Attempting to analyze and explain a country’s entire domestic and foreign policy through a single, narrow lens is much like trying to force several square pegs into the same round hole. It is exhausting to follow, and ultimately makes little sense. The same can be said of the latest article by Middle East expert Steven Cook, titled “Egypt’s Nightmare: Sisi’s dangerous war on terror”, published in the 95th Volume of Foreign Affairs magazine. The article’s purpose is to assert that the sole driving force behind all of Egypt’s policies as a state is some obsessive vendetta against the Muslim Brotherhood. Mr. Cook is a highly respected author on Middle Eastern affairs; it is thus unfortunate to see him adopt such a simplistic approach to analyzing Egypt’s policies.
In order to support the argument that blind hatred towards the Muslim Brotherhood is the cornerstone of Egypt’s policy, the article resorts to overlooking – whether deliberately or otherwise – key elements regarding the state of affairs in Egypt and the region at large, as well as the history of the Brotherhood. The endeavor to exonerate the Muslim Brotherhood of their extremism, despite ample evidence to the contrary, is odd to the point of being stale. It is unsurprisingly conjured up once again here, accompanied by recycled rhetoric regarding the allegedly dire political and economic situation in Egypt. What is noteworthy, however, is the article’s outrageously far-fetched portrayal of Egypt as the primary destabilizing factor in the Middle-East, grossly misrepresenting Egyptian foreign policy in the process, and skimming over important details regarding the crises that are plaguing the Middle East.
The author struggles to draw a feasible link between his criticism of internal affairs in Egypt, his attack on Egypt’s foreign policy, and the Muslim Brotherhood factor that is supposed to serve as the fulcrum of his argument. As such, the article buckles under the strain of this task, resulting in a disjointed and slightly incoherent piece.
Nevertheless, this response is an attempt to address some noteworthy claims made in the article and rectify the fallacies and omissions within.The focus of this response is to address the two main elements of the article: the inaccurate portrayal of political, social, and economic conditions in Egypt, and the deeply flawed analysis of regional politics and Egypt’s role therein.
The Neglected reality in Egypt
The article makes the bold statement that the Egyptian government “continue[s] to focus on the one thing they do well: repressing their citizens.” It goes on to list statistics and figures that have been endlessly regurgitated and debunked equally as often. Prominent among them is of course the claim that hundreds of Egyptians have been forcibly disappeared. It is a claim that is of little consequence to the article’s overarching argument, and seems to have been crammed in for the sole purpose of demonizing the Egyptian government. It is also a claim that has definitively been proven to be fiction. A recent report by the National Council for Human Rights revealed that of 267 reported cases, 238 turned out to involve either defendants pending trial or already released individuals, according to the Ministry of Interior. The article also refers to the oft-cited number of 40,000 Egyptians arrested, which continues to circulate despite there being no list of the names of these individuals, and no empirical evidence to suggest any such number. Those constantly circulating this claim have unfortunately partly succeeded in accomplishing the disgraceful objective of repeating a lie often enough that it becomes a fact.
The writer also decries Egypt’s economic policies and their purported results, painting a picture of the diminishing prospects, decaying health and infrastructure systems, and impending doom. It is again not clear exactly how an attack on Egypt’s economic performance is supposed to service his self-proclaimed argument (the alleged obsession of the Egyptian government with eradicating the Brotherhood), and it is once again a highly selective criticism that chooses to remain oblivious to key aspects. It is true that Egypt is facing serious economic challenges. But to somehow blame it all on the current government in Egypt is to ignore the endemic problems that have characterized the Egyptian economic over the last 30 years, and have been exacerbated during the turbulence of the last five years, as well as the complicated regional and international economic context.
The Egyptian Government has made the bold decision to tackle long-term structural problems in parallel with the short-term economic imbalances that resulted from five years of political transformation and turmoil. The ambitious vision for Egypt 2030 covers sector-based plans and projects that will yield results in the short, medium and long-term. Mega-projects are being developed to respond to structural needs as well as boost the economy, creating temporary and permanent job opportunities. The Egyptian government has not opted for the easy road of cosmetic adjustments. It has rather mobilized its people around a broader reform agenda that is expected to deliver sustainable results. The government is also quite aware of the pressing economic problems and the needs of its people for immediate solutions to their daily concerns. As Egypt works to tackle challenges such as the decline in tourism and currency problems, it has made substantive strides in a number of areas.The national road network has been expanded, adding 7000 km of roads and 200 tunnels to facilitate commerce and transportation; 1.5 million underprivileged families have benefited from new affordable housing projects; the electricity deficit has been largely rectified following a 400 billion EGP investment; Egypt has broken into the global top five countries for FDI inflow in the last seven months. Unemployment, which is singled out by the article as a growing problem, has in fact declined from 13.5% to 12.5% in the last two years. Hepatitis C, another challenge highlighted by the article, is being addressed, and we have succeeded in curing 800,000 Egyptians since January 2016 free of charge, drawing praise from the Director General of the World Health Organization. All of these facts are predictably neglected. The article chooses instead to amplify the challenges facing Egypt, and attack national mega-projects such as the New Suez Canal for not producing immediate results, ignoring their long-term prospects and the true motivations behind them.
