Posted on 29-05-2014
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

It is hard to overemphasize how the promise of the Arab Spring has turned into the depressing of an Arab Winter.  Other than Tunisia, the hopes of democratization in the region have fallen by the wayside.  Libya an artificial welding together of three Ottoman tribal vilayets under a flag has lapsed into chaos.  Yemen is a failed state rapidly running out of water.  Saudi Arabia has crushed the democracy movement in Bahrain (because it was Shiite).  At the same time it has projected itself as the patron of the Sunni rebels against the Alawite Baath regime in Syria.  Syria is in the midst of a brutal civil war and a rapid exodus of population.

And then there is Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world which was once its cultural heart.  Hosni Mubarak, the deposed Pharoah President, was sentenced to jail for embezzlement last week along with his sons.  In the aftermath of Mubarak’s fall, Egypt actually had a free and fair election.  Unfortunately the Muslim Brotherhood which won the elections did not understand, that successful democracy requires the ability to respect institutions.  Mohamed Morsi showed some autocratic tendencies that aroused the ire of the secular portions of the country.  However, he was still the freely and fairly elected leader of Egypt.  Morsi’s incompetence paved the way for the thugs who backed the Mubarak regime to launch a coup.

For some reason, the corrupt, brutal and inefficient Egyptian Army is still popular in Egypt.  The Egyptian Army has not engaged in massacres like the Baath regimes of Syria and Egypt – but it is every bit as ruthless.  The fall of Morsi was followed by a ban on the Muslim Brotherhood and the brutal suppression of their street protests.  The Muslim Brotherhood is not a supporter of democracy.  However, they are quick to note that they won a democratic election and it was stolen from them by force.  The result will be the inevitable radicalization of its hard core supporters who see no reason to engage within the parameters of the Egyptian constitution.  For now, the Brotherhood is on the run.

Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi the head of the Egyptian army then anointed himself as the new man to save Egypt.  Spooked by the Muslim Brotherhood, much of Egypt’s secular element has allowed itself to being co-opted by the elements that used to support Hosni Mubarak – the very elements that had brought protesting mobs into Tahrir Square.

The election of el-Sissi was a foregone conclusion.  He faced no real rivals and the government was portraying him as Egypt’s only savior for the last 10 months.  There of course has been no real substance as to how the savior will work his miracles.

The result was the expected landslide for el-Sissi.  Yet the anointment turned into a farce.  The government wanted to show a turnout of 80% to demonstrate the deep reservoirs of support for the new Pharaoh.

The turnout ranged from 38-44% well below the 52% turnout in the election that elected Morsi.  The panicked government kept the polls open for two more days in a desperate effort to get more voters before announcing the results.

It did not help that the result was a foregone conclusions or that the Islamists who turned out to elect Morsi largely stayed at home.  The vote also probably reflects a deep ambivalence (his run for the presidency was greeted by a twitter hash tag that translates to “Vote for the Pimp“) about the self-proclaimed savior who has not identified any real program of reform (other than stomping the Brotherhood).  Egypt now faces the real possibility of reversion to the malaise of the Hosni Mubarak era for the sake of “security.”  The current government is essentially old wine in new bottles.

Hosni Mubarak may be headed to jail, but his clone has now ascended as the new Pharaoh.  What a waste.

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Posted on 21-08-2013
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

The Egyptian military appears to have crossed its Rubicon and decided to crush the Muslim Brotherhood.  By arresting the Muslim Brotherhood leadership it will probably cripple the hierarchical organization in the short run.  However, it makes the chance of an Islamist insurgency all that much more likely.  Perceiving themselves cheated of a democratic mandate some Islamists will likely turn to violence.  History never repeats itself exactly, but the Egyptian army appears to have gambled that they will have the staying power to crush an insurgency like Algeria did.  It is a dangerous gamble that will likely have bloody repercussions.  Egypt is much larger than Algeria and at the heart of the Arab world, not a country out in the fringes of the Sahara.

