Egyptian Court Let Former Dictator Mubarak Go Free

WASHINGTON – As we may recall, back in 2011 the enthusiastic Tahrir Square youth, armed with cell phones and twitter, in a matter of a few weeks caused the down fall of Hosni Mubarak, a former military man and for 30 years Egypt’s uncontested autocrat. The world admired those courageous young people who were opening the door to democracy and accountability, and cheered.

From general to general

Well, fast forward to today and we have Egypt ruled by another former general, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, now transformed into a civilian president, (just like Mubarak). And el-Sisi’s judiciary now reversed a guilty verdict for Mubarak, his sons and his entourage, on various charges ranging from homicide to corruption. So, the old (86) villain is no longer a villain. And the military still rules Egypt. Guess what, nothing changed.

Let me say this again. The February 2011 Tahrir Square Revolution culminated with the successful eviction from power of Hosni Mubarak, a military dictator, and it ended with the acquittal of the same military dictator thanks to a court system obviously working under orders issued by el-Sisi, the new military man turned into civilian president.

El-Sisi came into power after having kicked out the incompetent (but duly elected) president Mohammed Morsi, leader of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood.

Back where we started

From a certain angle, this strange Egyptian tale looks almost like a farce. A big production, with a lot of sound and fury, that ends exactly where it started: a military dictatorship dressed up as a democracy.

Of course it is not a farce. It is in fact a sad story. Let’s not forget that many Egyptians died in the long 2011-2013 turmoil. And let’s not forget that the military took over mostly because of the excesses of the Muslim Brotherhood government that most unwisely the Egyptians had chosen as a successor to Mubarak’s dictatorship.

Incompetent Morsi

The Muslim Brotherhood, led by president Mohamed Morsi, proved to be at the same time massively incompetent and anti-democratic. Hence bigger and bigger streets revolts against its rule, eventually followed by the military take over that ended with general el-Sisi becoming president and barring the Muslim Brotherhood, while arresting Morsi and all its national leaders.

Egypt not ready for democracy

So, what do we make of this story? Well, in hindsight, I admit that back in 2011 I was totally wrong in believing that the Arab Spring could propel Egypt into a new era of secular, accountable democracy. I grossly over estimated the strength of the westernized urban youth that had occupied Tahrir Square.

I did not realize that, given the opportunity to vote freely, most Egyptians would choose the backward looking Muslim Brotherhood, a political force bent on forcing on the whole country its own brand of strict religious orthodoxy.

From autocracy to chaos

In the end, as the skeptics had anticipated, getting rid of Mubarak created only chaos. The Muslim Brotherhood was powerful enough to win an election, but not strong enough to force the entire country to follow its antiquated religious precepts. At the same time, under their clumsy rule the Egyptian economy took a dive. Hence the popular rebellion, followed by the military take over.

No real democracy without a democratic ethos

I see only one important lesson here. The creation of a real democracy is a very complicated and most delicate enterprise that can succeed only if we assume the existence of a strong democratic ethos within any given society.

Democracy, of course, includes free elections. But that is only the beginning. In Egypt’s case, when the people had a chance to cast a vote, they elected a profoundly anti-democratic political force.

This is a bit like the Germans voting for Adolf Hitler in 1933 hoping that the Nazis would fix things. They certainly fixed things; but outside of the Weimar Republic parameters. Once asked to form a new government, they created a dictatorship.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood thought that the elections amounted to a mandate for imposing on the whole country its own religion based order. But the military did not buy this approach, and in the end it sided with the more secular Egyptians and got rid of president Morsi.

How will el-Sisi rule? 

Will general, turned into president, el-Sisi rule like an enlightened technocrat, willing to enable the planting of the seeds of a future democracy? Will he favor some measure of dialogue with the more mature components of Egypt’s civil society? Will he allow some debate? Or is this going to be Mubarak 2.0?

Time will well. However, we know that Egypt is a mess, while the Arab World is torn apart. And today the most pressing issue is not how to create democracy, but how to fight Islamic radicals. Democracy will have to wait.

By now we know that a successful planting of the seeds of democracy requires a fertile soil consisting of calm, tolerance and some degree of unity and common sense.

