Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Egypt and The Exigencies of Self Preservation

by Steven A. Cook
February 10, 2014

Riot police officers sit behind barbed wire in front of the presidential palace in Cairo (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Courtesy Reuters). Riot police officers sit behind barbed wire in front of the presidential palace in Cairo (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Courtesy Reuters).

Last week, a knowledgeable and respected DC-based Egypt expert commented that Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al Sisi is “just a cog in the machine.”  It is not at all clear what exactly this means.  If there is a machine, who is behind it?  And if it is not al Sisi, who is it? The “cog in the machine” explanation of Egyptian politics is not new, it has just become more pronounced over the last three years.  It ranks high with other myths of Egyptian politics, notably the “evil genius” view of senior military commanders who allegedly pull levers and push buttons in a masterful subterfuge that produces only the outcomes that serve the military’s interests.  Perhaps al Sisi is a cog in the military’s machine, but it seems that Egyptian politics are more prosaic.

There is no machine in Egypt, but there is most certainly a system—a self-reinforcing one—that is the result of an environment of uncertainty in which Egyptian elites are individually and collectively trying to discern the direction of politics. Once they think they know how events will unfold, these elites will do everything possible to ensure that they are on the “right side” of history.  It is unlikely that Field Marshal al Sisi actually ordered the arrests of three Al Jazeera journalists in December of last year, though he created an environment that helped make such violations of basic norms such as freedom of the press possible.  The Ministry of Interior went ahead and did it, which is unremarkable, but the fact that a long list of Egyptian intellectuals, ostensible liberals, and alleged revolutionaries lined up to applaud this clear violation of press freedoms, while the pro-government media was egging everyone on, is remarkable.  (All irony is lost in Egypt.)  This system is the reason why in Egypt’s Jacobin-like discourse anyone who openly expresses concern about human rights violations is branded a terrorist sympathizer. It also explains how otherwise respectful and previously respected Egyptians are falling all over themselves to prove that they are with the new program.

Of course, the pressures to conform in Mubarak’s Egypt were pervasive if not always effective.  There was constant hedging among Egypt’s elites as the end of the Hosni Mubarak era drew closer.  It was as if thousands of people who operated within the ambit of the regime had their fingers in the air all at once trying to determine the direction of the wind should the president not wake up one day—Egyptians, particularly the elite, never imagined that Mubarak would outlive his own presidency.  So privately people criticized Mubarak, his son, his wife, the regime, the system, but just in case, they remained publicly supportive of the president and all too willing to do the government’s bidding.

This phenomenon was considerably less pronounced during Mohammed Morsi’s brief tenure at the Itihadiyya Palace, but it existed.  Western journalists were not the only ones who lined up to see Khairat al Shater after it became clear how well the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party had done in the first and second round of parliamentary elections in late 2011 and early 2012.  Egyptian business elites, senior bureaucrats, and the media began either quietly reaching out to the Brothers or subtlety (and not so subtlety) accommodating themselves to what seemed like a new era in Egypt.

It is hard to blame Egyptian elites for their predisposition to curry favor even if it violates privately held principles and beliefs.  There is no reward for dissent in Egypt.  It might get an activist a ringing and eloquent defense on the editorial page of the Washington Post, making him or her a Beltway hero (for a few days), but that will hardly make up for the onslaught that said activist will undoubtedly face within the Mehwar.  Confronted with the choice, some brave Egyptians have spoken out, but many more have chosen instead to burnish their pro-coup credentials, calculating that it will ensure them a place (and the attendant benefits) within the new regime.  It is hard not to feel sorry for people put in the seemingly impossible position between their conscience and the system.

When Abdel Monem Said Aly wrote an article called, Khatiyat Steven Cook or “Steven Cook’s Offense” it was hard not to be angry immediately. But upon reflection, I understood precisely that he is bowing to the relentless pressure of the system.  The piece, which appeared in Al Sharq Al Awsat on January 22 and re-published in English the following Friday in Al Ahram Weekly as “Where Steven Cook is Wrong” offers a strong and fair critique of my recent blog post “Do Not Run Sisi…Do Not Run,” and erroneously and maliciously ties three colleagues—Marc Lynch, Tamara Wittes, and Michele Dunne—along with myself, to the Muslim Brotherhood.  Abdel Monem, who was very much a part of the Mubarak power-structure, was signaling to those now in power that despite his longstanding ties to Washington, Brandeis University, and a host of organizations in the West, he can be trusted to advance their political agendas.  It is uncomfortable to be drawn into the current Egyptian political dynamic this way.  Abdel Monem and I have broken bread together more than a few times and I always valued his insight, but I was never naïve. I always knew who buttered his bread.

 

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Abdel Monem Said Aly

    Dear Steven
    Unfortunately, you have not commented on the points that I raised in my article. Instead, you turned personal and on the way condemened the entire Egyptian elite of going with the current wend. That is not tell much about the changes taking place in Egypt that are the essence of my article and consequently it will make a difference from your analysis which was static and unable to get out of a thought that you participated in creating to shape US policy towards Egypt. Breaking bread will always be good for you, getting personal you with is not my cup of tea. Abdel Monem Said Aly

  • Posted by Abdel Monem Said Aly

    Unfortunately, you have not commented on the points that I raised in my article. Instead, you turned personal and on the way condemened the entire Egyptian elite for going with the current wind. That does not tell much about the changes taking place in Egypt that are the essence of my article and consequently it will make a difference from your analysis which was static and unable to get out of a thought that you participated in creating to shape US policy towards Egypt. Breaking bread will always be good with you, getting personal you with is not my cup of tea. Abdel Monem Said Aly

  • Posted by Ahmed A.El-Sherif

    First, what happened on 30 June,2013 was not a coup. Coups are normally not staged by 33 million protesters. When the army removed Morsi from power, they were not acting as a military cabal; they were simply executing the wish of those 33 million protesters. In the great majority of western textbooks ,what happened in Egypt on 23 July ,1952 is referred to as a revolution although Nasser himself ,in his book ,The Philosophy of the Revolution expresses dismay that the ‘thunderous masses’ they were expecting to see behind them did not materialize. Yet in the eyes of the West what was purely a military undertaking on 23 July,1952 was a revolution ;what was the fulfillment of the wish of the masses was not a revolution!?
    Second, I am really astonished that the author of the article ,who is here presented as an expert on Egyptian affairs ,mentions that the Egyptian elites did not criticize Morsi , because they were not certain how the wind might blow. That claim is not true at all. The Egyptian liberal elite was criticizing Morsi over his choice of Hesham Kandil as prime minister and his choice of the cabinet ,only a few weeks after Morsi had assumed power .The press syndicate was holding emergency sessions as early as August ,2012 to protest the replacement of newspaper editors and media people by the Brotherhood puppets. Opposition to Morsi steadily intensified as it was clear that he was entrenching the Brotherhood in the state apparatus ,apparently in fulfillment of the directives of the Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood .Egypt was ,clearly, not being ruled by the elected president but by the Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood .Then the opposition to Morsi climaxed in November,2012 when he issued his infamous presidential decree that placed his policies and the formation of the Constitution Committee above criticism thus causing the liberal elite to form the National Salvation Front .
    When the tide of Egyptian politics runs counter to the wishes of the West especially the United States then Egyptian elites are simply opportunists who maintain a façade of support to whichever regime exists only hushing whatever reservations they might have against regime policies !!

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