Egypt in a new Cold War?

In 1962, the United States placed nuclear missiles in Turkey and directed them towards Moscow. In response, the Soviet Union placed nuclear missiles in Cuba. That was the moment Cold War risked turning “hot.” For 13 days, the world held its breath as a nuclear conflict threatened to break out any second. Even though the standoff is commonly known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, it is not actually about Cuba and certainly not about Turkey. It was simply each of the world’s two superpowers reminding the other that it is not to be tampered with, especially since it came right after the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion, orchestrated by the Kennedy administration against the Cuban regime. Cuba was the party that benefited most in this confrontation; the concluding agreement between Kennedy and Khrushchev included a pledge, on the part of the United States, never to attempt invading Cuba again and Castro emerged from the crisis stronger and more popular than ever.
Years have passed, one of the two belligerents has become the world’s sole superpower and the other is disintegrating. As the United States made sure it religiously, and more vigorously, resumed its muscle-flexing strategy, Russia was desperately struggling for a role that would restore if only a fraction of its past glory. The Arab Spring made that slightly possible, yet Russia started with a major miscalculation when it condoned the killing of Syrian revolutionaries in support of the only ally it had left in the region. The unpredictability of the Syrian conflict, and the possibility of the Tartus naval base falling into rebel hands, forced Russia into a recalculation that involved looking for an alternative in case of the fall of the Syrian regime. The urgency of this rerouting process increased as the stakes got higher with the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime and with the United States no longer ruling out military intervention in Syria.

Turning to Egypt

The timing couldn’t have been more ideal for the events in Egypt to unfold the way they did. As the United States slammed the interim Egyptian government for the forceful dispersion of Islamist sit-ins, threatened to suspend aid to Egypt and insisted on calling the June 30 protests a military coup, Russians, no fools for sure, rushed in. Not only did Russian president Vladimir Putin declare solidarity with the “revolution” and make no secret of his resentment of the Muslim Brotherhood, but he also announced his country’s readiness to conduct military exercises with Egypt immediately following the United States cancellation of Operation Bright Star, a 33-year-old tradition that constituted one of the most powerful manifestations of Egyptian-American strategic alliance.

Like Cuba, Egypt is a medium through which Russia can assert its influence in the region and, most importantly, embarrass the United States. Russia is not only proving that the United States is taking the wrong side, but is also rubbing a whole lot of salt into the unhealed wound of September 11. The United States waged war on Afghanistan in the hope of eliminating Islamist extremism, which it actually strengthened with its invasion of Iraq and its indifference on Syria not to mention its support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Conversely, the domestic anti-terrorism campaign launched by Russian authorities following the Belsan school hostage crisis and the Moscow metro bombings succeeded in eradicating Islamic militancy in its hotbed, Chechnya. One can imagine the look on Putin’s face when the culprits in the Boston Marathon bombings turned out to be Chechen. Russia, therefore, hopes to be Egypt’s mentor as far as combating terrorism is concerned and is willing to provide the Egyptian government with logistic and military assistance towards that end so that the Russian model would eventually prove more effective and definitely less costly, on both the human and the financial levels, than its American counterpart and would underscore the United States’ role in nurturing the very terrorism of which it eventually becomes a victim. Soviet era scores can be settled in the meantime as the United States can be reminded of its support for Osama Bin Laden and Afghan fighters in its attempt to give the Soviet Union its own Vietnam.
Getting closer to Egypt also paves the way for rapprochement with other major powers in the region like Saudi Arabia, which has openly defied the United States through declaring full support for Egypt’s war on terrorism and pointing out the danger the Muslim Brotherhood posed to Egypt and all its neighboring countries. Rapprochement can also be attempted with the rest of Gulf nations, with the exception of course of Qatar which had supported Islamist rule in Egypt since the very beginning and is still doing so through its scandalously biased media outlets. Forging such alliances would also allow Russia to get back at Turkey, a staunch supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, for jeopardizing its interests in Syria through its support for Syrian rebels. Russia might even start distancing itself from Syria and Iran in return for bringing back memories of the good old days of the Nasser era when the political clout of the Soviet Union was an eternal nuisance for the United States.

Would Egypt benefit?