So far, at least in Egypt, the conditions are not at all favorable. The careful cultivation that will produce this absolutely necessary fertile soil is at best a distant goal.


Egypt’s Tragedy Is In The Mix Of Impossible Politics And Total Economic Collapse

By Paolo von Schirach

July 16, 2013

WASHINGTON – The unfolding Egyptian drama sadly tells us that the Arab Spring was no Spring at all. It was a convulsion affecting populations made miserable by amazingly obtuse tyrants who failed in all respects. They believed that autocracy was the best and only political option for the Arabs, while they did not promote any meaningful economic modernization, allowing their countries to be left way behind by a rapidly advancing global economy. 

New politics?

In Egypt’s case, getting rid of shop worn Hosni Mubarak, as difficult as it seemed at the time, was in fact the easy part. After that, the Egyptians would have needed pragmatic, middle of the road and mostly secular reformers to lead the country into the mostly unknown territory of democracy and rule of law, while at the same time breaking a new path leading to economic modernization, something that should have included the emancipation of women.

Morsi: arrogant and incompetent 

Well, Egypt got none of the above. The majority of the population (mistakenly) believed that the Muslim Brotherhood could provide stability. Well, they were profoundly wrong. President Morsi proved to be arrogant, stupid and incompetent to the very end. A more pragmatic leader could have salvaged something by compromising with the opposition once the military issued its ultimatum. If Morsi had been more conciliatory, today he would still be President, albeit with far less power and latitude. Whereas he made thing worse by doggedly refusing to acknowledge that more than half the country was vehemently against him and his semi-autocratic aspirations.

Political rebellion in the midst of economic chaos

And now? Now it is a lot worse. The military is in control. Their claim that they only want to steer Egypt towards a more inclusive democracy may very well be genuine. But the country is in a terrible political mess, while teetering towards bankruptcy. And here a dreadful situation becomes truly awful. It is pretty clear that the anti-Morsi crowds were protesting against both the politics of the Muslim Brotherhood and the deteriorating economy. Now there is a totally unrealistic expectation that a new government will bring economic relief. If this expectation is not met, expect more turmoil. So, here is the mix at the root of this new chapter in Egypt’s crisis: political rebellion in large part driven by genuine hunger. 

Turning a page on the political front will be an incredible challenge. Morsi does have genuine followers who believe that he should be reinstated and who are therefore refusing to participate in any new political arrangement sponsored by the military who ousted him. But if finding a new political equilibrium is a daunting task, recreating economic stability in Egypt is almost impossible, at least for several years. 

Egypt’s economic collapse

If you want a detailed picture of the depth of systemic economic management, please read the excellent analysis provided in a WSJ op-ed piece by David P. Goldman, President of Macrostrategy LLC, (The Economic Blunders Behind the Arab Revolutions, July 13-14, 2013).

Here is an excerpt:

“Egyptians are ill-prepared for the world economy. Forty-five percent are illiterate. Nearly all married Egyptian women suffer genital mutilation. One-third of marriages are between cousins, a hallmark of tribal society. Only half of the 51 million Egyptians between the ages of 15 and 64 are counted in the government’ measure of the labor force. If Egypt counted its people the way the U.S. does, its unemployment rate would be well over 40% instead of the official 13% rate. Nearly one-third of college-age Egyptians register for university but only half graduate, and few who do are qualified for employment in the 21st century.”

Got that? 40% unemployment. And then there is the daily bleeding of state coffers due to the established practice of government subsidies for staple food and more.

Saudi Arabia will give cash

For the moment it looks as if this exhausted country of almost 90 million will get some emergency cash from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE. But this welcome relief is not a substitute for new economic policies.

And so, here is the picture. The Egyptians will have to find the wisdom to elect a coalition government that will be able to navigate the treacherous waters of a society deeply divided between fundamentalists and urban secularists, while at the same path charting a course leading to meaningful economic improvements.

While we should wish the Egyptians best of luck, realistically we should acknowledge that this is te closest thing to  “Mission Impossible”.

America has become irrelevant

One last note. In case you haven’t noticed, America has become essentially irrelevant in this whole process. Until yesterday Cairo’s strongest ally, now Washington is routinely vilified by everybody in Egypt, liberals and conservatives.