The Reality of a Global Threat
Following a rushed review of Egypt’s economic situation, the article proceeds to tackle its main proposition, the depiction of the Egyptian Government’s obsession with the Muslim Brotherhood and its alleged impact on Egypt’s domestic politics and economic situation, as well as ramifications on the region as a whole. The author believes that “Gazans, Syrians, and Libyans have also begun paying the price” for Egypt’s so-called “quest” to end the Brotherhood. He describes the Brotherhood as an organization with “deep roots in Egyptian society,” one that offers “a vision of authenticity, nationalism, and religious reform that many Egyptians have found appealing.” The narrative presented is thus that Egypt has led the region to ruin in the pursuit of exterminating a political, pacifist group. The argument presented is quite frankly a complete mess.
In order to understand the shortcomings of Mr. Cook’s assessment of Egypt’s policies in the region, one first and foremost has to understand what the Muslim Brotherhood represents in this context. The Muslim Brotherhood, despite what the article would have readers believe, is in fact a terrorist organization that espouses an extremist ideology. One would think that the widespread availability of historical accounts on the birth and development of the organization would not require us to remind readers of some basic evidences regarding their ideology. Unfortunately, the present article obliges us to do otherwise. The founder of the Brotherhood, Hassan El-Banna, condoned and resorted to violence in pursuit of his goals, and this from the very first days. Its key ideologue, Sayed Qutb, introduced the extremist doctrine of “takfirism”, which brands all those who do not conform to the doctrine as apostates and viable targets for acts of violence. In his recent book “Arab Fall: How the Muslim Brotherhood Won and Lost Egypt in 891 days” Another Middle East Expert, Eric Trager, points out that Qutb served as an inspiration for modern-day terrorists such as Anwar Al-Awlaki and Ayman Al-Zawahri. The Brotherhood, despite its claims to moderation, has never disowned Qutb’s ideologies. In fact, the Brotherhood masquerades behind a pacifist façade when addressing the West, while spouting its hateful ideology to audiences in the Middle East.
Mr. Trager reveals in his book the true cult-like nature of the Brotherhood, including how inductees are demanded to declare themselves “loyal soldiers” who would not dispute commands. He alludes to the fact the White House knew very little about the Brotherhood, and even less about their eventual president Mohamed Morsi. The Brotherhood eventually rose to power and, in Mr. Trager’s words, ” had no real policy vision apart from stacking the Egyptian government with Muslim Brothers or like-minded officials.” Trager’s detailed account reveals that the Brotherhoods own failure to govern was what prompted Egypt’s largest-ever crowds to take to the streets to remove them from power.
Egypt’s policy in the region is in no way shaped by the Brotherhood or geared towards it; however, terrorism and extremism are major determinants of Egypt’s foreign policy, considering they stand in stark contrast to every principle it upholds and defends at the domestic and global levels. Egypt’s fight is not against the Brotherhood in particular, but against the phenomenon of extremism in general, and the threat of terrorism it has birthed. This phenomenon threatens to engulf entire countries in the region, posing an existential threat to the regional order as a whole, and claiming innocent lives every day in towns and cities across the globe.
Stability and Counterterrorism
Mr. Cook does not seem to factor the role of terrorism in his analysis of Egyptian policy in the region. He lambastes Egypt for attempting to “suffocate” the people of Gaza by imposing a unilateral blockade and destroying underground tunnels. He neglects the fact that Egypt is combating an extremely ruthless terrorist campaign in North Sinai. The destruction of underground tunnels connecting Egypt to Gaza is not a measure against Gazans, but a necessity of national security. The article neglects to mention that these tunnels are illegal, concealed, and unmonitored, but bizarrely, it does mention quite candidly that they are used to smuggle weapons. The argument that Egypt should allow these tunnels to continue operating unhindered thus becomes ludicrous, amounting to an endorsement for the arming of terrorists on Egyptian soil.
Even the Israeli government, which the article praises for allegedly providing the sole lifeline for Gazans, fully acknowledges the danger that such tunnels pose to its own national security. What is clear is that he is attempting to brush aside decades of Egyptian efforts advocating for Palestinian rights and sponsoring the peace process by communicating with all parties, for the sole purpose of strengthening his argument.
Omissions and oversights are equally prevalent in the article’s analysis of Egyptian policy on Libya. Contrary to the outrageous claim made in the article that Egypt “contributed to the destabilization of Libya” and “accelerated Libya’s fragmentation” in its efforts to curtail the Brotherhood, Egyptian policy in actuality prioritizes the protection of Libya’s stability and territorial integrity. Egypt’s stance on Libya takes the Skhirat agreement between the Libyan factions as its primary foundation, as it is an agreement based on Libyan consensus that lays out a framework for stability. Egypt supports the institutions outlined in the agreement, namely the Presidential Council, The House of Representatives (HoR), and a Government of National Accord (GNA) approved by the HoR, in addition to the Libyan National Army (LNA).