Egypt would undoubtedly benefit from this seeming revival of the Cold War and the subsequent change in the balance of power,for while it is let down by a staggering giant, it is being rescued by a growing midget. But divided Egypt is not Communist Cuba because the latter had already been a close ally of the Soviet Union when the crisis took place and, therefore, had nothing to lose and everything to gain while the former is struggling for its political independence which cannot be achieved through replacing one form of subordination with another or through regressing to the client state era. Egypt is also in no position to become the venue of a proxy war between the United States and Russia and in which each of the two countries would only fight for its own interests with little, if any, attention to those of the country onto which they project their rivalry. It is also important to note that while in Cuba the United States supported a group of Miami-based Cuban exiles, who carried out the Bay of Pigs Invasion and whose threat was immediately eradicated by Castro’s regime, it is currently supporting a group that is based in Egypt and whose supporters constitute part of Egyptian society. Internal strife is, hence, bound to intensify if each of the two countries decides to support one group of Egyptians against another and if each of those groups accepts this support and acts upon it.

It is in Egypt’s best interest to forge new alliances and to break away from the unipolar world order whenever possible, provided it is not dragged into fighting other people’s battles. By Egypt I do not just mean the government, but also the people who are now too vulnerable and too willing to create super-heroes. In fact, in one of the recent pro-revolution marches, pictures of Putin did make a first appearance as the man, whose human rights and democracy record is far from admirable, suddenly turned into a modern-day Guevara. Quite an alarming start I would say!

Towards a ‘scorched’ Egypt

When Jason left Medea for another woman, she decided to get back at him by killing their two children. Thus goes the Greek myth that I first learnt about when I was a child. “How could she kill her own children? Isn’t this against nature?” I asked my father after he had told me the story. “Well, maybe she had a different nature,” he replied. It still did not make sense to me that a mother would kill her children to make her husband suffer since, presumably, she would suffer too and since she could have chosen any other revenge plan that would not hurt her as well.

The thought was so disturbing that I had to convince myself that it was just a myth and that nothing of the sort would happen in real life. As I grew older and knew more about the complexities of human nature, I realized that Medea was not as supernatural as I assumed her to be. She just lacked that instinct that rendered surviving one’s child, let alone killing it, the most tragic thing a woman can go through. She might have suffered from some severe psychological disorder, but she could have definitely lived in our world.

Revenge is apparently a typically human instinct which can take all sorts of shapes and yield an unimaginable variety of results. The extent of revenge largely depends on the power wielded by the avenger and that is why the most destructive of revenges are ones carried by withdrawing armies from occupied territories in what is known as the “scorched earth” strategy. As it is obvious from the name, this strategy aims at leveling to the ground any facilities that might be of use to the enemy. Although it can be applied to an army advancing into enemy territory, it is more commonly used upon withdrawal and that is why it is seen as an act of revenge. In this case, the whole purpose is not only making sure that the army of the enemy does not stand a chance of regaining part of its strength but also teaching this army a cruel lesson about playing with fire and opting for losing battles. I personally think it is not just about the balance of power, but also involves a violent outlet for the sense of loss that results from having to abandon a much-coveted booty and, therefore, admitting at least partial defeat. Among the most famous examples of the scorched earth strategy in the Arab region was the setting on fire of more than 600 Kuwaiti oil wells by retreating Iraqi forces.

The Nero decree

With the exception of few cases that involved leaders later going down in history as lunatics like Nero and Hitler—in fact Hitler’s order to destroy German infrastructure with the advance of the Allied forces was called the Nero Decree—the scorched earth strategy usually, and more logically so, is implemented in the enemy’s territory. Even when this is not the case, the purpose is usually to prevent the enemy’s army from utilizing the resources of the country it is invading and that was exactly Hilter’s aim. Yet as far as I am aware, it is not common to destroy one’s own country without any strategic urgency, although not even that renders this action by any means justifiable, but rather doing that out of pure spite and in gratification of a purely vindictive desire to see one’s own compatriots suffer. That is why the reactions of the Muslim Brotherhood following the ending of the pro-Mursi sit-ins are very difficult to explain in the light of any known examples from history.