The Egyptian military bears much of the blame for the potency of the brotherhood.  Under the corrupt dictatorship of Mubarak, the secular opposition was crushed.  The Brotherhood was allowed a measure of action and allowed to organize.  This allowed the Pharaoh to point to the emerging Islamist threat for Western aid.  Now the army is out to crush an entity it allowed to develop strong roots during Mubarak’s inefficient and corrupt misrule.

This leaves America in a horrible situation.  On the one hand it tosses half-hearted denunciations of the brutal Baath regime in Syria – the Islamist opposition there not helping matters.  At the same time it will turn a blind eye as its (still) official ally slaughters its opponents.  Even though he knows better this places Barack Obama back with the much maligned American hypocrisy during the cold war.  So far American attempts to mildly criticize both sides have drawn the ire of both sides.  What happens if the Egyptian public turns on the army if there is a repeat of the corrupt authoritarian rule from the Mubarak years (a likely option) is anybody’s guess.

In the short run the public violence in Egypt will likely die down.  In the long run it appears we will see Algeria on the Nile.

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Posted on 15-08-2013
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

Last year I commented that the Egyptian alliance appeared to have run its course.  Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood have since been toppled in the coup that we dare not call a coup, but the same sentiment holds true.  Once again in the Middle East we are faced with the ugly reality that elections do not constitute democracy.

Morsi was popularly elected and the Muslim Brotherhood in large part because of Pharoah Mubarak’s policies was the largest political grouping in Egypt.  But he was a thin skinned leader who was intolerant of dissent and like other majoritarian ballot box despots like Hugo Chavez had little regard for the minority groupings.  Worse he mismanaged Egypt’s economy (though conspiracy theories about the role of Mubarak supporters abound).  By the time he was toppled the public mood had changed.

Yet the coup in all but its name left America in a precarious situation.  Having belatedly supported the Democratic transition from Mubarak, the Obama administration twisted itself in loops trying to support an elected if authoritarian and incompetent government but trying not to trigger the ban on American aid required by law after a coup.  The result satisfied nobody on the Egyptian street.  The anti-Brotherhood supporters were outraged that Obama appeared to support Morsi.  The Brotherhood who did not believe in democracy to begin with was outraged that the rules of electoral legitimacy don’t apply to them and took to the street.

The result has been violence and distressing signs of early 1990s Algeria (where the army voided an Islamist election victory resulting in years of turmoil and violence).  The Egyptian army which never cared for the Brotherhood to begin with has been extremely hamfisted and brutal in clearing the street.  Hundreds were killed in yesterday’s assault on the protestors camps.  Nobel Laureate and Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei resigned in protest after the crackdown.

The army’s actions highlight once again just how little leverage the United States has in the region and how absurd it is for the United States to twist itself into knots over trying to preserve an aid package it appears the Egyptian establishment does not care about.  Trying to have it both ways once again leaves America exposed to charges of hypocrisy – i.e. we don’t care about bloodshed as long as it is our guys doing the shooting.

At this point it is time to stop the ridiculous tap dance about the coup and acknowledge it as such.  Egypt’s army may have a point that the Brotherhood is not willing for talks, but that is no justification for the bloodbath it unleashed.  The Arab Spring continues its bloody turn and once again highlights the importance in institutions and respect for the rule of law (even by the rulers) in keeping a democracy functional.  Just as important is time and patience to get these established.  On all these points, Egypt has failed.  And so Egypt bleeds.

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Posted on 02-07-2013
Filed Under (Current Affairs) by Rashtrakut

A year after the fall of Pharaoh Mubarak, the mobs are back on the street in Egypt in what appears greater numbers.  The target is Mubarak’s successor and Egypt’s first freely elected President Mohammed Morsi.

