Defund Egypt's Generals to Give Democracy a Fighting Chance


The big question on the minds of Egyptians right now, notes Amir Taheri, is who'll die first: Mubarak or the revolution? In other words, who'll prevail: The military establishment or democracy? It sure as hell won't be the latter, if America keeps sending aid to the former.

Many conservatives who were gung ho about George Bush's Freedom Agenda of spreading democracy, by the gun if necessary, in the Arab world are getting cold feet when it comes to democracy in Egypt because it isn't producing results they had hoped for. The parliamentary elections last year handed major victories to the Muslim Brotherhood and the presidential elections last week seemed to be trending in the direction of Brotherhood candidate, Mohamad Morsi, all of which is giving some members of the neocon establishment heart burn.

To be sure, an Islamist group controlling all branches of government is not a happy prospect. Its something that Egyptians themselves are deeply worried about, as I noted here. But, unfortunately, decades of political repression has thwarted Egypt's democratic infrastructure, leaving only the military and the Brotherhood with the organizational capability to contest elections that the more liberal groups simply can't match yet. Worry about the Brotherhood, however, is one thing and alarm is another.

The Brotherhood hasn't governed for a single, full day yet given that the military dissolved the parliament at the prospect of a Morsi presidential victory. But that didn't stop The Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes from waxing nostalgic over the halcyon days of the Mubarak regime and the mortal danger that the Brotherhood poses to Egypt's minorities. Here's what he said on Fox News a couple of days ago:

"[S]ome people, including me, will look back and compare it [the military] to the Muslim Brotherhood who are taking over, Mubarak looks not as bad as we thought, and particularly, if you are a Christian. You know, the 10 million Christians in Egypt, are they going to be protected, or are they going to be persecuted.  I think they're going to be persecuted. And Mubarak at least protected them. 

Never mind that the Brotherhood in its public statements has stressed its commitment to pluralism and protection of individual rights. It certainly pledges allegiance to sharia – as all candidates, secular and non-secular do – and wants to segregate the sexes. But whether it intends to impose Saudi Arabia or Iran-style restrictions on women is far from clear given that its platform has shifted from favoring an "Islamic state" to a "civil, democratic state with an Islamic reference." 

The demonization of the Brotherhood might turn out to be completely justified – although there is some reason to hope that Islamists who come to power through quasi-fair elections (a la Turkey) would behave palpably differently from those who do so through a coup or a revolution (a la Iran). That's because they have to worry about getting reelected – and widespread and bloody repression is not exactly conducive to that. Perhaps the Brotherhood intends to follow the time-honored Arab custom of "one man, one vote, one time" once it has consolidated its hold on power and Egypt's machinery of repression, precisely the prospect that the Egyptian military and its Western apologists such as Barnes are raising. But how is that any worse than the military overturning even the first election?

 At any rate, between the military and the Brotherhood, the military has less incentive to reform. Why? Because that would mean giving up its chokehold on the economy – its lifeblood and the source of its power. It needs political control to maintain economic control and it needs economic control to keep its perks and privileges intact.

The military controls vast swaths of the Egyptian economy – how much is anybody's guess. Estimates range from 15 to 40 percent. Khaled Fahmy, head of history at the American University in Cairo, told Al Jazeera that the military's holdings are a "grey" area, a giant secret. "We know very little of them, they are not subject to any Parliamentary scrutiny, the Egyptian government auditing office has no control or knowledge of them." What's more, notes Al Jazeera:

The military has, over decades, created an industrial complex that is well oiled and well funded. In over 35 factories and companies it produces everything from flat-screen televisions and pasta to refrigerators and cars.

It owns restaurants and football grounds. Much of the workforce are conscripts paid below the average wage. And it is not just manufactured goods: the military provide services, managing petrol stations for example.

The influence extends far beyond Cairo across Egypt. They are huge landowners in the country.

It is no coincidence that Ahmed Shafiq, the military's presidential candidate challenging Morsi, despite the dismal state of Egypt's economy, ran not on a platform of economic reform but restoring law and order, which, admittedly, is going from bad to worse. (In one particularly ugly recent episode, a mob in Tahrir Square sexually molested women protesting sexual harassment and demanding a new, post-Mubarak Egypt.)

By contrast, the Brotherhood, whom the military has always kept on a short leash, has few economic privileges to worry about. Hence, not only did it put Egypt's economic – not its religious or security—health, front and center in its campaign. It's platform also touts a surprisingly free market agenda which involves not only divesting government (read military) assets but also free trade with America. Notes Shadi Hamid of Brookings Institute:

The Brotherhood's economic vision is unabashedly free-market oriented, which has left it open to an additional barrage of attacks from liberals and leftists. In its economic program, the FJP [Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood's political arm] states its support for an "Egyptian economy built on the principle of economic freedom." "Economic freedom," it goes on, "is the guarantor of economic creativity, progress, and development, with the state playing a strong monitoring role in ensuring competition and preventing monopolies." In another section, the FJP affirms that "the private sector has a fundamental role to play in Egyptian economic life," and that "values and morals should not be separated from economic development, as they are two sides of the same coin."

 The long and short of all this is that Egypt's story can't be reduced to a Manichean struggle between the good guys and the bad guys. Heck, contrary to the assertions of Fred Barnes and his fellow neocons, it is not even possible to tell the lesser from the bigger evil.

The proper course for America in the face of such endemic uncertainty is to let events take their course in Egypt. That would require ending the $1.4 billion in annual arms and fighter jet shipments that the U.S. dispatches to Egypt. Such aid not only intensifies the fight for the spoils, it also boosts the machinery of repression at the military's disposal, giving it an artificial advantage.

Military aid to Egypt was meant originally to offset U.S. military aid to Israel and maintain a regional arms balance. But even that dubious rationale is no longer operative. As Steven Lee Myer reported in The New York Times in March, the big reason this administration decided to keep aid flowing to Egypt's military, despite the military's obvious contempt for democracy, was to avoid arms manufacturing-related job losses in the U.S. Wrote Myer:

A delay or a cut in $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt risked breaking existing contracts with American arms manufacturers that could have shut down production lines in the middle of President Obama's re-election campaign and involved significant financial penalties, according to officials involved in the debate.

Since the Pentagon buys weapons for foreign armed forces like Egypt's, the cost of those penalties — which one senior official said could have reached $2 billion if all sales had been halted — would have been borne by the American taxpayer, not Egypt's ruling generals.

The companies involved include Lockheed Martin, which is scheduled to ship the first of a batch of 20 new F-16 fighter jets next month, and General Dynamics, which last year signed a $395 million contract to deliver component parts for 125 Abrams M1A1 tanks that are being assembled at a plant in Egypt.

"In large part, there are U.S. jobs that are reliant on the U.S.-Egypt strong military-to-military relationship," a senior State Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity under rules set by the department.

In other words, the America military-industrial complex takes money from American taxpayers so that Egypt's generals can thwart democracy in their country and President Obama can buy re-election in his. It's a win-win!

Perhaps Obama can put in a good word for Egypt's generals with the Nobel Peace Prize committee. Or he can do the right thing and defund them – and give democracy a fighting chance in Egypt.