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Egypt and Diplomacy

Posted on the 15 August 2013 by Charlescrawford @charlescrawford

My new piece for The Commentator:

The main reason why I think it’s almost better for Western governments to say as little as possible in these grim circumstances rather than make loud statements of condemnation is that words without action look ‘weak’. Any statements made are mainly for domestic and international audiences, not for the bitter rivals in the grisly Egyptian drama.

What else might we actually do? Take the issue to the UN Security Council and try to crank up massive international pressure on Cairo? Who around the planet is likely to support us? China? Russia? India? Brazil? How many Arab regimes will be upset that the Muslim Brotherhood is taking these casualties?

The United States has a very tricky balancing act now, given their close links to the Egyptian military over many years. It’s no surprise that they are grappling with their response – their hopes for making some progress on Israel/Palestinians do not need the added complication of turmoil in Egypt.

But at least they have leverage in their large assistance programmes for Egypt. Or do they? If they threaten to cut back on this assistance, will that make things better or worse?

Making a noise is one thing. Making a positive difference is another.

Sky TV have just been in touch re my earlier piece about President Obama and his Cairo speech.

Meanwhile the Foreign Office have summoned in the Egyptian Ambassador to express their 'grave concern'. Similar action has happened in France. Maybe this is a wider EU diplomatic move? Such diplomatic gestures are really just that, gestures aimed at giving domestic opinion a feeling that 'something' is being done.

In real life the Egyptian Ambassador will go back to the Embassy and send a cable to Cairo that no-one important will read - there is too much else happening, plus (on the face of it) the Brits/French or even Americans are actually not threatening anything, so it's safe to ignore them for now.

What we outsiders can't in any way begin to judge is how far the mayhem in Cairo yesterday came about because some powerful people actually want that level of mayhem, either to send some sort of signal to their enemies or to try to provoke a much bigger conflict that they think they'll win.

Many commentators now see Egypt as 'ungovernable' (300,000 Google hits). For the hard-core pessimist end of the argument, see Spengler a year ago:

The Wall Street Journal reported March 22, "Subsidies already absorb at least 28% of Egypt's budget outlay of 476 billion Egyptian pounds ($79 billion). About two-thirds of that goes toward fuel and energy, with the rest aimed at reducing food prices, particularly for wheat." As it runs out of money, the Morsi government has no choice but to cut subsidies.

After 60 years of feckless military rule, Egypt's economy simply can't get there from here. The country imports half its caloric consumption, although three-fifths of its people are engaged in agriculture. Its university system can't train a competent civil engineer (President Morsi, like almost all of Egypt's prominent engineers, studied abroad). Forty-five percent of its people are functionally illiterate. Nine-tenths of its women suffer genital mutilation, and nearly a third of Egyptians marry cousins...

... Even Islamists have to eat. Some senior Israeli policy analysts believe that Morsi will do everything possible to distract the Egyptian people from the growing misery of their material circumstances. Morsi may attempt to justify an Egyptian annexation of oil-rich Libya, and might fight Sudan for control of the Nile's limited water supply. And he may encourage Islamist extremists to vent their frustrations against the United States.

This is a dangerous policy, but perhaps a tragic one, in the classic sense of the term: Morsi may pursue a destructive and self-defeating course because circumstances compel him to do so. The dissonance between the reality on the ground in Egypt and Washington's narrative has already become grating. In the coming weeks it is likely to become intolerable.

It's far worse now, of course.

In these dire circumstances, the rest of the world has no real choice but to watch in despair and make whatever public noises suit local public opinion. Egypt is impressively able to ignore any 'normal' outside pressure. Are we going to impose sanctions on the already miserable Egyptian economy? Threaten to take Egyptian military leaders to some sort of international court? Pass a UN resolution saying that the goings-on in Egypt are a threat to 'international peace and security' when they're not?

The real problem with Egypt is that the set of policy measures needed to get that large and important country moving again is not espoused by anyone who counts in Egypt, so international diplomacy can get no real purchase on the problem. The Muslim Brotherhood tendency is wrapped up in religious mumbo-jumbo that wants to condemn half of the country's population (ie women) to a hopeless inferiority. The 'patriotic-etatist-military' tendency wants to maintain the doomed status quo under which the bankrupt state purports to offer law and order and employment. That's about it as far as Egyptian politics go.

It's hard to see how a strategic bargain between these two camps can be struck, or what it might look like. Perhaps that's why the violence is escalating. Both sides dimly sense that there will have to be a strategic bargain under which they both make key concessions. So best now to focus on creating new facts on the ground, so that as and when the real detailed policy haggling becomes necessary the terms will be more favourable to the side showing the greatest ruthlessness?

Hence the conflict intensifies. Awful. But just a normal - and inevitable - part of Egypt's belated modernisation drama?


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