Saturday, August 17, 2013

Egypt Unrest Blame Game: August Edition

This article originally appeared on The Truman Doctrine on 16 August 2013.

Who is to blame for the unrest in Egypt? If you listen to the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, Israel and its Zionist ally America are to blame. Iran has also adopted this line. There are some in the United States and Europe who also believe America is to blame as we have given billions of dollars in aid every year to Egypt under Mubarak and are likely to continue to do so under any new government in order to maintain influence. Others, mostly on the political right, have blamed the violence solely on President Obama. The real answer is that Egyptians are to blame for the violent unrest in Egypt. It is an unfortunate human reality that national systems do not experience major changes at rapid pace through peaceful evolution, but rather through violent revolution. Egypt is in the throes of a violent process in which there are no easy or clear answers.

The moment reports the military’s raid against Muslim Brotherhood protesters had turned violent became public the presses were already hot with the next round of the blame game. Who is pulling the secret strings behind the scenes? America is always the first culprit. Even Americans love to blame America. That the US has given an average of a billion dollars annually to the Egyptian military is cited as evidence that America has out-sized influence on Egypt’s military, especially its popular commander, General Abdel el-Sissi. Supporters of the ‘blame America’ school hold we should have used our influence to prevent this latest outbreak of violence and should withdraw our aid and support. America has been blamed for both supporting and opposing Egypt’s coup at the same time.

But hold the phone. US government policy communications regarding Egypt from the beginning of the Arab Spring up until today are filled with calls for the Egyptian military to use restraint. Every major US officeholder and appointee from President Obama on down has called for a peaceful transition from Mubarak and, now, a peaceful transition to democracy following the military coup. And we’re swinging our only big stick. It has been communicated that if restraint is not shown or violent crackdowns continue, the US may withdraw its $1.3 billion aid package. Essentially, America has done what all of its critics are saying it should have done. Yet, here we are.

The problem is that many critics of America share something in common with those diametrically opposed to them who believe emphatically in American greatness—namely, a false belief that America has much more power to shape and influence events in other states than it actually has. America has called for restraint in Egypt. America has threatened to withdraw its billions of aid dollars. It may not have any effect. Here’s why.

America is not the only country in the world writing checks to other governments in exchange for influence. Taking 2010 as an example, the US contributed 19% of all development aid to Egypt. Germany, France, Japan, Kuwait and other Arab states contributed between 10-15% each. If economic aid is supposed to equal a requisite amount of influence, than each of these other states are in the same boat with America. Why aren’t they being blamed equally for failing to act to stop the violence?

Recently Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States have agreed to give around $12 billion in financial aid to Egypt, dwarfing the US package of $1.3 billion in comparison. These states, especially those with monarchies still standing, have no wish to see an Islamist government in Egypt and they’re willing to pay lots of money to prevent it—and they care little about the possibly violent consequences. Yet the blame still falls on America’s shoulders.

The US should also tread carefully as it has had to with Pakistan when it comes to the threat to withdraw aid. Continuing to give aid may look like collusion or acquiescence to the actions of the military and interim government, but withdrawing aid may mean the US no longer has any leverage or audience with the powers that be. It is a double-edged sword. If aid continues, the Egyptian military rulers may still continue to do as they please. Withdraw aid and they may do the same thing.

The US and its aid dollars are not to blame for violence in Egypt, nor are the aid dollars of any other outside state. Money did not compel people into the streets again and money could not prevent this recent violence. The Egyptian people overthrew Mubarak by taking to Tahrir Square. The Egyptian military stood down and allowed it to happen. The Egyptian people voted Mohammed Morsi into office as their new president. The Egyptian people took to the streets again to depose him and the Egyptian military allowed it, again. Though the violence is regrettable, many Egyptians are cheering the crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood and General el-Sissi remains the most popular figure in the country.

Though the violent images and hundreds of casualties among Muslim Brotherhood members are absolutely terrible, no one else was there pulling the strings. It was, once again, the Egyptian people and the Egyptian military that set this chain of events in motion. It is only hubris to believe that the US or any other state has enough influence to have stopped these events or to cause them to happen.

Terrible as they are, they are part of a process of rapid political and social revolution. The Russian, French, American, and British revolutions were bloody as well. The difference is that there was not Twitter, 24-hour news or the internet to send the pictures across the world in real time. As much as the violence is regrettable, Egypt is deciding for itself the form its future will take.