Cairo conundrum

In view of Egypt’s severe crisis, western diplomats must focus on two things: human rights and economic prospects for the people.
Pro-Mursi demonstration in July. picture-alliance/dpa Pro-Mursi demonstration in July.

Western diplomacy looks desperately out of touch. In Egypt, a country of great geo-strategic relevance, neither the USA nor the EU have influential partners who would listen to them. Western capitals have no bearing on the security forces that are in power. And they have no bearing on the Muslim Brotherhood, which ran the government until early July and is now being forced underground. The irony is that both sides feel betrayed by the west.

Western diplomacy cannot be blamed for everything. Part of the problem is that neither the military nor the Muslim Brothers have shown any interest in de-escalation. Both view politics as a zero-sum game in which the government is entitled to imposing its will on everyone. In such a setting, it is impossible for foreign diplomats to broker compromise.

Nonetheless, the foreign offices in western capitals must deal with some hard questions. Why does Egypt’s military, which depends on massive financial support from Washington, show contempt when western leaders urge it to show restraint? Why do western governments’ arguments not resonate at all with the Muslim Brothers, even though that organisation’s most important supporters are the governments of Turkey, a NATO member, and Qatar, a long-standing ally of the USA? And what is the role of Saudi Arabia? The kingdom sponsors Egyptian generals, it funds Salafi extremists, and it is a crucial trade partner for western nations that depend on oil imports.

Some argue that Mohamed Mursi, the elected president, proved unfit to govern revolutionary Egypt because of his sectarian leanings and his failure to do anything to unite the nation. They have a point. But that is no reason to detain him at an undisclosed location and threaten to put him on trial for escaping from prison during the last days of the Mubarak dictatorship. Slaughtering opponents by the hundreds is the opposite of restoring democracy. The security forces are acting exactly as the Muslim Brothers worst conspiracy theories would suggest, fuelling a destructive cult of martyrdom.

Both the Muslim Brothers and those who opposed Mursi before his fall have managed to rally huge masses. Huge demonstrations matter. They are expressions of the freedoms of speech and assembly. But however huge a rally may be, it only expresses the views of its participants and not the will of the people. Street agitation is no substitute for elections.

Mursi’s leadership was not leading anywhere. So there is some truth to Egypt needing a “second revolution”. But what has happened looks ever more like a counter-revolution. The institutions that pulled the strings during the authoritarian rule of Hosni Mubarak – the military, the police, the courts – are doing so again. Mursi is held in detention, and Mubarak was released from prison.

In this troubled setting, western leaders may be tempted to support whoever comes out on top. Doing so would be wrong and undermine the rest of their credibility. They must not be seen to pick winners. Their support for the human rights of all parties involved must be unwavering. Ensuring that perpetrators of atrocities, on whatever side they may stand, will be prosecuted at an international level would be a prudent step. Discontinuing the kind of support for Egypt that can be used to suppress dissent similarly makes sense.

That said, western diplomacy must tackle another hard question. What can be done to get Egypt’s economy going? The Arab spring erupted because of economic desperation. Ever since, living standards have eroded further. Unless that trend is reversed, political stability will be illusory.

The EU made plans to cooperate with Mursi on supporting economic development, but Mursi had other priorities. If western leaders do not want the crisis in Egypt to spin totally out of control, it will be essential to restore people’s economic prospects. Western governments will probably have to consider unconventional approaches. Standard doctrine says that the country needs structural adjustment to succeed in the world market. In other words, things will get worse before they get better. That is no option for bringing stability and peace to Egypt any­time soon.

Hans Dembowski is the editor in chief of D+C/E+Z.

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