Egypt's Agonizing Collapse

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

As Egypt stares into the abyss of a potential collapse of state authority, its Muslim Brotherhood leadership is reaping the bitter harvest of its chaotic grab for ultimate autocratic power.  Since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak two year ago, a revolution which was supposed to bring democracy, greater accountability and a restoration of economic stability has instead brought the country to the precipice collapse.  The Brotherhood's elders -- never forgetting how they lost power to Egypt's colonels in the 1952 coup that overthrew King Farouk -- seem hell bent to force-feed their version of Islamist  rule on Egypt even if they destroy the state in the bargain.

This is not what a majority of Egyptians had bargained for.

The major issue underlying this crisis is that Egypt's president and his Brotherhood and Salafist supporters prevailed in a free and fair presidential election, won amajority of parliamentary seats and democratically passed a stringent Islamist constitution, while a severely divided secular minority opposition has (choose one or both) frozen itself out or been frozen out of a role in running the state.  In other words a mortally divided opposition, furious at the Brotherhood's ability to trump them at every turn, are demanding that Morsi act more "democratically" by reversing the autocratic Islamist path which the Brotherhood asserts is its historical manifest destiny.

The political chasm between the Brotherhood and its more secular opponents seems likely to be closed only if Egypt's military -- the only national institution of state stability able to act -- intervenes to compel each side into a military supervised dialogue.  A second warning in as many days to President Morsi and his political opponents by Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Sisi that the military -- already heavily deployed to protect the Suez Canal from the revolting Suez cities of Port Said, Suez and Ismailya -- that the situation is affecting "state national security" is the clearest signal of imminent military intervention.

The deteriorating security situation across Egypt poses a grave danger to the independent image the military has desperately tried to project during the growing turmoil.  President Morsi has for all intents and purposes declared emergency rule and martial law in the Suez Canal cities, instructing the military to act on behalf of his government against Egyptians taking to the streets against Morsi's rule.   Egyptians have traded one dictator for another proving once again that a democracy is only as good as the social compact that protects the rights of all its citizens -- another lesson in Middle East political science that the Muslim Brotherhood refuses to embrace.  

As Egypt's crisis escalates by the hour, it is highly likely that the Egyptian military command will step as close as it dare to the edge of a coup d'etat to compel a process of compromise -- but it's anyone's guess what those elements of compromise are, given the anger and violence gripping the country.

The escalating violence across Egypt poses a dramatic danger to whatever passes as a semblance of stability in the Middle East given Egypt's overwhelming political influence in the region.

To Egypt's west, the North African states of Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Mauritania confront comparable efforts by Muslim Brotherhood affiliates to cement power as radical Islamist terrorists -- what I refer to as Jihadi Sand Pirates -- use the breakdown of state authority to open yet another front of terrorist-dominated instability.  And to Egypt's east, Egypt's convulsions have a tell-tale resemblance to the dreaded "Syrian flu" that is infecting Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

Yet another major headache for incoming Secretary of State John Kerry.

While the U.S. can speak encouraging words of compromise, the very uneasy relationship between Mr. Morsi and Washington does not provide Washington with many options.  Fortunately, vital ties to Egypt's military remain intact, but the administration has no reason to intervene where Egypt's military is already inclined to do so on its own.  And Washington has virtually no influence over the secular opposition, which unfairly blames the Obama Administration for saddling up to Morsi to influence his international conduct and standing by while the Brotherhood seized control.

Nevertheless, for our own vital interests in the region, quiet, behind-the-scenes involvement -- bilaterally and multilaterally --  to lead Egyptian back from utter collapse of state authority is essential whether or not it falls on deaf ears.  Those who call for an immediate cessation of financial and military support to Egypt neglect to recognize that the breakdown of the Egyptian state constitutes a real danger to our interests -- and conditioning and calibrating economic support on the willingness of Morsi and his supporters to reach an accommodation with his political opponents represents a potential, but not fool-proof, lever of American and international influence.  Now is the time to exercise that lever, before it becomes too late to do so.

Radical movements across the Middle East -- already benefiting from the collapse of state authority -- could make Egypt their ultimate prize in what appears to be an accelerating march across the littered landscape of the Arab Spring.  There is no magic formula to right the Egyptian ship of state, but try we must.
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