The Muslim Brotherhood joined the anti-Mubarak protests late.  While they were suppressed by his regime, they were allowed greater freedom of action than his secular rivals.  The intent was to highlight the Islamist threat and keep the aid dollars flowing.  The perverse effect of this strategy was to leave the Muslim Brotherhood as the best organized opposition movement in Egypt, allowing its member Mohammed Morsi to win the Presidency and the Brotherhood to dominate parliamentary elections.

Unfortunately, once in power Morsi has done his best to confirm the fears that he would be a sectional leader.  A controversial constitution was rammed through.  Journalists, bloggers and comedians have been persecuted for lese majeste.  The government has looked the other way as minorities have been attacked.  The economy has been mismanaged.  Most recently Morsi appointed a member of a former terrorist group (that killed 58 tourists in 1997) as governor of Luxor province – which relies on tourism.

So when the mobs emerged on the street in the last few days the scale of the protests caught everyone (including Morsi) by surprised.  Egypt’s police are in open mutiny and stood by as the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Cairo were torched.  And now the army, for some reason respected by the protesters, seems to be peddling a soft coup by giving Morsi a 48 hour ultimatum.

I have no sympathy for Morsi.  Given the opportunity to be a statesman he chose to be a leader of narrow vision like Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq.  Unlike the Islamists in Turkey who provided a decade of good governance before gradually commencing dropping the veil, the Egyptian Brotherhood was too impatient.

Yet, I cannot but help feel that the path Egypt is heading down is extremely dangerous.  The army, which has conducted its share of abuses in the past year is walking out of this scot free.  A elected even if flawed President is being toppled a year into his term by extra constitutional means.  Egypt’s civil society is showing a dangerous lack of communication among its stake holders.  There remains the risk that the Brotherhood will feel cheated of power like the Algerian Islamists in the early 1990s setting off a cycle of instability.  Egypt’s secular opposition is largely united by its dislike of Morsi and the Brotherhood.  Yet unless they agree on a political and economic program they face another defeat in the ballot box.  Worse, a blue print is now being set on how to topple an elected regime…create a ruckus and beg the army to intervene.

It is hard to see how Morsi survives the current crisis.  It is also hard to see anything but turmoil in Egypt for the foreseeable future.

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Posted on 12-09-2012
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

On September 12, 2012 the alliance between Egypt and the United States appears to have officially faded away.  Its end was not surprising. Under Sadat and then Mubarak, Egypt became an American ally and one of the biggest recipients of American aid after Israel.  Then the Pharaoh was swept away by the Arab spring and Egypt began its messy transition to democracy.  The much ballyhooed freedom agenda of George W. Bush withered away when it became clear that the popular franchise would not magically bring friends of the United States to power.

The transition in Egypt has been interesting to say the least.  Pharaoh Mubarak was forced out of power after popular protests, but the departure (like Tunisia) was stage managed by the army.  The Egyptian generals were showing signs that what they would live with was a “managed” democracy like Turkey until the 1990s and Pakistan today.  The civilians could rule within the margins set by the men in khaki.  If so, that belief was misplaced.  In August, the newly elected Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi – a former leader of the Muslim brotherhood – fired his military chiefs and nullified their constitutional declaration that gutted his office.

So far Morsi has not ended the Egyptian peace treaty with Israel, but it is clear that relations with Egypt had changed.  The embassy attacks highlight just how much.  The Libyan attacks were met by apologies of the Libyan government and were condemned by the government and people.  Indeed, the Libyan attacks appear to be more of a planned attack than triggered by the anti-Islam film.

In contrast the response from Morsi for a failure of his government to honor its diplomatic obligations has been….crickets.  For domestic consumption Morsi has ordered his embassy in Washington to try to make the pointless effort to prosecute the twits who made the movie that was used as an excuse for the riots.  David Frum speculates that Morsi is using this to solidify his power base.  Notably, President Obama’s statement today pointedly did not mention the Egypt attacks but evidently has sent the message to Egypt that it has the obligation to protect American diplomatic establishments.  This evening the Egyptian police dispersed the crowds without violence.

