A Method to Egypt’s Madness

The bloody assault on Egyptians protesting the ouster of democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi has the look of madness – as the military pushes Islamists toward more violence – but there is a sick logic if the generals see more Islamic extremism as their lock on U.S. aid, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

There were other ways of dealing with the camping-out protestors in Cairo. The Ministry of Interior had even talked about other ways — about some combination of tear gas and leaving open an exit route so the protestors could disperse. And surely it must have occurred to the Egyptian generals that the action they in the end took, just like the event in Tiananmen Square in 1989 that this week’s event so readily evokes, would leave a lasting bloodstain on their legacy.

The casualty total of what happened in Cairo on Wednesday is uncertain, just as the toll of what happened in Tiananmen Square still is, but it is possible the numbers are of similar orders of magnitude.

Egyptian General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi as shown on official Egyptian TV.

There are many plot lines and accompanying explanations that can be applied to the current mess in Egypt, but one does not have to be a Middle Eastern conspiracy aficionado to look in particular at how the Egyptian generals and their shades-of-Nasser leader, Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, may be doing what they are doing as a way of staying within the embrace of the West and especially the United States.

One of the most prominent things they have been doing over the past couple of months is to motivate Egyptians and especially Islamists to turn to extremism and violence. First there was the slamming of the door in the face of the Muslim Brotherhood, incarcerating its leaders and making it very clear the Brotherhood would not be welcome to participate in any new and purportedly democratic political process.

Most of the Brotherhood’s supporters were not ready to abandon the peaceful ways that the organization had followed for decades, but their dismay and anger made the protests and the camps inevitable. Now there is the bloody and brutal destruction of the camps, and at least some of those supporters are surely concluding that there is no method left to them but violence.

Wouldn’t the breeding of more Egyptian terrorists be a bad thing from the viewpoint of Egyptian military leaders? Not if they wish to present themselves as a bastion against terrorism and to lay claim as such to American support. The brass may be more comfortable with this sort of claim than with one based on shepherding the introduction of true democracy — given all the uncertainties democracy is apt to pose for the highly privileged position of the Egyptian military and its officer corps.

The cultivation of more extremists and terrorists may be necessary to sustain any claim based on an Egyptian Islamist bogeyman. Mohamed Morsi’s presidency certainly was not sufficient; it did not come close to realizing the old Islamophobic scenario of one man, one vote, one time.

One of the most distinctive aspects of Morsi’s one year in office was how he was not able to take control of the organs of state even though he supposedly was the chief executive. He came nowhere close to taking control of the all-important security forces. One of the bevy of army and police generals who have just been installed as provincial governors had earlier, when Morsi was still president, been demonstrably open about his intention not to take any action when a mob was ransacking offices of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The technique of following policies that cultivate more extremists and terrorists and then laying claim to a special relationship with Washington as a bastion against extremism and terrorism is not one that the Egyptian generals necessarily thought up themselves. They could have learned it from the masters of the technique next door in Israel. They are even collaborating with Israel in practicing the technique, as punctuated the other day by an Israeli drone strike, evidently condoned by Cairo, against oppositionists in the Sinai.

If the Egyptian generals have not seemed very worried about jeopardizing their $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid, maybe it is because they see how Israel gets twice that much, not to mention all those vetoes at the United Nations and other political cover, despite the Israelis repeatedly sticking their thumbs in American eyes. The latest thumb-sticking has been this week, with an announcement of more expansion of settlements in occupied territory just as Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are getting under way.

Secretary of State John Kerry reassures us that this was not a surprise because Prime Minister Netanyahu had been “upfront” with him about the latest settlement expansion. Evidently even thumb-sticking is acceptable if those doing it are brazenly “upfront” about it. General el-Sisi looks like he has this kind of swagger.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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6 comments on “A Method to Egypt’s Madness

  1. F. G. Sanford on said:

    My guess would be that the Egyptian military sees this as a lock on favorable attitudes from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council, where American aid and assistance has been equally supportive of repressive regimes and has stifled any attempts at democratic reform. Those Jack Daniels’ swilling potentates are not thrilled about the prospect of ending up like Gaddafy, dragged into the street and a knife shoved up his cork hole. This whole episode will endear the Saudis and Quattaris much more so than the U.S. Government.

  2. Michael Lange on said:

    Here is even more twisted logic:
    1.The Us never criticizes the Saudi regime which is the most repressive islamic regime in the entire Islamic world.
    2.The Saudis are supporting the military regime in Egypt which is painted in the west as staning for secular rule
    Why???
    According to many of my Egyptian friends who are well educated secular oriented US citizens, who nevertheless follow the tenets of traditional Islam:

    The Muslim Brotherhood stands for a different Islam, one that treats all citizens equally and gives more chances to the poor (these are traditional islamic values just as they are traditional christian values long forgotten by the all-controlling corporate plutocracy that rules the USA at this stage. Since this plutocracy works hand in glove with the Saudi regime there is no tolerance for a regime that would use a different more traditional Islam as the basis of its policy. In other words the Saudis as well as the UAE regime is frightened that the MB could be successful and reveal the corrupt nature of their autocratic regimes. Beeter to support the Generals who represent the old Mubarak clique and keep the Egyptian masses poor and illiterate and financially destitute.

    Clearly Morsi and his government have made mistakes but does that justify a return to Mubarak’s type of regime that enforced its rule by use of a vicious secret police and torture–something the MB did not do.
    The longer the US supports repressive regimes in the Middle East the more we will be hated for the catastrophe we have helped to support.

  3. Morton Kurzweil on said:

    The United States has not been able to buy support or cooperation from any nation in unnecessary wars and unnecessary peace since WW2. If the Egyptian military does not defend the vast majority of citizens who reject a religious coup, all of the Middle East will fall under the control of Islamic totalitarianism. The coup was Morsi’s attempt to overthrow the constitution and replace it with Sharia Law, a coup d’Etat. It is the legal responsibility of the Army to defend the constitution of the new democracy from such illegal acts. Adolph Hitler was legally elected chancellor of a newly created democracy and turned Germany into a Nazi dictatorship. It took World War to decide that this coup was illegal.

    • F. G. Sanford on said:

      Actually, the constitution was written after Morsi was elected and ratified by popular vote. You’re trying to twist this tragedy into a rational justification for murder by blaming it on a warped religious interpretation. Granted, theocratic governments are warped whether they are in Egypt or Israel. Speaking of illegal acts, transferring civilian populations to territory aggrandized by aggressive war is prohibited by treaties and international law. Hitler was not elected in a newly created democracy. That democracy was created many years before; it was called the Weimar Republic. Hitler was not even on the ballot. He was the head of a coalition government, and his party received 37% of the vote. It’s more complicated than that, but certainly nowhere near as simplistic as your totally misleading comment.

    • bgrbill on said:

      Ain’t an an election a bitch?