The Muslim Brotherhood must be aware by now that the return of ousted president Mohammed Mursi, which was the purpose of the sit-ins, is out of the question and that their chances at being reintegrated into the Egyptian political scene, which was the subject of endless negotiations with the current government, is almost nil. It follows that the burning of churches, the killing of police and army officers, the destruction of state buildings, and the targeting of unarmed civilians do not in any way constitute an attempt at putting pressure on decision makers especially that the crackdown on the sit-ins signaled the failure of diplomacy and heralded a new era of fierce confrontations. It is also important to note that the violence which swept the country in the past week is not about one party defending itself against the attacks of another because if this had ever been true the clashes would have been confined to the places where the sit-ins were held. This is about a predetermined plan to wreak havoc in such an intense manner that would be likely to topple the state and undermine the institutions capable of maintaining its security, not of course for the purpose of ruling that state at any given point, since in all cases it would turn into a heap of debris if the plan works, but only for taking revenge on all its components, people and government alike.

Lacking love for one’s country

It is not revenge that is problematic here, but it is the fact that it is exacted by a group of people against their compatriots which demonstrates how, like Medea, the Muslim Brotherhood are lacking in one instinct that could have deterred them from embarking on such action and that is love for one’s country. Because the Muslim Brotherhood does not acknowledge national borders and prioritizes a caliphate-like Islamic state over patriotic affiliations, its members would not mind doing away with “a bunch of rotten dust,” as Sayyed Qotb, one of the group’s most prominent theorists, referred to Egypt and the idea of the homeland. Because the Muslim Brothers do not think of Egypt as their homeland, they have no scruples about inflicting fatal damage upon it and retaliating on its people as if they are the citizens of another country.

There would never be a more poignant proof of that utter national detachment than the words of a group of youth as they embarked on attacking and looting a thousand plus artifacts that spanned 3,500 years of Egypt’s history from the Malawi National Museum in Upper Egypt. “We are here to destroy the museum and set it on fire,” they yelled at reporters. “The government is killing us so we will level its museum to the ground.” Referring to the museum as a government property underlines an absolute lack of identification with the country’s history and cultural heritage and which renders the destruction of such priceless pieces of art totally devoid of any emotional impact on them and the same applies to the entire country. This takes the conflict to another level as it no longer revolves around clamping down on a bunch of rioters who can be disciplined through the rule of law or even an insurgent militia that can be pacified through a political settlement and, instead, involves battling an ideology under which national belonging recedes to the background and religion becomes the one and only reference.

“I would rather Egypt have a Muslim Malaysian president than an Egyptian Christian,” said the Muslim Brotherhood former general guide in the same statement that contained his notorious “To hell with Egypt!”

Is the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization?

“Declare the Muslim Brotherhood a Terrorist Organization” is a petition initiated by American political commentator Dick Morris. Morris holds the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) responsible for several terrorist attacks on American soil which he argues were carried out by people that the group “converted.” He accuses the group of aborting the Arab Spring through curbing freedom of speech, persecuting women and minorities, and establishing repressive theocracies. He urges readers unfamiliar with the MB to visit the website of a group called Citizens for National Security, which features a detailed account of the group under the title “Homegrown Jihad in the USA: MB’s deliberate, premeditated plan now reaching maturity.” Morris concludes by urging Americans to sign his petition in order to “protect America” and “take a stand against Terrorism.”

The result of such a petition in Egypt was already obvious from the signature collection campaign that ignited the June 30 protests and ousted President Mohammad Mursi. It is more interesting to speculate whether Americans would in fact sign this petition against a group that has caused them little or no harm directly and that was not linked to September 11. Although it does mention Terrorism with a capital T in reference to the MB’s global influence, the petition addresses America and is aimed at protecting American national security. At the end of the day, the MB is not a major source of concern for average American citizens and they are unlikely to rally behind such a cause. This was made clear when a similar initiative was launched on the petition platform under the title “We the people” and the number of Egyptian petitioners remarkably exceeded that of their American counterparts.

Resistance or terrorism?

