Why does the Egyptian crisis appear so simple to our political leaders yet so complicated when you actually turn up in Cairo?
Let’s start with the Egyptian press. Flowering after the 2011 revolution, the Egyptian media moved into lockstep the moment General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi and the lads chucked President Mohamed Morsi out of power on 3 July. Indeed, one popular television group – upon whose airwaves I occasionally spoke in the post-Mubarak era – appeared after the military takeover with their reporters and presenters all praising the new regime. And here’s the rub – they all appeared on screen in military uniform!
Of course, fantasies had to be created. The first of these was not the perfidious, undemocratic, terroristic nature of the Brotherhood – this idea had been fostered at least a week before the coup. No, it was the demonstration scoreboard that fed into the dreams of the world. “Millions” were on the streets calling for Morsi’s overthrow. These millions were essential for the supreme fantasy: that General al-Sisi was merely following the will of the people. But then Tony Blair – whose accuracy over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is well known – told us that there were “17 million Egyptians on the streets”! This was worthy of an exclamation mark. Then the US State Department told us there were 22 million on the streets of Egypt. Then just three days ago, the Democracy Index informed us that there were 30 million taking part in demonstrations against Morsi and only one million Morsi supporters on the streets!
This is truly incredible. The population of Egypt is around 89 million. Stripped of its babies, children, pensioners of advanced age, this suggests that more than half the active population of Egypt was demonstrating against Morsi. Yet unlike Egypt in 2011, the country kept running. So who, during what the Egyptian Writers Union now called “the largest political demonstration in history”, was driving the trains and buses, the Cairo underground system, operating the airports, manning the ranks of the police and army, the factories, hotels and the Suez Canal?
Al-Jazeera, thank heavens, brought in an American expert on crowds to demonstrate that these figures emerged from a dream world in which both sides eagerly subscribed, one that physically could not exist. Around Tahrir Square, it was impossible to gather more than a million and a half people. In Nasr City – a Morsi demonstration point – far fewer. But the groundwork had been laid.
So last week, the US Secretary of State John Kerry was able to tell us that the Egyptian military “was asked to intervene by millions and millions [sic] of people, all of whom were afraid of a [descent] into chaos, into violence. And the military did not take over, to the best of our judgement – so far – to run the country. There’s a civilian government. In effect [sic], they were restoring democracy.” All Kerry failed to mention was that General al-Sisi chose the “civilian” government, reappointed himself defence minister, then appointed himself deputy prime minister of the “civilian” government – and remained commander of the Egyptian army. And that General al-Sisi was never elected. But that’s OK. He was anointed by those “millions and millions” of people.
And what did the military spokesman say when asked how the world would react to the “excessive use of force” that killed 50 Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators on 8 July? Without reservation, he replied: “What excessive force? It would have been excessive if we had killed 300 people.” That speaks for itself. But when you’re up there among the 17 million, 22 million, 30 million, the “millions of millions”, who cares?
Now to the Department of Plain Speaking. Let me quote here the best commentator on the Middle East, Alain Gresh, whose work in Le Monde diplomatique, is – or should be – essential reading for all politicians, generals, “intelligence” officers, torturers, and every Arab in the entire region. The Muslim Brotherhood, he writes this month, proved itself “fundamentally incapable of adapting to the pluralist political deal, to emerge from its culture of clandestinity, to transform itself into a political party, to make alliances. Sure, they created the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), but this remained totally under the control of the Brotherhood.”
And what was al-Sisi’s real role in all this? He gave us an intriguing clue in his infamous 25 July call on Egyptians to authorise the army to “confront violence and terrorism”. He said he told two Brotherhood leaders prior to the overthrow that the situation was “dangerous”, that reconciliation talks must begin at once. The two leaders, al-Sisi said, replied that “armed groups” would solve any problem that arose. The general was outraged. He said he gave Morsi a week before 30 June to try to end the crisis. On 3 July, he sent Morsi’s Prime Minister, Hisham Qandil, and two others “to former President Morsi to convince him to be proactive and call for a referendum on his remaining in power… His answer was ‘no’.” Al-Sisi told Morsi that “political pride dictates that if the people reject you, you should either step down, or re-establish confidence through a referendum. Some people want to either rule the country or destroy it.”
Of course, we can’t hear Morsi’s point of view. He has been publicly silenced.
Thank God for the Egyptian army. And all those millions.
Chances of Kerry’s talks ending in success? Slim
So John Kerry is going to pull it off, wolves sitting down with lambs, swords into ploughshares, two states, the whole shebang. The EU was daring enough at the time of Kerry’s announcement of Israeli-Palestinian talks to inform the Israelis of their guidelines barring support for anyone operating from Israeli colonies illegally built on Arab land.
Time was (Carter/Clinton) when the US would call the colonies – or “Jewish settlements” – “unhelpful”. But blow me down, Washington has now told us the EU’s statement was “unhelpful”. This is weird. Israeli colonies built on land stolen from Arabs were “unhelpful”. But now the EU’s rules reflecting this “unhelpful” state of affairs are themselves “unhelpful”.
As usual, you have to turn to Israeli writers to sniff what’s wrong with the whole Kerry fandango. Uri Avnery last week raised the question of Martin Indyk’s role as chief US negotiator. He called it “a problematic choice”, because Indyk “is Jewish and much involved in Jewish and Zionist activity”. While acknowledging that Indyk is also criticised by the Israeli right because he’s involved in left-wing Israeli activities, Avnery then makes the point that Western editorialists never dare to: “Palestinians may well ask whether among the 300 million US citizens there is not a single non-Jew who can manage this job. For many years now almost all American officials dealing with the Israeli-Arab problem have been Jews… If the US had been called upon to referee negotiations between, say, Egypt and Ethiopia, would they have appointed an Ethiopian-American?”
But forgetting Indyk for a moment, what are the chances of two states? Chatting to Jon Snow on Channel 4 last week, Matt Frei suggested he would put $10 on success. What mischief! I’ll put 10 cents on success. No, call that one cent.