Sure enough, it would be good for America to retain and in fact strengthen its historic ties with the Egyptian military. Therefore, by all means, do not suspend the US assistance package. But let us also recognize that the $ 1.3 billion we give to the Egyptian armed forces is not that much, considering what the country needs just to stay afloat.

The Obama administration wanted to create a new era with the Muslim World. (Remember the Cairo Speech?) But it was caught completely off guard by the Arab Spring. As the profound upheaval was taking place, a mix of timidity and lack of money proved that Washington today is at best a spectator in a Region in which it used to exert an enormous amount of influence.

Many Muslim Societies Are Prisoners Of Intolerant Orthodoxy – It Will Take A Long Time For Them To Embrace Tolerance And Secular Government

[the-subtitle ]

By Paolo von Schirach

November 24, 2012

WASHINGTON – The stealthy coup just engineered by Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi is further evidence of a Muslim ruler incapable to understand, let alone embrace, what liberal democracy is about.

From Mubarak to the Muslim Brotherhood

Just a year ago Egypt had its remarkably successful revolution against Hosni Mubarak, a mostly secular old military dictator. But, when given a chance to express themselves, a majority of the Egyptian people chose to be ruled by the once persecuted Muslim Brotherhood, a truly conservative, (if not radical and anti-Western), Islam-inspired faction whose values and principles are at the very least inimical to most modern concepts of secular government and democratic capitalism.

Islamic revival

And Egypt is not alone. Think of Tunisia and to a lesser degree Turkey. The sad reality is that the Muslim world, with the exception of Indonesia and a few other places, is going through an ill timed phase of Islamic revival. The notion of theocratic, or at least faith-inspired, rule is back in fashion. Large segments of Muslim societies are now devoted to the implementation of abstract and totally unworkable models of government based on strict religious orthodoxy.

A corollary of the pious aspiring to impose their righteous principles on all the others is the inevitable re-emergence of clashing versions of what the true religion is. And so you have the virulent flaring up of sectarian, destructive struggles: Sunni versus Shia, and so on. Just look at Pakistan and Iraq. Look at the Taliban in Afghanistan fighting against other Muslims.

The inability to embrace true liberal democracy, (whose key foundation is accountable civilian rule, religious tolerance and a strict separation between religion and state), will condemn Muslim societies to waste a few more decades in useless faith-inspired fights that will absorb scarce resources, while further delaying modernization and economic progress.

Christianity had its religious wars

Of course, Christianity centuries ago went through a very similar course of long and bloody religious wars that included the violent persecution of heretics by the self-appointed defenders of the “True Christian Faith”. These bloody and awfully destructive struggles went on and on. They included Martin Luther and the Reformation, the Catholic Counter Reformation, Calvinism, the “30 Years War”, Cromwell in England, and a lot more. America’s early beginnings are linked to European religious minorities seeking freedom of worship in a new land where there would be no persecution. But then it all ended. May be it was just because of exhaustion. But it finally ended.

Secular religions

Sure enough, there was still anti-semitism which tragically culminated in the Nazi-led Holocaust. More broadly, there was the relatively brief period, which caused however horrendous damage, of ideological struggles. (The ideologies were in fact secular religions). Europe had to suffer enormous losses because of Marxism, Leninism, Fascism and Nazism. But today the general principle, if not the strict practice, of secular government equally protecting all citizens is almost universally accepted, at least in the West.

Muslim societies are far behind

Unfortunately, the Muslim World is still far behind. Religion is still the main reference for millions. And religion inspires struggles and religious wars. There are still attempts to create secular governments ruled by religious orthodoxy. In these societies intolerance is virtue, the violent persecution of the infidels is duty.

Of course, we know that not all citizens in Muslim societies are religious fanatics. But it is a fact that at least at present political movements inspired by faith are better organized, and so they prevail, as in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

The West can lead by example

In all this the West can only lead by example. In the long run it should be able to prove its superiority by showing that tolerant liberal democracies in which all religions are respected and protected (with the proviso that religious worship remains a private matter) in the end work out much better.