This evening Obama also gave an interview that made a now obvious point.  Egypt is not an ally, but is not an enemy either.  Clips of the interview from the Rachel Maddow show below:

 

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This is a huge strategic change in the Middle East.  Left unsaid (unless it is in the full interview to be aired tomorrow) is what happens to the huge aid package that went to the former ally.  The conduct of Morsi in the last couple of days is not likely to endear his government to Congress – where many on the right are already fulminating at the abandonment of the dictator to allow the election of Islamists to office.  Will the drying up of American military aid encourage Morsi and the khaki clad men who remain in line for now to temper their actions?  It is unlikely that the Obama administration would use this to encourage a Latin American style coup and it should not.  It complicates the strategic situation for Israel, which is already facing the possible replacement of the devil it knows in Syria with chaos.  It makes Netanyahu’s obsession of a war with Iran even crazier.

Ultimately, I am not upset about the end of an alliance forged with an unpopular dictator rather than with a government backed by public support.  The former is inherently unstable and makes the United States look away from abuses that tarnish our reputation by association.  The latter are generally more enduring.  Far too many foreign policy hawks pine for the client state relationships that existed in the Cold War.  They gave a type of negative stability but cost America in the long run.  Other countries have interests too and they will not always align with ours.  That is the basic principle that in coming years will guide American relations with India, Brazil, South Africa and other countries with whom we will have warm relations without a NATO style alliance. In the long run it is a healthier and more mature approach.

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Posted on 14-02-2011
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

The fall of the Pharaoh raises the question whether the Middle East tumult will subside, or if this is the beginning of an avalanche not seen since Eastern Europe in 1989. While it is easy to get carried away, regime change in Tunis and Cairo occurred because the men with the guns did not act against the protesters. As Iran showed a couple of years back, unfortunately that is not always true. When the generals obey their masters and when the grunts obey the generals, democratic hopes come to a bloody end.

It is also still not clear whether Tunis and Cairo were soft coups, where the public face of the regime changed but little else did. However, some local despots do need to be more scared than others.  On cue the days of rage have commenced in three of the most vulnerable autocracies in the middle east.

  • Iran – When Egypt erupted, the mullahs hypocritically cheered the right of Egyptians to protest.   They should have known that their restive masses were looking at Cairo and drawing encouragement.  Now the embers of the Green Revolution are reigniting.  The opposition leaders are already in preventive house arrest and the riot police are cracking skulls.
  • Algeria – Algeria was the rare Arab country that held free elections in the early 1990s.  When it appeared the Islamists won, the military quashed the results (taking their cues from the Burmese junta who made the similar error of not rigging their elections a couple of years before).  The next few years saw a brutal and bloody civil war.  Though violence died down the last few years, unrest has always simmered underneath.  Now it has erupted.
  • Bahrain – The Gulf monarchy’s presence in this list may seem unusual to people who do not follow the Middle East, but the Sunni monarchy ruling a 70% Shiite population has had periodic bouts of unrest.  After promising to respect peaceful rallies, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has opted for bullets.  Warning:  Violent video below.

The protests in all three countries already highlight one huge difference with Tunisia and Egypt.  These autocracies are willing to spill blood.  The men with guns and batons will have to refuse to take orders for these tyrants to fall or give way.  The list above is also not exhaustive.  Yemen, Jordan, Sudan and to a lesser extent Syria (where you have to frankly be foolhardy to publicly protest) have faced protests.  Then there is the longest ruling autocrat in the region who has seen his fellow dictators on either side of his country fall.  The recent cables leaked by Wikileaks revel how the 41 year regime of Muammar Gadaffi has been tarnished by his licentious progeny.  Even Libya may be facing the unthinkable, public protests.