It is interesting that the countries that designate organizations as “terrorist” are usually those that are not directly affected by their activities. This is the case with Hamas and Hezbollah. Hamas is designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. and the EU. The same applies to Hezbollah’s military wing. It seems more logical for these assessments to come from the Palestinian Authority and the Lebanese government respectively, but they have not. The groups remain popular because they began as resistance movements, a cause that earned them considerable support at the beginning and won them the guardian’s status in recent times. And their histories are not entirely shameful – Hamas did win democratic elections and was Gaza’s only defense line against Israeli attacks. Hezbollah did play a major role in ending Israeli occupation of South Lebanon. It was only later that each group started losing sympathy, particularly when Hamas made no secret of its alliance with the MB and when Hezbollah openly supported the Syrian regime, not to mention the rather bleak record of both groups as far as human rights are concerned.

The MB, on the other hand, does not even have such credentials. It has failed miserably to link its existence to a national struggle despite its attempts to do so. It was always prioritizing its own interests, which often drove it to strike deals with its staunchest enemies. Apart from militancy and religious discourse, the MB shares very little with Hezbollah and Hamas. In fact, the MB proved to be the worst in power, even though the other two are by no means democratic, simply because the MB’s struggle was against the very people it ruled while Hezbollah and Hamas’s hostility was mainly directed against an external enemy. The MB does not currently enjoy any support outside its ranks and has engaged in a variety of actions that fall under the category of terrorism, both as government and opposition.

More than a U.S. petition

The United States has the right to protect itself even against the most invisible sources of danger, but this is the business of the Americans. Egyptians, on the other hand, need to lobby on their own front instead of “flocking,” as the Washington Postputs it, to a White House petition that would affect only American politics. However, Egyptians can learn from American expertise in designating organizations as terrorist. The Egyptian government would do good to check the U.S. handbook on terrorist organizations, if that or a similar text exists, to see if the specifications apply to the MB. It would do even better to see that if any country is justified to designate the MB as a terrorist organization it should be Egypt.

Apart from the American habit of labeling as terrorist any entity that might remotely undermine its interests or those of its allies, Morris’s petition in particular underlines two important facts. The first is that designating a group as a terrorist organization is not a symbolic action to indicate condemnation of a group’s activities, but a practical one. The state, he explains, would make sure this group is denied any assistance. Therefore, taking such a step in Egypt would mean blocking through legal means all the channels through which the MB receives financial and logistical aid. The second issue is the importance of identifying the enemy; otherwise you may as well wage war against the windmills. The Egyptians made it clear who their enemy was when they stated that the goal of the second revolution was toppling the MB. The state must now do this officially so that the group can be held legally, politically, and morally accountable for the damage inflicted upon the country both during its rule and following its ouster.

This is, of course, easier said than done. It remains to be seen how such a step can be taken in a way that minimizes any retaliatory reactions on the group’s part. Unlike the U.S., Egypt is directly and closely affected by everything the MB does. It will take more than an announcement and American expertise to take action against them.

Egypt’s sit-in ordeal

By definition, a “sit-in” involves little or no action. As is obvious from the name, the sit-in is about a group sitting in a specific place to deliver a specific message.

The main purpose of such a static form of protest is making it clear that a large number of people share the same demand and have chosen a peaceful way of claiming it so that instead of engaging in any form of action to have their goal achieved, they wait for the relevant bodies to carry out this mission.

Lack of physical action does not, however, strip a sit-in of its impact which is derived from the location in which it is held and is usually too strategic to be ignored by the authorities.

The non-violent nature of a sit-in often makes it unnecessary to end it by force or even to end it in the first place.

The only exception would be the remarkably negative impact of the rally on traffic, business, and/or the normal course of everyday life in/ near its location; more so if it occupies an area of government offices.

In fact, this kind of disruption is what distinguishes sit-ins and, in many cases, renders them influential and at the same time is what makes them a nuisance, for the state.

Decision time

The state is left with one of two options: responding to the demands or evicting the protesters.

A third option would be overlooking the entire issue in the hope that the protesters will gradually start to lose stamina and their numbers will start dwindling until the area eventually clears.

Despite the fact that the third option has no guaranteed result and could actually drag the matter a lot longer than calculated, it seems better than assaulting or arresting peaceful protesters if the state is determined not to meet any of the demands.

