Jon Alterman has an op-ed in the NYT that has some good sense in it but also some very troubling ideas and policy prescriptions.
Alterman is quite right to note that by far the most important thing that’s happening in Egypt right now is not the confrontations or lack of them in Cairo’s very visible Tahrir Square but the electoral process that is unfolding, with almost painful slowness, all around the country– and the negotiation that will subsequently unfold between the election’s victors and the country’s now-ruling military council, the SCAF.
(The piece doesn’t mention the SCAF’s recent actions against US-funded NGOs in the country. That was probably because it was written a few days ago. But anyway, his basic thesis that it is the election and the subsequent negotiation that are the most important story, still stands.)
He is also right to note that the Islamist parties that between them are now showing a clear lead in the elections are doing so for good reason– because they have built up serious, nationwide political organizations. He writes:
- Islamists have grasped that the game has moved beyond protests to the mechanics of elections, and their supporters are motivated, organized and energetic. By contrast, the secular liberal parties are virtually absent from the countryside. Judging from posters, billboards, bumper stickers and banners, the two major Islamist parties have the field almost to themselves.
However, he was unnecessarily patronizing and wrong when he prefaced those remarks by writing ” For Americans, it is hard to imagine that religious parties could win almost 70 percent of the Egyptian vote… ” What? I have been “imagining”, indeed predicting, this for a very long while now. I’m an American; and so are many others– from a broad range of viewpoints, who have “imagined” it.
Why does Alterman need to make it seem as though only he understands what is really going on? (And isn’t he an American, too? Or has he, like Michael Oren, suddenly transformed himself into an Israeli?)
Well, that is a relatively small quibble. The more serious problems occur at the end of his piece, where he writes:
- Many in Israel and America, and even some in Egypt, fear that the elections will produce an Islamist-led government that will tear up the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, turn hostile to the United States, openly support Hamas and transform Egypt into a theocracy that oppresses women, Christians and secular Muslims. They see little prospect for more liberal voices to prevail, and view military dictatorship as a preferable outcome.
American interests, however, call for a different outcome, one that finds a balance — however uneasy — between the military authorities and Egypt’s new politicians. We do not want any one side to vanquish or silence the other. And with lopsided early election results, it is especially important that the outcome not drive away Egypt’s educated liberal elite, whose economic connections and know-how will be vital for attracting investment and creating jobs.
Our instinct is to search for the clarity we saw in last winter’s televised celebrations. However, what Egyptians, and Americans, need is something murkier — not a victory, but an accommodation.
Let’s look at that first paragraph there. It is factually accurate that “Many in Israel and America, and even some in Egypt” harbor the fears he describes. Though why he should put the fears of a subset of Israel’s actually tiny– and often paranoid– population before those of Americans and some Egyptians in a piece that purports to speak about American and Egyptian interests, I don’t know… But more importantly here, he lets the substantive scenarios described in those fears stand as quite possible outcomes without making any mention of the assurances that the MB’s Freedom and Justice Party and even the salafist Nur Party have given re not tearing up the peace treaty with Israel; and the assurances the FJP has given re the other “feared” scenarios that he lists.
As someone who claims to be a knowledgeable, evidence-based “realist” rather than an alarmist, wouldn’t that be information Alterman should include in that paragraph, rather than letting those “scare” scenarios simply stand?
Moving on to the last two paras of his piece… I feel pretty sure that Alterman would define “American interests” in a way that is in some portions the same and in some portions different from the way that I would define “the true interests of the American people”. However, let’s assume we’re talking here about roughly the same thing. In my definition the true interests of the American people would require that our government and all its appendages, including its sneakily misnamed, government-funded quangos like NED, etc, stay completely out of Egyptian politics, and take only those actions toward Egypt that are clearly requested by the new government that will emerge from the ongoing electoral process.
Realistically, that government will only emerge and stabilize itself once presidential elections in April, as well as the current lengthy round of parliamentary elections, have been completed. But the parliament that emerges from the current elections will have a leadership that will be in a position to negotiate with and make demands of not only the SCAF, but also the SCAF’s main financial backers, that is, the U.S. government.
So Alterman is arguing for an outcome “that finds a balance — however uneasy — between the military authorities and Egypt’s new politicians. We do not want any one side to vanquish or silence the other.” Say that again, Jon? Um, in democratic theory there’s this thing called civilian control of the military. Surely, anyone who claims to want to see greater democracy in Egypt should aim to have that principle firmly implemented there! It’s not a question of “vanquishing” or “silencing”. It’s a question of who’s in charge.
In the next sentence, he seems to giving another reason why “we” Americans should seek to see the power of Egypt’s elected leaders curtailed: “it is especially important that the outcome not drive away Egypt’s educated liberal elite, whose economic connections and know-how will be vital for attracting investment and creating jobs.” His clear implication here is that an Islamist government (a) would not be able to mobilize any– or sufficient numbers of– “educated” people with “connections and know-how”, and (b) would “drive away” the country’s liberal elite, whose fabulous attributes “will be vital for attracting investment and creating jobs.”
This argument is nonsense on stilts! It is based on incredibly condescending views of observant Muslims and the Islamist parties that grow up in their communities, to the effect that they really do not have sufficient education, know-how, or connections to run a successful modern economy.
Turkey, anyone? (Or come to that, Iran– and the impressive abilities its technicians showed recently when they hijacked the US military’s allegedly “stealth” RQ-170 drone… )
But the argument Alterman is making is also a sly one. By placing his “concern” about Egypt’s “educated liberal elite” right there alongside his argument for the military to still retain a say in national governance, he sis clearly implying that the military can be a guardian for the interests of the liberal elite.
Actually, that too is a pretty stupid argument. True, there are some in the “liberal elite” who strongly indicated in the past that they would be happy to see some form of military guarantee, or counter-balance, to protect them from the programs and policies of the Islamists; but for quite a while now relations between the SCAF and the liberals have been far, far worse than the relations either side has with, say, the MB. But I guess Alterman is adducing this argument here as a way of making the support he is expressing for a continued strong military role in Egypt more appealing to Western liberals…
Anyway, in his’s last paragraph, he states his position clearly: “what Egyptians, and Americans, need is … not a victory, but an accommodation.” That is, he doesn’t want to see a true victory for a democratically elected civilian leadership in Egypt, or for the important democratic principle of civilian control of the military; but he wants to see a continuing strong role for the military in Egypt’s governance.
Describing his own policy preference as a “need” for both Egyptians and Americans” is, of course, colonial, patronizing, and quite unwarranted. Let Egypt’s voters (who include, of course, all the members of the military) define their country’s needs on their own behalf. They don’t need Jon Alterman to do it for them.