J. Alterman on America and Egypt

Jon Alterman has an op-ed in the NYT that has some good sense in it but also some very troubling ideas and policy prescriptions.
Alterman is quite right to note that by far the most important thing that’s happening in Egypt right now is not the confrontations or lack of them in Cairo’s very visible Tahrir Square but the electoral process that is unfolding, with almost painful slowness, all around the country– and the negotiation that will subsequently unfold between the election’s victors and the country’s now-ruling military council, the SCAF.
(The piece doesn’t mention the SCAF’s recent actions against US-funded NGOs in the country. That was probably because it was written a few days ago. But anyway, his basic thesis that it is the election and the subsequent negotiation that are the most important story, still stands.)
He is also right to note that the Islamist parties that between them are now showing a clear lead in the elections are doing so for good reason– because they have built up serious, nationwide political organizations. He writes:

    Islamists have grasped that the game has moved beyond protests to the mechanics of elections, and their supporters are motivated, organized and energetic. By contrast, the secular liberal parties are virtually absent from the countryside. Judging from posters, billboards, bumper stickers and banners, the two major Islamist parties have the field almost to themselves.

However, he was unnecessarily patronizing and wrong when he prefaced those remarks by writing ” For Americans, it is hard to imagine that religious parties could win almost 70 percent of the Egyptian vote… ” What? I have been “imagining”, indeed predicting, this for a very long while now. I’m an American; and so are many others– from a broad range of viewpoints, who have “imagined” it.
Why does Alterman need to make it seem as though only he understands what is really going on? (And isn’t he an American, too? Or has he, like Michael Oren, suddenly transformed himself into an Israeli?)
Well, that is a relatively small quibble. The more serious problems occur at the end of his piece, where he writes:

    Many in Israel and America, and even some in Egypt, fear that the elections will produce an Islamist-led government that will tear up the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, turn hostile to the United States, openly support Hamas and transform Egypt into a theocracy that oppresses women, Christians and secular Muslims. They see little prospect for more liberal voices to prevail, and view military dictatorship as a preferable outcome.
    American interests, however, call for a different outcome, one that finds a balance — however uneasy — between the military authorities and Egypt’s new politicians. We do not want any one side to vanquish or silence the other. And with lopsided early election results, it is especially important that the outcome not drive away Egypt’s educated liberal elite, whose economic connections and know-how will be vital for attracting investment and creating jobs.
    Our instinct is to search for the clarity we saw in last winter’s televised celebrations. However, what Egyptians, and Americans, need is something murkier — not a victory, but an accommodation.

Let’s look at that first paragraph there. It is factually accurate that “Many in Israel and America, and even some in Egypt” harbor the fears he describes. Though why he should put the fears of a subset of Israel’s actually tiny– and often paranoid– population before those of Americans and some Egyptians in a piece that purports to speak about American and Egyptian interests, I don’t know… But more importantly here, he lets the substantive scenarios described in those fears stand as quite possible outcomes without making any mention of the assurances that the MB’s Freedom and Justice Party and even the salafist Nur Party have given re not tearing up the peace treaty with Israel; and the assurances the FJP has given re the other “feared” scenarios that he lists.
As someone who claims to be a knowledgeable, evidence-based “realist” rather than an alarmist, wouldn’t that be information Alterman should include in that paragraph, rather than letting those “scare” scenarios simply stand?
Moving on to the last two paras of his piece… I feel pretty sure that Alterman would define “American interests” in a way that is in some portions the same and in some portions different from the way that I would define “the true interests of the American people”. However, let’s assume we’re talking here about roughly the same thing. In my definition the true interests of the American people would require that our government and all its appendages, including its sneakily misnamed, government-funded quangos like NED, etc, stay completely out of Egyptian politics, and take only those actions toward Egypt that are clearly requested by the new government that will emerge from the ongoing electoral process.
Realistically, that government will only emerge and stabilize itself once presidential elections in April, as well as the current lengthy round of parliamentary elections, have been completed. But the parliament that emerges from the current elections will have a leadership that will be in a position to negotiate with and make demands of not only the SCAF, but also the SCAF’s main financial backers, that is, the U.S. government.
So Alterman is arguing for an outcome “that finds a balance — however uneasy — between the military authorities and Egypt’s new politicians. We do not want any one side to vanquish or silence the other.” Say that again, Jon? Um, in democratic theory there’s this thing called civilian control of the military. Surely, anyone who claims to want to see greater democracy in Egypt should aim to have that principle firmly implemented there! It’s not a question of “vanquishing” or “silencing”. It’s a question of who’s in charge.
In the next sentence, he seems to giving another reason why “we” Americans should seek to see the power of Egypt’s elected leaders curtailed: “it is especially important that the outcome not drive away Egypt’s educated liberal elite, whose economic connections and know-how will be vital for attracting investment and creating jobs.” His clear implication here is that an Islamist government (a) would not be able to mobilize any– or sufficient numbers of– “educated” people with “connections and know-how”, and (b) would “drive away” the country’s liberal elite, whose fabulous attributes “will be vital for attracting investment and creating jobs.”
This argument is nonsense on stilts! It is based on incredibly condescending views of observant Muslims and the Islamist parties that grow up in their communities, to the effect that they really do not have sufficient education, know-how, or connections to run a successful modern economy.
Turkey, anyone? (Or come to that, Iran– and the impressive abilities its technicians showed recently when they hijacked the US military’s allegedly “stealth” RQ-170 drone… )
But the argument Alterman is making is also a sly one. By placing his “concern” about Egypt’s “educated liberal elite” right there alongside his argument for the military to still retain a say in national governance, he sis clearly implying that the military can be a guardian for the interests of the liberal elite.
Actually, that too is a pretty stupid argument. True, there are some in the “liberal elite” who strongly indicated in the past that they would be happy to see some form of military guarantee, or counter-balance, to protect them from the programs and policies of the Islamists; but for quite a while now relations between the SCAF and the liberals have been far, far worse than the relations either side has with, say, the MB. But I guess Alterman is adducing this argument here as a way of making the support he is expressing for a continued strong military role in Egypt more appealing to Western liberals…
Anyway, in his’s last paragraph, he states his position clearly: “what Egyptians, and Americans, need is … not a victory, but an accommodation.” That is, he doesn’t want to see a true victory for a democratically elected civilian leadership in Egypt, or for the important democratic principle of civilian control of the military; but he wants to see a continuing strong role for the military in Egypt’s governance.
Describing his own policy preference as a “need” for both Egyptians and Americans” is, of course, colonial, patronizing, and quite unwarranted. Let Egypt’s voters (who include, of course, all the members of the military) define their country’s needs on their own behalf. They don’t need Jon Alterman to do it for them.