If the forceful ending of sit-ins is condemned because it involves armed, or at least violent, handling of unarmed and nonviolent citizens, the ethical components of the equation undergo a drastic change when those citizens are neither unarmed nor non-violent.

This is exactly the ordeal suffered by supporters of ousted president Mohamed Mursi. This is not only caused by the fact that the protestors involved are violent and have been engaging in several acts of violence against civilians, but also by the fact that their demands (one of which is the re-election of Mursi) are not going to be met.

With this scenario out, one of the other two needs to be chosen and it is at this point that the ordeal is bound to get more complicated.

The protesters are not just blocking a road or occupying a vital location. They are terrorizing the residents of the area in which they are staying, assaulting civilians, recruiting mercenary militants and establishing caches of heavy weapons.

Therefore the consequences of the continuation of the sit-in are much graver than preventing people from going to work, causing a traffic jam, or obstructing public services.

Suffice to say that the bodies of people killed by the protestors were discovered to have been buried in a park across the street from Cairo University, where one of the sit-ins is staged.

The damage incurred by the sit-ins drove a large number of Egyptians, especially those directly affected by virtue of the proximity of their homes or workplaces to sit-in locations, to call upon the army and the police to take a drastic action.

The consequences of such a step are bound to be more disastrous than those of the previous scenario since a forceful ending of the sit-in will definitely result in a large number of casualties from both sides.

Opting for this approach is also bound to embarrass the army, the party most likely to carry out the attack, particularly at a time when it is attempting to clean up its image following international condemnation of the death of scores of Muslim Brotherhood members in an attack on the Republican Guard facility.

Add to this the relentless warnings of human rights organizations over Egypt’s record and of political analysts over a potential civil war.

This option seems even more far-fetched with Western pressure to release the detained former president, visits of several American and European senior officials to detained Muslim Brotherhood leaders and with civil society’s attempts at promoting national reconciliation. It is impossible not to mention the presence of a considerable number of children in the sit-ins.

A potential solution

The only way out of this ordeal would be a partial response to the protestors’ demands so that while the Brotherhood will not return to power, it will not be completely excluded from the political scene.

In this case, influential Brotherhood leaders, including the deposed president, might receive amnesty and/or safe exit. Some of them might even be offered positions in the new government in return for ordering their supporters to end the sit-ins and for their recognition of the current government.

Presumably this would not include group members who have been involved in the destabilization of national security or who are detained pending trial or those who are responsible for the economic and political deterioration Egypt has experienced during the one year of Muslim Brotherhood rule.

Some questions beg for an answer: Is there a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who can be totally absolved of the damage inflicted upon the country in the past year even if just by continuing to belong to a group that systematically focused on serving its own interests while overlooking those of the Egyptian people?

In other words, should one be guilty of specific actions or simply for belonging to a group that promotes ideologies which encourage such actions?

The answers to these questions would underline how impossible it is to make a distinction not to mention how impossible it is to strike any kind of deal that does not involve senior Brotherhood members. Almost all senior members were directly involved in destroying the country and its people, including the former president and who will undoubtedly be the main bargaining chip in any such deal.

Therefore, the ordeal is not by any means on its way to being resolved since the forceful ending of the sit-ins will be replaced with the peaceful acquittal of criminals both as unacceptable as the other.

Deals do not seem like the best idea at a time when the people are already accusing the state of failing to protect them through allowing the sit-ins to continue amid non-stop pleas for help.

Putting an end to the sit-ins seems inevitable in this case, yet it is the means of doing so that remains to be determined provided that the use of force becomes the last resort and that any peaceful approach addresses the average people who were lured into taking part in the sit-ins, this does not include the leaders who lured them. Activists and politicians must be assigned this mission, not the the military.

This can be accompanied by a close monitoring of each of the sit-ins to be followed by the arrest of individuals proven to break the law whether through the terrorization of innocents, the illegal possession of weapons, or the use of children as human shields. This includes leaders proven to engage in hate speech, to incite violence and by the deportation of foreigners proven to take part in the sit-ins.

Only if all of these tactics fail will the intervention of the army or the security apparatus become necessary.

Another Tiananmen Square is the last thing Egypt needs even if the protestors are not as peaceful and their cause not as legitimate.