It seems like only yesterday that President Obama turned on former US ally/Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. The move was seen by many pro-western democracies around the world as a sign the President was serious about a new “Freedom agenda” compared to his performance on the Arab Spring of 2009. Well, on July 3, 2013 it appears the President’s so-called “Freedom agenda” is hanging in tatters.
Perhaps a quick recap of events is in order here. After the President urged President Mubarak to relinquish power after a series of mass pro-democracy reforms the country fell under an interim government run by the military. The military wrote an interim Constitution and oversaw new elections in 2012 where the Muslim Brotherhood won the Presidency with their candidate Mohamad Morsi and a slim plurality in Parliament. What followed after this election was a later election where a new Constitution was established in the country, yet it was to the detriment to non-Muslim believers and opposition government members. Events were slower to develop in Egypt than say Turkey but they quickly reached a boiling point. By early March 2013 protesters were again gathering Tahrir Square in Cairo. They demanded reforms in several areas of policy in the country and for Morsi to be more inclusive to opposition members in his Cabinet and Parliament.
On Monday the military finally stepped in. They gave Morsi a 48 hour ultimatum to form a new Coalition government with opposition members. There are reports Morsi tried to comply but either could not or would not in the end. And on July 3, 2013, the military told the nation they had deposed Morsi and established another interim government until new elections could be held.
In many ways Egypt shows why the Middle East is really a complicated land full of different countries and cultures. Some nations have secular leaders such as Jordan’s king while others have Muslim fundamentalists at the helm such as Iran. In the case of Lebanon some are wracked by civil war, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait show what an established royalty can do and Omen and Yemen have strong-arm leaders in charge. But Egypt is unique in much the same way as Turkey. Both have a real power that is often ignored. The military!
In Turkey the military retains its secular ranks with an almost fundamentally zealot-like effort. In Egypt, the military is also secular. In both cases the military picks and chooses when it complies with the civilian government. In Egypt, they chose the route of popular support.
Ask any American who the true power are these in two countries and you might get blank stares, Sharia Law or something else as answers. Ask them about any other country in the region and their answers will be short and inaccurate. This is not to fault the understanding of the average American in terms of Middle Eastern culture or politics. But it does show why the US has had such a hard time with its foreign policy in the region.
The countries of the Middle East are in some cases mirror images of the US. They are divided along generational lines, urban vs. rural, freedom vs. pro-security policy ideas, etc. But as mentioned above their culture, politics and especially their governmental structures are vastly different from the US’s. In our country, it is virtually impossible to imagine a military coup taking over the country (except in action novels or movies). In the Middle East it is a distinct possibility.
The US has tried to navigate this different world since the 1950’s when the region was used as a proxy-region for our Cold War conflict with the USSR. Then the Soviets took Iran and we and the UK used nations such as Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, and Iraq to establish governments friendly to us. Since that time we have tried a combination of diplomacy (Saudi Arabia), support of existing regimes (Omen, Yemen, Jordan) and regime change (Iraq) to accomplish our ends in the region.
Today, with the Cold War ended, US policy efforts have focused largely on keeping the flow of oil in the region clear. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 may have been sold to the public differently but it was a major deciding factor to not have a tyrant sitting on 10% of the world’s oil (25% if he had conquered Kuwait in 1991).
Each of these efforts have met with some success. Diplomacy has helped us shore up ties with Saudi Arabia and Jordan. It has helped us secure Omen and Yemen’s help in the War on Terror. Our support of existing regimes has helped as well. Regime change has endeared us to some but not all the region’s actors. But through it all our efforts have often seemed short-sighted.
Consider the case of Libya. Along with NATO we helped rebels depose Muammar Quadaffi in 2010. Libya is not exactly a stable, functioning state today. Egypt is still in turmoil even with the military flexing its power. The conflict raging in Syria, which we are ever closer edging to entering into is destabilizing the region and threatening our ties with Jordan. One wonders how long the US can main their efforts in the region.
The Middle East is fa different from what most people in the US think it is. It is a complicated region, driven by divides much like in the US and also driven by divides very different from here. US policy efforts have sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed and like in many places in the world we have our friends and enemies in the region. But Egypt should be an awakening to the American public. Our system of governance is vastly different than of the region’s governments and that means our ideas will be different from theirs.
As the Middle East changes, regimes rise and fall, and a new generation of leaders take power in multiple countries the US needs to be involved in the region (sorry Rand Paul), laying out a helping hand when necessary and at other times being ready to act to protect its interests. A deeper understanding of the region would greatly help this effort.