Tuesday, February 8, 2011

America Screws Up on Egypt

Somewhere deep in the bowels of the State Department, there's got to be an office with a few Arabic-speaking folks who spend all their lives monitoring Egypt. There's got to be. Across the Potomac, there's got to be another such team in the Pentagon. Not far off there must be another such team at Langley, the CIA. If you wish to look further afield, there are scholars at universities who spend their entire lives fretting about Egypt, past and present; they're known, not hiding. I'll bet there's a staff person at the Library of Congress who knows all about Egypt. Not to mention the think tanks: there's got to be someone at a Washington think tank who spends their life think tanking about Egypt. It's a big country, a recipient of large sums of American aid, which has this canal some American merchant and military ships sometime use. Also, it's in a region which keeps intruding on the international agenda.

The NSC, if I understand its purpose, is supposed to know who all these folks are.

So doesn't it make sense that if there's a sudden dramatic event in Egypt, say, a revolution or what have you, someone in the administration probably knows how to contact all those experts, get them into a room or an undisclosed secured location, and pick their brains? They won't be offended, on the contrary, they've been spending decades accumulating knowledge that normally doesn't much interest anyone; now that someone wants to listen, they'll jump at the opportunity to tell. Not that they'll necessarily know what's going on better than your run-of-the-mill twitterers, mind you, but they probably do know a bit more about the context, and the potential pitfalls.

So how to explain that the responses of the administration are so cock-eyed?


Barry Meislin said...

Israel is one mighty distraction.

Just like the Jews were a mighty distraction in the 30s.

File under: "Hitler's not a threat to anyone except, possibly, the Jews..."

Silke said...

When Obama said America is ready to lead again I asked myself whether that resonated as badly with others as it did with me and mind you I loved every minute and every bit of life under American occupation, real and de facto, but I objected to the nannying attitude that choice of words conveyed.

Don't they know that reminds vaguely of the schoolyard bully? Don't they have PR-people in the US who tell them how to woe those old-worlders? Also is it democratic to say "we are ready to lead again"?

As to experts: I listen to lots of book talks and American historians tend to fall short IMHO because they all sound more or less like they wrote the book as a kind of resumée by which to apply for a government consultant job. That tends to make them sound boring and predictable and I can't remember anybody peddling something out of current headline mainstream.

But more important: amongst all those angling for a government job or journalists extending their reporting into a book I can't for the life of me remember somebody talking about the Maghreb or Egypt or let's say South Africa or the Australian thing or Japan.

There was an interesting sounding author who had a book about Yemen. Where is it? apparently nobody has read it? (Victoria Clark: Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes). Pundits writing their evaluations also have developed a vexing tendency not to refer to books on the market but out of the way stuff like sometime ago, I forgot in which context, thrown in references to Gustave Flaubert's Salambo were all the rage. I think there is a race on amongst them who is more obscurely read.

All in all the only thing I remember having come across on Egypt is P.J. O'Rourke's report in The Atlantic and the fact from in there or somewhere else that they don't know land-ownership suitable to putting up the property as collateral for loans.

Silke said...

Yes Barry
it is amazing and frightening and disgusting how they put Jew-hatred into the background as a problem of minor significance in the whole of it which will sort itself out by itself when "reality" will set in and anyway Israelis shouldn't show such nerves. i.e. on the one hand "they" say it is in their might to put everything right on the other hand "they" imply that Israel isn't important enough to justify not ululating about Egyptian demonstrators.

Why would they carry around a Wanted poster with Gabi Ashkenazi on it? Not important? not relevant?

Barry Meislin said...



(But she's barking at the wind....)

Silke said...

related in a round-about "plus ca change" way i.e. a trip into history on what they say about Jews is not that important


a fascinating book review/essay on Pius XI and XII's before he became XII doings - it is a German book but as best I remember it didn't make a splash and has just one customer review on German Amazon.

it concludes with this sobering view at John Paul II

The words of an Episcopal Council have unsurpassed authority, and cannot be contravened, even by the popes. Yet in recent years John Paul II and his Secretary of the Holy Office Joseph Ratzinger—now Benedict—have re-asserted central authority by appointing bishops against the wishes of their flocks, silencing criticism, and supporting right-wing fringe groups. All of this contradicts the vision of the church as “people of God,” as more than just an institution of power with a hierarchy topped by the Roman Curia.

In 2008, Benedict resuscitated a Good Friday prayer for the Jews, and last year he raised the cause of canonizing Pius XII to a higher stage. For many students of church history, such steps have been deeply troubling. Those hoping to form a judgment of Benedict’s course should read Wolf's learned book and ask themselves whether the Pius they encounter in the memoranda salvaged from the Vatican’s secret archives seems like a saint—with a charisma that speaks through the ages—or whether he appears as fallible as any of us, a man who sought wisdom but ultimately failed to see beyond the horizons of his own time.

Barry Meislin said...

...resuscitated a Good Friday prayer for the Jews...

Certainly, we can use all the help we can get....(?)