But it is impossible to predict how long it will take for Muslim societies to go beyond this phase of unproductive fanaticism and intolerance as they seek their own path to modernity after decades of dictatorship. They will have to see for themselves that religion based government and forced orthodoxy is a really bad idea.

The price of orthodoxy

In the meantime, dealing with these societies is going to be very hard. In principle they do not like our Western civilization and its values. Therefore forget about American and Western influence in the Middle East. Forget about rapid economic modernization fostered by Western investments, technology transfer and enhanced commerce. Unfortunately, the orthodox would rather be pure and poor than tolerant and prosperous.

Obama Administration Conceding That Attack Against Benghazi Consulate Was In Fact A Premeditated Terror Action, Contradicting Earlier Position – Inability To Prevent Incident Reveals A Major Intelligence Failure

[the-subtitle ]

By Paolo von Schirach

Related story:

September 21, 2012

WASHINGTON – I expressed my skepticism about the “it’s-all-the-video’s-fault” blanket official US Government explanation, (provided by US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, among others), for all the attacks against US Embassies and Consulates, including one that led to the killing of Chris Stevens, the US Ambassador to Libya, and three more diplomats. (See above link to related story). Now the administration is slowly admitting that there were plots and therefore intelligence failures in detecting them .

Violence was caused by the video

At the very beginning, the Obama administration stated that all these instances of violence against US Embassies were provoked only by an offensive, unfortunately made in the USA, anti-Islam video. Pious Muslims, upon finding out that the video was made in America, lashed out at anything American in their countries. Regrettable, but understandable reaction. And, by the way, nothing that the US Government could have done to prevent this.

This way the Obama administration wanted to deflect any attention from itself. The implicit message was: “We have nothing to do with any of this. We did nothing to provoke these attacks against our Embassies. Our policies regarding Muslim countries and the Arab World in particular are sensible amd measured. However, there is nothing we can do to contain (justifiable?) rage unleashed by Muslims who felt so deeply offended”.

Obama’s policies

Well, there are at leasttwo issues wrappped in with this narrative. The first one would warrant an in depth analysis of the Obama administration policies towards these countries, starting with the June 4, 2009 “Cairo Speech” in which president Obama promised a new respectful attitude and good behavior towards the Muslim World.

Some would argue that Obama’s new posture, ostensibly based on dialogue and respect, was instead interpreted as weakness; and that this very weakness encouraged more anti-American violence promoted by radical Islamic fundamentalists. Plenty of room here for debating how Obama’s policies were actually perceived in the Muslim World. Hard to come up with clear answers.

Security arrangements, prevention

The second issue is about security measures to protect US assets on the anniversary of September 11, in countries in which Islamic fundamentalist groups operate freely. And here there is far less room for debate. The official American position in the aftermath of Benghazi was that the attack leading to the destruction of the US Consulate and to the killing of four US diplomats, including the US Ambassador to Libya, could not have been prevented as it was part of an impromptu, spontaneous wave of popular protests that caught everone by surprise.

In Benghazi, it was a plot

But the Libyan government almost immediately contradicted this interpretation, stating publicly that the attack against the US Consulate had nothing to do with the video. It was in fact premeditated. Now it seems that the Obama administration is backpedaling. Now they are on the record saying that the incident was a terrorist attack, implicitly admitting that this was part of a plot.

Well, if this was indeed a premeditated terror attack, then it becomes painfully obvious that the American government, with all its resources and intelligence assets deployed in sensitive regions, did not see it coming and could not stop it.

Quite frankly, insufficient security, right on the anniversary of 9/11, for obvious American targets in an Arab country with all sorts of military hardware still floating around and known to harbor extremists, is totally inexcusable. The fact a key US facility was targeted and destroyed, with several US diplomats killed is cause for deep concern. The suspicion now exists that at least parts of the American intelligence and the security apparatus protecting key US assets abroad are run by amateurs.


That said, it gets worse. Indeed, the determination to immediately provide a politically convenient explanation for the issue, by stating that there was no plot and that all these attacks, including Benghazi, have to be viewed as part of a strong reaction to a video, is willfully deceitful.

The Obama administration tried to confuse American public opinion by deliberate obfuscation, (“the video did it”), this way showing that the desire to win the elections is much stronger than any desire to shed any light on what may turn out to be a major national security failures. Only after their “explanation” was openly contradicted by the Libyans they started changing course.

