In Egypt, as in most of life’s decisions, no pain, no gain

Feb 06, 2012 Published under Life, Middle East

So much of our challenges in life has to do with balancing short term and long term priorities. Do we accept some pain up front in order to be stronger in the future, or do we defer the necessary but painful steps, only to make the problem increasingly bigger? 

A human being may face that tension in terms of a health matter that needs to be addressed (a painful treatment may be deferred, with potentially devastating repercussions if the disease ends up spreading), or in terms of a personal financial or business decision (ie, starting a business may take much longer to pay off than taking a job, but could in the long term be more rewarding). 

In the international fora, much of what we are facing today can be framed in terms of those choices.  Egypt, for example, presents enormous challenges. The repressive military regime is perceived to support the peace treaty with Israel, so both the Israeli and American Administrations support a strong alliance therewith.  The perceived (and in some ways real) threat of an alternative is accentuated by the rise of Islamic parties and their dominance in the first open elections in Egypt.  But those who rather promote the safety of the status quo ignore that military rulers are then incentivized to manipulate extremist parties and turn them into a bigger threat, as they help the military junta justify its existence and rally support for their continued control of the levers of power. 

Representative democracy has a way of building accountability into the system, thereby moderating those doing the representation in the longer term.  But that does not come overnight.  It requires enormous patience and will most likely involve a lot of pain and a lot of wrong turns along the way. 

Most worrisome, representative democracy can be used by authoritarian leaders to achieve power, only for them to cut the cord of representative government and cling on to power – as the Iranian Ayatollahs did after their revolution, as Hugo Chavez did in Venezuela and as many others tempted by absolute power often seek to do. 

The beauty of the US Government system is not representative democracy on its own– but the checks and balances of the system – guaranteeing relatively fair transitions of power.

Below is an interesting article that discusses the challenges the US Administration is facing in balancing its support of Egyptian democracy with its desire for stability.

New York Times

Can Egypt Avoid Pakistan’s Fate?



ONE year after the revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian military is closing down civil society organizations and trying to manipulate the constitution-writing process to serve its narrow interests. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, where the military has also held sway for more than half the country’s existence — for much of that time, with America’s blessing — a new civil-military crisis is brewing.

For the United States, the parallels are clear and painful. Egypt and Pakistan are populous Muslim-majority nations in conflict-ridden regions, and both have long been allies and recipients of extensive military and economic aid.

Historically, American aid tapers off in Pakistan whenever civilians come to power. And in Egypt, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both resisted pressure from Congress to cut aid to Mr. Mubarak despite his repression of peaceful dissidents.

It is no wonder that both Egyptians and Pakistanis express more anger than appreciation toward the United States. They have seen Washington turn a blind eye to human-rights abuses and antidemocratic practices because of a desire to pursue regional objectives — Israeli security in the case of Egypt, and fighting Al Qaeda in the case of Pakistan.

The question now is whether the United States will, a year after the Egyptian revolution, stand by and allow the Pakistani model of military dominance and a hobbled civilian government to be replicated on the Nile.

Pakistan and Egypt each have powerful intelligence and internal security agencies that have acquired extra-legal powers they will not relinquish easily. Pakistan’s history of fomenting insurgencies in neighboring countries has caused serious problems for the United States. And Egypt’s internal security forces have been accused of involvement in domestic terrorist attacks and sectarian violence. (However, Washington has long seen Egypt’s military as a stabilizing force that keeps the peace with Israel.)

The danger is that in the future, without accountability to elected civilian authorities, the Egyptian military and security services will seek to increase their power by manipulating Islamic extremist organizations in volatile and strategically sensitive areas like the Sinai Peninsula.

Despite the security forces’ constant meddling in politics, Pakistan at least has a Constitution that establishes civilian supremacy over the military. Alarmingly, Egypt’s army is seeking even greater influence than what Pakistan’s top brass now enjoys: an explicit political role, and freedom from civilian oversight enshrined in law.

Egypt’s army was once considered heroic for siding with peaceful demonstrators against Mr. Mubarak, but it has badly mishandled the country in the past year. The riot at a soccer match on Wednesday that killed around 70 people underscored the leadership’s failure to undertake badly needed police reform and restore security. The economy is teetering, peaceful demonstrators have been tried in military courts, anti-Christian violence has spiked and ministers appointed by the military have hounded civil society groups that advocate government accountability, budget transparency, human rights and free elections.

A dismayed Congress has attached conditions to future military assistance to Egypt (now $1.3 billion a year), requiring the Obama administration to certify that the military government is maintaining peace with Israel, allowing a transition to civilian rule and protecting basic freedoms — or to waive the conditions on national security grounds — if it wants to keep aid flowing.

The Egyptian military is clearly not meeting at least two of those three conditions right now. Consequently, the Obama administration should not certify compliance, nor should it invoke the national security waiver by arguing that Egyptian-Israeli peace is paramount and that Egypt’s military is the only bulwark against Islamist domination of the country — because both of these arguments are deeply flawed.

First, hardly anyone in Egypt favors war with Israel, and a freeze or suspension of American aid would not change that. Second, continuing support to an Egyptian military that is bent on hobbling a liberal civil society would only strengthen Islamist domination. Islamist groups won some 70 percent of seats in the recent parliamentary elections, but they will now face tremendous pressure to solve the deep economic and political problems that caused the revolution.

In Egypt, as in Pakistan, the ultimate solution is a peaceful transfer of power to elected, accountable civilians and the removal of the military’s overt and covert influence from the political scene. At a minimum, Egypt should establish the clear supremacy of the civilian government over the military and allow an unfettered civil society to flourish.

Washington should suspend military assistance to Egypt until those conditions are met. Taking that difficult step now could help Egypt avoid decades of the violence, terrorism and cloak-and-dagger politics that continue to plague Pakistan.

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