The article insists that Egypt “undermines” the current GNA, failing to mention that the HoR has not granted its approval to the GNA, rendering the latter essentially illegitimate. Egypt recognizes the importance of forming a national unity government, but also acknowledges, along with the rest of the international community, the importance of parliamentary approval by the legitimate legislative body for such a government. Excluding such a crucial factor from the analysis naturally gives the reader a false impression that Egypt is working against Libyan institutions, when nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Egypt’s support for Libyan institution-building extended to playing an important role in the formulation of the Presidential Council, which includes Islamist members, providing further proof that Egypt is working to support institutionalism in Libya and not any one political faction. In the same vein, Egypt supports the LNA (as an institution, and not any one individual as claimed in the article) in its war against lawless and extremist militias and terrorist organizations in Libya.
Egyptian policy towards Syria is similarly mischaracterized to fit the dubious narrative of the article. Portraying the Egyptian government as a staunch supporter of the Assad government that “echoes the rhetoric of Assad,” the article insists that the sole aim of the Egyptian government is to ensure that the Brotherhood does not gain a significant foothold in Syria. This position is seemingly based entirely on conjecture, with scant evidence provided to back it up.
The article itself concedes that Egypt provides the regime with “no weapons, no money, and no soldiers”, but only “symbolic support”. When coupled with the fact that Egypt has never made a statement in support of Assad, not to mention that Cairo has hosted meetings of moderate Syrian opposition groups, one must wonder exactly what “symbolic support” is being referred to. Egypt’s stance on Syria has been clear from day one; Egypt calls for a political solution that incorporates all Syrian parties (due to our conviction that there is no military solution), taking all measures to alleviate humanitarian suffering, combating terrorism in Syria, and preserving the territorial integrity of Syria and its state institutions. These elements constitute the essence of the Geneva conferences which act as the framework for a transitional process in Syria. Only days ago, Egyptian mediation efforts succeeded in generating an agreement to allow for the evacuation of the injured and the elderly out of Aleppo. These efforts are the product of a policy that aligns itself with the Syrian people and no one else.
A pattern can thus be observed in Egypt’s regional policy, one that has little to do with the political crusade against the MB that is alleged by the author. Egypt is one of the largest and oldest states in the region, with a consistent foreign policy based on certain principles constituting a cohesive vision. In Syria, much as in Libya and anywhere else, Egypt essentially prioritizes the same elements. Egypt supports the preservation of the state, its institutions, and its full territorial integrity. Egypt supports peaceful resolutions to conflicts, as a means to achieve region-wide stability. Egypt places an emphasis on border control and security for itself and its neighboring countries, as an integral component of its natural security. More recently, Egypt has elevated counterterrorism among these foremost foreign policy priorities, as it has grown into an urgent global concern, ravaging through Iraq and Syria, claiming innocent lives in Sinai, and extending its claws to Paris, Brussels, the United States, and all other corners of the globe.
The magnitude of this threat seems to be lost on Mr. Cook. The essence of his criticisms of Egyptian policy in the region amount to a call for more leniency towards terrorism and extremism in general; leniency towards arms-smugglers in Gaza, towards militias in Libya despite their war on the country, and towards extremists in Syria for the sake of toppling Asssad. Perhaps most crucially, the author seems extremely keen to see the Brotherhood given a second chance in Egypt itself, despite the explicit rejection of the Egyptian people for their tyrannical, power-hungry, but thankfully brief rule. Egypt’s fight against terrorism and extremism is based on solid principles applied in both foreign and domestic policy. It is precisely those principles, particularly the opposition to extremism, that Mr. Cook seems adamant to prove are devastating the Middle East, by attempting to dilute them to a political conflict with the Brotherhood. But it is also these principles that have allowed Egypt to weather the storm and remain an essential stabilizing factor in a region that has few.
In unreasonably laying the bulk of the blame for the Middle East’s problems on Egypt, Mr. Cook’s article inadvertently raises a highly pertinent question: how exactly did the current debacle in the Middle East come to be? The plight of the people of Gaza is horrifying, but it is not new. It is a culmination of decades of double-standards, inaction, and procrastination by the international community with regards to the Palestinian people and their legitimate rights. The chaos engulfing Libya bears all the hallmarks of an unfinished job, after an international campaign that was meant to protect the Libyan people achieved little more than the demolition of what state structures existed at the time, and ended prematurely without any semblance of a re-building plan, leaving Libya virtually at the mercy of terrorists and mercenaries. The conflict in Syria has spiraled into a cycle of self-perpetuating violence, no doubt in large part due to short-sighted, single-minded policies which did not advocate for dialogue and political settlement there, burdening the Syrian people with the horrors of military conflicts for the past five years. One has to wonder whether the policy of appeasing and integrating extremists, projected in recent years in western circles and advocated by writers such as Mr. Cook today, has indeed accelerated and contributed to the alarmingly swift rise of terrorism and chaos in the region.