Scrambled information emerged from Egypt on Thursday.
Amid ongoing discussions between the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) and its recently created Advisory Council, Egypt’s election cycle has allegedly jumped ahead from March 11th to February 22nd. A second three-part election for the country’s Shura Council is scheduled to follow the current voting for Egypt’s People’s Assembly, and the SCAF faces popular and oppositional pressure to speed up its transition to civilian rule. However many political actors oppose a premature deadline - such as January 25th - without a constitution to legally bind the SCAF.
The council hopes to boost confidence by offering a minor compromise, but its position remains ambiguous for the moment. Mohamed al-Khouly, the Advisory Council's spokesperson, told Al-Masry Al-Youm that "we cannot expect an official decree by the SCAF in that respect.”
What the SCAF did deliver publicly is 17 messages (six confirmed) across Cairo, couriered by “heavily armed men wearing the black uniforms of the central security police.” Among the recipients: the U.S.-financed National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI). These organizations make for easy targets given their prior run-ins with Hosni Mubarak’s regime and overall reputation in non-democratic states. More jarring is the fact that Egypt’s military rulers count on support from the Saudi King and U.S. government, which some SCAF members tacitly accuse of fomenting protests and manipulating the elections.
The Obama administration has stuck by the SCAF at semi-great cost to America’s reputation Egypt. While the U.S. brand lost its luster years or even decades ago, the promise of Tahrir Square creating an opportunity to invert America’s unpopularity. The administration would miss its chance by first supporting Mubarak, then his spy chief and finally his military establishment, giving the SCAF a green light to pursue its own “transition.” Each subsequent abuse of power, whether seizing control of the constitutional process or beating protesters to death, has been met with obligatory resistance.
SCAF members speak with relative accuracy when accusing “foreign” or Western elements of interfering with Egypt’s democracy - the Obama administration is functioning as an enabler to the council. The Washington Post observed that Egypt's generals, "have banked on the notion that Washington continues to look at Egypt primarily through one lens: the security of Israel."
Thursday recreated a scene that has played out dozens of times since the SCAF assumed absolute command of Egypt’s affairs. Asked about U.S. conversations with Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri (a former Mubarak official) and Ambassador Sameh Shoukry, the State Department’s Victoria Nuland wouldn’t “get into the details of our private diplomatic exchanges, except to say that we were very clear that this issue needs immediate attention, and we look forward to hearing back from the Egyptian Government as soon as possible.”
Undaunted, reporters continued to probe Nuland on U.S. support for the SCAF despite her assurances that Washington “doesn’t think this action is justified.” Of course no Egyptian protester or Western capital justifies these raids, and Nuland straddled the fence by arguing, “we’ve just had a number of successful rounds of elections, elections that were generally judged to be free, fair, with open, broad participation, so that is a good thing. This is not a good thing, so we are obviously expressing our concern.”
Buttressing the State Department’s position, another senior administration went off record to clarify the White House’s private message: “This crosses a line.”
The problem with this thinking is that Washington consistently advances the SCAF’s line. Protests in Tahrir have been regularly suppressed since Mubarak’s fall, yet U.S. officials often respond by urging “all sides to refrain from violence.” Protesters rarely - if ever - generate the disproportionate violence applied to them by government forces; equally important, Washington wants protesters to avoid instigating a government response. Another fierce crackdown in November was swept away by a jubilant round of voting, followed by a less successful second round and renewed clashes with security forces.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a frequent contact of the SCAF, would express her “deep concern” about the “continuing reports of violence in Egypt.” Before adding that protesters should refrain from provocative acts, a necessary component of revolution, the Secretary called “upon the Egyptian authorities to hold accountable those, including security forces, who violate these standards.” However the notion of holding the SCAF accountable to itself degraded even further after video surfaced of Ghada Kamal’s brutal assault.
Clinton did not take kindly to female abuse, saying the “particularly shocking” incident “disgraces the state and its uniform." Defenders within the SCAF’s establishment countered that Kamal, a member of the April 6th movement, “had been insulting the army through a megaphone.”
While back-channel negotiations play an indispensable role in diplomacy, Egypt is experiencing a revolutionary juncture rather than a typical diplomatic crisis. Private diplomacy with the ruling power manifests as friction with the popular movement, and many protesters accuse Washington of shielding the SCAF on the international level. This process also encourages the council to advance the tolerance of Washington’s “red line.” On the same day that Field Marshall Hassan Tantawi pledged to investigate police abuses - which he termed “media accusations - he decided to raid U.S. NGOs in full knowledge of Washington’s response.
SCAF subsequently promised not avoid future raids and return seized property, a move “welcomed” by the administration.
That U.S. officials vocalized their feelings in this particular episode cannot be denied, but the end result fits into a familiar pattern. During a conference call with Tantawi, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta “expressed his deep concern about the raids” before “conveying his appreciation for Field Marshal Tantawi’s prompt decision to halt the raids.”
"The secretary reaffirmed the importance of the U.S.-Egyptian security relationship,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said in an emailed statement, “and made clear that the United States remains committed to the strategic partnership and stands ready to cooperate with Egypt as it continues its democratic transition."
Mainstream media such as The New York Times and Wall Street Journal are busy disseminating this narrative throughout the news sphere. Ignoring Panetta’s friendly conversation with Tantawi, the WSJ noted that “the decision to highlight the phone call signaled its intention to continue to pressure the Egyptian military.” The NYT similarly claimed that the Obama administration “has been especially vocal on the need for the transfer of power as the government has brutally cracked down on demonstrators demanding the generals step down.”
The Obama administration would like to see an eventual transfer of power in Egypt - but not before the SCAF blunts the rapid political realignment that could have followed Mubarak’s fall. Needing to maintain Egypt’s security status in the region, Washington is applying insufficient pressure on the SCAF to consistently abide by democratic law. From the moment of Mubarak’s fall, Washington and its allies envisioned the SCAF completing its term and securing a position of authority after transferring power.
The Saudi-bankrolled Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is also eager to absorb Egypt.
As a result Egyptians must continue demonstrating to hold SCAF accountable, ensuring a dual (if loose) political track with parliamentary actors. The SCAF would surely grab more power in the absence of popular checks and balances, and the international community only provides a self-interested layer of accountability. Despite their unpopularity with certain segments of Egyptian society, protesters remain the country’s vanguard against diversions to the revolution. "Efforts to suffocate them will be a major setback and will surely backfire,” Mohamed ElBaradei, Egypt’s Nobel laureate, Tweeted in the moments after Thursday's raids.
The same warning applies to Tahrir Square.