Egypt: All politics is local
Published in Gulf News, 24 August 2011
By Gordon Robison, Special to Gulf News
Tip O'Neill, the legendary US House Speaker of the 1980s, famously said: "All politics is local." In Egypt, this is a lesson Washington may be about to learn the hard way.
When we think of the challenges the Arab Spring poses — or may soon pose — for America and the Obama administration a few things spring readily to mind. Yemen might collapse, leaving behind a lawless pseudo-country where Al Qaida has free reign. The conflict in Libya could become even more chaotic and intractable than it already is (note that whether Muammar Gaddafi stays or goes does not necessarily affect this scenario). Syria is already emerging as a moral dilemma of the first order.
The American nightmare most often mentioned, however, is the possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood or some similar organisation may come to dominate Egypt's government.
Egypt has been the centrepiece of America's Middle East policy for decades. It has also long been one of the prime examples of Washington's preference for stability over democracy in the Arab World. In the months since the ouster of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak the idea that so central an ally might become less friendly to American interests has disturbed many American commentators, particularly on the political right. Alarmist rhetoric has focused on the Muslim Brotherhood and the role it may play in a future democratic Egypt.
Throughout this period one group has, however, exhibited a quiet confidence that its connections, and influence, will survive Egypt's revolution relatively intact: the US military.
As demonstrations gripped Cairo in January and February major American publications like the New York Times ran stories citing military (mainly US Army) sources who sought to reassure American readers that the Pentagon was using the soldier-to-soldier ties built up over the last three decades to help ease Mubarak from power and preserve order in a chaotic, tense situation.
The mostly unnamed sources cited the large number of Egyptian officers who have trained in the United States or studied at America's military academies. They noted the regular cooperation between the two countries' military establishments. These ties are real. They do stretch back over decades. Indeed, there is no reason to think that the personal and professional links between American and Egyptian officers did not have some beneficial effect as the crowds swelled in Tahrir Square.
But as O'Neill said, all politics is local. He might have added that the politics of February are not necessarily those of August.
February's Egyptian army was an institution apart — one that commanded enormous prestige across every segment of Egyptian society. After six months of running the country openly, the Egyptian Army of today is the target of criticism than would once have been unimaginable. That fact must change many of its calculations, including those concerning the United States.
‘Bright Star' cancelled
A little-noted event last week points to this evolving relationship between the Egyptian and American militaries. With relatively little fanfare the two countries announced the cancellation of Bright Star, the massive joint military exercise they have staged regularly for decades.
Official news releases cited ‘ongoing transitional events' in Egypt and called the cancellation ‘exceptional.' Indeed, with the Egyptian military currently busy running the country it can be argued that this gigantic, expensive training exercise was a luxury that, for the moment, Egypt can't afford.
The question that needs to be asked, however, is what most inconvenienced Egypt's generals when they contemplated Bright Star 2011? Was it the opportunity cost — too many soldiers and sailors diverted from other, more pressing, tasks? Or might the real problem have been Bright Star's political costs?
In the months since it overthrew Mubarak, Egypt's Supreme Military Council has seen its reputation with the general public change. Military trials for civilians who annoy the soldiers, a timid approach to constitutional reform, a penchant for secrecy and a stubborn refusal to lift Egypt's emergency law have all combined to make Egypt's military the subject of unaccustomed criticism at home.
By many accounts the military's biggest concern as it manages Egypt's political transition is the maintenance of its own place in society. The military has been outside real civilian control since it first took power in 1952. A prime concern for the generals in the months ahead will be maintaining that independence, along with the military's highly lucrative commercial interests. Right now, neither of those goals is especially well served by a close, public embrace of the American military.
After three decades of close cooperation the defence establishments of Cairo and Washington seem destined to drift apart. How far apart, remains to be seen.
This is not necessarily bad. Countries and institutions evolve. Things change. The cancellation of Bright Star is one small sign pointing the way toward a very different political future. The question is whether leaders in the Pentagon and on Cairo's Supreme Military Council can manage change constructively.
Gordon Robison teaches political science at the University of Vermont.