Pharaoh al-Sisi sits tight By M K Bhadrakumar
16 August 2013 — Asia Times
The highly opportunistic stance taken by the “big powers” who are veto-holding permanent members of the United Nations Security Council has prevented that august body from articulating an outright condemnation of the brutality with which the Egyptian military massacred more than 1,000 civilians in Cairo on Wednesday.
This must be counted as one of the most shameful moments that the UN Security Council has been put through in its sad history of over six decades. The fault lies entirely at the doorstep of the White House and the Kremlin.
Both Washington and Moscow have chosen to view the Egyptian developments largely through the geopolitical prism and their respective self-interests, singularly devoid of any human compassion or political morality. Their credentials to take to the high ground on the Middle East issues – Palestine problem or Syria or the Arab Spring – have now come under severe scrutiny.
The Security Council met in New York on Thursday in a closed-door session at the joint request of Britain, France and Australia and came up with the lowest-level response that the UN’s most powerful body is capable of making on international issues with regard to the grave escalating crisis in Egypt.
Maria Cristina Perceval, the ambassador of Argentina, which holds the rotating post of the presidency of the Security Council, found herself in the awkward position of speaking to the press with cowardly words dictated by the big powers from behind the curtain:
Members first of all expressed their sympathy to the victims and regretted the loss of life. The view of council members is that it’s important to end violence in Egypt, that the parties exercise maximum restraint. And there was a common desire on the need to stop violence and to advance national reconciliation.
Perceval, however, had the last laugh by deftly distancing her country, which still bears the deep scars left behind by military dictatorships, from the Security Council’s shameful stance by reiterating Argentina’s unequivocal condemnation of “the coup d’etat” against president Mohamed Morsi and Wednesday’s “brutal repression” against popular demonstrations that filled the streets of the main cities of Egypt: and urging the Egyptian junta to “totally and immediately cease the spiral of violence let loose in recent days against unarmed citizens”.
Curiously, the UN itself has not minced words in condemning the massacre in Cairo. Secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon condemned the Egyptian junta in the “strongest terms”. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in a statement in Geneva,
The number of people killed or injured, even according to the government’s figures, point to an excessive, even extreme, use of force against demonstrators. There must be an independent, impartial, effective and credible investigation of the conduct of the security forces. Anyone found guilty of wrongdoing should be held to account.
Egypt’s security forces are bound by the rule of law and must act with full respect for human rights, including the rights to free speech and peaceful assembly.
Doing little, too late
In comparison, US President Barack Obama has resorted to diplomatic tight-rope walking. He announced the cancellation of a planned military exercise with Egypt, but he still wouldn’t cut off US aid – and he is still unwilling to call the “coup” by its real name; instead, he strove to convey his measured displeasure at the Egyptian military’s brutal use of force against the protestors in Cairo. In a verbose statement, Obama said, inter alia,
While Mohamed Morsi was elected president in a democratic election, his government was not inclusive and did not respect the views of all Egyptians. We know that many Egyptians, millions of Egyptians, perhaps even a majority of Egyptians were calling for a change in course … Instead, we’ve seen a more dangerous path taken through arbitrary arrests, a broad crackdown on Mr Morsi’s associations and supporters, and now tragically the violence that’s taken the lives of hundreds of people and wounded thousands more.
The United States strongly condemns the steps that have been taken by Egypt’s interim government and security forces. We deplore violence against civilians … We oppose the pursuit of martial law.
But while we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back … I’ve asked my national security team to assess the implications of the actions taken by the interim government and further steps that we may take as necessary with respect to the US-Egyptian relationship … We believe that the state of emergency should be lifted, that a process of national reconciliation should begin … and that commitments must be kept to pursue transparent reforms of the constitution and democratic elections of a parliament and a president.
Obama has tried to get away with the next-to-impossible – distance the US from the Cairo massacre but without alienating the generals in Cairo. Unsurprisingly, it took him one full day after the massacre took place to craft a balanced stance.
