citizens United court case, the US Supreme Court ruled that corporations were entitled to contribute unlimited funds to their chosen congressional candidates. Consequently, a bigger campaign budget makes it possible for a candidate, through ads and the support of special interests, to overwhelm an opponent with a smaller war chest. Until today, the US judiciary has failed to bring about reform of campaign financing.

Under these circumstances, how can America, as per The New York Times editorial, qualify as a paragon of democratic virtues when its own system is begging for a cure? Great American jurists like John Paul Stevens, now retired from the US Supreme Court, of whose Bar I am honoured to be a member, has therefore called for the amending of the US Constitution.

A fourth faulty assumption: “Over the next few months, the president should start planning for the possibility of a break in the alliance with Egypt.” This is a war-like call premised on urging the Obama administration to end military aid to Egypt amounting to $1.3 billion.

A rebuttal: To me, this is the height of absurdity by the so-called opinion-makers of The New York Times. Those funds, largely spent on purchasing US weapons, are integral to the Peace Treaty of 1979 between Egypt and Israel. Though Egypt is not dependent on them for its defence, including defending itself against terrorism from Gaza and Libya, the paper is advocating tampering with a treaty. A treaty is a contract. Sanctioning Egypt by withholding those funds constitutes a breach of contract by the US towards Egypt. A breach of a covenant cannot occur without adverse consequences.

The New York Times advocacy for “rethinking relations with Egypt” goes diametrically against the paper’s own admission to the contrary. The paper concedes that “administration officials... have cautioned against a break with Egypt, saying its military and intelligence cooperation is indispensable.” Then it pivots away from those expert views to that of a fellow at the Brookings Institution (a think tank), Tamar Cofman Wittes, who has opined that “Egypt is neither an anchor of stability nor a reliable partner.”

Here this question arises: If such punitive views become official US policy, is America a reliable partner of Egypt? My response is that partnership, if subverted into a master-vassal relationship, should not stand. There are no American bases in Egypt, only joint exercises and training in the use of US military hardware.

Both the US and Egypt are, in any case, pivoting away from one another. Both of them are eyeing the East, Egypt, for technology and armament and America for trade. US President Barack Obama and presumably his Democratic Party successor see America’s interest in having a light footprint in the chaotic Middle East, even to the extent of calling an old US ally like Saudi Arabia “a freeloader,” meaning a defence dependency on the US with adverse implications for the latter.

In this context, Egypt cannot be counted within the pejorative description of “a freeloader.” Its economy, though struggling, is not dependent on oil, and its defence is native. Unlike in the US, its government is not threatened with partisan shutdowns, and unlike in the US, its ethos is not racialism which, in the case of America, has been accentuated by the historic arrival of the first African-American in the Oval Office.

Prudency dictates that America should mind its own internal affairs, which are sorely in need of a fix. And at its beginnings America received historic advice from George Washington, the father of its independence, in the form of his instruction “no entangling alliances.”



TRUE FRIENDSHIP: From here comes the shame of The New York Times, which has been caught out giving a boost to the thesis of those who are warring against the time-honoured international rule of “friendly relations among nations.” The very definition of friendship is equality in relationships and giving mutual support to each of the parties. As a dual citizen of both America and Egypt, I can see the advantages of inclusive bi-culturalism.

Only the enemies of both America and Egypt can take comfort in the editorial in The New York Times. Egypt is minding its own business. Shouldn’t America also mind its own business?

The New York Times editorial savagely attacks Obama’s policy towards Egypt for being “moored in a series of faulty assumptions”. But it is the paper’s editorial policy, expounded in that article, that is so hopelessly moored and is mired in unrealities exposing an unmerited spirit of hegemony.

So it is thumbs up for the Egyptian Council of Foreign Affairs (ECFA) for its comprehensive response to an Egyptophobic letter addressed to Obama. The letter’s author was an organisation about which I am hearing for the first time. Calling itself “the Working Group on Egypt,” it is in lockstop with The New York Times editorial in calling for US retaliation against Egypt.

For what? On the basis of what the ECFA describes as “unfounded human rights violations and interference in the independent judicial system.” The ECFA rebuttal also taught me something, as it highlighted the silence of some civil society organisations regarding “foreign funding they have received and which domestic social activities they finance... in accordance with applicable Egyptian laws.”

Here, the ECFA notes that such offending organisations were “a small minority” within “more than 47,000” such organisations in Egypt. If I were an attorney licensed in the US to sue either The New York Times or the so-called Working Group on Egypt, I’d lose. Law and fairness do not always intersect. If I pleaded incitement to violence against Egypt, they would defend themselves on the basis of freedom of expression under the First Amendment to the US Constitution, even if that freedom of expression incites violence and thus is contrary to public policy.

Nations do not die. But in some of them their civilisations are prone to perish. America the young and Egypt the old are of the type of countries where civilisation is enduring. However, in the case of America there are early signs of reversible senility, among them storms of rage, revived nativism through non-acceptance of others, a return to Biblical evangelicalism, the glorification of Trumpism where ignorance and bullying are hailed as virtues, the saluting of the idea of fences between nations as a means of international communication, the replacing of diplomacy by a nod to the nuclear option, and insulting feminism through macho-ism and misogyny.

Moreover, there is freezing wages at their level of 50 years ago, hailing the equivalent of “America uber Alles,” creating new adversaries from old allies, and calling the use of foul language in public “the new normal.” Shutting down the government? No problem. Defying the Constitution by Senate Republicans by not even giving a hearing to a Supreme Court nominee? No problem. Calling for a ban on Muslims or having their neighbourhoods in America subjected to police patrols in the name of national security? No problem. Doubly demeaning the US president, as well as 1.7 billion Muslims, by calling Obama “a closet Muslim?” No problem.

If not in letter, then in spirit, most of the above anomalies are reflected in that insulting editorial in The New York Times.



WAYS FORWARD: The US is in sore need of a new national programme of cleansing rejuvenation. Let us call it “anger management.”

A nation in rage is a nation whose civilisational principles are in disrepair. Mindless rage is the paralysis of reason and of what is now defined as “mindfulness.” It is a lack of awareness of what you do and of its consequences.

Sadly, a keen observer of the US-Arab relationship would have to regard this phase of American history as regressive into an age of darkness. How can America be “mindful” when its millions cheer an aspirant to the presidency like Donald Trump who calls for Japan and South Korea to go nuclear and for getting rid of the Islamic State (IS) group by using tactical nuclear weapons? This is Trump’s version of the “New World Disorder.”

If the possible Republican Party nominee for president is envisaging Rakka in Syria and Mosul in Iraq as the new Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is a measure of American reversion to the Dark Ages. The New Egypt should look upon the editorial in The New York Times, or the mercenary advocacy of “the Working Group on Egypt,” as an inflammation in the American body politic.

Its consequences will have no more of an effect on Egypt than that of an annoying fly swatted to extinction by the fronds of a palm tree in Kanayat in Sharqiah, my old Egyptian village.


The writer is a professor of law at New York University and the author of The Transformation of Egypt through Revolution (2015).

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