Egypt on my mind

Not so long ago I posted about the situation in Eqypt and my admiration for the military’s actions at the time. Events since then have changed my mind. They’re not showing so much forebearance and peaceful intent as I assumed they would lately, though I’ve been reluctant to admit it. Its times like these I should pay more attention to Michael J. Totten.

I’ve written about him before, too. He’s the best guide I’ve found for gaining insight on the messy politics and societies of the Middle East, though he will be the first to admit he’s not an expert. He may not be, but sure knows a lot more than most. What’s more important, he knows who the experts are, and does what he can to get us access. I was gratified to read his interview with Eric Trager, from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who not only is an expert on Egypt but, as Michael claims, “has been more consistently right than just about anyone.” Read it, even if it’s longer than what you normally like to read.

The interview makes it quite clear that I was not entirely wrong about General Sisi and the Egyptian military, but I didn’t know enough to recognize the situation for what it is. Trager shines the light on what’s going on:

MJT: Why do you think General Sisi removed Morsi? Some Egyptian activists are calling it a “correction,” that the democratic revolution went off course, so the army stepped in and hit the reset button. I don’t buy it, personally. Sisi looks like he might even be somewhat of an Islamist himself. Either way, the man doesn’t strike me as any kind of democrat.

Eric Trager: I don’t buy it either, but I should say that during my conversations with officials in the Egyptian military leading up to Morsi’s removal, they didn’t seem at all eager to re-enter politics. The generals admitted they aren’t good at governing. They had a bad experience running the country after Mubarak. They aren’t trained to do police work, they’re trained to fight wars and defend borders.

But two things happened. First, we had a massive outpouring against Morsi due to his frankly undemocratic rule of the country and his bid to consolidate power for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Second, Morsi completely lost control of the state. By the time the protests started on June 30, he didn’t control anything. He didn’t control the police and he obviously didn’t control the military. He didn’t control any of the institutions of government, and it made his presidency untenable. So the military stepped in, somewhat reluctantly, first to respond to the protests and also to prevent impending state failure.

But once the army made the decision to step in, as reluctant as it may have been, it’s modus operandi unquestionably changed. It entered into a direct conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps even an existential one. The military believes it not only has to remove Morsi, it has to decapitate the entire organization. Otherwise, the Brotherhood will re-emerge and perhaps kill the generals who removed it from power.

That’s what’s in Egypt’s future right now—persistent civil strife between the military and its supporters on one side and the Brotherhood and its supporters on the other.

Bear in mind this interview came at least a week before the recent week’s bloodshed. Reading this section was a figurative face-palm for me. Of course we’re seeing what we’re seeing over there. I get it now. My take on the Egyptian military is not entirely wrong, but things are never, never as simple as they appear.

There’s one particular paragraph, however, that really hit me hard:

When I was standing in Tahrir Square after Morsi was removed, a felt a certain amount of sadness because I knew that violence would be an inevitable and significant consequence. People in the square were very happy, but people in another square a few miles away people were mourning. They believe something has been stolen from them, and they intend to fight to get it back.

The reason this hit me has nothing to do with Egypt. This struck me as a pretty fair analogy of the state of America today. So polarized has our social and political contention become that it has become increasingly difficult not to see any loss as significant. And every time that happens there is a large group of people “across town” who are not only rejoicing that they won, but also rejoicing that the other group lost. It’s becoming a zero-sum, scorched-earth game.

How long before we “eliminate the middle man” and instead of fighting over issues, just start fighting? Do we seriously think it won’t happen here?

Tell me this: when I first explained the analogy, who did you put in the role of “people in another square a few miles away…mourning”? It’s instinctive. We know who “the enemy” is, and we have no trouble branding them as such. One of the first steps in preparing soldiers for war is to dehumanize the enemy.

Remember that.

I’ll admit I’m rather pessimistic about where this country is headed. I hope this is another case where I’m wrong.