It is very likely that no more dominoes will fall this go around, but the yearnings for freedom and respect on the Arab street will be harder to bottle up again.  And if one can dream, if Egypt actually manages to create a constitutional democracy the clock will start running out for the remaining autocracies in the region.  The 1990s saw the demise of assorted military juntas in Latin America.  Even though the Chavezs and Ortegas are threatening democracy in the region, by and large military rule is passe in the region.  Lets hope this decade sees similar change from the Maghreb to the Fertile Crescent, and beyond.

As a final note, do notice how quiet the murderous thugs of Al-Qaeda have been at the sight of the Pharaoh being toppled without suicide bombers.

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Posted on 11-02-2011
Filed Under (Current Affairs, Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

Talk about timing…barely 30 minutes after blogging about Mubarak refusing to go, the tired old dictator leaves. An inspiring moment for Egypt and the World. Hopefully this does not signify an attempt to perpetuate the Nasserite military dictatorship. Suleiman can help by keeping his promise to repeal the 30 year emergency law and not running for reelection. May the Ayatollahs be next.

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Posted on 11-02-2011
Filed Under (Current Affairs, Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

That was anti-climactic.  With Egypt convulsing from the after-shocks from the Maghreb triggered by the self-immolation of a frustrated Tunisian fruit seller, rumors of Hosni Mubarak’s impending departure spread rapidly.  And then Mubarak doused cold water on those hopes with a vague rambling speech (blaming foreign influences) announcing that he was delegating unspecified powers to his man Friday, new Vice President Omar Suleiman.  The crowd’s displeasure is evident in the video below, particularly at the 12:30 mark where Mubarak tries to identify himself with the young people out in the streets.

Suleiman on whom the Obama administration has placed its wishful hopes for a transition to democracy the proceeded to rile the crowd by asking the protesters to go home.  The Egyptian army which has played a two faced role in this crisis has endorsed Mubarak’s plan, and Mubarak does seem to have handed some powers over to Suleiman.

So what now?  Nobody knows.  The White House was evidently blindsided by Mubarak’s defiance and has limited leverage on the situation.  Ultimately this is a crisis that must be resolved by the Egyptians.  Washington’s efforts should be focussed on preventing the army from initiating the type of bloody crackdown that crushed Iran’s Green Revolution two years ago.

With no obvious opposition candidate in the wings, Egypt faces a period of prolonged uncertainty and probably instability. A big concern in Egypt is a silent military coup, of the type that may have overcome Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution.   Suleiman is deeply tied to Mubarak’s repressive regime and in his 70s is unlikely to be a long term solution in any case.

Concerns have been raised that elections could result in the Muslim Brotherhood to power.  If the United States truly believes its pretensions of being the “defender of the free world”, it needs to come to grips with the reality that democracy can result in unfriendly governments.  For too long Washington has supported autocrats like Mubarak who provided “stability” in the form of stagnation and decay of their countries institutions, economies and societies.  After some hesitancy the Obama administration seems to be veering towards support for a democratic transition.  Here’s hoping that the Egyptians can pull it off (and by their example reignite Iran’s Green Revolution).

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Posted on 16-02-2010
Filed Under (History) by Rashtrakut

Science (and DNA testing) have now answered some of the mysteries behind King Tut.  Tutankhamun (who started his reign as Tutankhaten) is a fairly obscure and unimportant Pharaoh.  But he is one of the only one whose tomb was discovered nearly intact (perhaps because of his lack of importance and possibly from the loyalty of a successor).  The opulence of his tomb catapulted him into public imagination far beyond what the accomplishments (if any) of the boy-king justified.

And yet not much is known about the boy/man himself.  He ruled during the period when the Egyptian New Kingdom under the XVIIIth dynasty was at the peak of its opulent splendor but facing religious turmoil.  He succeeded the enigmatic Akhenaten (formerly Amenhotep IV) who drew the wrath of the priestly class by transferring royal patronage from Amun to the sun god Aten (which has also drawn a lot of attention for alleged monotheism).  The relationship between the two Pharaohs (an there relationship to the even more obscure Smenkhkare who was co-regent and perhaps the brief successor of Akhenaten was not known.