It comes of a piece with his abysmal record on Egypt – doing little, doing it too late, and ending up sending mixed messages and thereby eroding even further the US’s capacity (or willingness) to influence events. Canceling the US’ military exercise with Egypt, which was scheduled for September, has become unavoidable in the prevailing anarchic conditions in Egypt and Obama has indulged in sophistry by claiming it as a deliberate political decision.
The core issue remains: how does he hope to meet the US objectives in Egypt by canceling the military exercise at a time when the junta has its hands full with other preoccupations anyway and “inter-operability” with the US armed forces is the last thing on its mind?
At any rate, the kind of tank-on-tank military exercise that the US holds with Egypt has little relevance to today’s threat perceptions in the Middle East, which almost entirely emanate out of the exigencies of counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism. In sum, Obama opted for good optics by scuttling an inconsequential event.
On the contrary, if there is a moment to order a suspension of military aid to Egypt, this is it. It will be a strategic error on Obama’s part not to suspend the aid – US$1.55 billion including $1.3 billion to the Egyptian military – and instead weaken the US credibility further when the junta has so openly disregarded repeated US calls on the generals to desist from causing bloodshed.
However, as things stand, there is little chance of Obama doing anything that would even remotely damage Washington’s equations with the Egyptian generals. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke to the Egyptian army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Thursday to convey that the recent violence might jeopardize US-Egyptian military cooperation but also assuring him that the Obama administration hoped to maintain its military relationship with Cairo.
The dilemma facing the Obama administration continues to be that it is under compulsion to appear to support democracy in Egypt and live up to its own rhetoric to be on the “right side of history” but on the other hand it is under even bigger compulsion to safeguard the US’ strategic interests in Egypt, primarily in terms of the junta pursuing policies that serve Israel’s security interests and preserving the 1979 peace treaty as well as continuing to provide privileged access to the Suez Canal for the US Navy that is critical at the operational level to the perpetuation of Washington’s military dominance of the Middle East and its regional hegemony.
Complicated thought processes
Paradoxically, the Russian stance on Egypt almost entirely devolves upon exploiting the US’s acute policy dilemma. Whereas Obama has at least opened his mouth to say something, the Kremlin maintains a stony silence and will only show its hand after Obama plays out of turn.
Ironically, the Egyptian Embassy in Moscow has said that Cairo counts on Russia’s assistance in “this trying time, as it used to in the past” (before Anwar Sadat purged Egypt of Soviet experts and advisers). Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held a telephone conversation with his Egyptian counterpart Nabil Fahmy on Thursday but the foreign ministry in Moscow did not divulge details except to say that the two diplomats discussed the “latest developments in Egypt”.
What transpired at another level in Moscow could be a pointer to the Russian thinking and policy priorities as they continue to evolve at the moment – a telephone talk between Mikhail Bogdanov, the Russian President’s envoy for the Middle East and deputy foreign minister, and Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, which was, interestingly, at the latter’s instance.
An unidentified source in the Russian foreign ministry later claimed,
Both sides [Russia and the UAE] came out for peaceful, non-violent resolution of problems of countries in the region, respect for sovereignty of states and non-interference in their internal affairs. The sides agreed to maintain a vigorous Russia-Emirates political dialogue on issues of mutual interest, including prospects for partnership between Russia and the Cooperation Council of the Arab States of the Gulf.
It is realistically possible to take a window seat on the complicated thought processes racing through the Russian mind. First of all, the UAE has been one of the handful of countries that fully back the Egyptian junta by insisting that what is happening in Cairo is a law and order issue. The foreign ministry in Abu Dhabi issued a statement on Thursday to declare support for the junta:
The UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs re-affirms its understanding of the sovereign measures taken by the Egyptian government after having exercised maximum self-control.
What is regretful is that political extremist groups have insisted on the rhetoric of violence, incitement, disruption of public interests and undermining of the Egyptian economy, which has led to the regretful events.
