Monday, August 19, 2013

Why Western mediation failed in Egypt

Both the EU and the US sent mediators to Egypt. They thought they were close to a deal. But in the end - according to them - the Egyptian army refused to make a deal. In fact the mission was doomed because the diplomats didn't understand the situation.

Take this example of arrogance:
“You could tell people were itching for a fight,” [senator] Graham recalled in an interview. “The prime minister was a disaster. He kept preaching to me: ‘You can’t negotiate with these people. They’ve got to get out of the streets and respect the rule of law.’ I said: ‘Mr. Prime Minister, it’s pretty hard for you to lecture anyone on the rule of law. How many votes did you get? Oh, yeah, you didn’t have an election.’ ”
Obviously Graham found it impossible to see the situation through the eyes of this prime minister. Yet the first step in a mediation is being able to see things through the eyes of both sides. Only then can you see what motivates them and propose other solutions.

The arrogance is systemic. This was what the journalists wrote after talking to many of the Americans involved:
The generals in Cairo felt free to ignore the Americans first on the prisoner release and then on the statement, in a cold-eyed calculation that they would not pay a significant cost — a conclusion bolstered when President Obama responded by canceling a joint military exercise but not $1.5 billion in annual aid.
The generals are involved in a win-or-lose fight with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). They are convinced that if they don't prevail either a civil war will follow or Muslim Brotherhood's intolerant sectarian rule. For them at the moment the US - and anything else outside the conflict - is far away and irrelevant. When the conflict is over they will have the luxury to worry about those kinds of things. But obviously the Americans find it painful to see that they - the great superpower - are just irrelevant in the present situation.

Of course there is also a conspiracy theory to make the bad guys looking even worse. In this case it is the theory that some Egyptian generals always hated the MB and that they saw the present situation - where the MB had lost much support due to bad government and sectarian activism - as an excellent opportunity to once and for all suppress it. Just like any other conspiracy theory you cannot disprove it. The problem of such theories is that they close the minds of those who believe them for any fact that doesn't fit the theory. And that makes them incapable to see solutions.

The mediation effort itself: Under a plan they worked out, the Muslim Brotherhood would limit demonstrations to two squares, thin out crowds and publicly condemn violence. The government would issue a similar statement, commit to an inclusive political process allowing any party to compete in elections and, as a sign of good faith, release Saad al-Katatni, the Muslim Brotherhood speaker of the dissolved Parliament, and Aboul-Ela Maadi, founder of a more moderate Islamist party. Both faced implausible charges of instigating violence, and Western diplomats felt that before the takeover, Mr. Katatni in particular had proved himself a pragmatic voice for compromise.
This is typical of Western diplomacy that in other instances (Slovenia/Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Cyprus) too came with unrealistic proposals that reflected the fact that it didn't get the core of the problem. Let's look at this proposal:
- the MB has many times said that they were committed to peaceful protest. The problem was that they used the next sentence to say that they were prepared to die for their cause and that obviously throwing stones fell within their definition of non-violence.
- you cannot have endless demonstrations. Even the US beat down Occupy Wall Street when that employed such tactics. The goal of demonstrations is to express opinions. When instead they are used to try to impose opinions you have a major law-and-order problem. One effect of continuing demonstrations is self-radicalization and you saw that already happening in Egypt.
- an "inclusive political process" sounds very nice but is meaningless as long as the only thing acceptable to the MB is the return of Morsi as president. The mediators were right that at some point the MB should be again part of the Egyptian political process. They forgot that you can only be a part of a process if you accept its rules. One can understand that MB members are angry about Morsi's arrest but they cannot become part of the new political process as long as they remain focused on Morsi's return.
What we see here is a rather common reaction of Western diplomacy to violent protests in other countries: they de facto give in to the protesters and when that leads to a confrontation they blame the government.

According to the NYT article one of the top leaders of the MB, Mr. Shater, rejected the proposal. A Reuters article claims that the Brotherhood did accept a deal and that it included more steps than one.

In the end the army publicly declared that the negotiations had failed: The Americans and Europeans were furious, feeling deceived and manipulated.
Any realist would have thought that their chances of success were much below 50% to begin with but that it was worth to give it a try. It looks like those diplomats lacked that perspective.

When it came to the methods the army used for its crackdown we see another conspiracy theory: But diplomats and Egyptian officials said [Minister of Interior] Ibrahim was worried that if the assaults went badly he might be held up as a scapegoat.
Unfortunately this conspiracy theory makes that part of the article very hard to understand. And that very likely reflects a lack of understanding among the Western diplomats about the dilemma's that the Egyptian army faced. Again, by misunderstanding the situation, the diplomats rob themselves of the possibility to have some influence.

The only things that could have worked for Western diplomacy was being very clear towards the MB that unless they cooperated there would be a crackdown. It is not hard to see the disadvantages: it meant full support for the military coup and it would mean that those diplomats would be held partly responsible if there was a blood crackdown. Obviously that would have required lots of courage from our political leaders.

You can only have one government in a country and if it isn't Morsi's it is the military's. That shouldn't stop us from being very critical of the methods the Egyptian army is using to make sure it has total control. Finding the balance between the two is difficult. Yet: if our Western leaders are not prepared to walk that thin line they might have done better to keep their diplomats at home.

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