Silke said...

once you stop the crime of insisting on not embracing Jesus the world will love you no end provided that after the conversion you wait quite a number of generations and preferably emigrate to somewhere where your terrible past misguidedness isn't known, I'd say several migrations might be safer than just one.

And if you are as negligent as Nick Cohen and/or his family was then the name will give you away and the whole thing will have been for naught.

As the struggle between theocracy and liberalism intensifies, I can see some being pushed into taking the same journey I have taken and finding their views towards Judaism and Israel softening as they realise that antisemitism helps drive the fascistic ideologies of the 21st century just as it drove the Nazism of the 20th.

I will tell them that the opponents of totalitarianism must never be frightened. If their enemies say they are Jews, they should shrug and say: “All right, I am.” As long as readers of the Jewish Chronicle don’t object, of course.


Anonymous said...

The Obama administration seems to have developed the habit of reacting first and only then actually reading the constitution of whatever country happens to be in crisis:
remember Honduras?


Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but the linked article lost any credibility with me when it stated:

"Its president may be bad for the public but the regime is built on checks and balances, systems and institutions, and above all a constitution that is important to the people."

The constitution that has been bowdlerized so as to ensure the hegemony of the ruling party and the ability of that party to systematically deny the most basic rights to the people? The checks and balances that serve only to check the opposition and to tip the balance in favor of the NDP? The systems and institutions of torture, repression, the deep security state, and the armed forces (who are not benevolent, whatever the protestors' initial reactions to the deployment of the army)?

We may not be getting things completely right over here, but at the very least I doubt the Obama administration is being fed this claptrap.


Silke said...

seriously I listen very regularly to talks with Prof Lill from Cologne university - sorry audio only - who is as best I can tell a truly pious man and he is unhappy unhappy unhappy about the backwards course the church is on and backwards means not only women and such negligeables, it has by definition to include Jews.

All in all the Vatican seems to labour under a dilemma, on the one hand there are the dwindling congregations in the "west" who, alas nevertheless, are still needed because of the cash and maybe something else and on the other hand there are the growing congregations in Africa and Asia who prefer the more fundamentalist style.

Thus I keep hearing tones that make me suspect that they think the resuscitation of fundamentalism in itself is not such a bad thing and why not make use of it for their own ends.

Yaacov said...


It's a bit late in the day, now that the US has poured tens of billions of $ into Egypt over decades, to turn around and say it's a cruel regime and can't be supported.

Also, it's a dangerous conceit: many regimes the world over are nasty; some of them are as important to America as vice versa - China, say, or Saudi Arabia, or Russia. Jimmy Carter once tried to organize America's foreign policy along the lines of human rights, but he desisted very quickly. Even Jimmy Carter.

Anyway, you miss the point. No matter if the Egyptian constitution has been bowdlerized or not. According to it, if the president leaves there have to be new elections within 60 days. In that scenario, guess who's the only group well enough organized to take advantage of those 60 days? Yep, those guys. That's the last outcome the Americans want. Hence the realization that oops! we actually don't want Mubarak to leave, not just yet.

The oops shouldn't have happened. Had the Obama administration done its homework, they'd have know so before sticking their foot in it.

Silke said...

I've found an answer to the question what the experts are doing or rather where they get their expertise or more precisely what prejudices they have to argue the really knowledgeable ones against.

We are on the air and on the major cable system in the nation's capital, and some of America's leading policymakers in Washington, D.C., have told me that Al-Jazeera English is their channel of choice for understanding global issues.

We is Al Jazeera and the quote is from an EoZ post

now what if I am right and they are so successful with politicians can anybody imagine how successful they'll be when they are allowed to educate all of the US?

I heard a talk by a BBC Afghanistan guy about to become an AlJazeera one some years ago. The way he described the world seemed a wee bit biased to me and the people of AlJazeera were known all through journalia as perfect angels always willing to share and to help out.

Silke said...


you know that even if there is a really huge revolution lots of the legal structure survives and rightfully so and it should be protected or would you want all land-deeds all contracts all state pension obligations including that for the garbage man become null and void?

Institutions are for better or for worse a lot more resilient than governments.

what you are advocating for is something like Total Revolution - I doubt the people of Egypt who have to make a living somehow have that in mind.

Anonymous said...

Yaacov and Silke,

Both of you read your own assumptions into what I wrote. I don't advocate Total Revolution. I do think it is important that a transition be done in an orderly, perhaps even measured, fashion. None of that preclude one from recognizing that all of the claims in the paragraph I highlighted are false. The Egyptian constitution is not based on real checks and balances. It is not based on systems and institutions of governance, but on institutions like the state security forces and the army. And, I dare say, the constitution as it has been disfigured by the regime (and I haven't gone back to check, but I doubt it was particularly welcome in its original form) is certainly not in itself important to the people. Further, one might even go so far as to say that the provision for the holding of elections within 60 days is itself a measure designed to perpetuate the power of the regime because no opposition force within Egypt could possibly organize itself to compete in those elections.

