from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Egypt: The High Art of Being Feckless

March 7, 2013

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I felt sorry for Secretary of State John Kerry when he flew into Cairo on March 2.  I am sure his briefers and the U.S. embassy staff did everything they could to prepare him for the visit as best as possible. Still, I’m not sure that Massachusetts politics, the less than genteel Senate, the rough-and-tumble world of a presidential election campaign, and the best briefing ever could prepare the new secretary for what has been happening in Egypt.  With all the instability, “Calvinball" politics, lawlessness, and massive economic as well as social problems, Egypt is the biggest and most significant long-term challenge for the United States in the Middle East.

Yet it was not these problems that were first and foremost on my mind.  No, it was Secretary Kerry’s desire to meet with Egypt’s opposition that gave me that sinking, anxiety-ridden feeling.  Did he know?  Had Ambassador Anne Patterson made the secretary aware?  Perhaps Secretary Kerry’s years in the Senate would give him an advantage, but could any good come out of meeting with people who have turned fecklessness into a high art?  If there is anything that observers have learned over the last two years, it is that members of Egypt’s opposition are almost always for something before they are against it, or against something before they are for it.  It is, in a word, maddening. Maybe the secretary ought to be sparing with his unsolicited advice, but he was correct to suggest that President Morsi’s opponents should rethink their planned boycott of the upcoming parliamentary elections, lest they hand the new legislature over to the Muslim Brotherhood.  The National Salvation Front (NSF) deemed Kerry’s gentle and friendly encouragement to be “interference in Egypt’s domestic affairs.”  Never mind the fact that this is a phrase that Hosni Mubarak’s succession of foreign ministers—including the NSF’s Amr Moussa—perfected, but let’s be clear: The opposition is angry at Washington precisely because the Obama administration has not intervened in Egypt’s affairs on its behalf.

The penchant for Egypt’s “opposition,” now broadly defined to mean the liberals, revolutionaries, Leftists, Nasserists, and the felool (the Salafists apparently don’t make the cut), to surf the news cycle seeking tactical advantage is no way to run an effective opposition.  How do you offer Egyptians an appealing alternative if you have no principles?  This phenomenon started when the military first proposed that parliamentary elections be held in the early fall of 2011.  The opposition appealed for more time (which it ultimately wasted), making the case that it needed the delay to establish political parties and conduct outreach; otherwise, the better financed and organized Muslim Brotherhood and remnants of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party would win handily.  This made sense to virtually everyone.  The Obama administration even weighed in with the SCAF to postpone the elections, but not by too much. The officers reluctantly agreed, yet when the SCAF unveiled its timeline for elections from late November 2011 through January 2012 for the People’s Assembly, followed by Shura Council elections, then constitution writing, and then presidential elections in early 2013, everyone cried foul.  The sticking point was related mostly to the presidential elections.  Still, the SCAF commanders were bewildered.  Was not a delay in the elections what Egyptians wanted?  The resulting protests and international pressure on the SCAF resulted in an accelerated election timetable that contributed to instability and the present political uncertainty.  The intention here is not necessarily to defend Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and then Chief of Staff Lt. General Sami Enan both of whom made many mistakes, but they and their men found the opposition’s tendency to shift its positions without regard to principle to be exasperating.

My favorite episode was the outrage when, in June 2012, the Supreme Constitutional Court deemed about a third of the seats in the new parliament void, leading the SCAF to dissolve the People’s Assembly.  This seemed like the ultimate machinations of Mubarak-era judges who were set on denying the people their collective voice in the “new Egypt.”  Typically, protests ensued, including a sit-in at the Supreme Constitutional Court.  Yet when newly elected president Mohammed Morsi sought to reverse the court’s decision through presidential fiat not too long after he took the oath of office, the opposition went into overdrive, denouncing Morsi’s move as overreach and a clear example of the Muslim Brotherhood’s intention to ensure that the preponderance of power would remain in the hands of the Executive just as it did during the Mubarak period.  The accusations were largely accurate, but the whole episode further clouded what it was that the opposition stood for.  One could make an argument that the opposition was angry at both the court and the new president, which is a principled position to take, but in the space of a few weeks, protesters at the gates of the Supreme Constitutional Court had become passionate defenders of the judiciary’s prerogatives.

The examples of the opposition’s feckless approach to politics could go on and on, but there is no need to rehearse them all. The few examples above underscore what Hisham Hellyer wrote a few months ago when he suggested that the opposition needs to be “for something” in addition to being anti-Muslim Brotherhood.  Indeed, if you don’t believe in anything, you are left seeking wedge issues for momentary political gains, but where does that leave you?  In the Egyptian opposition’s case, it is left calling, either implicitly or explicitly, for the military to intervene in the political system. The irony is almost too much to take.