Tutankhamun was assumed to be Akhenaten’s son, but his mother was not known.  Most historians doubted that his mother was the famous Nefertiti and speculated that it was a minor wife of Akhenaten called Kiya.  The damnatio memoriae that appears to have been inflicted on Akhenaten in the religious reaction following his death (when Tuthankhaten morphed into Tutankhamun) may be to blame for this.

But now DNA technology has lifted the veil.  King Tut was likely not murdered by his vizier and successor Ay, but was instead a frail product of inbreeding who suffered from a bone disorder and likely died from an infection from a broken leg aggravated by malaria.  See link.   Also see here and here.  Akhenaten has been identified as his father and Amenhotep III and his chief queen Tiye as his grandparents.  His only grandparents.

Tutankhamun’s mother was Akhenaten’s full sister.  There are no records indicating that Nefertiti was related to Akhenaten which likely rules her out.  So far the identity of the mother is not known.  This also makes Tut’s wife Ankhesenamun known to be a daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti his half-sister.

Royal inbreeding was very common in Egyptian history.  The royal family being considered divine a “pure” bloodline was expected to be passed down.  This occurred elsewhere (including for example with the Incas) and the Egyptians appear to have passed it along to their Persian and Greek conquerers.  While sibling marriage faded away after the rise of the Roman Empire, royal families until this century were plagued by the effects of inbreeding.

The DNA testing has also confirmed that Akhenaten was not androgynous in appearance from some medical condition as the artwork of his reign appears to suggests.  The unusual renderings of the Pharaoh and his family appear to have been made for artistic and religious reasons.

Deciphering a 3300 year old mystery was made possible by the Egyptian habit of mummifying the dead.  There seems to be a pattern of solving ancient Egyptian mysteries of late.  See previous blog post.  Maybe the trifecta of finding the tomb of Alexander the Great is round the corner.

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A 2,500 year old mystery based on a Herodotus story sometimes dismissed as a fable may have been solved.  The Persian Emperor Cambyses II has generally not received good press from historians.  Some of it comes from the difficulty of being the successor of Cyrus the Great, a man who turned a nation of goatherders subject to the Median Empire into what was the largest empire the world had ever seen.  Media, Babylon and Lydia with the famed wealth of Croesus fell before Cyrus.  Cambyses finished the job by conquering the last remaining empire of antiquity, Egypt.

This is when things started to go south and the legend of the lost army begins.  After his initial victory Cambyses failed to subdue Kush in the south and had to give up his plan to attack Carthage because his Phoenician subjects refused to fight their ethnic kin.  The frustrated emperor decided to vent his rage at the Oracle of Amun located in the Siwa Oasis which refused to recognize him as Pharaoh of Egypt.  According to Herodotus the army of 50,000 disappeared in a sandstorm.  An army that size generally leaves behind some traces.  But for 2,500 years nothing was found.  If true, this solves one of the two major location mysteries of Ancient Egypt (the other is the location of the tomb of Alexander the Great which disappears from the historical record in the early third century AD).

To sum up on poor Cambyses, he came to a sticky end.  Forced to leave Egypt to deal with the revolt of his brother Bardiya, he died suddenly.  His eventual successor Darius I would say it was suicide.  Darius, a cousin, who usurped the throne from Bardiya and ruled successfully for 36 years lavished a lot of effort in blackening the reputations of the sons of Cyrus.  Cambyses comes down as a bloodthirsty and moody tyrant who initiated a tradition of royal incest in violation of Persian norms.  Bardiya suffers a worse fate.  The man deposed by Darius was dismissed as an impostor, a Magi priest named Gaumata, who killed the real son of Cyrus.   All of this justified the bloody path of Darius to the throne, sealed by his marriage to the daughters of Cyrus.  As is often the case, the winner got to write history.  In this case the victor inscribed his version in stone.

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