I don't have a magic bullet solution. And maybe the Obama administration has stumbled at times in its handling of the situation. But first, it seems clear that extra-constitutional situations can occur in which, despite the importance of preserving many aspects of the legal regime, it might be desirable to set up a process that is technically unconstitutional. Second, given that the regime has already acceded to certain constitutional amendments, I don't see why the U.S. couldn't get behind a raft of amendments that would provide for some sort of transitional government (one not headed by Omar Suleiman) that would dismantle many aspects of the regime and that would lay the ground for elections in a reasonable time frame. You may not like the prospect of any elections in Egypt, and you may think that the U.S. should back the continued existence of the regime. None of that requires adopting the absurd positions regarding the Egyptian constitution adopted by the writer of the inked article.

To summarize: my point did not extend to philosophical debates regarding the necessity or lack thereof of alliances with odious regimes, etc. It was rather that if someone could produce such a ludicrous analysis of the Egyptian constitution, what value could the rest of the article have?


Barry Meislin said...

OK. Let's try again.


Yaacov said...


Contrary to what you seem to think, I would be ecstatic were Egypt to turn into a liberal democracy, like, say, the UK, with an antisemitic Guardian-like Left, a 7th century Islamist minority, and a broad center which doesn't worry much about the Jews one way or the other but treats them and their country with realpolitik.

Do I think this will happen? No. But there's not anything we can do about it anyway.

The American administration - any American administration - can't do much either. On the margins, however, it can do a bit, since it's the country which pours billions of its $$ into Egypt each year. My point on this post has been that the Obama administration is being woefully inept, to put it nicely. Telling Mubarak he has to leave "now" without knowing what that means, then backtracking a few days later when he didn't leave and only then checking what his departure would entail, is the sort of thing you expect from the media, not the world's most powerful government.

You can have the last word if you want. I've made my position as clear as I can.

AKUS said...

Yakov, you wrote:

"Somewhere deep in the bowels of the State Department, there's got to be an office with a few Arabic-speaking folks who spend all their lives monitoring Egypt."

Actually, maybe not. There were some in military intelligence who were fired because they are gay.


58 Gay Linguists Fired

Did the State Department hire them?

That is a good question.

AKUS said...

"I'll bet there's a staff person at the Library of Congress who knows all about Egypt."

I've forgotten her name but she appeared on CNN.

Silke said...

there is of course the problem that there are pictures like this about
- I have been wagging my head about it ever since these public displays of emotion instead of keeping up the stiff decorum of the office by officials became the fashion.

Look at her cheek, that's no "bise" it's a real pretty tight hug and to me it looks like the loving pressure came from her - but that raises the question whether our elected ones think at all


Ayaan Hirsi Ali says something about constitution also:


Silke said...

from the pay-walled London-Times front page right now - super-hot news on the US-president:

Yes he can!
Barack Obama has quit smoking, Michelle reveals

President makes good on promise made before he ran for the White

aren't Egyptians said to be furious smokers? maybe that'll impress them to concentrate on this instead of figuring out those boring technicalities

Anonymous said...


Thank you for the invitation to the last word. I don't know that we're actually disagreeing about much, particularly because I'm not attempting to argue for or against the major propositions you've made. I don't think the Obama administration is being inept as you think it is, but the main point of my original post was to criticize the article you linked to. Regardless of where one comes down on any of the issues at play--the desirability of a transition to a new regime, the likelihood of the emergence of a functioning democracy not dominated by radical Islamists, the importance of sticking to the current constitution to the letter in order to prevent chaos--one can admit that the current Egyptian constitution is characterized by none of the qualities attributed to it in the paragraph I initially highlighted. Or to put it another way, it's fine to prefer any combination of stability, orderliness, perpetuation of the current regime, and even to advocate for the importance of current legal and constitutional structures, without closing one's eyes to the actual nature of those structures. That's all. But I do appreciate your thoughtful commentary, both in the original post and in follow-up remarks.


Rabbi Tony Jutner said...

I support President Obama's efforts to reach dialog with the Muslim Brotherhood. They are the authentic voice of Egypt. In addition, Dr Carrie Rosovsky Wickham has noted that the Muslim Brotherhood has given up violence a long time ago. Of course, if the MB were to tear up its treaty with israel, we would need to respect their decision

Silke said...

the (pay-walled) London Times' frontpage informs us currently thus and not long ago I read that the Saudis were so nice as to increase oil output - could it be that they aren't doing things for free?

Exclusive: Saudis told Obama to back Mubarak
Hugh Tomlinson Riyadh
February 10 2011 12:01AM
Saudi Arabia has threatened to prop up President Mubarak if the White House tries to force a swift change of regime in Egypt. In a testy personal telephone call on January 29, King Abdullah told President Obama not to humiliate Mr Mubarak and warned that he would step in to bankroll Egypt if the US withdrew its aid programme, worth $1.5 billion annually. America’s closest ally in the Gulf made clear that the Egyptian President must be allowed to stay on to oversee the transition towards peaceful democracy and then leave with dignity. “Mubarak and King Abdullah are not just allies, they are close friends, and the King is not about to see his friend cast aside and humiliated,” a senior source in the Saudi capital told The Times. Two sources confirmed details of the King’s call, made four days after the people