Politics first, serious investigation later

To put it crudely, this has been the approach: ”First let me win these elections, and then we may investigate what went wrong. As what we may have done wrong would make us look bad and would cost votes, let it be understood that politics come first, truth seeking second“.

Most Commentators Give Good Grades To Obama’s Foreign Policy – Yet The Record Is Unremarkable: Messy War In Afghanistan, Iran On Its Way To Get A Nuclear Weapon And Now A Wave Of Anti-American Protests Throughout The Muslim World

[the-subtitle ]

By Paolo von Schirach

September 18, 2012

WASHINGTON – The established consensus among leading American foreign policy experts and media commentators is that president Barack Obama has done very well in foreign and security policies. Among his achievements: he ended the war in Iraq, while he has set a time table for withdrawing from Afghanistan. And, of course, he eliminated Osama bin Laden. And, yes, he reset relations with Russia, while ordering a resources refocus on Asia.

Too much praise

While there is some cause for a mildly optimistic assessment, this praise is highly exaggerated. The Iraq withdrawal followed the timetable set by the agreement the Bush administration had reached with the Iraqi government. So, Obama followed a set policy.

List of under achievements

Afghanistan was a mess when Obama came along and it is still a mess today. The surge the president ordered at the end of 2009 produced little that can be called sustainable, at a very high cost. Having now a date (2014) for getting out of a country in turmoil, with a still very active insurgency is not the pinnacle of achievement. Meanwhile, relations with Pakistan have turned from bad to positively horrible on account of the drone strikes against Taliban elements who take refuge in Pakistan that violate Pakistani sovereignty.

The “reset” with Russia did not bring that much. Russia is still mostly uncooperative on Syria and Iran. And the Obama administration cannot do much to influence the autocratic proclivities of the Russian government.

The refocus on Asia looks like an attempt to contain China. While some of this may be welcome by China’s smaller neighbors, it is not clear what the end game will be. The decision to dispatch a few marines in Northern Australia has to be viewed as unfriendly by China, even though by itself it has just about zero strategic value.

The olive branch to Iran was rejected. Iran was bent on developing nuclear weapons when Bush was president and nothing changed during the four years of the Obama presidency. Except for the tightening of sanctions, nothing at all.

The peace process between Israel and the Palestinians was deadlocked when Obama came along and it is still deadlocked today. Essentially zero progress, while relations with Israel have somewhat deteriorated.

New era of engagement with the Muslim World?

That said, let’s remember that Obama became president with a highly ambitious agenda of recasting, in a major way, America’s relations with the Muslim World. His famous “Cairo Speech” was supposed to inaugurate a new era. Well, it did not. The Obama administration was caught completely off guard by the 2011 Arab Spring phenomenon that gave legitimacy to mostly, although not entirely, anti-American forces.

And now, a year later, notwithstanding various attempts at engagement and dialogue, the well publicized incident of the anti-Islam video has become a pretext for conservative Islamic forces throughout the Arab world for inciting anti-American demonstrations and for attacking US assets, such as Embassies and American schools.

No action in Syria

In the meantime, America is just a spectator as the carnage in Syria goes on and on. Washington has piously declared that in this crisis it will follow the will of the international community. Translated in simple language this means: “We shall do nothing worth mentioning”.

Afghanistan still a festering wound

In Afghanistan, the “good war” according to Obama during the 2008 campaign, some US troops get killed almost daily by the Afghans we are supposedly training so that they will become an able fighting force capable of defeating the ongoing Taliban insurgency. And other Afghan fighters just days ago attacked a US base, destroying 6 Harrier jets while damaging 2 more. (Total damage: at least $ 200 million). The environment has deteriorated so much that the US and other NATO allies just announced they will reduce the level of cooperation with the Afghan forces they are supposed to train.

And this is success?

It is remarkable how this rather undistinguished record may be portrayed as successful. In fairness, Obama certainly inherited a bad legacy. Too many years of misguided wars wanted by the Bush administration had tarnished US reputation and prestige. Still, this president who came along with a new agenda of humility, friendliness and engagement in foreign relations is ending his term with a diminished America unsuccessful in Afghanistan, incapable of preventing Iran from getting the bomb, no progress in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, incapable of influencing economic policies in Europe, on an uncertain footing with China, and no record worth mentioning in Latin America or Africa.

