The streets of Cairo are burning

published in the jerusalem post - 18/6/15

The streets of Cairo are burning. The violent confrontations all over Egypt , the clashes between the army and the Islamists , the hundreds of dead and the thousands  of wounded , the military curfew , are a tragic sight, far removed from the scenes of millions who, merely two years ago ,were chanting in Tahrir Square "Silmyia, Silmyia " (peaceful, peaceful )

It seems almost like another era when the world observed with optimism the Arab Spring, believing that it would bring democracy to the Middle East.

The crisis in Egypt is first and foremost one of identity, not merely a struggle about basic freedoms. True, the frustration of all those who wanted the end of despotism but ended up with an oppressive government ran high and brought youngsters back to the streets. But the real struggle is one of power : between political Islam – whom Mubarak had managed to curb – and a fragmented secularism. It is about the future of the Egyptian society. Will the millions of Egyptians be ruled by the Sharyia or by democratically elected institutions ?

In a book published in the 1950's, "Sugar Street" Nobel Prize winner novelist Naguib Mahfouz wrote:

"Islam is a creed, a way of worship, a nation and a nationality, a religion, a state, a form of spirituality, a Holy Book and a sword". It is language not unlike that used by today's Islamists.

All over the Middle East , religion and politics are strongly intermingled. For Islamists, whose power is on the rise almost everywhere in our region, there is no tradition of separation between the sacred and the secular. Hence, democracy, the way we understand it in the West, is not a real option.

Ever since the Military deposed President Morsi and the Moslem Brotherhood ,  and seized power in a military coup, the Unites States has demanded the "restoration of democratic rule". Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham visited Egypt and after their return to the States , went even further, calling for cutting off aid to Egypt if democratic rule was not restored. This is a misguided way of reading the map, for even though President Morsi was duly elected in a democratic manner, he turned autocratic , ignoring the reasons for Mubarak's overthrow and subverting the popular will.  It seems that for the United States, democratic process counts more than the results.  This we learned the hard way, just a few years ago, when the Administration insisted on including the Hamas, a terrorist organization, in the Palestinian elections.

The results are well known.

One must regrettably admit that President Obama's policy in our region is, at best, confusing ;

Wavering between Secretary of State Clinton's declared "unconditional support for the military" during her visit to Cairo in 2011 when a military regime replaced President Mubarak, and the cold shoulder the Administration gives the army these days, one may wonder what is the American perception , what does Washington really want. Perhaps it is not surprising the General al-Sisi, trained at the American War College , now makes it clear that he doesn't need or love America.

Since Morsi's overthrow , al-Sisi found Saudi Arabia and the Emirates much more generous and supportive than the United States.. In his view Egypt got little support from the US when Morsi turned autocratic. "You turned your back on the Egyptians, - he said in a Washington Post interview – and they won't forget that".

Human rights have always been one of the basic tenets of American foreign policy – and one may wonder why gross transgressions of these rights have left the President indifferent. Indeed when the people of Iran flooded the streets, in 2009, protesting the theft of the presidential elections, President Obama remained silent. Likewise, in Syria, after two years of fighting, there are over 100,000 dead and more than a million refugees, One can understand the Administration's reluctance of being drawn into another military involvement, but surely

Washington could have been more active in trying to put an end to the bloodshed. President Obama said more than two years ago that Assad's use of chemical weapons would be a "red light"- but his words were  not followed by deeds.  Not only has this hesitation been harmful, the President's word and American credibility in our area are at stake.

It is unclear how long the fighting will last, or if it will develop into a civil war.

For both groups a compromise solution is unthinkable now, since each group sees the future of Egypt in a very different way. And yet, only talks between all Egyptians players, in an inclusive manner can put an end to the bloodshed.

Perhaps, as some specialists have observed, what the Egyptian people really want is a combination of many things , very much along the Turkish model offered until recently : a balance between democracy and culture, between basic freedoms and tradition. Above all they want a stable, proud and prosperous nation. This is where the United States could play a role

That  requires a sobering course of American foreign policy. Calling for a "return" to democracy is not only fallacious. Ironically it sends the wrong message, for it is interpreted by the Islamists as  support against the Army and emboldens their struggle.

Rather than expecting a western type model of democracy to emerge from this turmoil, it would be more realistic for the West, for America particularly, to help the Egyptians  build a responsible and functioning government. What is urgently needed is a multi-pronged strategy that would de-escalate tensions and bring Egypt back from the brink of anarchy. This is the kind of leadership that we would like to see.


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