The UAE has so far offered the Egyptian junta aid worth $3 billion and has been second only to Saudi Arabia in bankrolling the military coup in Cairo. Paradoxically, the generous help from the petrodollar oligarchies of the Persian Gulf (which are terrified of the regional appeal of the Muslim Brotherhood) is enabling the Egyptian generals to withstand whatever pressure from Washington.
Conversely, it will be of immense interest to Moscow if the divergence of interests accentuates in the coming period between the US and its oil-rich Gulf Cooperation Council allies over the ticklish issue of extending support to the military junta in Cairo. The point is, any such divergence will be, quintessentially speaking, over the future directions of the Arab Spring and in turn it is bound to cast shadows on the conflict in Syria, where Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been among the most ardent backers of the rebel fighters.
It is in Moscow’s interests to keep lines of communication open to Saudi Arabia and the UAE over the Syrian developments at a time when the Western powers are more or less disengaging from any sort of significant military involvement in the conflict. Moscow will be pleasantly surprised that the developments in Egypt, which are of vital interest and core concern to the petrodollar oligarchies of the Persian Gulf region, find Russia, Saudi Arabia and the UAE increasingly on the same page.
All three find the Brotherhood to be a toxic substance in the body politic of the Middle East and all three find it abhorrent that political Islam has been gaining ascendancy as the life force of the new Middle East. Russia has proscribed the Muslim Brotherhood as a subversive organization.
Besides, Russia has happy memories of dealings with the officer corps of the Egyptian military in the Soviet era and will be inclined to see them as a “secular” bulwark against the deluge of “Islamism”. It does not seem particularly perturbed about the possibility that into the void created by any retreat of the moderate Brotherhood in Egypt, the Salafists, who are the kindred souls of the forces it battles in the North Caucasus (and whom the Saudis nurture as instruments of regional policy in the Greater Middle East) might enter as the vanguard of “Islamism”.
But what really counts today for Moscow is not the fate of Islamism, but geopolitics. Any alienation between the Pentagon and the Egyptian military can dramatically pitchfork Moscow as the mentor of the generals in command in Cairo. Egypt is the epicenter of Middle Eastern politics, and a revival of influence in Cairo can boost Russia’s regional influence as a whole on a variety of fronts and holds the potential to project it as an arbiter of peace and stability.
The spin-off in terms of arms exports and other economic benefits is equally self-evident. Naturally, the Kremlin is keenly watching how Obama wriggles out of his Egyptian predicament.
From current trends, Moscow will be gratified to see that the US president is steadily failing to have any meaningful impact on the behavior of the Egyptian generals, who are convinced that they have an existential struggle in hand and who are not inclined to turn back mid-stream to accommodate the Brotherhood in an “inclusive” democracy.
The Egyptian generals will be pleased that US aid continues, but while American assistance is desirable, it is not an absolute pre-requisite of survival if it comes at an unacceptable political price. This is where benefactors such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE, which have promised $12 billion financial support – and potentially, Russia, which is a major arms supplier – could come in handy for the Egyptian junta.
Suffice to say, after a gap of some 42 years, a window of opportunity is opening for Russia to stage a political comeback in the corridors of power in Cairo as a big-time player. It was on July 18, 1972, that then Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat summarily announced the expulsion of around 5,000 Soviet military advisors and 15,000 air force personnel in Egypt.
Having said that, Washington can be expected to do everything possible, no matter what it takes, to see that that the window on the Nile banks doesn’t open enough for a bear to squeeze through, and indeed the US still has vast residual powers to read the riot act to erring generals and rowdyish Persian Gulf autocrats. In the present climate of US-Russia relations, the Obama administration is certainly not going to roll over and make space for Russia in the Middle East.
The stalemate at the UN Security Council on Thursday is a fairly accurate reflection of the absorbing battle of wits between the big powers vying for influence in Cairo. Of course, the winner is Sisi, the new pharaoh on the Nile – for the time being at least.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).
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