And, to top it all off, this new benevolent and engaging America is now targeted by half the Muslim World on account of just one video produced by totally unknown film makers. One cheap anti-Muslim made in the USA video apparently has more power to influence negatively Arab and Muslim public opinion than the entire foreign policy apparatus of the US government. America’s best intentions and far reaching policy objectives destroyed by just one video clip? If this is a record of foreign policy success, I would be curious to see what would constitute failure.

The White House Stated That All The Attacks Against American Embassies Are Due To An Obscure Anti-Islam Video Produced In The US – So, The American Government Tells The World That Its Entire Foreign Policy Apparatus Has Less Influence With Arab Countries Than A Single Video – End Of America As Super Power

[the-subtitle ]

By Paolo von Schirach

September 15, 2012

WASHINGTON – Regarding the repeated violent attacks against US Embassies in several Arab countries, the official US Government position, according to Jay Carney, White House Press Secretary, is that this whole mess is the result of the circulation on the Internet of a short US made video clip considered to be anti-Islam blasphemy by pious Muslims around the world. As this is outside government control, nothing we can do about it, is the implicit message. Nothing much that Washington can do to counter any of this. End of story.

Anti-American rage caused entirely by a video clip?

Really, that’s it? Let me get this straight. On one side we have the United States Government, the world superpower, with its global influence, foreign aid packages, political, military, direct investment and trade engagements with the Arab World aimed at creating strong relations based on trust, economic growth and what not, and on the other side we have an obscure offensive film.

By stating that this amazing wave of anti-American rage, with four diplomats (including the Ambassador) killed in Libya, is caused entirely by one solitary video clip produced by obscure American film makers nobody has ever heard about, the White House is also saying that in our relations with the Arab World one single video clip, produced and circulated by private individuals with no connection with, let alone endorsment from, the US Government is more powerful than the entire might of America and the policy apparatus of the US Government.

American impotence

This is really a major official statement of American impotence. The White House tells us, at least indirectly, that US foreign policy, with all its might and resources, cannot prevail against the head wind of anti-Americanism caused by just one single item totally unknown within the United States deemed to be offensive by pious Muslims. So, this is the message from Washington to the American public and to the world: “If something from America, no matter how small and irrelevant, offends Muslims, this is what happens: riots, American diplomats killed, Embassies under attack, US flags burned. Sorry folks, nothing we can do about it”.

How can this be? I see at least two possibilities.

Possible scenarios

–Scenario Number 1: America has lost so much of its old power and credibility vis-a-vis the Muslim World that, no matter how much it tries to engage, (with development assistance, military relations, investments, cultural exchanges), it fails, because nobody takes it seriously anymore.

–Scenario Number 2: the Arab societies are in such chaos and turmoil now that not even mighty America can sway them. America, with all its military and civilian aid, its diplomatic and business relations assets is just incapable to affect development in these messed up societies. If they choose to be offended by the slightest US-made event, nothing that Washington can do to convince them otherwise.

Well, actually, there may be a third scenario:

–The Arab societies transitioning from autocracies to who knows what are indeed messed up and therefore difficult to engage with. At the same time, a diminished and semi-impoverished America (whose governments used to support the old dictators) has very little residual credit with these new governments and societies. In fact, America is now their enemy of choice, (at least for large segments of these populations) and it is routinely accused of all sorts of sinister plans and plots. Therefore all American assets and symbols of American power, (like our Embassies) are far game each and every time anything at all considered as an offense comes from America.

If this is indeed so, even taking into account the exceptional turmoil caused by unprecedented changes affecting Arab societies now stumbling about and may be missing entirely the high road that leads to real modernity, America has lost the ability to influence governments, public opinion in other countries and major events.

Worse yet, many do not care at all about the consequences of inflicting injury to America, as most likely there will be none. If this is so, there can be only one conclusion: America is no longer a super power. Pax Americana is finished; while savvy policy makers around the world start taking their cues from other, in their eyes more relevant, actors. Very sad, but true.