7 thoughts on “J. Alterman on America and Egypt

  1. bevin

    By “the military” he means, of course, a tiny elite of US trained Quislings installed in critical positions in the hierarchy.
    The real army, the rank and file, the old sweats of NCOs and the officers not fast tracked for promotion because they are patriots, is going to be heard from sooner or later.
    The US/Israeli strategy is clearly to use Wahhabi money and influence to put a muslim gloss on the status quo.
    This has nothing to with a clash between secular or religious ideas; the question is whether Egypt will rule itself or be ruled by agents of imperialism. It is a very old story, the story of modern Egypt’s life.

  2. Bruce Miller

    Alterman’s “For Americans, it is hard to imagine that religious parties could win almost 70 percent of the Egyptian vote… ” is classic. He apparently hasn’t paid much attention to the dominance of the Christian Right in the Republican Party.

  3. Jack

    Glenn greenwald in today’s Salon (Jan 2) has an even better analysis of the Alterman article. He makes it clear that Alterman is actually reflecting the foreign policy establishment which is strongly anti-democratic when it comes to Arab countries.

  4. rosemerry

    Thanks Helena, but I really cannot understand why the NYT is a “paper of reference”.
    ” For Americans, it is hard to imagine that religious parties could win almost 70 percent of the Egyptian vote… ” What about the 60 million or more “End Times Christians” who make a huge contribution to US voting patterns? As for Israel, a lot more than 70% are Zionists, and the religious extremists are vital to the present Likud government. The arrogance of the “international community” commentators, I suppose.

  5. Edward

    Alterman’s essay ignores the recent history of U.S. interventions in the Middle East and elsewhere. It is a bit fatuous at this point to claim the U.S. seeks to promote democracy there. Have the Egyptians requested U.S. “help”? How has Egypt fared since the Camp David treaty, when its economy was under U.S. guidance?

  6. mati

    Dear Helena,
    Thanks for your post. You make sensible points but as an Israeli, I would like to offer a slightly different perspective. Reading Alterman’s op-ed, I didn’t necessarily find it condescending. He is talking about a theoretical sequence of events. That’s the business of political analysts. I, too, have read the declarations of Islamist parties in Egypt, saying they will keep the peace treaty. Let’s hope they stick to their promise. Peace is better than war and I remember the 60s and 70s very clearly. Nobody of sane mind wants to return to those days.
    Let Egyptians decide how to run their country. But I must tell you that the near lynching of our consulate by a mob was not a pretty scene. How much does it represent the real raw feelings of many Egyptians? I don’t know the answer. But you might be a bit more charitable to say that we look upon scenes like that with understandable concern.
    At this point, let’s wait and see what transpires. We hope for the best but must prepare for whatever comes.

  7. JohnH

    It’s truly amazing that Alterman did not see this coming…months ago. Islamic parties won elections first in Morocco, then in Tunisia. Years ago Hamas won in Gaza. Apparently it never dawned on Alterman that the Westernized secular elite represents very small slice of the population but a major slice of the folks that people like him talk to.
    Nonetheless, the results are astounding. And what is most astounding is the muted reaction of the “international community.” Only a year ago, Islamic parties were portrayed as bogeymen, synonymous with terrorists. Yet now they control several parliaments and enjoy the tacit blessing of the “international community!” How could this be?
    Obviously the threat posed by Islamic parties was greatly exaggerated as part of the hype generated by Israel and the War on Terrorism. In reality, Islamic parties have represented less of a national threat and more of a thorn in the side of tyrants, since they challenged the regime’s legitimacy and might occasionally even have impinged on the regime’s freedom to abuse and defraud its citizenry.
    But when push came to shove, the establishment was glad to embrace a legitimate, conservative social force that would ultimately act to protect the existing system. And they doubtlessly hope that newly elected parliaments will not amount to more than a fig leaf covering business as usual.
    The real open question now is the extent of devolution of power that will be allowed. In Egypt, the military has said that it will surrender power to civilian authority next June, once a new president has been elected. IMHO that new president will have close ties to the military.
    In any case, the military now controls roughly a third of the Egyptian economy, and it is inconceivable that they would surrender their perks and privileges without a major fight. In addition, there is the small matter of the security of the Suez Canal, which the “international community” is determined to keep in secure, trusted hands (military ones).
    Even in Tunisia, now a parliamentary democracy with no outsized military, there has been a significant amount of continuity. The key positions of defense minister and finance minister are held by hold overs from the previous regime.
    The message here is that even when Islamic parties rise to power, they continue to defer to established centers of power, including foreign interests, when it comes to matters of finance and security. And so, it’s not surprising that the “international community’s” has not reacted with alarm at the ascent of Islamic parties.
    But apparently even that deference is insufficient for paranoid Zionists.

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